“He looks just like one of us,” says the President, staring at the stranded space alien. It was wearing a pair of blue jeans, a red T-shirt, and a Yankees cap. “Can it talk?”
The alien answers for itself. “No problem, chief. You know us aliens—telepathy.” It taps the side of its head.
“It needs to blend in,” says the Secretary of State. “We’ve decided it’s going to be a he. His name will be Ben. He’ll be from New York, a democrat, a stamp collector, a softy for 80’s movies, and a Christian.”
“What’s a Christian?” asks Ben.
The Secretary of State gestures for Ben to follow, leading him to a room filled with hundreds of colorful booths and mostly-smiling people. “Pick one,” says the Secretary. “You’re a democrat, so you may want to avoid the people in suits.”
Ben starts at one especially large booth in the corner—the Catholics. They quickly assure him that they are not only the oldest and most established Christians in the room, they are the only legitimate option.
They pull out a large, leather-bound Bible, and show him where Jesus chooses some very specific people to do a very specific job, giving them his authority—the keys to the kingdom. Today, only their leader, the Pope, holds those keys, not the protesting laypeople at the other booths.
Ben wanders over to a similar-looking table on the adjacent side of the room. These believers call themselves Orthodox, claiming to have broken from the Catholic Church over a thousand years before. They are not united by some infallible Pope, but by an infallible faith, maintained and understood through Holy Tradition under the operation of the Holy Spirit.
Ben nods, curious, but moving on.
The Orthodox believers were not the only people in the room that took issue with the Catholics. A whole set of booths had been set up with their backs to the Catholic table. These were the Reformers—the Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and so on.
These also resisted the leadership of the Pope, insisting that Christ was the true leader of his Church. He was the Head of his Body. And he didn’t need a neck. It was through Christ’s finished work on the cross that all men were saved, not by human works or indulgences. Salvation was God’s department.
Ben understood pretty quickly why they were called Protestants. Not only did they push back against the Catholics, they also pointed at some of the other booths, telling Ben that he shouldn’t waste his time with people that elevated human freedom over divine sovereignty.
But Ben went there anyway. He started poking around in the Arminian booths, stopping to talk to the Wesleyans, Methodists and Nazarenes. These people opened the Bible to whole different passages than the Reformers, emphasizing things like personal and social change.
After that, Ben explored the booths at the back of the room, booths that were practically new. These people seemed full of energy, which was challenging for a textbook introvert like Ben. They kept putting their hands on him, asking if he needed healing, asking if he could feel their power. They sang a lot. They spoke in languages that Ben’s telepathic powers couldn’t tap. When they opened their Bibles, it was usually to the book of Acts.
These were the Charismatics—the Pentecostals, Assemblies of God, Church of God, and so on—believers that wanted to get the church back to its roots, back to the Spirit-filled, loving community that Christ sent out to change the world.
Mentally and emotionally drained, Ben finally returned to his room in the White House, wondering what he was going to tell the Secretary of State. After listening to so many different arguments, each supported by the same book, he could hardly tell what a Christian was, much less choose which faction to join.
Ben wanted to read the entire Bible for himself, hoping he could find a theme that would combine all of the different emphases into one, but he didn’t have time. He was tempted to ask the Secretary for a different option, some religion that was less convoluted and controversial, but before he looked for something else, he decided to browse the internet.
Church History explained a lot.
He discovered right away that a room full of booths was never the plan. Christ prayed that his Church would be one [John 17:22]. Paul told believers to stop dividing over their teachers [I Cor. 1:12-13], but to find unity in love by the Spirit [I Cor. 12-13]. Well, that didn’t work out.
The Catholic Church didn’t set up their system of authority, an official canon, unifying creeds, and a list of sacred holidays, disciplines and sacraments because they were desperate for power. They inherited a sprawling mess after three hundred years of persecution, and had to work together to put things in order.
But almost seven hundred years of absolute, unaccountable power did not have a positive effect on their leaders. Things like greed, holy wars, papal murders and political corruption led the Greeks in the east to break from their Latin brothers in the west. The Church was no longer one, but two. Then the two popes excommunicated each other.
Five hundred years after that, thanks to the printing press and some radical young thinkers like Tyndale, Luther and Calvin, people started to believe that Christ was the true head of the Church, not the Pope. So they started protesting, breaking the Church into smaller pieces.
About three hundred years later, some people started to preach about holy living and cultural change. Naturally, these Puritans and Pietsists were all about personal discipline, making good choices, reaching out to others. Sometimes this drew them into conflict with the Christ alone mentality of their Reformed brothers, leading to further theological conflict.
In more recent times, progressive thinking led many believers to abandon the long-standing traditions and rituals of the churches, looking for new approaches. People started meeting in more unorthodox places, even taking Church back into homes. Many were more eager for personal, spiritual experiences rather than just singing songs, affirming creeds and participating in the sacraments.
Ben didn’t grow up in any church, so he had no sentimental attachment to any of them.
On the one hand, it was pretty obvious that each denomination was confident in their beliefs and traditions, using Scripture to support them. But it was also pretty obvious that their foundations were based in reaction as much as revelation.
On the other hand, it was possible that the Holy Spirit was working within the Church throughout the ages, using the Catholics to bring order to chaos, using the Orthodox to restore a sense of mystery and wonder, using the Reformers to draw people to the centrality of Christ, using the Wesleyans to emphasize holy living and social change, and moving in the Charismatics to keep the spiritual relationship alive.
So Ben emails Barnts, asking him to post in the Belfry.
What church should he choose, and why? Or should he just skip the labels, doing his best to follow Christ by the Spirit without a denomination? Or should he just try to start his own church, breaking it up even more?