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Christianity and Its Denominations: Points of Convergence and Divergence

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It all started with a carpenter’s son preaching about an eternal kingdom anchored on love for the Divine and neighbor. He recruited twelve men, and one of whom was a jerk.

He toured around Israel and was given a rock star reception wherever he went; a crowd would always tag along. Soon, people started calling him Christ, the promised savior—it is important to note that Israel was under Roman rule back then.

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His teachings soon created political unrest; church and civil authorities were greatly disturbed and began plotting ways to pin him down. The jerk in His company proved to be of great help.

To cut the long story short, He was brought before court, found guilty in a scripted proceeding, brutally tortured, and nailed to a cross—a sentence reserved for hardcore criminals.

He bore the weight of humanity’s sins; He Who is Life Itself had to succumb to death so that He could beat death in death’s own turf.

And beat death He did! When He rose from the grave, death was rendered powerless over the redeemed humanity.

This is what His followers gave witness to in the first few centuries thereafter. Many of them had to shed their own blood in order to strengthen the growing movement. They called themselves Christians.

Fast-forward two thousand years later, Christians are still hanging around. Only this time, things are a little different.

For instance, from being an underground and persecuted movement, Christianity is today’s equivalent of what it means to be “mainstream.” Being the world’s largest religion, it has 2.2 billion believers distributed into 3 main branches: Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism.

What a difference two thousand years can make, huh?

The Split: Rise of Different Denominations

If misunderstanding is a staple issue in any given household, how much more in mega institutions or organizations like Christianity?

Yes, Christianity has had its fair share of misunderstandings among members. These created a gap, which eventually led to the creation of denominations or recognized autonomous branches of Christianity.

The first division within Christendom came in 1054 with the Great Schism between the Western and the Eastern Church. The separation was not sudden. For centuries, there had been several significant religious, cultural, and political differences between the East and the West.

Religiously, they had different views on topics such as the use of images, the nature of the Holy Spirit, and the date on which Easter should be celebrated.

Culturally, the Greek East has always tended to be more philosophical, abstract and mystical in its thinking, whereas the Latin West has always been more pragmatic and legal-minded in approach. Well, “the Greeks built metaphysical systems,” so goes an old adage, “while the Romans built roads.”

The political aspects of the split dated back to Emperor Constantine who moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Constantinople. Upon his death, the empire was divided between his two sons, one of whom ruled the Western half of the empire from Rome while the other ruled the Eastern region from Constantinople.

All these contributed to an eventual crisis climax in 1054, when Pope Leo IX excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople (the leader of the Eastern Church). In response, the patriarch condemned the pope, and the Christian Church has been divided into West (Roman Catholic) and East (Greek Orthodox) ever since.

The next major division in Christianity occurred in the 16th century with the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation was famously sparked when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in 1517, but Protestantism as a movement officially began in 1529.

That year marked the publication of the Protestation, directed at the imperial government. The authors, German princes who wanted the freedom to choose the faith of their territory, protested that “in matters which concern God’s honor and salvation and the eternal life of our souls, everyone must stand and give account before God for himself.”

With its emphasis on individual interpretation of the Scriptures and a measure of religious freedom, the Reformation marked not only a break between Protestantism and Catholicism, but the beginning of denominationalism as we know it today.

This historical perspective explains the initially astounding variety of Christian denominations today.

Ecumenism

Ecumenism refers to a movement or effort promoting unity among Christian churches or denominations.

To settle issues regarding matters of doctrine and practice, early bishops of the church convened in what was called ecumenical council.

Of all councils convened throughout history, only the first seven had the most relevance to Protestants.

Other subsequent councils are of particular interest only to Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.

The First Seven Ecumenical Councils

1. First Council of Nicaea(325). Affirmed that Jesus is truly God and equal to the Father; renounced Arianism and adopted the Nicene Creed.

2. First Council of Constantinople (381). Affirmed that Jesus was perfectly man against the Apollinarians; revised the Nicene Creed into its present form which is used in the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches; prohibited any further alteration of the Creed without the assent of an Ecumenical Council.

3. Council of Ephesus (431). Affirmed that Jesus is one person against Nestorianism; proclaimed the Virgin Mary as the Mother of God, and also condemned Pelagianism.

4. Council of Chalcedon (451). Affirmed that in Jesus, there are two distinct natures in one person that are hypostatically united “without confusion, change, division or separation”; renounced the Eutychianism and Monophysitism; adopted the Chalcedonian Creed.

5. Second Council of Constantinople (553). Reaffirmed decisions and doctrines explicated by previous Councils, condemned new Arian, Nestorian, and Monophysite writings.

6. Third Council of Constantinople (681). Asserted that Jesus had both a divine and human will; repudiated Monothelitism.

7. Second Council of Nicaea (787). Restoration of the veneration of icons and end of the first iconoclasm. It is rejected by some Protestant denominations who instead prefer the Council of Hieria (754), which had also described itself as the Seventh Ecumenical Council and had condemned the veneration of icons.

However, today, there is a need for a new form of ecumenism, an ecumenism that has for its goal a coming together of Christians through an encounter of traditions and confessions, and not just any other dialog to settle disputing beliefs and interpretations.

It would be the ecumenism of concrete encounter between those who share a thirst for the life which can conquer death, an encounter between people who are looking for real answers to the dead ends of the civilization in which we live today.

The aim of much-needed ecumenism is the unity of divided Christians, not to further establish their differences.

Common Christian Beliefs

Though Christian denominations sprout because of differences, there are certain converging teachings most Christians agree on.

God the Father. Christians believe that there is only one God, whom they call Father as Jesus Christ taught them.

God the Son. Christians recognize Jesus as the Son of God who was sent to save mankind from death and sin. His teachings can be summarized briefly as—love of God and love of one’s neighbor.

God the Holy Spirit. After He rose from the grave, Jesus remained on earth for a few days before going up into Heaven. He promised that He would stay with His followers, so after He went to Heaven, He sent His Spirit to guide them. The Holy Spirit is the guide, comfort, and encouragement of Christians.

The Most Holy Trinity. Christians believe in the Trinity—that is, in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some confuse this and think that Christians believe in three separate gods, which they don’t. Christians believe that God took human form as Jesus Christ and that God is present today through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Justification by faith. Christians believe in justification by faith— that through their belief in Jesus as the Son of God and in his death and resurrection, they can have a right relationship with God whose forgiveness was made once and for all through the death of Jesus Christ.

Life after death. Christians believe that there is life after earthly death. While the actual nature of this life is not known, Christians believe that many spiritual experiences in this life help to give them some idea of what eternal life will be like.

Baptism. Christians believe in one baptism into the Christian Church, whether this be as an infant or as an adult, as an outward sign of an inward commitment to the teachings of Jesus.

The Saints. These days, the word saint is most commonly used to refer to a Christian who has lived a particularly good and holy life on earth, and with whom miracles are claimed to have been associated after their death.

The formal title of Saint is conferred by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches through a process called canonization.

Members of these churches also believe that saints created in this way can intercede with God on behalf of people who are alive today. This is not accepted by most Protestants.

In the Bible, however, the word saint is used as a description of anyone who is a committed believer, particularly by St. Paul in the New Testament (e.g. Ephesians 1.1 and 1.15).

Common Christian Celebrations

Different Christian denominations celebrate different religious festivities. But there are two main festivals celebrated commonly by most Christian denominations worldwide.

Easter. This is the most important, and supposedly the most joyous of Christian festivals. This is the celebration of Jesus’ triumph over the power of death, when he rose from the grave after spending three days there.

This is the central foundation of Christian faith. If Jesus had not risen from the grave, all will be for naught. The resurrection established Jesus as the powerful Son of God.

Christmas. This is the celebration of the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary as a fulfillment of the Old Testament’s Messianic prophecy. By humbly coming to earth in fragile and wretched human form, Jesus restored man into God’s friendship which was tarnished in The Fall.

Jesus did not initially set out to establish a religion as diverse as Christianity. One may even contend that He did not, in the first place, set out to establish a religion. He came for only one reason: to bring man back into God’s friendship.

While envisioning a united Christianity is far-fetched in the near future, in due time, Christ will unite all men unto Himself. And by then, we would be more than happy to reunite with our dear brethren in faith.


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