Yesterday I reviewed a book entitled The Soul of Christianity, Restoring the Great Tradition by Huston Smith. Today I wanted to excerpt a portion of the book where he points out some positive aspects to the many denominations found within Protestantism. Often this is seen in such a negative light – Protestantism is so divided, splintered, and lacking unity. Woe is us…there is so much disunity. It is a big confusing mess. Or is it?
Smith, by the way, is not trying to present a “shiny, happy” image of Christianity and naively overlook problems. He openly admits weaknesses, especially with certain types of Christianity. But his thrust is not to be primarily negative and critique the faith, but rather to focus on the various positives of Christianity that can unfortunately be overlooked in a secular climate. With that explanation, here are 3 positive points he makes about all the denominations that exist within Protestantism.
1. “First, Protestant diversity is not as great as its hundreds of denominations (most of them more adequately termed sects) suggests. Most of these are of negligible size. Actually, 85 percent of all Protestants belong to twelve denominations. Considering the freedom of belief that Protestantism affirms in principle, the wonder lies not in its diversity but to the extent to which Protestants have managed to stay together.”
He didn’t offer footnotes for his statistics, but as someone who has been in Christian circles my entire life, I decided to write down all the denominations that I’ve known people from personally…and I was able to come up with about 10. Or when I drive around town whether locally or while traveling, the vast majority of churches I see indeed represent around a dozen denominations. It is not as though I see or know people from hundreds of different denominations…not even close!
Furthermore, some denominations are very similar and fall under the same tradition…such as Methodist, Wesleyan, and Nazarene. Smith’s comments make sense and seem accurate. The many denominations, while they do exist, often seem presented in an exaggerated way to make Christianity appear much more fragmented than it actually is. I wonder about non-denominational churches – where do they fall? But many non-denominational churches tend to line up with one denomination/tradition even though they are independent.
2. “Second, Protestant divisions reflect differing national origins in Europe and differing social groupings in the United States more than they do differing theologies.”
3. “The third point, however, is the most important. Who is to say that diversity is bad? People differ, historical circumstances too can occasion life-affecting differences that must be taken seriously: ‘new occasions teach new duties’ – Protestants believe that life and history are too fluid to allow God’s redeeming word to be enclosed in a single form, whether it be doctrinal or institutional….Comforts of togetherness should not lead to structures that will restrict the dynamic character of God’s continuing revelation.”
These 3 points really gave me some food for thought. How about you? Yes, there are risks and negatives in the ability to branch out and form new groups in Protestantism. There are positives to central church authority and the imposed structure or limitation. But the advantages of being flexible in a diverse world seem to outweigh the possible negatives. Of course, that is my view as an evangelical Protestant. I know that a Roman Catholic friend of mine would not agree.☺