The Church’s Family Tree

Where do you fit on the church’s family tree?

The tree is usually depicted something like this image from Wikipedia, but things are not as simple as they appear.

Christianity Branches

This particular illustration does not include the various flavors of Reformation Protestantism or the movements influenced by continental pietism, American revivalism or the worldwide missionary movements. Neither does it portray the sometimes wide diversity that exists within each confessional stream. But the tree metaphor is still useful.

I am a United Methodist, a church that traces its roots to John Wesley and his brother Charles in England in the 18th century. The Wesleys were priests in the Church of England, a church that broke from Catholicism under King Henry VIII in the 16th century. The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church officially split in the East-West Schism of 1054. Other major splits from the Orthodox-Catholic branch occurred after the Council of Chalcedon (the Coptic Church) and the Council of Ephesus (the Church of the East).  That’s where my church now falls on the tree.

In general, however, the “tree” model fails to represent the cross pollination that occurs between branches. While Methodism split from the Church of England, it primarily built itself on Anglican sacraments, Moravian piety and Arminian theology, all cooked together with the creative genius of the Wesley brothers. John Wesley seasoned the mix with ideas from a number of other Christian sources. Anglicanism itself incorporated elements of Calvinism and Catholicism, with each contributing tradition getting the upper hand at various points in English history.

I grew up Baptist and was originally ordained by a Baptist church. Most historians date the beginnings of the Baptist movement to John Smyth, an English expatriate who lived in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 17th century. During his life in England, Smyth had been a leader in the Puritan (i.e. Calvinist Reformed) wing of the Church of England. Smyth eventually became a Separatist, completely rejecting the Church of England’s authority but still holding to a generally Reformed position. His separatist beliefs drove him into exile in Amsterdam. In the Netherlands he came into contact with the Mennonites, a sect that had grown out of the continental Anabaptist movement. Like the Mennonites, Smyth also came reject infant baptism, along with a number of other features common to the Reformed tradition.

Historically, then, the Baptist movement is a 17th century split from English Separatism, which was a split from English Puritanism, which was a wing of the Church of England, which split from the Catholic Church which resulted from a split between eastern and western Catholic Orthodoxy. No Baptist church that I attended ever expressed its identity this way. John Smyth was largely invisible. That might be because Smyth eventually joined the Mennonites and the Baptist church he founded with Thomas Helwys excommunicated him.

There are a lot of Christians who simply don’t care about the church family tree. American Christians tend to look at denominations in the same way they look at brands of automobiles. There may be some brand loyalty among consumers, but very few people care about the history of automobile manufacturing or the evolution of car parts. All they want is a car that meets their needs and preferences. They are purchasing a product, not joining a family.

Others may object to the “tree” model on principle. They don’t see the history of the church in the Orthodox-Catholic family tree at all. Instead, they see the history of the anti-church or the apostate church. It is as if the true church disappeared from history after the New Testament was written and then suddenly reappeared out of nowhere at some point in the recent past. These churches emphasize their continuity with what they perceive to be the church of the New Testament, but not at all with the church of the second and subsequent centuries.

If the true church existed at all in these intervening years, its existence was hidden and completely separate from the Orthodox-Catholic family tree. This quote by the English Baptist Charles Spurgeon captures the essence of this point of view:

We believe that the Baptists are the original Christians. We did not commence our existence at the reformation, we were reformers before Luther or Calvin were born; we never came from the Church of Rome, for we were never in it, but we have an unbroken line up to the apostles themselves. We have always existed from the very days of Christ, and our principles, sometimes veiled and forgotten, like a river which may travel underground for a little season, have always had honest and holy adherents.

In 1931, J.M. Carroll’s Trail of Blood looked at history through this same lens, with sometimes head-scratching results.

I have come to the conclusion that I can’t disown the tree. I can’t even disown the branches that I’m not on. It doesn’t matter that I don’t like some of the things that people on the other branches say or do. I don’t like some of the things that people on my own branch say or do. I don’t like – and apparently God did not like – some of the things that the children of Abraham did throughout the pages of the Bible, and yet I am content to say that I am connected to them through faith. Likewise, I am also connected to everyone on the church family tree that has Jesus and the apostles (and the prophets and the patriarchs) at its root.

That doesn’t mean that I think all the branches are doing an equally good job of being the church of Jesus Christ. Some of the branches get it “more right” than others. Some branches may only be fit to be for fuel for the fire, but only God gets to make that decision. We are each responsible before God for what we do.

And as for me, I think I am situated in the right portion of the tree. To some degree, that is a matter of personal preference. To some degree, it is also a matter of theological judgment. I probably could be just as much at home on several of the nearby branches. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. If anything, I find myself being drawn back toward the root. I’ve discovered that the nourishment is much richer there.

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