Why do Christians disagree so much?
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There are about 9,000 Protestant denominations and so many independent churches. All of them claim to be correct. Yet evangelicals tend to believe that the Bible is perfect and authoritative and that there is objective truth. If there is one truth and one way, then why are there so many denominations?
The absurd amount of denominations is actually a common argument against Protestants from Catholics, and people often point to this as evidence that the Bible is contradictory and therefore, not perfect. So how do we respond to this?
When you go to the ER and check in you go to triage. This is where they assess how bad you are and decide where in the line you should go. If you’re having a heart attack, you’re getting a room before the guy with a bruised elbow (sorry, guy). After a big disaster or something, an on-scene triage center is set up where the worst injuries are tended to. Triage is essentially sorting things by severity.
In Christianity, we do exactly that in what is called “theological triage.” It is sorting different theological issues by how important they are. The most common system you’ll hear of in regards to this will be referring to different doctrines by “first,” “second,” or “third tier issues.”
First tier issues are the biggest doctrines. These are doctrines that the Bible is extremely clear on and you have to believe these to be within Christianity. Think of things like; There is one God, there is one way to salvation, Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, Jesus bled and died for your sins then rose again and ascended to the right hand of God. We commonly look to the historical Church creeds (around the 4th century) for our foundations of theology and the most core beliefs that make us Christian.
Second tier issues are ones that are definitely important but you are still a Christian no matter what you believe on the issue. These doctrines will influence what tradition you identify with, what denomination you say you are, and where you go to church. They’re doctrines big enough to go to a different church over but not to make you not Christian. These ones would be things like if women should be pastors or not and what the sacraments (baptism and communion) signify.
Third tier issues are still important to have opinions on but you can disagree on within the same congregation, even. You can go to church together and fellowship together and worship side by side, maybe not even knowing you disagree on this issue. Eschatology, the study of the last things (how Christ will come back, if there will be a rapture or not, how long the tribulation will be/is, etc.), is the most notorious of third tier issues. Division on these is unnecessary.
There is also a fourth category that goes by many different names, but I and many others I know simply refer to them as “non-issues.” These are the things in the Bible that just are not important at all. They have truth and there is a right answer, but any argument on it is just utterly pointless. You don’t even really need to have a stance on these issues, they can just be fun to think about sometimes.
For further reading on this, as well as a different metaphor for theological triage, this article by Dr. Brain Arnold and Dr. Gavin Ortlund is where I first learned about theological triage. I found it very helpful and I hope you do too.
So the 9,000 denominations…
Where all the denominations come from are disagreements on second-tier issues, as you might have realized by now. However they also come from disagreement on what makes what tier. First tier issues are pretty universally agreed upon but as you go down the list, there is less agreement on what goes where. Some people would even elevate things to first tier issues that others would not. Even with some of my examples I gave in each category, someone reading this article may disagree with me on where I placed them.
First tier issues define Christianity, second tier issues define denominations, and third tier issues define personal theology. This is why Christians disagree so much. There are so many possible positions on each theological issue. Some have more Biblical warrant than others, but the lesser issues are where the Bible is less clear and so there are often valid Biblical arguments for several sides depending on how they are pieced together and what hermeneutic (way of interpreting, essentially) you use when approaching the Bible.
Is everyone right then?
This is not to say that all Christians are right, of course. Someone has to be wrong on every given issue. But, there is an immense amount of grace on this side of eternity. It is the same grace that saves us from our sin that allows for us to not have to have all the answers about God. We can get things wrong and still go to heaven.
There is grace when it comes to second and third tier issues. For example, I am a Calvinist personally but I am willing to accept that I could fully be wrong. I believe Calvinism to be the best explanation of Scripture but if I am wrong, I am willing to accept that and I will still go to heaven just the same as if my brothers and sisters who are Arminian or Molinist are wrong. It simply does not define salvation or not.
The division in the Church, though, is often sad. We often draw lines that are more divisive than we need to make them and claim that we are the right ones who know Jesus and the others are wrong. I am reminded of a quote that one of my professors, Dr. Mark Olmos said last year. He said, “There will be Christians led to Christ by women in heaven, egalitarians and complementarians, people who wore MAGA hats and people who wore BLM shirts, Arminians and Calvinists, Charismatics and Cessationists. The Kingdom is bigger than we think it is.”
So while the division can be sad, there is a healthy way to disagree, so long as we appropriately use theological triage and do not draw the lines too harshly. It is certainly not damning evidence against Protestants or proof that the Bible is contradictory.