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A third-century critic of Christianity named Celsus mocked Christians because they were divided into competing sects. He was referring mainly to the divisions between Gnostic and orthodox Christians. The great defender of Christianity, Origen, wondered what was Celsus' problem. These divisions were not over "small and trivial things," he argued, but about "the most important matters," and thus, as any philosopher would agree, a mark of intellectual seriousness.

Origen's point seems lost today as many observers criticize the breakup of a number of venerable denominations. The latest statistics for the Episcopal Church (USA) show a loss of 100 members per day in 2003—and this before the major defections following the 2003 General Convention that made a bishop of a man who had left his wife and children for a gay lover. We would not place our bets against a worldwide fissure in Anglicanism, the third-largest Christian body on the planet.

Similar defections are now occurring in the American Baptist Church and the United Church of Christ. As with the Anglicans, the core issues are biblical authority, salvation, sanctification, and church discipline, with the presenting issue being the increasing acceptance of homosexual behavior. In some regions, homosexual behavior is openly affirmed; in others, it is quietly tolerated but never disciplined, even if church law forbids it.

Some argue that leaving a church body is always the greater sin. They point to the lamentable, historical fact that many church splits have been over "small and trivial things." But surely the authority of Scripture, the meaning of salvation, and the integrity of the church are not small and trivial.

"But it's premature," they reply. "You've got to give reform ...

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In the Magazine

December 2005

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