Muslims often ask Christians this question. To stay on familiar ground let us for a moment look at divisions and sects within Islam. According to a certain Hadis, Mohammed once said:
"The number (of sects) has, however, far exceeded the Prophet's prediction, for the sects of Islam exceed even in number and in variety those of the Christian religion." (Dictionary of Islam, page 567).
(This last statement may not be true anymore today, since the Dictionary dates from 1885).
In order to "fulfill" the prophecy of Mohammed, the Ghiyasu'l-Lughat divides 73 into six groups of twelve sects (= 72) and adds as number 73, the "Najiyah" (those being saved), of course, the Sunnis. (Dictionary of Islam, pages 567-569). Those in excess of 73 are not mentioned.
Different lists have been compiled. None, however, mentions the latest additions: the Ahmediyyas, the Babists and Bahais. Admittedly most of the sects have only minor theological differences, but so, too, have most of the Christian denominations.
Let us for a moment stop to define what "Church" really means. Most people seem to think that a church is a building, something like a mosque, synagogue or temple. This term is generally used, but is incorrect. We might also think of an organisation: the Anglican Church or the Presbyterian Church, just to mention two. Again this term is in general use, but is incorrect. Church is the word which translators have used to interpret the Greek word "Ecclesia" which simply means "those that have been called out". Out of what? Out of the "world", representing the mass of mankind rejecting God's claims on them. But if someone is called out, he is at the same time "called into" something. He is called into fellowship with God and other believers.
Schism is invariably the result of differing concepts, doctrines or opinions. Already in the early Church some leaders deviated from the New Testament Scripture. The first were the so-called Judaizers. Besides faith in salvation through Jesus Christ, they demanded adherence to and practice of the Jewish Law of the Old Testament. Thereafter Greek philosophies were introduced in addition to revelation (gnosis). Some people taught that asceticism was to be practiced in addition to faith. Matter was despised, spirit was all that mattered. With that they questioned the quality of the creation of God.
Basilides, a gnostic, taught in addition that Christ was not man at all, but God and consequently could not have suffered on the cross. Simon of Cyrene had taken His place. This belief is reflected in Islam to some extent. Basilides, unlike the gnostics, had but few followers.
Many others followed, but the early Church Councils based their judgement on the New Testament, thereby remaining true to Scripture.
Following public recognition of the Christian faith under the Emperor Constantine, a spiritual decline set in. The written Word of God was replaced in practice by tradition to an ever increasing degree. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was called the mother of God. Popes assumed great power and eventually the office of bishop could be bought with money. The medieval church bore little, if any resemblance to the Church as taught in the Bible. Those Christians who studied the Bible and raised their voices against this system were persecuted and killed as heretics.
Then came what is known as the Reformation. Hus, Luther,Calvin, Zwingli and others tried to reform the Church (A.D. 1517) but they were rejected. Their effort led, however, to open rebellion by many people and political leaders, who were aware of the corruption of the Church. Europe was deeply split on the issue and was divided into the Roman Catholic Church and the "Protestant" Churches. Wars were fought, the most terrible being the 30-year-war (1618-1648) which achieved little more than death, sorrow, famine and terror. This war had as little to do with true religion as the one in Northern Ireland or Lebanon right now.
The people who followed Calvin (Switzerland, Holland, part of Germany), were taken up in the "Reformed" Churches (Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed Church, Hervormde Kerk, etc.). In Germany Luther had taken the spiritual initiative and subsequently the "Lutheran" Church began to form. In England and Scotland the reformation took a different course for political considerations and interference by the Crown were stronger. For rather ulterior motives Henry VIII became the titular head of the Church of England, which led to a break between the English Church and Rome. This in itself, however, can hardly be called a reformation. Nevertheless, there were a number of fine Christians and it was ordered at that time that a "Bible should be placed in each Church and that the people be encouraged to read it." (A.M. Renwick, "The Story of the Church", page 129). That may sound strange. Surely that should have been normal practice. Not at all: only when Luther and Tyndale translated the Bible into the vernacular (i.e. the language of the people: German and English) could it be heard or read by the man in the street.
Before this time (and much later in Roman Catholic countries) the Bible was available and read in Latin only, the language of the learned. Because the Church as an institution did not provide spiritual guidance and teaching, and because everyone, without regard to his personal conviction, faith or quality of life, became a member of the Church by birth, Bible-believing Christians separated themselves again and again from the institution that bore little or no resemblance to the Church as envisaged in the New Testament. They came together around the Bible to renew their personal allegiance to God in faith and practice. But they were considered "trouble makers" and often severely persecuted.
In England the Puritans were such a group. They stressed the need to return to the Bible and to disregard the traditions that were dominating the Church. Their belief was strongly motivated by the Protestants in Europe and saw the necessity for Christians to live morally. Rejection by the institutionalised Church forced them to become a separatist group. This was the beginning of the Congregational and Presbyterian Churches. They met with much persecution and opposition.
A number of them felt the only alternative was to emigrate to America. They were the "Pilgrim Fathers" who sailed in the "Mayflower" to settle in the "New World" in 1620.
Parallel to this development the Baptists began to form in Britain. They maintained that a personal decision was needed to be a Christian. This was, of course, the very teaching of the Bible, which the establishment in the church had replaced with baptism and confirmation. Of course, baptism was an ordinance of Jesus Christ and the Church had practised it from the beginning, but it is, at least according to the Bible, a token or symbol - meaningless without practised faith. It means that a person professes to have trusted Jesus Christ for salvation and has now "died to sin". Believers are "buried with Him (Jesus) by baptism into death (to sin), so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life ... We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that ... we might no longer be enslaved to sin ... So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." (Romans 6).
Consequently, a person cannot be a Christian without a firm commitment of his faith in Jesus Christ, Who is the Salvation of God.
But despite the new groups of Biblical Christians, England slumped again into a spiritual low. A great revival came when John Wesley began preaching repentance all over England:
Sad to say, he was also rejected by the institutionalized Church, which saw no need for such a ministry. The "Methodist" Church was formed to provide a spiritual home for the converts that were made.
So we can observe, this process of spiritual decline right up to our own time and the forming of Christian groups that want to renew, but are rejected, because they disturb the comfort of the establishment.
Christians praise God for the fact that although spiritual decay very often destroyed the church, revivals have always maintained a faithful witness to the truth and presented a challenge to the establishment. Today we see new spiritual life springing up in many a "dead" church.
But there have also been sectarian preachers who have taught a way very different to the Bible. Most are obscure, but some have become very prominent. These differ in essence from other Bible-believing Christians and reject each other. The "Jehovah's Witnesses" and "New Apostolics" may be mentioned in this regard.
Today we may divide the Christian Churches into five major groups: The Roman Catholic Church which is still very much on its own and is, of course, the body from which dissidents first broke away. The Orthodox Churches being similar to the Roman Catholic Church and found mainly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Then we have the so-called Protestant Churches. These protested against the authority of the Pope and the many moral and spiritual ill-practices within the Roman Church. But many of them declined into institutionalism again, with an inflexible hierarchy, again harbouring among their members those who are professed agnostics, or even atheists. They also tolerate sinful practices in their members, and these very often form the vast majority. Little wonder that even many ministers are nominal rather than practising and Bible-believing Christians. The sectarian churches could be classified next as the fourth group. The fifth body comprises the Evangelicals. These seek to live by Biblical norms and rightfully maintain, that no-one can possibly be a Christian without being "born-again" (John 3:3-5) into a new life. Since this is beyond human capacity, a conversion must take place. A person sees his own unrighteousness in the light of the Word of God, and is pointed to Jesus, who provided the remedy by offering the required pardon by His grace. He is the one Who provided this salvation by stepping into our place and going to the cross, where He died for us. When a person has repented, he turns in faith to God and asks for forgiveness. Then only is he fit to enter into fellowship with God and is now "born-again" to live a new life on the basis of God's Word.
Evangelicals are found in most denominations. They are, as Luther called them once, the Church within the church. According to Biblical standards they actually are the Church. Others may be ignorant, antagonistic or deceived and consequently, are part of the Church only in an organisational sense.
But there are also a number of Evangelical Churches. Here membership is granted only after a clear, public testimony by the believer regarding his faith in Jesus as Saviour.
Do these groups and churches all believe something different? To some extent, yes, as the reader has already observed, and as is mentioned above. There are little differences regarding church leadership or forms of worship or baptism. Some churches tend to be rather emotional, and others more legalistic or intellectual in their approach. But there is certainly no controversy over any important teaching of the Bible.
Perhaps this little outline will help our Muslim reader see the diversity of the church in perspective. Someone has truly said:
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