So there are 33,000 Christian denominations. Or 42,000. Or 51,000.
What’s the problem?
Let’s preface the discussion at the outset with the rather glaring observation that over a billion Christians are Catholic. And the rest can, for the most part, be subdivided into rather large groups: several hundred million orthodox, a hundred million Anglicans, Lutherans, Reformed, etc. (I recommend Ted Campbell’s Christian Confessions as an excellent overview of how these thousands of denominations fit into just a handful of large groups.)
Keep in mind, as well, that the difference between untold numbers of these distinct denominations is, from a theological and cultural perspective, negligible. What’s the difference between a North American Baptist Church and a Baptist General Conference Church? Hmmm. What’s the difference between a Dodge Caravan and a Plymouth Voyager? Well, they have different names…
So any way you slice it, the disagreement is greatly inflated. In fact, to suggest that there is a problem here amounts to penalizing Christians for a virtue. From the get-go Christianity has been identified with its radical commitment to indigenizing in the particular socio-historical moments in which the gospel is first pronounced. This contrasts radically with Islam which is known for its elevation of Arabic and the associated cultural forms as the normative embodiment of the truth faith. Nothing like this exists in Christianity, and so Christians have traditionally taken it to be a virtue that the Christian message can indeed radically indigenize in countless contexts. In the midst of all this diversity, all these groups are unified in a very simple proclamation contained in core confessions like the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed. (Yes, there are some groups that are famous for declaring no creed but the Bible. However, these groups don’t typically take issue with the substantive confessions of the creeds.)
From that perspective, griping about 33,000 denominations looks rather like penalizing Baskin Robbins for 31 flavors: “Why can’t we have just vanilla?” Hey, speak for yourself buddy.
Jonathan Pearce states the objection like this:
“If God is a maximal God, he sure is pretty rubbish at clearly defining what he meant, and what the state of affairs is.”
This is a revealing statement for its blushing reductionism. Jonathan seems to think that God should have just provided the church with several dozen (or hundred) directives divinely revealed over precisely what the church should believe, how the liturgy should be conducted, and how the church should be organized. Indigenization be damned, there’s just one way to do things and God should have told us! Sorry, Jonathan. Sometimes diversity is a virtue.
But wait. Aren’t there some instances of substantive difference? Some cases that cannot be explained simply in terms of indigenization? What about those?
There are indeed. However, does that mean that God is inept? Hardly.
Imagine, for a moment, a teacher who gives her students certain instructions to accomplish a task in groups. The instructions are clear on certain points, but leave other points ambiguous. And so the students begin to self-select into particular groups based on differing interpretations of the ambiguities. What reasons could the teacher possibly have for providing instructions that leave details ambiguous? In particular, does it follow that the teacher is inept?
Not at all. The teacher could have (at least) two good reasons for doing this. First, it may be that the details don’t matter this much. By contrast, the essentials — the points that do matter most — are perfectly clear. Christian theologians have long recognized this distinction as well. Indeed, non-essential doctrines even have their own name. They’re called “adiaphora”.
Second, the teacher might view the resulting dissent and self-selecting into particular groups as part of a greater process for all the students. Let’s say, for example, that two groups are formed based on whether to interpret the instructions as entailing p or not-p. Initially there is some antagonism between the two groups. But over time they learn to work through their differences for the sake of causes greater that the difference between p and not-p. This scenario describes the ecumenical movement in its best moments, as with the Roman Catholic Church’s recent (as in the last twenty years) joint confessional statements with the Assyrian Church of the East and the Lutheran World Federation. Now, looking back, we can see that maybe part of the reason why fissures have been allowed to grow between particular ecclesial bodies is precisely so those ecclesial bodies could learn how to heal the fissures … and grow as individuals and collective groups in the process.
Consequently, when I hear atheists and skeptics raise statistics like 33,000 denominations for great dramatic effect, I am left scratching my head in puzzlement, for that which seems to some as a great problem seems to me to be both a virtue and an opportunity.