Seeking common ground across the branches of Christianity

by Bill Tammeus

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It's not true that Christianity was unified for centuries and didn't begin to divide until 1054, when the Western (Roman Catholic) church and Eastern Orthodox Christianity split in the Great Schism.

Divisions started much earlier and only culminated in a formal separation that year. In fact, followers of Jesus have been split into factions almost from the beginning, mocking his high priestly prayer in John 17 that his followers "may be one as we are one."

In the third chapter of 1 Corinthians, for instance, the apostle Paul bemoans the fact that in the congregation at Corinth, "there is jealousy and quarreling among you." One group, he notes, says, "I follow Paul," while another says, "I follow Apollos."

Honesty should compel us to acknowledge the ways in which the church has been atomized, particularly since the Protestant Reformation. But it also should move us to understand how each branch of the faith relates to other branches and to grasp good things we have in common.

I was reminded of this recently by a remarkably strange source -- an imprisoned serial killer. I had written to Dennis L. Rader, known as the BTK Killer (bind, torture, kill) for murdering 10 people from the 1970s into the 1990s in the Wichita, Kan., area. I asked him, as a murderer who had added to the evil in the world, to share any insights he had about the sources of evil. He sent me a seven-page handwritten response, and I posted much of it on my daily "Faith Matters" blog.

One matter I didn't get into deeply on the blog, however, was Rader's description of his religious upbringing and his comparisons of various branches of the Christian faith. Here's part of what he wrote:

"I was raise[d] Lutheran, which is close to your denomination [Presbyterian] & both split right or left from Catholics. Many Lutheran texts are Catholic [in] background. My early religion was 'Mo. Synod' [Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod], very close to Catholic." (The LCMS is considered more conservative than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to which Rader's later congregation belonged.)

Well, though Martin Luther, after whom Lutheranism takes its name, was the most important leader of the Reformation, and though John Calvin, the most important theological father of Presbyterians, was an important early reformer, there was neither a Lutheran nor a Presbyterian denomination to split from the Catholic church at the start of the Reformation, just unhappy Catholics. Those denominations created themselves later.

But in what sense is the LCMS "very close to Catholic"? Not in each branch's view of Scripture. The LCMS maintains that the Scriptures contain "no errors or contradictions, but that they are in all their parts and words the infallible truth, also in those parts which treat of historical, geographical, and other secular matters." That's much more of a Protestant evangelical position than a Catholic view. As an article on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' website says about how Catholics view the Bible: "People ask if everything Catholics believe is found in the Bible. The answer? Both 'yes' and 'no.' " The LCMS would express no such shades of gray.

But in what way might the LCMS most mirror Catholic practice and make Rader right? For one thing, women aren't eligible to be ordained either as LCMS pastors or as Catholics priests.

Beyond that, there's what we Protestants call "fencing the table," which is to say the practice of excluding people -- non-Catholics or non-LCMS members -- from the Eucharist, though in LCMS tradition it's acceptable to serve Communion to members of denominations in full relationship with the LCMS and, on rare emergency occasions, to individuals outside of such relationships. Similarly, Eastern Orthodox Christians may receive Communion in Catholic churches. But in general, both Catholics and LCMS Lutherans fence the table.

It seems sad to me when the common ground faith traditions find is in exclusionary practices.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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