Her questions, in a nutshell: Why are there so many Christian denominations? Why do they seem to be attacking each other? Why can’t we all just get along?
I’d say that the answer boils down this: Professing Christians have different explanations for how one gets to heaven – and they consequently preach different gospels describing how to get there. What’s more, they claim different sources of authority, or different interpretations of those sources.
For example, one major denomination says that being welcomed into heaven requires membership in its church, plus faith in Christ, plus works (such as baptism, confession to a cleric, saying specific prayers, and attending services), plus paying for at least some of your own sins in post-life suffering. Their source of authority is a combination of scripture, tradition, and church leaders.
Another prominent denomination teaches that you get into heaven through repentance (i.e. turning from what God has defined as sin in the Bible), faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross, and baptism. Its source of authority is scripture alone.
Other groups teach salvation through repentance and faith in Christ's finished work on the cross -- period. Their source of authority is also scripture alone; unlike the latter group, they don’t believe that the Bible teaches baptism as salvational, but as an act of obedience by the already saved.
Some churches teach that it's all been predetermined in eternity past, that God already chose the minority who would be saved, and the majority who would spend eternity in hell, and that there's nothing we can do to change our destination. These groups also claim scripture as their authority.
There are also churches out there today teaching a form of universalism: people are inherently good, they say, and most are going to heaven. Their source of authority: their personal takes on what is divinely inspired in the Bible, and what is not.
There are many variations on these basic themes, and many differences among individual churches and preachers, and I’ll bet that representatives of each of the above groups will argue that I’ve got their gospel all wrong.
That may be. But my point is that all this denominational chaos boils down to this: What is the true gospel? What should we be trusting in to assure ourselves of heaven? Faith in Christ alone? Faith plus works? Our inherent goodness as human beings? Or are we simply to hope for the best?
Does it really matter which gospel a church teaches? Of course it does. It’s the one thing that you don’t want to get wrong in this life, because its impact is eternal. The apostle Paul certainly considered this truth critical; as he wrote in Galatians 1, “As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” Do we want to risk being taught by someone who is accursed?
Today, there are a number of ecumenical movements calling for the uniting of all Christians into one church (and even uniting all religions into one “church”). It may sound good until you consider two things:
- First, it's a highly tolerant, "lowest common denominator" sort of movement, one that mandates scuttling biblical commands on everything from sex to women’s role to caring for the poor. If anyone objects to a particular command, it’s gone, “because surely Mother God wouldn’t have ordered anything so mean.”
- Second, the Bible warns about a one-world religion under the coming Antichrist – warns, in fact, that it will be the church of Antichrist. So although truth-based unity among biblically obedient Christians is a good thing, ecumenism for the sake of any other sort of unity is not.
Bottom line: the gospel preached is by far the most important quality of a given church. All other differences, from musical formats to teaching styles, are minor. (And one could argue that, if a church gets the gospel right, it'll be on the right side of these issues as well.)
I think this tells us that it’s a mistake to choose a church based on something like musical preference or location or what activities it allows or disallows – a mistake akin to choosing a university because you like its landscaping or a hospital because you’ve heard that the food is good.
The only wise choice is one that’s based on a careful study of the gospel, and which church is teaching the truth.