When I heard that the Lutheran World Federation plans to apologize to Mennonites for how they persecuted their ancestors 450 years ago, a number of things went through my mind, including the following joke.
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. So I ran over and said, "Stop! Don't do it!" "Why shouldn't I?" he said.
I said, "Well, there's so much to live for!"
He said, "Like what?"
I said, "Well, are you religious or atheist?"
He said, "Religious."
I said, "Me too! Are you Christian or Buddhist?"
He said, "Christian."
I said, "Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"
He said, "Baptist!"
I said, "Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"
He said, "Baptist Church of God!"
I said, "Me too! Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"
He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God!"
I said, "Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?"
He said, "Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!"
I said, "Die, heretic scum!" and pushed him off.
That joke, by comedian Emo Philips, was voted the best religious joke of all time in 2005 by the satirical religion website Ship of Fools. It underscores a vexing problem that has challenged Christians right from the start of the church: Our inability to get along with one another.
Most of the time, these disagreements have resulted in nothing more than fervent disputation and argument. But sometimes the outcome has been persecution and death, as happened to the Anabaptists, the spiritual ancestors of today's Mennonites. It is estimated that more than 3,000 Anabaptists were executed for believing that each person should have the right to decide whether or not to baptize their children.
When it comes to theological disagreements, execution is an extreme response. What happens more typically is the creation of a new denomination. Today, there are more than 33,000 different Christian denominations in the world, up from about 1,800 in 1900. Depending on your point of view, this is either a vivid expression of the phenomenal diversity of the body of Christ, or a tragedy that reveals the broken nature of the Christian faith. The truth is likely somewhere in between.
New denominations are still being created today, although the fastest- growing are not denominations at all, in the traditional sense. Rather, these are non-denominational churches -- congregations that choose not to belong to any group at all (although most usually identify as evangelical). Here in Winnipeg, both Church of the Rock, with more than 1,000 regular attenders, and Springs Church, with about 7,000 in five locations (including Calgary), are two of the biggest.
Meanwhile, many who worship in traditional-denomination churches don't seem to be interested in denominational differences and distinctions at all. A 2009 Ellison Research study shows that seven out of 10 regular U.S. churchgoers would be at least somewhat open to switching denominations -- something that certainly applies to me, since I have been a member of three different denominations in my lifetime.
For some, denominational or non-denominational monikers are irrelevant altogether. Instead, they simply call themselves "followers of Jesus." One place where this new name is gaining interest is Facebook, where more than 500 groups use that title. Those who use it say that "follower of Jesus" has advantages over traditional denominational names. For example, it doesn't carry any denominational baggage -- you can't be pigeonholed the way you can if you are a Baptist, Pentecostal or Presbyterian.
But back to the Lutheran apology; why stop there? Considering how badly Christians have behaved towards each other over the past number of centuries, maybe it would be a good idea for all denominations to apologize for the way they have failed to honour and respect other groups in the past. Maybe someone could create a litany or prayer we could all say one Sunday morning -- acknowledging the sins of our ancestors, confessing our own failings today, and committing ourselves to think and act differently in the future.
To be more like followers of Jesus, in other words.