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An Appreciation of Martin Luther: On Why Many Denominations Do Not Destroy the Unity of the Church

But let me go even further into what some might consider unorthodox thought. Luther did in fact organize and lead what later became known as the Lutheran Church. He became, more or less, Bishop of Saxony but without the title. By the time of his death there were the outlines of various, separate Protestant denominations, united only in their hatred of Catholicism. Catholics reciprocated this hatred, of course.

However, we now accept that having different denominations does not mean that hatred and contention must follow, as the FGBMFI meetings prove.  Inter-denominational prayer meetings, service projects, and similar joint efforts point to the fact that denominations as administrative divisions do not destroy the unity of the Body of Christ. Maybe the unity was there all the time, even during the First Jesus War of Oriental vs. Western Catholics. That unity was occulted in the mind of believers by Satan goading Christians to hatred and warfare, and by the prideful assumption that one’s denomination and one’s philosophical and theological understandings of the faith were the only true ones.

Let’s get back to Luther. The unintended consequence of his forming the Lutherans, and the other denominations that issued out of the Reformation, may in fact have been a tremendous blessing to the Body of Christ. The Reformers’ actions “regularized’ denomination formation, and made it non-heretical.  That is, unlike the Roman Catholic vs. Eastern Orthodox divide, where each side declared the other heretical, Protestants have been mostly tolerant of new denominations and would rarely call them heretical. Very early, for instance Calvinists and Lutheran respected each other in spite of their theological divide. This was long overdue, and a correction to the Church’s inability to see that different administrative structures (and bishops) or different philosophical understandings of doctrine do not necessarily make for true heresy.

That error may be placed at the feet of St. Augustine of Hippo. During his term as bishop of Hippo, a group of congregations, called the Donatists, formed to express a more morally rigorous form of orthodoxy than the normal Western Catholic Church. Augustine tried to debate and browbeat them into re-joining the Catholic Church, but could not do so.  Finally, he declared them heretics, and suggested they be disciplined and coerced, even to death, by the state into re-joining the majority church.[4] The Church believed him and the heritage of heretic burning and the Inquisition was the demonic fruit of his mistake.

Could there be a blessing to having a multitude of denominations and Christian traditions?

Had Augustine proclaimed something more tolerant, perhaps peaceful co-existing denominations would have been formed early in Church history. Certainly, for instance, Orthodox Catholics and Oriental Catholics never cooperated or came together in joint prayer services for the conversion of the Arab or Germanic tribes who lived on the periphery of the Roman Empire.[5] In fact, when the Muslim invasion of North Africa came two centuries later, the Roman Catholic and Oriental Orthodox churches were still bitter enemies, feuding and persecuting each other. This made the Muslim conquest easy.

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Category: Church History, Fall 2017

About the Author: William L. De Arteaga, Ph.D., is known internationally as a Christian historian and expert on revivals and the rebirth and renewal of the Christian healing movement. His major works include, Quenching the Spirit (Creation House, 1992, 1996), Forgotten Power: The Significance of the Lord’s Supper in Revival (Zondervan, 2002), and Agnes Sanford and Her Companions: The Assault on Cessationism and the Coming of the Charismatic Renewal (Wipf & Stock, 2015). Bill pastored two Hispanic Anglican congregations in the Marietta, Georgia area, and is semi-retired. He and his wife Carolyn continue in their healing, teaching and writing ministries. He is the state chaplain of the Order of St. Luke, encouraging the ministry of healing in all Christian denominations. Facebook

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