One day, Jesus turned to one of His most faithful disciples, fisherman Simon Bar-Jonah, and gave him a new name. God had only done that a few times before – Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, then a few years later, Saul to Paul. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus not only re-named Simon, but told him: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
St. Peter, painted by Pompeo Giralamo Batoni (1708-1787)
“This was an extraordinary thing for Jesus to do,” writes Christian attorney John Salza, “because ‘rock’ was not even a name in Jesus’ time. Jesus did this, not to give Simon a strange name, but to identify his new status among the apostles. When God changes a person’s name, He changes their status.” Indeed, Peter would have a unique role in founding the church.
The Gospel records that Jesus "built one church and that all saved people were in that church,” writes David Pratt. “He prayed for unity and rebuked division.” In 1 Corinthians 1:10, the Apostle Paul pleaded “let there be no divisions among you!”
So, how did today’s church get so divided – Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Mennonites, Orthodox, Mormons, to list just a few?
“Today, hundreds of denominations exist in the name of Christianity,” notes Pratt, “claiming to be Christian. They are divided and contradict one another.” Sometimes their theological differences are puzzling. In order to receive eternal salvation, Southern Baptists believe we must hear the Gospel, believe Jesus is Lord, confess that belief before others and repent of our sins, then having achieved salvation, we must be baptized in obedience to Christ's example. The Churches of Christ/Christian Churches teach exactly the same thing – except for the sequence: salvation results after, but never before, the final step – baptism. Then the Southern Baptists believe a true Christian cannot lose his salvation; the Churches of Christ disagree – a believer can “backslide” and end up in Hell just like anybody else.
Both groups base their theology on a strict and literal interpretation of the Bible. Some of their theological disagrements are incredibly minor – yet keep large groups of believers from having much to do with one another. For example, within the Churches of Christ/Christian Churches, a large group insists that musical instruments are forbidden in church – and that true Christians can only worship the Lord a capella, with only their voices raised in harmony. Another group takes literally Paul's "let there be no divisions among you" and has banned Sunday School – requiring children to stay with the adults instead of going to age-appropriate instruction.
Such dividing theological differences are anything but trivial in the view of believers. Many Pentecostals believe much as the Baptists – except they teach that salvation comes only after the in-filling of the Holy Spirit, which the convert must prove by vocalizing a heavenly language, “speaking in tongues.”
Another enormous divide concerns how God’s gift of eternal salvation is given. On one side are those who believe salvation must be gained, even earned, by fulfilling certain obligations. Others disdain such, saying salvation is freely given by God’s boundless grace and all we have to do is accept His gift.
Other divisions seem to be turf battles – who is in charge. Millions of Christians in China are required by their government to repudiate any authority other than the government-recognized Three-Self Movement for non-Catholics and the national Catholic Association, both with headquarters in Beijing.
Worldwide, the largest group of Christians, the Roman Catholic Church is headquartered in Vatican City – right in the middle of Rome, Italy – and disdains any notion that they are a denomination. Everybody else is, they teach. They, on the other hand, are the original church. However, several groups also teach that – insisting they are “non-denominational,” while everybody else is “denominational.”