This essay is a response to a friend who had recently started on a path to knowing God. This person was exploring the various Christian groups in the area, meeting people from the various Christian factions. It was confusing, with each faction vying for the attention of this person, some through listing the doctrinal failures of the other factions. I will use the name “Pilgrim” for this person.
Hello Pilgrim. As you observed in our previous discussion, there are a lot of strong opinions expressed about this subject. There is a good reason: Christian people tend to believe that the Bible is the only set of books that God directly caused to be written. Naturally, this makes what is said in the Bible very important. The opportunity for conflict is great because the Bible is a complex set of books.
Groups of people over the centuries have developed long sets of logic, along the lines of: If this verse means this, and then if we look at a different verse having accepted the meaning of the first verse, we can see that this other verse means this. These chains of logic form into what people call doctrines. If we decide that the Bible is a collection of things that God wants us to know, you can see where it would be important to try to follow the logic in it. Deeply important.
The problem comes because the Bible is complex and there are different conclusions that can be arrived at depending on which verses are considered more important. The more important verses then are used as the base assumption to help resolve the conflict when verses that seem to say something different are encountered. So the various Doctrinal groups in christianity form around doctrines that sometime are quite opposite from each other. And they argue and even sometimes physically fight over it.
When one looks at the basic beliefs you can see that the groups form up in various categories and there is a widespread agreement between the majority of the groups about certain issues. My point in this paragraph is that there are some common beliefs that are generally considered to be the basic understanding of christians. They can be said in various ways and people will argue about the best way to say them, but basically: Humans are separated from God. Humans need a fix for this so they can know God. God fixed it by becoming a human and doing what needed to be done to fix the problem. Now, by believing this, man can know God.
That statement is too simple for a vast subject, but it gets the basic defined to a certain point. You already are reading the Bible, so you are beginning to see the wealth of information that is there.
When you spoke with the group of people you met on the street, you saw the reaction from some of the people in the group you attended later. They had a strong reaction to direct you away from the group on the street. That reaction is because the street group does not believe that God became a man, or said another way, they don’t believe that Jesus somehow was/is God. They aren’t alone in their alternate approach to a core doctrine, there are plenty of other groups that have trouble with the concept that Jesus was/is God. But it is held as one of the facts that is vitally important to knowing God. You’ll see more as you continue your journey of understanding.
I said I was writing all this because of your stated intention to visit a catholic church. Many people in the groups you have been with will tell you that is a mistake because of various beliefs. But I feel it is important to acknowledge that the Catholics certainly hold the primary doctrines of christianity. I am not a Catholic, so I am not defending them out of anything but a true love for all people who know God through Jesus.
The Baptist group you visited is logically categorized as part of the Prostestant movement that split off of the Catholic church 500 years ago. The main reason the Protestant movement stated is that the Catholic church regards their interpretations of Bible as nearly as important as the Bible itself. The guy who was brave enough to risk his life leaving the Catholic church, Martin Luther, said that he believed in only the scriptures. Which people still refer to as “Sola Scriptura”, which is Latin for “Only Scripture”. So all the Protestent groups started there and have formed all their own factions in the intervening years, for the same reasons for all the factions in the Catholic Church (properly called the Roman Catholic Church). There are other large groups besides the Catholics and the Protestants, the main other groups are the various factions of the Orthodox Churches.
Since you are interested in the Baptist group, it is worth noting that they split off from other Prostestant groups based on their view of the various doctrines. There are several factions of Baptists as well.
This is a good point to give an exceedingly brief history starting in the middle of human history with Jesus the Christ.
Jesus physically leaves. He had already made statements about his “church”, but that is a subject for another discussion.
The disciples almost immediately form factions. This is recorded in the New Testament, which is the group of books and letters that some of the first generation of Jesus followers wrote.
The factions grow very intense, as we know from various other books and letters written over the next few centuries. Gradually, Christianity becomes the dominant belief system of the Roman Empire. There is some evidence of the spread of Christianity elsewhere as well, but only some societies have people that write things in a way that can be preserved. But in the Roman Empire Christianity, with its constantly swirling array of factions, thrives.
The Roman Empire splits and with it, Christianity follows along. The group of Christians in Rome differentiate themselves with the name Roman Catholic (catholic simply means “universal”).
The eastern Roman Empire, with its capitol in modern Turkey, has its own set of doctrines and underlying factions. Some of these continue to this day as some of the sets of doctrinal groups known as Eastern Orthodox (Orthodox simply means “correct opinion”).
In addition to these their were other factions that existed. Many came and went, some continue on, such as the Coptics, which claim a continuous history in Egypt from the 1st century. Other long term groups include the Russian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox, etc. There is a network of connections between these various groups.
Since we speak English, our heritage comes through the northern and western Europe history, which was dominated from the middle of the first millenium after Jesus the Christ by the Roman Catholic group. This group excersized complete authority, civil and religious, for over 1000 years. But it is certainly not a history of a monolithic institution – the history is full of factions.
In the middle of the second millenium, the Protestant groups formed, specifically identifying themselves as not Roman Catholic, or “protesting” some of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic group. Hence the separation from the various factions that identify themselves as Roman Catholic. And within the groups that identify themselves as Protestant, many factions have formed.
For myself, I do not care to be categorized within any of these factions, or against any of these factions. I am trying, and failing, to honestly follow Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
I know I am going on too long, and it can be discouraging to look at all the factions. In fact, many Christians will be saying that I should not be bringing these issues up to a new Christian. We generally like to hide the dirty laundry. But I feel that it is good to realize these issues early, and decide that you are following Jesus the Christ, not a particular group of people.
All these divisions are about human logic as we try to understand scripture – which we MUST. But knowing God is not an academic excersize. It is about knowing a real being.
And you are already off to a good start: You have already learned to trust that Jesus will guide you. These are not empty belief systems, we are following the Living God. As you have turned to him, he has guided you. In one of our earlier discussions, I said some strange things about some birds I had observed. I said those things as I percieved that the Spirit of God wanted me to say them. I knew that it was not logically powerful, but I took the risk. Through those logically meaningless words, God himself triggered a thought process in you that could only have a supernatural connection with the strange things about birds. Then, with that concept from the birds in your head, you found a verse that is just what you needed. This journey will continue on. As you grow it will get more intense sometimes, but hold on to that verse: Jesus has called you his friend. You are his friend.
Don’t let all the factions stop you from joining with other christians in your area. You need them, they need you. Just be aware that every group has its beliefs that go different ways. Don’t select who to be with based on their factional beliefs, select based on people that are real. Not that the issues that make them factions aren’t important, just secondary to really loving each other.