Why Are Christians So Divided?

Countless denominations cause many people today to associate Christianity with division and religious rivalry. The past lends some merit to this association.  Back in the 16th and 17th century, Europe experienced severe religious conflict, one would even say warfare, between Protestants and Catholics. Back then denominational differences were a matter of life and death.

This brings to mind the question: Doesn’t Jesus pray to his Father that his followers “may be one, even as We are” (John 17:11,22)? Doesn’t Paul write that “God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another” (1 Corinthians 12:24-25)? Though the early Jerusalem church “had all things in common” (Acts 2:44), what has happened to this ideal?

Denominations seem to indicate Christian disunity and thus diminish our witness for Christ in the world. But is this necessarily so? Does this call into question the validity of the truth claims of Jesus? How should we think about Christian denominations? Here are some considerations.1

First, not all who declare themselves Christians are true or consistent followers of Christ. A lot of things that have been done in the name of Jesus–the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Jewish persecution, neglect of social responsibility, hatred of homosexuals–hardly resemble the attitude of Christ or reveal the Spirit’s fruit (Galatians 5:22-23). Jesus has said in the Sermon on the Mount: You will know them by their fruits (Matthew 7:16). He also says later that “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Just because some people claim to be Christians, that doesn’t mean they are Christians. 

Second, denominations remind us of a common denominator–a “mere Christianity” that different Christian groups share. Think of it in terms of fractions instead of factions (Unfortunately I can’t claim this joke as my own) and the notion of the common denominator. You can have ⅕, ⅖, or ⅗ but the denominator is still the same – 5. When we recite the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or read books by C.S. Lewis, we are reminded of the basic commonalities that Christians share–despite differences in secondary doctrines.

Third, denominations don’t imply disunity (just like uniformity doesn’t equal unity). Denominational affiliation is not division. Indeed, a spirit of unity and charity that goes beyond external labels is to permeate our dealing with fellow Christians. As an example, Paul chided the Corinthian church for its divisiveness: some aligned themselves with Paul, others with Apollos, some with Cephas (Peter) and apparently the “super-spiritual” ones with their nose in the air aligned themselves with Christ (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-9). The problem was not doctrinal differences but prideful attitudes and an unwillingness to reconcile that Paul criticizes.

When Christians are dealing with other Christians, we should major on the majors and minor on the minors when it comes to biblical teachings. The church should be, as Kevin Vanhoozer writes, a commentary on God’s Word and a witness to Scripture that is lived before God and a watching world.2

 

  1.  More could be said in this post but I would encourage everyone who wants a more in-depth response to this issue, to consider reading When God Goes to Starbucks: A Guide to Everyday Apologetics (2008), by Paul Copan. That was the main resource I used to write this post.
  2.  Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine, 237.

Who wrote Luke-Acts?

A couple of weeks ago we looked at who wrote the Gospel of Mark, and before that we looked at who wrote Matthew’s Gospel.

Now we will take up Luke’s Gospel.

Who wrote Luke? Was the person in a position to record what he recorded? Can we know anything about this author? Did this person have contact with any of the apostles?

External Support that Luke wrote Luke

Irenaeus of France (120–190 A.D.)

Now the Gospels, in which Christ is enthroned, are like these…That according to Luke, as having a priestly character, began with the priest Zacharias offering incense to God. For the fatted calf was already being prepared which was to be sacrificed for the finding of the younger son.1

Clement of Alexandria (150–215 AD)

In Clement’s Hypotyposes, he gives the tradition of the earliest church leaders, as to the order of the Gospels, in the following manner:

“The Gospels containing the genealogies [i.e. Matt and Luke], he says, were written first. The Gospel according to Mark had this occasion. As Peter had preached the Word publicly at Rome and declared the Gospel by the Spirit, many who were present requested that Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered his sayings, should write them out. And having composed the Gospel he gave it to those who had requested it. When Peter learned of this, he neither directly forbade nor encouraged it. But, last of all, John, perceiving that the external facts had been made plain in the Gospel, being urged by his friends, and inspired by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel.” This is the account of Clement.2

Muratorian Canon (around 190 A.D.)

In the earliest orthodox list of books dated to around A.D. 190 known as the “Muratorian Canon” we read:

“The third book of the gospel is according to Luke. This Luke was a physician who Paul had taken after the ascension of Christ to be a legal expert. Yet he had not seen the Lord in the flesh. So, as far as he could, he begins his story with the birth of John.”3

Tertullian in Carthage (160-220 A.D.)

“The same authority of the apostolic churches will afford evidence to the other Gospels also, which we possess equally through their means, and according to their usage–I mean the Gospels of John and Matthew–whilst that which Mark published may be affirmed to be Peter’s whose interpreter Mark was. For even Luke’s form of the Gospel men usually ascribe to Paul. And it may well seem that the works which disciples publish belong to their masters.”4

Origen (185-254 A.D.)

“And the third by Luke, the Gospel commended by Paul, and composed for Gentile converts. Last of all that by John.”5

Internal Evidence

Reasons for Common Authorship between Acts and Luke

Some scholars believe that it was Luke’s intention to write two books from the beginning when he first penned the Third Gospel,6 while some others will go so far as to say that they were originally a single unit—one book7

Whether Luke had Acts in mind from the beginning or not, there is a strong case to be made that he was the author of both works.  The connection is important because if Luke was also the author of Acts it would establish that Luke was a companion of Paul and other apostles.  Here are a few solid reasons for the belief that Luke wrote both works:

(1) Both books are dedicated to the same man, Theophilus.

(2) Acts refers to the first treatise, which is most naturally understood as the gospel (of Luke).

(3) The books contain strong similarities of language and style.

Evidence that the Author was a companion of Paul

The “we” passages in Acts (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1–28:16), prima facie, suggest a companion of Paul.

Internal Reasons a Physician wrote Luke-Acts:

First, Colossians 4:14 calls Luke ‘the beloved physician.’ In 1882 W. K. Hobart wrote his celebrated The Medical Language of St. Luke in which he argued that where Matthew and Mark use common, everyday terms, Luke often used medical terms in describing Jesus’ healings. This perspective was challenged by H. J. Cadbury three decades later (1920), who pointed out that Luke’s language was no different than that of any educated person.  As Caird quips, if we should now appeal to Hobart’s tome: This would make doctors of almost all the writers of antiquity.  Nevertheless, one should admit that Luke’s terminology is compatible with an educated person and that a physician would fit this picture well. In his New Testament Introduction the German scholar Alfred Wikenhauser notes that: “… the author displays familiarity with medical terminology,”8 and he undisputedly describes maladies and cures from the point of view of a medical man.9

Second, Luke has more healing and exorcist stories than all the other Gospel writers.10 At the same time, there tends to be more unique healing and exorcist stories in Luke than in the other Gospels.11

Third, when one compares Mark 5:26 with Luke 8:43, it is interesting that whereas Mark mentions that the woman had spent her life’s savings on doctors and only grew worse under their care, Luke omits the jab at physicians…probably because he was a physician.

Fourth, the only Gospel to mention of Jesus quoting a proverb “Physician, heal yourself.”12 Fifth,  Luke is the only Gospel to mention the healing of Malchus’ ear when Peter chopped it off.13  These slivers make sense if Luke the physician is the author.

Sixth, Luke is the only Gospel writer to mention why the disciples kept falling asleep. It was because of exhaustion from grief that they fell asleep.14 Leave it to a physician to diagnose people’s physiological condition.

With additional information from external testimony from the early church leaders as well as the what we know from Scripture,15 Luke seems to be the most likely person behind the composition of Luke-Acts.

End Notes

 

  1.  Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 3.11.8.
  2.  Cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.14.5-7
  3.  Muratorian Canon quoted in Alister E. McGrath, The Christian Theology    Reader, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), p. 77.
  4.  Tertullian Against Marcion, 4.5, 207 AD.
  5.  Cited in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25.6.
  6. D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo in their An Introduction to the New Testament state “Luke almost certainly had both books in mind when he began to write…” (An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 203); I. H. Marshall in his New Testament Theology says, “Luke, unlike the other evangelists, saw his Gospel as the earlier part of a two-volume work.  This verdict stands firm regardless of whether Luke had the second volume in mind at the time he compiled the first (as I believe to be the case) or decided later that the Gospel needed to be complemented” (New Testament Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 155); Werner Georg Kummel in his Introduction to the New Testament, asserts: “Acts is not a literary work that can stand on its own: as the dedication to Theophilus shows, it constitutes the carrying forward of Luke and belongs with it as the second part of a complete historical work (Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1975), 156.
  7. Robert Maddox states in The Purpose of Luke-Acts “By phrasing the subject of our inquiry as ‘the purpose of Luke-Acts,’ we imply that the two volumes are indeed a single work, which therefore can be regarded as sharing a common purpose…” (The Purpose of Luke-Acts (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982), 3); David A. DeSilva, says “The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are two volumes of a single written work…” (An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 298).
  8.  Luke 4:38; 5:12; 8,44; Acts 5:5 10; 9:40.
  9. Luke 4:35; 3:11; Acts 3:7; 9:18.
  10.  Luke-14, Matthew-12, Mark-11, John-4.
  11.  Luke-4, Matthew-1, Mark-0.
  12.  Luke 4:23.
  13.  Luke 22:51.
  14.  Luke 22:45.
  15.  Colossians 4:14 – “Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and also Demas.” 2 Timothy 4:11 – “Only Luke is with me. Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” Philemon 1:24 – “as do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, Luke, my fellow workers.”.

Thomas and the Resurrection of Jesus

Doubting Thomas putting his fingers in Jesus' side, painting

” Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.'”  Mark 9:23-24

Faith is an important part of the Christian life, the doorway as it were by which we enter the Kingdom.  “For by grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8).  But, too often, we turn it into a kind of coin of the realm, something we barter in exchange for mercies received from the King.  We see this attitude most often when prayers go unanswered.  “If you had enough faith, God would hear”, is the familiar rebuke that is leveled against us in these times.  To be sure, there have been men and women of great faith.  Their names make up the litany of faith contained in Hebrews 11….Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and more.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Most of us will be saved by our faith, but it’s not likely we will be remembered for our great faith.  But even a little faith is sufficient for Jesus Christ to work in someone’s life.  The man or woman who knows the limitations of their faith, that point where doubt, confusion, ignorance, or even unbelief creeps in to steal away the blessed assurance of God’s favor, is a person who can be transparent before God.  “I can go this far, but no further Lord”, they may say; or as stated in our opening scripture “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  Such a man was Thomas the Apostle who is best remembered not for his great faith but rather as Thomas, the doubter.

Thomas’ name in Syriac means “Twin”, and that is why he is referred to in John 11:16 by the Greek equivalent, Didymus.  He appears in each of the four lists of Apostles found in the synoptic evangelists, but it is in John’s gospel that we catch a glimpse of his personality.  In John 11:1-16 we have the story of Jesus returning to Bethany to heal Lazarus, his friend.  His disciples were fearful, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You and are You going there again?”  Whether in the beginnings of true faith, or only in resignation Thomas says “Let us also go that we may die with Him.”  Thomas was always the optimist!  In John 14:1-6 as the Lord teaches concerning His imminent death Thomas questions Him saying “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”  To this Jesus replies directly to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also…”  This mild rebuke would have turned Thomas’ uncertainly back to the one thing He was most certain of, Jesus.  But the incident by which he is best remembered is found in John 20:24-29.  Jesus has appeared in His resurrected glory to the other disciples, but “Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  When confronted by their account he responds characteristically “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.

We might think this the height of unbelief, but I see it more as an honest confession of the limits of Thomas’ faith.  He had been with the Lord during that last week as had the others.  He saw Him betrayed, condemned, put to death, and at last buried.  Lest we be too hard on Thomas remember that Luke 24:11 records the rest of the disciples’ reaction to the words of the women who had seen Jesus risen and alive,  “their words seemed to them [the disciples] like idle tales, and they did not believe them.”  But at just that point where Thomas’ faith was not yet enough to sustain him, Jesus came specifically to him.  “Reach your finger here and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”  And as he touched the wounds of his Lord, Thomas’s faith was made whole so that he freely confessed to Him, “My Lord and my God.

This much but little more the Scripture reveals to us of Thomas.  When the general Jewish persecution came upon the early church the apostles and disciples were scattered over the whole world.  In the apocryphal work called “The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas” it says “we portioned out [by lot] the regions of the world in order that each one of us might go into the region that fell to him, and to the nations to which the Lord sent him.”   There is some truth in this account, for Eusebius, in his “History of the Church” Book 3 Section 1, tells us that “Thomas was chosen for Parthia.”  This is part of what we know today as Iran.  Tradition further tells us that he was also active in Carmania (southern Iran), Hyrcania (northern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan), and Pakistan, eventually extending his mission field to the southwestern coast of India.  At this location it is recorded that he established seven churches on the Malabar Coast.  The tradition seems to be confirmed since there have been a group of believers at that location dating back into the middle ages who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas” and who claim to trace their faith back to the first preaching of Thomas in Malabar.  It was at Calamine that Thomas’ faith was tried and found sufficient, as he suffered martyrdom by the spear.

Back to the question of faith.  How much is sufficient?  The Lord’s own teachings seem to indicate that if we could but have faith as the grain of a mustard seed, divine power might be ours to move even mountains into the sea.  But the Lord brings it into perspective in Luke 10:19-20 “I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy….. nevertheless do not rejoice in this that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  Thomas may never have overcome the limitations of his faith while on the earth, but in his heart he already knew “the way, the truth, and the life” and that was sufficient for the trials and work of each day.    His life may not have been a testimony to great faith, but it is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ to faithfully remain “the author and finisher” of his faith.  When the spears of martyrdom came upon him Thomas’ testimony echoed the words of St. Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12  “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.”  May our faith be sufficient for the day at hand, and may we never be afraid to confront our lack of faith.  It is only then, as we place our fingers in the nail-scarred hands of our Savior and look once more into his eyes that all of our doubt, confusion, and fear is swallowed up in the confession of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.

It’s All In the Details

When the gospels and Acts are seen as eyewitness testimony, they gain a lot of credibility in the eyes of nonbelievers which makes it all the more easier for us as followers of Christ to tell them about Jesus and the offer of salvation by placing their trust in him. In my last post, I’ve talked about the principle of embarrassment as evidence of the gospels being reliable eyewitness testimony. There is another way to tell if an historical document is generally reliable and that is when it has numerous, verified details within the text.

Suppose someone wrote a book describing your hometown as it was in 1950. In this book, the author correctly identifies the local industry, the laws and penal codes, the town’s roads and geography, the politicians of that time, local houses of worship, town statues and sculptures, area hotels, the depth of the water in the town harbor and numerous other unique details about your town of that year. Here’s a question to ponder over: If this author claimed he had visited your town that year, or at least said he had gotten information from people who lived in that town, would you think he was telling the truth? Of course, because he provides details only an eyewitness could provide. That’s the type of testimony we have in Acts and John.

Luke, Paul’s physician and companion, wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. In addition, Luke was an eyewitness of many of the things that happened in Acts. In the second half of that work, Luke displays an incredible array of knowledge of local places, environmental conditions, names, customs, and other circumstances that make sense only if he was an eyewitness or had access to eyewitness testimony. In his work, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, the classical scholar and historian Colin Hemer combs through the second half of Acts and sorts out incredible historical details that are confirmed by epigraphical, paleographical, archeological, and historical evidence from the first century. Hemer was able to find up to 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts. Let’s look at some of the details Luke drops in Acts that are confirmed by outside testimony:

  1. The correct language spoken in Lystra, which is Lycaonian (Acts 14:11)
  2. The correct order of approach to Derbe and then Lystra from the Cilician Gates (16:1; 15:41)
  3. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1)
  4. An alter to an “unknown god” (17:23)
  5. The proper term for those holding court (19:38)
  6. The common way to obtain Roman citizenship at this time (22:28)
  7. The best shipping lanes at the time (27:5)
  8. The right route to sail, in view of the winds (27:12)
  9. The precise place and name of this island (27:16)
  10. The local people and the superstitions of the day (28:4-6)

Roman historian A.N. Sherwin-White has stated:

“For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” 1

The classical scholar and archaeologist Sir William Ramsey has said:

“Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness…Luke is an historian of the first rank…He should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” 2

If Luke is this accurate with Acts, could he not also be trusted when it comes to his own gospel that he authored? I don’t see why not. And if Luke can be trusted to give accurate information in his own gospel, then Matthew and Mark can be trusted for accuracy as well because they tell the same basic story.

What about the Gospel of John? Is it reliable? On the face of it, the author has inserted himself into the gospel as “the disciple” or “the beloved disciple” and so in effect the author is claiming to be an eyewitness of the events of Jesus. Could we find the same kind of details in John that we find in Acts? Like the work Colin Hemer did in Acts, the New Testament and Johanine scholar, Craig Blomberg has set out to do just that in his book, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel where he examines John’s Gospel verse by verse and identifies numerous historical details. In all, he has identified 59 details in the Gospel of John that have been confirmed by literary works and archaeology or are historically probable. The events John describes in his gospel are restricted to Israel so it doesn’t contain quite as many geographical, topographical, and political items as the book of Acts. Despite the limitation, there is a remarkable amount of details that either confirmed by outside sources or are historically probable given that early Christians would most likely not invent them. Here I’ll list a small sample to give you an idea of how reliable John’s gospel is when looked at in depth:

  1. Archaeology confirms the use of stone water jars in New Testament times (John 2:6)
  2. Given the early Christian tendency towards asceticism, the wine miracle is an unlikely invention (2:8)
  3. Josephus (War of the Jews 2.232) confirms there was significant hostility between Jews and Samaritans during Jesus’ time (4:9)
  4. Jesus’ own testimony being invalid without the Father is an unlikely invention (5:31); a later redactor would be eager to highlight Jesus’ divinity and would probably make his witness self-authenticating.
  5. Archeology confirms the existence and location of the Pool of Siloam (9:7)

When we couple John’s knowledge of Jesus’ personal conversations with these nearly sixty historically confirmed/historically probable details, could there be any reasonable doubt that John was an eyewitness or at least had access to eyewitness testimony? 

  1.  A.N. Sherman-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), 189.
  2.  Quoted in The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 90-91.

The Historical Works of Mercy

I find that there is often a big difference between what we profess to be true concerning what we believe as followers of Jesus, and how we act on or demonstrate the reality of what we believe.  This is a common biblical theme; there is a difference between knowing what to do and doing it.

What prompted this thought in me was a recent statement someone made to me that the church that I attend was lukewarm.  You know where I am going with this; lukewarm = being spit out of the mouth of Jesus (not the end I had in mind, from Revelation 3:16).   You can understand why I was concerned.  So I asked myself how you could make the judgment that a group of followers of Jesus was lukewarm.  I mean, you need to have some sort of mental checklist  that you work your way down, and if more check marks are on one side than the other you can reach your conclusion, “Yep, lukewarm.”  But how do you develop that checklist?  I suppose that you can go to the bible and pull out the beatitudes of Jesus, the fruits of the spirit in Galatians, the chapter on love in I Corinthians, or maybe the ten commandments and sugar them down into check boxes, but you still have to know how to judge whether love, joy, peace, patience and so on meet the biblical standards, and then you further need to be able to tell that someone may not be ready to murder someone, but might instead harbor deep-seated anger in their hearts against their brother that is as good as murder.  And our judgment can’t just be based on agreement with doctrinal statements, because here too beliefs can be sorted broadly into opinions/preferences and convictions.  Only the latter category affects the way you live your life.  As James 2:18 states:

“someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” 

Said another way, the proof of the evangelical pudding is in the way we live, not in what we profess to believe.

And this is not always easy to judge rightly.  As evangelicals we often appeal to the biblical text and definitions, but more often than not we end up making our judgments whether a person is a real Christian or not based on how often they are in church, whether they faithfully (and generously) give when the collection plate is passed, their willingness to volunteer for church activities and committees, whether they smoke, drink, dance or play cards, or any of a dozen other measuring sticks the church has used in its history.  In the end of the matter, however, we really have no idea of how the Father looks on the hearts of those we have put on the balance scales, and then there is always that nasty plank that seems to obscure our vision.

But let me return to my original question and let me offer a historical perspective on how we can judge whether our church, and specifically ourselves, are on the road to stagnant lukewarmness.  If it is true, as John says in I John 4:20“If you do not love your brother whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see?” then we may have a starting point for measuring our walk as followers of Jesus.  The historic church developed two lists that defined our spiritual duty towards one another and all those outside our church doors, the first is drawn from the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, and the second from the various teachings of the bible.  List one is referred to as the corporal works of mercy, those things that we ought to do that contribute to the physical welfare of those we come in contact with.  The second list are the spiritual works of mercy, those things that we ought to do if we see a person as bearing the imprint of the Father and we desire their eternal good.  In them, I think, we find a handy measure for whether we are followers of Jesus, a congregation of those He has called, or merely going through the motions.

Without further comments, consider these.  The corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to welcome in the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, and to bury the dead.  The spiritual works of mercy are to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, to comfort those that are afflicted, and to pray for the living and the dead.  In these lists we find a guard against lukewarmness.  In these lists we find an answer to the question “What should I be doing as a follower of Jesus?”  In these lists we find a summary of what our church congregation and committees ought to be investing our time and money towards.  To borrow the words of the Apostle Peter in II Peter 1:10-11 (commenting on his own list of measuring standards):

for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;  for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.”

Early Christianity and the Gospel of Diversity

Rummaging through books at a local thrift shop in town I discovered one with the catchy title: The Betrayal: The Lost Life of Jesus by the archaeologists Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear.  The book is a novel that presents an “alternate life of Jesus,” a life which was supposedly well documented in antiquity but has since been extinguished by the dogmatic, power-hungry authorities of the early Church.

In the back there is an interview with the authors.  Question #3 goes like this: “So there was a lot of dissension in the early years of Christianity, a lot of disagreements about who Jesus was, and what he taught?”

They respond:

Oh, yes.  In the first few decades after his death…there was a great disagreement about the facts of Jesus’ life, and what his teachings were.  New Testament readers are familiar with part of this battle from Galatians, where Paul writes that Galatian Christians were listening to “those who would pervert the Gospel of Christ (1:7) and believing in a “different gospel” (1:6).

The New Orthodoxy

This argument is just one example of what Michael Kruger and Andreas Kostenberger call “The new orthodoxy.”  The new orthodoxy claims that the very notion of orthodoxy itself is a later fabrication and does not accurately represent the convictions of Jesus or the first century Christians themselves.  According to this view, there was no such thing as “Christianity” (singular), but only Christianities (plural).

Another recent example that has turned many heads is the business card sized Wife of Jesus Fragment written in ancient Coptic which has the words “My wife” on the lips of Jesus.  Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School wrote in a journal article that was stopped prior to publication that the fragment itself provided no evidence that Jesus was married only that some early Christians may have thought so.

According to this new logic, Christianity was much more “open” and diverse than we have ever imagined; new evidence suggests that the original Christianity knew nothing of “orthodoxy” (orthodoxy refers to some kind of authoritative or authorized belief system).

The “gospel” of Christian diversity was mainly started by German scholar Walter Bauer (1877-1960), but his arguments have been carried on and developed by popular modern authors like Bart Ehrman, professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

But was early Christianity really as diverse as some scholars wish to assert?

There is little evidence to suggest that it was.  First of all, the fact that there were disagreements about the gospel, as the Gear’s mention in their quotation of Galatians above, hardly implies that Christianity itself was divided.  A part of what Paul was doing in that letter was helping to clarify exactly what Christianity was and was not. Paul’s whole point in that letter is that these new beliefs represented a departure from Christianity.  The Gear’s suggest in their answer to the question in the Appendix of The Betrayalthat this disagreement happened within the boundaries of Christianity, but that is a gross error.  Paul clearly states in that same verse: “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel.”  Maybe it could be argued that there were different beliefs about what truth was, but to claim that the apostles, like Paul or the others, believed in various versions of Christianity is more than a stretch.

Secondly, Bauer’s original thesis (which is carried on by Ehrman and the Gear’s) is mainly based upon conclusions that result directly from an almost complete disregard for the New Testament documents.  Bauer himself used almost exclusively extrabiblical (“outside” the Bible) material from the second-century.  But if the whole goal of his thesis was supposedly to determine what early Christianity was really like, shouldn’t we go back to its founders?  If we want to know what Christianity is or was shouldn’t we look mainly to Jesus and to those whom he spent his time with and taught, namely, the apostles?  Kruger and Kostenberger write:

Bauer’s wholesale dismissal of the primary source for our knowledge of earliest Christianity–the New Testament–is problematic…because it unduly eliminates from consideration the central figure in all of Christianity, Jesus, as well as the apostles he appointed. 1

A host of other problems with the gospel of diversity could be presented here, but these two alone provide ample reasons to be skeptical about it’s claims.

  1. The Heresy of Orthodoxy: How Contemporary Culture’s Fascination with Diversity Has Reshaped Our Understanding of Early Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 69.