“40,000 Christian Sects”
I have had numerous conversations with non-Christians where the truth of Christianity is dismissed by pointing out its diversity. The charge usually goes something like this: “How can you argue for what is true when you Christians can’t even agree amongst yourselves?” Below is a recent answer I offered for this objection to someone claiming that there were “40,000 Christian sects.”
It should first be pointed out what a “sect” actually is. Applied to Christianity, a “sect” is different than a “denomination.” Denominations share essential beliefs, but differ in non-essentials (e.g., Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran). In general, they hold the other denominations to be legitimate expressions of Christianity, and the differences are due to ecclesiastical preferences or conclusions on things not explicitly covered in Scripture. A sect is a group that tends also to share most essential beliefs, but adds some distinctives that they think essential and/or think of themselves as the pure church (e.g., Seventh Day Adventists). Additionally, there are “cults.” These are groups that deny one or more essentials held by all these other groups, usually due to the teachings of some “prophetic” leader, and who usually think of themselves as the true, restored church where others have gone critically astray (e.g., Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science).
I say all this to emphasize the fact that there is actually much in common between most of these groups, and those that differ tend to do so not so much because of an honest difference in understanding of church history and Scripture, but because of some other authority that they have added to it which they hold in higher regard, e.g., Joseph Smith’s alleged personal revelations, Mary Baker Eddy’s “Key to the Scriptures,” and the institutionalized subjectivism of the United Church of Christ.
Christian theologians love to split hairs, and tend to do so because they believe in objective truth, that it matters, and that God has actually provided a means of knowing some of that truth. Given this obsession with theological discernment it is noteworthy that even between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox Church (the major branches) there is agreement on virtually all of the main doctrine — the historicity of Scripture, divine creation, the distinction between God and man, the fall, the virgin birth, the unique divinity & messiahship of Jesus, His miracles, His perfection, His crucifixion, His bodily resurrection, His necessity in salvation, the Trinity, the Second Coming, the general resurrection, the final judgment, hell, and heaven. What they agree on is what divides them from every other religion (and non-religion), and what they disagree on is held to be an in-house debate.
It is primarily the liberal Christians within each of the denominations that disagree on these essentials. A liberal Methodist and a conservative Methodist have less in common than a conservative Methodist and a conservative Orthodox Christian. I can attest to this, having people from both of these traditions in my family. I also have friends and coworkers in numerous denominations, and I enjoy church hopping myself. This was something that I found remarkable as a new Christian: that whenever I met another Christian of the conservative variety (for lack of a better characterization) that I found we shared an enormous amount in common, even down to certain social and political issues. On the other hand, I could not predict very much of what a liberal Christian believed other than on social and political issues; the best I could do was guess how many of the essentials they had rejected or “re-imagined.”
What I defend is not liberal Christianity (whose beliefs are all over the map given that they are not anchored in the ultimate authority of Scripture), or any of the sects or cults (given that they have self-consciously untethered themselves from mainline Christianity), but what C.S. Lewis called “Mere Christianity” — those things we hold in common, are most theologically meaningful, and are most readily derived from Scripture. The rest is interesting, and perhaps important, but hardly warrants debate with someone who has problems even with the basics. Why debate over the color of the draperies when the foundation of the house is in question?