We began our Bible class on Sunday morning by trying to name all the different Christian denominations in the U.S. As you can imagine, the names came fast and furious and I scribbled the words on the white board as quickly as I could to keep up: Methodist. Presbyterian. Catholic. Lutheran. Church of God. Baptist. (What kind of Baptist? OK, four or five different kinds we could think of.) Christian. Disciples of Christ. Unitarian. Non-Denominational/Community. Episcopal. Assembly of God. Then it started to slow down a little. I asked, “No Church of Christ? Why hasn’t anybody said Church of Christ?”
And someone in the back, on the right hand side of the room said, jokingly, “We’re not a denomination!”
Much laughter and frivolity ensued.
OK, Church of Christ. What kind of Church of Christ? One-cuppers. No-classers. Acappella. Instrumental. No kitchens. Etc.,
It took about two minutes to fill the giant board with all the names of all the different versions of Christian churches in the U.S. We kind of started cheating at the end by naming Cowboy Church, Biker Church, and Skater Church. But the point was well made and well illustrated. As Yakov Smirnoff used to say, “Only in America!”
There are more Christian denominations in the United States than in any other country in the rest of the world. More sub-sets of denominations. More splits and plants and branches than anywhere else in the history of this planet. It’s always been that way here. When America was being colonized, there was no official national religion. (There still isn’t, of course; we forget that sometimes.) Unlike the rest of the world, no one denomination could serve as the state church. In the colonies you had Puritans and Baptists, Anglicans and Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans, Quakers and German Reformed, all here to establish “the true church.” They had left their own churches and homes, they had fled their own families and nations, because they couldn’t implement their own individual ideas and preferences in their established churches. They didn’t want a Pope or bishop or church board telling them what to do. So they came here where they wanted — and they got! — religious democracy. Here in America, ordinary members were making decisions for the churches. Ministers were not formally educated. It was religion without the creeds and councils. In that age of reason and enlightenment, people figured they could read the Bible for themselves and come to their own conclusions about the right and wrong ways to do church. And they did!
The result of that is what you saw on our white board Sunday morning.
Back then, the idea was that if you read your own Bible with an open mind and good common sense and the conclusions you drew were different from what your church was teaching, you just started another church. What do I mean “back then?” It’s all still the same today!
Religious freedom. Yuk.
“You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” ~Galatians 5:13-15
The American concept of “freedom” is a whole lot different from the Scriptural view of “freedom.” The apostle Paul writes that freedom means we are released from the things of this world — sin, selfishness, ego, pride, unalienable rights — that would keep us from serving others. Scripture says freedom is being loosed from the shackles of self to consider the needs of others more important than our own, to become less so that Christ and his holy will can become more. This nation’s concept of freedom is just the opposite. This nation’s founding documents and ideals, based on the prevailing thoughts at that time and still supporting the prevailing thoughts in our time today, tell us that Americans are free to do what we want, free to choose, free to own, free to pursue personal happiness, free to move, free to make money, free to speak, free to do whatever we want wherever we want, and whenever we want to do it with nobody ever telling me I can’t.
How do you think the freedom the colonists had to start all their own churches based on their own individual understandings of Scripture benefited the Kingdom of God? How might it have hurt? I’m certain there is both good and bad here. What’s good about our religious freedom in this country? How does this same freedom hinder the spread of the Kingdom or the sanctification of Christians? How might things be different — then and now — had American Christians understood and were to understand freedom as the liberty to serve others instead of ourselves?