The diagram is actually a simplified version. We could draw over 200 denominations in the U.S. today (more than 45,000 in the world) as twigs on the end of this complicated tree.* Christians talk a lot about unity, but they keep finding new reasons to separate from one other.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. We see the seeds of division in the letters of the Apostles in the New Testament, first between different philosophies of how Jewish and Gentile believers could tolerate each other’s practices, then about the Person of Jesus as both divine and human, with various leaders defining the meaning of this crucial, but mysterious doctrine in conflicting ways. The early church Councils of Jerusalem (AD 52, Acts 15), Nicea (AD 325), Ephesus (AD 431) and Chalcedon (AD 451) were all designed to reunify the Church, but actually led to more divisions.
I recently became the owner of a book entitled, A Short History of Byzantium.** This is about that part of the Near East that became split from European influence and, later, from the Roman Church. Since most of our American history education focuses on the Western World, I was almost totally ignorant of what happened in that area between Biblical times and Modern times. So, I began reading the book. I soon found myself in another world that I can’t quite comprehend.
One of the critical early developments in this history revolved around the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great, who ruled from AD 306 to 337. There are four important aspects of his reign: (1) He reunited the Roman Empire, which had been divided for the previous half a century; (2) He moved the Capitol of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium (later called Constantinople and now called Istanbul); (3) He himself converted to Christianity in AD 321 and declared the Empire to be Christian; (4) He made it his goal to bring together the fighting factions of Christian leaders and unify the Church.
Constantine succeeded in the first three endeavors. That’s why he’s called “The Great” and why he is recognized as a saint in Eastern Christianity. But he couldn’t pull off the fourth. After using many tortuous pages to describe the various strong-arm tactics he tried to bring these stubborn theologians together, the author of my book concludes:
“The Emperor’s dream of spiritual harmony throughout Christendom was not to be achieved in his lifetime; indeed, we are still awaiting it today.”***
Let’s talk about today, in 2021,**** in our little corner of Christendom. In a recent article, respected religious pollster Robert P. Jones revealed the radical fall off in the number of Americans who identify as “Evangelical,” during the last decade, from 25% to 14%! ***** And a short time browsing YouTube attacks and counter-attacks shows me that the remaining 14% are becoming even more disunified. I’ve come to call this phenomenon “Institutional Christianity Gone to Seed.”
Well, if disunity has been a mark of Christianity from its very beginning and the process is accelerating now, I have to believe that either: (1) It’s part of God’s sovereign will (which Calvinists would have to say); or (2) It’s something God can tolerate and work around to accomplish his purposes; or (3) It’s actually a natural part of what humans do with God’s gifts, and he is expert at knowing how to work through the apparent chaos to accomplish even more than he would through a perfectly unified Church.
I embrace this third option, and I’m enthusiastic about the potential of the Gospel in the generation ahead of us. If Christianity were perfectly unified, its leaders would take credit for successes, but in the reality of “Institutional Christianity Gone to Seed,” the credit for spiritual renewal will be God’s alone.
– Pastor George Van Alstine
** A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich, 1997. (I don’t know who thought I needed to have this book. Tough sledding; I’m on page 49 of 431.)
*** Ibid, page 16.
**** Ironically, this is exactly 1700 years from Constantine’s conversion in AD 321, which seemed to unify Christianity!
***** https://time.com/6102117/white-christian-americans-sins/ 9/29/21 “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview,” by Robert P. Jones.