There are many small and large divisions of Christian opinion that have arisen in the long history of Christian thought. These differences have led to groups splitting and sometimes disassociating from each other. Perhaps the largest of these was the Great Schism in which the Eastern Orthodox Church separated from the Roman Catholic Church (or the other way round).
Later too, the Protestant movement also broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. These are not all the divisions. Before any of these, other groups such as the Nestorian Church decided to take a different path. Today, many Christians will identify primarily as a member of their particular group or subgroup within this framework.
However, in my view only some of the divisions between Christians are justified.
I have referred to these groups as Churches, but this term can be misleading. Strictly, there is only one Church. All of the individuals who are Christians are part of this Universal Church. However, this is where the trouble comes in.
Most of these divisions originated due to disagreement on the requirements of being a Christian individual. The things Christians must or ought to believe, and what they must do– if they must do anything at all beyond believing.
In addition to this, while most Christians believe that the bible is the best source for settling these divisions of belief, almost all of these variations came from different interpretations of what the bible means.
Whatever issue any two Christian groups are divided on, it is usually that the first group thinks the bible means X by whatever the passage says, and the second group thinks that same section means Y.
X and Y
Depending on the difference between the interpretations (X and Y), some divisions are not justifiable. If the interpretations X and Y are different to the point that if X were true, people who believe Y must not be Christian individuals (or the other way round), then division appears to be justified.
This is so because if X is correct it cannot be the case that both groups of believers are part of the Church.
By contrast, if X and Y agree on all the important content and only disagree on something of trivial importance, no division is necessary. After all, if they take the same things to be important, they will both be either sufficiently right, or wrong to be Christians– members of the Church in the truest sense of the word.
Such trivial cases appear even in the bible itself. One testimony of Jesus' life and teaching says that he healed a certain paralytic man on the way into a city, and another records the same events but on the way out of that city. The important meaning of the event is the same between the two, the detail that differs is insignificant.
As mentioned above, differences in what is required to be Christian are significant. This means differences in what these groups think Christians must do are significant. However, what they think they ought to do is probably not significant. A claim that one ought to do something does not mean that their identity will change if they fail to do it. Rather, it means they would have been better, or more consistent, had they done it.
Within this ought category, not only can wrong actions occur without completely denaturing the Christian, but wrong beliefs can be held without causing us to say the person is not a Christian.
Say that a Christian thinks they ought never to pray without speaking the prayer aloud. Such a person is clearly incorrect, but the miss-belief on its own is not sufficient that we would consider them non-Christian.
In my view it is unfortunate that some divisions have occurred based on this kind of difference (that is, in this ought category) because these groups will most likely have less opportunity to correct the beliefs of the group which is wrong.
In the biblical precedent, Jesus' followers did not claim to be separate from those who acted or believed wrongly, but continued to correct them by visiting and sending letters.
My argument has been that Christians should only divide into different Churches (to use a poor term) when their beliefs about what it is to be a Christian individual are inconsistent with each other.
Where they disagree on trivial or even normative claims of what Christians ought to do, they should not split or disassociate despite the wrong belief. The fact that a group is wrong means that we should correct them, providing strong reason to remain in contact.
Alex Gillespie is an undergraduate student from Wollongong now based in Sydney.
Alex Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/alex-gillespie.html