The apostle Paul stated that there is “One Lord, one faith, one baptism” in his letter to the Ephesians (chapter 4, verse 5). In the year 2015 it is estimated that there are now thousands of Christian churches, many of them claiming to understand the will of god better than all the others. Likewise, many of them, from the oldest to the youngest, claim to be the only true Christian church and the only path to god’s grace and understanding. In fact, this partitioning of Christianity into different churches seems to have started almost as soon as it began as a minor Jewish sect shortly after the traditional date for Jesus’ execution.
This theme of the unity of the church was one Paul addressed repeatedly. In his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 8, verse 6) he said, “But to us there is but one god, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him”, and shortly after, “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ” (chapter 12, verse 12). It did not just apply to the church but extended to each member as well. He said in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 3, verse 28) that, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. ”
Since it is clear that one of the apostles thought that Christian unity was so important, why is it that there is so much diversity among Christianity? Why are there so many Christian churches teaching so many different doctrines? Quite obviously, the statement by Paul that there should be only one Christian church has been ignored and the very opposite implemented.
Jesus himself warned of this. In Matthew, chapter 7, verses 15-20 he says that false followers would arise and preach what was not true, but that they could be recognised because the results of their preaching would be unchristian. He said, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. … Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” By repeating it twice, Jesus emphasised that unreliable teachers would be recognised by the negative and bad consequences that arise from what they teach. Jesus then continued in the same vein and again emphasised that some who claim to teach in his name were false teachers, misleading people. Verses 21-23 record him saying, “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” The underlying point is that Christian teachers must preach and live in a manner which is consistent with what Jesus and Yahweh are recorded to have said.
This warning is repeated several times in later writings from more than one apostle. It is clear that even while the apostles were alive, there were people seeking to divide the Christian congregation and set up separate groups believing other than what was being taught by the apostles. Below are several references.
It is clear, then, that the very first Christians believed that the Christian church would fragment, and that it was already in progress while they were alive. Keep in mind that Christianity began as a general Jewish philosophy targeted at common people rather than an esoteric elite. As such it was initially very simple, but followed Jewish beliefs and practices, including that most important Jewish statement found at Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our god, The Lord is one” (Jewish publication society). Interestingly, even this can be understood different ways as there is no verb in the second statement (the “is”) and it must be inferred. It literally says, “YHWH one.” One understanding of this statement would deny the trinity, which is how Jews, and some unorthodox Christians, understand it today.
|Gnosticism was a religious belief that secret knowledge (gnosis in Greek) was required for salvation.
Mithras was a manifestation of the Zoroastrian supreme god Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd).
Serapis was a syncretion of (female) Isis and (male) Apis, two Egyptian gods.
In fact, from historical evidence, we know that the first few centuries after Jesus lived was a time of tremendous religious speculation in the area of the Mediterranean, Roman world with many movements being formed, some by the introduction of new philosophies, some by expanding existing religions, and some by syncretising old gods into new gods. Thus Gnosticism developed, Mithraism became a strong force and gods such as Serapis arose. Christianity was soon incorporated into these movements, especially gnosticism, and some very popular philosophies arose, some of which lasted for a long time. Some of them may still be evident. It was apparently a Gnostic idea, for instance, that the supreme being would incarnate as a human to bring mankind the knowledge of how to obtain salvation, now a central tenet of Christianity. Manicheism, a very successful Gnostic religion, promoted the belief that two forces were influencing mankind, one for good under Ahura Mazda and one for evil under Angra Mainyu. If the names are changed to Jesus and Satan, we have a standard, central Christian doctrine.
Now, I do not know how valid one belief is compared to another, nor where many of these beliefs originated, but it must be apparent that beliefs do not just spontaneously appear and that the early Christian hierarchy was aware that it would happen so they warned the early congregations against the introduction of beliefs and philosophies from external sources and other religions. Clearly, with the plethora of different beliefs and philosophies found in Christianity, this warning was ignored and we now have Christian churches promoting almost every belief conceivable, frequently contradicting each other. Many promote convoluted interpretations of secret knowledge hidden in the bible, referring to them as end times prophecies and insisting that only they understand those prophecies correctly as only they have the proper knowledge They are just like the Gnostics of old.
It is amazing that many Christian churches are members of interfaith organisations which accept most groups identifying themselves as Christian. The ones not accepted as members are those from churches which have beliefs and doctrines that diverge too much from what is thought of as mainstream Christianity, denying the trinity or the immortal soul, would be examples. Often these churches have no interest in joining with others, even unofficially, since their beliefs almost invariably state that they are the only true Christian church and all other churches betray Christ in some fashion. Nevertheless, the ones who are permitted to be members vary so significantly in what they believe that they can scarcely be considered to be “one church”, as Paul said they should be. It is a fundamental truism that where there are two opposing beliefs, they cannot both be true. They could both be false, but there could only be one that is true. The fact is that almost every Christian church on the earth today can be demonstrably proven to believe something which contradicts the earliest beliefs of the original Christian church, and which most certainly is at odds doctrinally with another Christian church.
What does this mean? It surely means that no church today truly represents the earliest Christian community. All of them differ significantly from that group. All have a mixture of bible based beliefs intermingled with Gnostic ideas and teachings, or teachings which originated in non-Christian religions and were absorbed into Christianity. Indeed, some churches will admit to that being the case, Easter, for instance, originating with the spring festival of the Norse, fertility goddess Oestre, after whom oestrogen is named. This festival was conveniently timed to coincide with the crucifixion and was absorbed by the early church as a convenience. Would the original church have endorsed that absorption? Would the apostle Paul have done so? I think not!
The consequence is that these organisations have substituted themselves as the focus for their members instead of squarely placing the emphasis on god. Religious people tend to identify themselves as Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Baptist, etc., rather than Christian. They are loyal to their church organisation and hierarchy instead of to Christ. In doing so they emphasise the separateness of their churches rather than seeking to unite them into the “one church” Paul espoused.
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