People are often puzzled by the incredible amount of denominations in Christianity – especially in the United States. Many of these denominations began in the 1800s as people began to apply the principles of democracy and personal freedom to religion. As people exercised what they believed to be God-given reason and logic, it fostered a movement full of schisms.
According to Nathan Hatch in his book “The Democratization of American Christianity“, one of the primary reasons this happened is, “They denied the age-old distinction that set the clergy apart as a separate order of men, and they refused to defer to learned theologians and traditional orthodoxies.”
It this a positive or negative concept?
My answer is YES!
1. The concept of denying the distinction between clergy and lay-people is extremely positive.
As the church became institutionalized around the time of Constantine, Christianity became powerful. It was recognized as an official religion and Constantine devoted a vast amount of wealth to create buildings and memorials to the faith.
This also encouraged Christians to pattern their churches after the Roman government. Rather than being led by servants following in the example of Christ, the church was led by powerful leaders intent on exercising militant-like authority towards those in their charge.
Eventually the Scriptures were chained to the pulpit and the “common people” had to rely on the priests to mediate the Word of God. This resulted in spiritual abuse, domineering leadership, and the twisting of Scripture. Thankfully the many reformations led by men such as Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, Zwingli and others brought the Scriptures to common people.
Nevertheless, there was still a distinct class difference between clergy and lay-people. The Scriptures teach that it is the job of the pastors and spiritual leaders in the church to equip the people for the ministry (Eph. 4:12). In other words, the model that the “paid professionals” do the work of the ministry while everyone else sits in a pew and critiques the work is deeply flawed and began to meet its demise in the belief that there was no distinction between clergy and laity.
2. The refusal to defer to learned theologians and traditional orthodoxies was negative and fostered heretical movements.
These first American Christians practiced what C.S. Lewis called “intellectual snobbery.” They believed that their own reason and logic trumped the labor put in by faithful followers of Jesus throughout the centuries. Through such statements as “No Creed but the Bible” the people were ironically led into heretical movements such as Mormonism!
The irony is that there are numerous creeds in the Bible itself!
When Christians, especially Christian pastors, refuse to study church history they are exercising arrogance. In pride they believe that their conclusions, arrived at through searching Google, are more sound than the hours of labor put in by faithful saints throughout the ages. As Christians, we desperately need to understand and defend sound doctrine against those who have shipwrecked their faith by listening to the teaching of demons (1 Timothy 4:1).
This means we need to enter into conversation with Christians of other centuries through carefully reading ancient texts and Christian classics. These writings have stood the test of time for a reason – they have something substantial to say which still applies to the 21st century!
Have you ever studied Christianity in the early United States? What are some concepts you noticed which have shaped our understanding of religion today?