Christian Diversity

The other evening I was thinking about Christian diversity and how to explain the differences between Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions to new believers and interested enquirers. Now, I am sure there are many ways to approach this but after some reflection I am inclined to suggest that the critical difference comes down to different understandings of apostolic authority. What is authoritative for the church? Who is an authority within the church?

In contrast to Buddhism, where different traditions within it literally have different scriptures, within Christianity different traditions still affirm the same scriptures as authoritative, at least for the most part. We all affirm the same New Testament scriptures, and even the same ecumenical Creeds. The differences don’t arise from there. Instead the differences arise through differences in the way we interpret scripture and tradition – What part does tradition play in interpretation? What part does the church play in interpretation? Who has authority to interpret?

The context in which revelation is interpreted shapes how we understand it.

Catholic Christians have a very hierarchical approach; they emphasise Papal authority and link apostolic authority to Papal succession. Orthodox Christians have a more consensus approach; they emphasise the authority of the ancient ecumenical councils and link apostolic authority to the church acting as a whole, within parallel jurisdictions. Protestant Christians have a more tradition-critical / individualistic approach; they emphasise the Bible’s authority over later tradition and accord apostolic authority to any church or Christian acting in harmony with the apostle’s teaching in scripture.

How does this work out in practice? Well for starters we all agree with the Nicene Creed, but for different reasons. Catholic Christians accept its authority because the Pope presided over it. Orthodox Christians accept its authority because it was ecumenical (except for the filioque bit). Protestant Christians accept its authority because, while it goes beyond the Bible, it is fully consistent with it.

Where the traditions disagree, it is often for similar reasons. Protestants will disagree with other traditions where there is insufficient New Testament support for them. At its best this can be a useful check against cultural accretions and theological drift. Orthodox will disagree with other traditions where there is insufficient consensus with the wider church over its long history. This can be a useful check against overly ahistorical or eccentric readings. Get the idea?

But what this led me to consider is the shape of the church in a post-Christendom world. You might recall that I have previously suggested that the distinction between clergy and laity is not nearly as significant as the distinction between disciples and non-disciples in a post-Christendom environment. I am inclined to extend this and say the distinctions between Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox pales into insignificance when compared to the distinctions between Christians and non-Christians – and its time we start remembering this forgotten truth. Whatever our differences, we all worship Jesus as God, we are all disciples of Jesus.

17 thoughts on “Christian Diversity

  1. How crazy that I should come upon this post today, since I was in a discussion just yesterday over this very issue. My husband and I are former Catholics (not just former Catholics, but a former nun and former about-to-become a monk) who are now Reformed Evangelicals attending a conservative Presbyterian church. We had lunch with an old friend of mine who is a Jesuit in the process towards being ordained a Catholic priest. We talked at length about the grief we have all experienced from the divisions between Christian denominations. I think sources of the divisions are complex and elusive, but you have put your finger on at least one of the central questions. There are of course very significant doctrinal disagreements as well, and its hard to know which is the chicken and which is the egg. Sometimes the whole thing is so confusing and sad to me, that I long for Jesus to just come back already and put it all right.


  2. Amy
    Yes I am aware there are disagreements in other areas as well that are far from trivial. Prayers to Mary and the saints for intercession is an obvious one. But I am inclined to view these as derivative issues. I suspect the Catholic emphasis on heavenly hierarchies (of saints) and ecclesial hierarchies (of priests) are closely related. Both stem from a theological emphasis on mediation. So again, how is authority mediated? Who is an authentic mediator? Protestants, coming from a different direction in terms of their understanding of authority, would emphasize Christ alone as mediator between divinity and humanity, in heaven and on earth. But on the flip side, because of that emphasis, Protestants tend to have a less well developed understanding of general revelation and the Spirit of God moving through creation. While recognizing the differences are important, I would want to encourage the understanding that we can still sharpen one another and build one another up.


  3. Hi Matt! I sent you a thank-you email for coming to Circular Quay on WYD to meet me and some Project Dance people… not sure if you got it…
    I thought I might visit your site to see your latest eruditions 🙂
    Yeah, the denominational divide was yawning wide at a meeting I attended in R****** on Tuesday night. Big ruckus catalysed by Anglican/Uniting Church differing modus operandi regarding indigenous issues. But you know what, as THE community discussed and prayed through the issues, I observed something very something very precious… they shared how sad they were that now they were experiencing devaluation and condescension through the current leaders of certain denominations compared to in the past when denominational labels came second to the marks of Kingdom co-operation. In the days when Catholics, Anglicans, Unitings and Pentecostals worked together in that locality people noticed. The reminiscers told stories of persecution for Christ’s sake, as Christians were not viewed as kindly back in the 70’s and 80’s, but the manifest power of God was visible in daily life incidents in the neighbourhood (eg.raisings from the dead, deliverance from alcohol abuse). However now, when there seems to be more denominational pride operating and Christians are generally seen in a more benogn light, the suffering in terms of poverty, drugs etc is rife in that place! It seemed to me that was an indication that when people and religion take an authoritarian stance, there is little room for the emancipatory authority of Christ to reign free. Thanks for sharing your ponderings.
    Lucy J


  4. Lucy, yes got the email but haven’t had a chance to properly respond yet. Hardly spent any time online the last week or so. And am just about to dissappear for a few more days. So gotta be quick. But thanks.
    These are the sorts of stories we need to hear more often, of Christians working with one another in Christ, despite differences, seeking first the kingdom, identifying with one another in Christ.


  5. I appreciate the Truth seeking I see in your blog. Questions of ecclesial authority are indeed among the most important distinctions between the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions. The lens of heirarchy isn’t the only way to view the Catholic Church. See Avery Dulles’ Models of Church. The Body of Christ and Servant are some other ways to look at church.
    I also recommend the following books:
    Prusak, Bernard P. The Church Unfinished, Ecclesiology Through the Centuries (Paulist Press, 2004)
    Gaillardetz, Richard B. By What Authority? A Prinmer on Scripture, the Magisterium, and the Sense of the Faithful (Liturgical Press, 2003)In fact, the sense of the faithful is an important voice though in some periods bishops and popes listen more attentively than in others.


  6. i was quite interested to see your post on church unity/church disunity since i find the faith in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” vital to the ministry we have received, and also much ignored.
    so, although i found your observations about where authority resides in the church fairly accurate (even if the pope certainly did not “preside” over the nicene creed), and appreciated your suggestion that other practices are derivative, there is a prior consideration that i think is more important: the nature, the esse if you will, of the church.
    you missed it when you talked about the “hierarchy” of the [roman] catholics, saying it is linked to papal succession. however, “hierarchy” actually means “sacred order.” those portions of the church which consider themselves catholic, whether roman or anglican or orthodox, see the church as a part of the sacred order of god’s mission. “god was in christ, reconciling the world to himself,” as paul writes to the corinthians, “and we have been given this ministry.” we may disagree on the antecedent of “this rock” in matthew, whether it is peter or his confession, but we recognize that it remains only jesus who can say, “i will build my church.” (i am tempted to throw a rock at my protestant brothers and sisters and point out that our lord did not say, “i will write a book about it,” but perhaps that would be uncharitable.)


  7. Matt I found this an interesting post. Brought to mind two stories. A Catholic politician speaking at Parachute music festival said his life was a like a compass and the Church was true North. As a Christian he sought to align his actions and behaviour using his faith as the pointer of the compass. Our daughter is at a Catholic school and had difficulty convincing her religion teacher that Scientology was not a Protestant Christian religion. Seems that for them it is Catholic and non-Catholic. The latter equivalent to Protestant.


  8. Sister Susan, I agree the lens of hierarchy isn’t the only way to view the Catholic Church, however I do think it is the lens with the most explanatory power. As the other lenses you mention, the Body of Christ and Servant, also have a place within Protestant and Orthodox theology, in and of themselves they are not very helpful in explaining what makes Catholics Catholic.


  9. MJD, Interesting. I would have said God is the true north and Jesus, whom we know most securely through the scriptures, is the compass I trust for my direction. I guess that’s my Protestantism showing through.
    As for you daughter’s teacher, I’ll be generous and say I haven’t found too many Catholics that ignorant and caution against using that person as a benchmark.


  10. Dale, yes, I concede what I wrote on Nicea was overly hasty, that there is some debate over how much authority the Papal legates had and that “preside” was not the best language.
    In response to your comments on hierarchy, please note that I was using the word “Catholic” in reference to the Roman church quite deliberately. I am aware of the broader usage of the word, amongst all churches that affirm the Nicene Creed, to denote our unity in Christ, but tend to use a small “c” and offer explanatory comments when I do, as launching into the deeper, more subtle and less commonly known meaning of the word can be confusing to some readers, particularly non-Christian ones. I was confused by your last point however and would ask for you to explain yourself more there. Protestants would affirm with all Christians that only Jesus can build his church. Not sure why you think otherwise. And surely you are not denying that the scriptures (from which you drew this statement about the church) is God breathed?


  11. i suppose one of the reasons i get all hackled up about the way catholic is used un subtly and commonly is that it reinforces the confusion many readers have, particularly non-christian ones. the catholicity of christianity is a result of the catholicity of the holy one, who created all things in heaven and earth. the catholicity of the church is a response to jesus’ telling us to go into the whole world.
    certainly i am not denying inspiration of the scriptures, merely their secondary role as revelation of the holy one. all that we can know of god is revealed in christ jesus, and it to him that, as he said to the two disciples on the road to emmaus, that the scriptures point.


  12. Dale
    I sympathize however it seems to me that the Vatican is one of the prime instigators of the confusion between “Catholic” and “catholic”, given their appropriation of the universal word for what is only one of many branches of Christianity.
    Resolution would require (1) the church under the Pope adopting a different name for use in interdenominational conversations and (2) everyone else in the world, including the media, playing ball. Somehow I don’t see that happening any time soon.
    Furthermore, I doubt this language issue can be looked at in isolation from other Christian language issues. For instance, surely this raises questions with the Orthodox Church’s name. Do you not consider yourself orthodox in the little “o” sense?
    Me. I try to be pragmatic about it and accept that sometimes I need to explain how I am using words.
    As for the scriptures, yes I also see them as secondary revelation, as the word about the Word. But until Christ returns they are the most direct revelation I have as to who he was and what he has done, is doing and will do. I only know of Emmaus because of them.


  13. well, i understand the confusion when people use sometimes uppercase, sometimes lowercase letters. you may notice i only use lowercase.
    but i suppose i should point that the position of the orthodox church about how you know about emmaus is that the church has continued to preserve and publish and read the gospels. writings do not have a life of their own.
    but i also want to add how much i like your blog in general, especially the wonderful collection of art, but also for its great inclusiveness. thank you.


  14. When I read this post (which I did after writing an extensive comment on “Apostolic Authority and Christian Diversity”), I knew the material looked familiar for some reason. Then it struck me. When I had a week-long intensive training on strategic foresight skills (i.e., futurist perspectives), my trainer and I discussed three paradigm shifts that have occurred in Western civilization since the Classical Period (dominated by Greek and Roman cultures).
    There is a specific form of Christian tradition that emerges from each of the shifts, and then dominates for a period of time or in a specific place. Each underlying theological system has critical distinctives that directly affect their organizational systems and authority structures. (For instance, as you detailed with Catholic theologians’ concern for mediation and how that shapes the kinds of hierarchies of authority.)
    So, the first shift brought the Roman Catholic church and their paradigm into dominance. Then, out of the post-Classical era came the medieval era, and with it, the more mystical and consensus-oriented Orthodox system. Out of the reformation and radical reformation came a more individualistic and overall philosophical integration that led right into the Enlightenment.
    With those three shifts under our belt, as it were, in the last 2,000 years, it would seem reasonable that something that is again distinctive would emerge in the post-modern/post-Enlightenment era. And it’s likely to be qualitatively different enough from the other three that we may end up quite surprised, should we be here to witness it’s demonstrations! (Problem is, it used to take up to a couple hundred years for a paradigm shift to occur and to “go viral.” Now the time frame is likely to be much shorter, but I’m already perhaps too old to see live long enough to see how it all sifts out this time.)
    Who knows … perhaps the Western postmodern paradigm to emerge will look something like the authority and hierarchy structures from the fairly holistic paradigm of Celtic Christianity, which may now find its appeal growing like kudzu alongside postmodern and/or pagan soils. We’ve waited 1,500 years for the Celtic paradigm in the Church; could its “decisive moment” be now?


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