After 1500 years of primarily only one church, Martin Luther started a fire of division that has yet to be slaked. Within four years of creation of the Lutheran church, a second church division was underway which gave rise to the Anabaptist denominations! His single act of rebellion, regardless of how sincere and well-intentioned he may have been, created thirteen more protestant denominations within the first 120 years after he broke from the Catholic church, a new denomination every 8.5 years. And that, in an age of illiteracy, ignorance, and any lack of effective communication! Today there are over 41,000 protestant denominations.
In the first century Christianity posed a great threat to Judaism. Most of the first concerts to Christianity were Jews. After all, they were not converting to a “new” religion. They were just finding a new expression, and a new interpretation of Jewish doctrine and religious practice. The initial reaction of the Jewish courts called the Sanhedrin was to chase down every outburst of Christianity to literally snuff it out, arresting every disciple of Jesus they could find. And even putting some to death.
It was the great Jewish Leader of the Sanhedrin, Gamaliel the Elder, who came to the defense of the followers of Jesus.
“For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.” (Acts 5:36-39 NASB)
The Problem With Religious Leaders
The first century church became organized and advanced regionally through the leader Constantine. And to compress centuries of history, the Catholic Church became established as the universal church worldwide, tracing their leadership back to the apostle peter. But the maturing denomination was running afoul. From the well-intentioned, but misguided crusades, to the inquisition, to the selling of indulgences, the Catholic Church became a victim of bad doctrine, bad leadership, and bad decisions, as well as political entanglements. These are the same problems that have plagued nearly EVERY mainstream denomination since!
Protestant Reformation: Revival or Rebellion
Martin Luther appeared on the scene, nailing his now famous ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Whittenburg, Germany. Have you read them? You should. It’s good stuff. He had the right idea. He wanted to correct the wrong doctrines and practices that were being followed. But the ends, unfortunately did not justify the means.
God has always been a God if restoration and reconciliation. In fact that statement cannot be challenged! From the casting out of Adam and Eve to the separation of Abraham and Lot, to the division of the kingdom of Israel after Solomon, to the exile, God sought reconciliation and restoration. That was the sole purpose if all of the prophets! Even the prophet Simeon declares of the birth of Yeshuah that he has seen the reconciliation of Israel! Even the person of Yeshuah, incarnate in flesh was to reconcile Israel.
But the consequence of Martin Luther’s actions, whether intended or no, was far from reconciliation. Nor was it restoration. It certainly did not create revival, at least not any time shortly following the reformation. But what Luther did create was unquenchable thirst for division. Shortly after the establishment of the Lutheran church, the Anabaptists formed in Germany (1521). The next 150 years saw the establishment of nearly 15 new denominations, a new one every ten years (see below). And that was just the beginning.
Recently, a conference was held by a certain Christian denomination to “expose” the doctrinal errors of a group of other Christian denominations. Obviously, each group claims the correct and true interpretation of scripture. Equally obvious, they cannot both be right. But like the early converts to Christianity, and the followers of Luther, and the followers of each of the ensuing denominations, each were just trying escape what they felt was incorrect doctrine, poor leadership, or bad decisions. Sadly, leaving the flock for another shepherd has become the predictable pattern of church goers, ministers, and even parts of denominations (consider the history of the Church of God).
The old axiom that one should never discuss religion or politics rings true. Nothing divides individual, as well as groups of people like firmly held beliefs, be they right or wrong. But in the end, religious divisions have more to do with arrogance and pride than anything else. The obsession with being right, or correct, overrides all other impulses when core values are on the line. However, the words of Rabbi Shaul from the Christian scriptures rings true now as it did in 1517 AD:
“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”
So, on this 596th anniversary of Luther’s act, let’s apply Gamaliel’s wisdom to this scenario. He said, “if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” After 500 years of protestant “reformation” we see the Christian Protestant churches fractured into an estimated 41,000 denominations! Nearly all of them are poor, or in need of constant funding. Most of them operate in single nations, or single continents. Most of them have minimal impact in the world where doctrine and social impact is concerned. On the other hand, the Catholic church exists in two denominations. It has financial resources that would make Donald Trump choke. It operates globally (catholic means ‘universal’). When the Pope speaks on social issues, it is covered on news outlets worldwide, regardless of religious affiliations. If I were to apply the wisdom of Gamaliel, I am afraid protestants may find themselves on the wrong side of reformation.
But alas, we will not use the wisdom of Gamaliel. If we do, we may have to defend the strange ideas of the Mormons, or the Jehovah’s witnesses. And, of course, no one wants to tackle the longevity of Islam.
Yeshuah loves His bride. Are we so arrogant to assume that when He gazes upon the earth, He sees his scattered Bride with two thumbs up at the hash we have all made of it? No, He would do anything to restore and reconcile her to Himself. That means ALL denominations. NONE of them are correct. They ALL have error! Forty One THOUSAND denominations statistically CANNOT ALL be right. But God does want ALL of them to find His truth. May we be transformed by the renewing of our minds by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and be formed in the image of His son, Yeshuah of the Jewish village of Natz’rat.
After 1500 years of only one church, Martin Luther started a fire of division that has yet to be slaked. Within four years of creating the Lutheran church, a second church division was underway! His act of rebellion, regardless of how sincere he may have been created the following protestant denominations within the first 120 years after he broke from the Catholic church. Today there are over 41,000 protestant denominations.
1521 Anabaptist Thomas Munzer & Nicholas Storch Germany
1534 Church of England King Henry VIII & Thomas Cranmer England
1536 Mennonites Menno Simons Switzerland
1555 Calvanist John Calvin Geneva, Switzerland
1560 Presbyterian John Knox Scotland
1582 Congregational Robert Brown Holland
1609 Baptist John Smyth Amsterdam
1628 Dutch Reformed Michaelis Jones New York
1645 Unitarian John Biddle Poland
1648 Congregationalist Puritans and Pilgrims Massachusetts
1649 Quakers George Fox England
1693 Amish Jacob Amman France
1739 Methodist John and Charles Wesley England