Growing up Southern Baptist, I was often the punchline to many jokes by my friends of different denominations. I had spent months on end at retreats and youth gatherings with my Southern Wesleyan friends, and after I endured endless jeers, the youth pastor — Matt — finally put a stop to it.
Matt Smith (whose name has been changed) spoke to his youth group not just on my behalf, but for others with differing belief systems. She said that to poke fun at someone because that person differs from you does nothing for unity and causes a sense of division that is not beneficial to the fellowship of believers.
“I really do believe that different denominations have different positives to offer.”
While making jokes about another’s belief may be a juvenile act, what does this look like for adults? We often harbor anger toward those we feel offended by, often because they do not believe as we do. We tend to surround ourselves with those who believe exactly as we do. Why? It feels safe.
But we were never called to safety. Proverbs tells us, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” How is iron sharpened? In slow, deliberate, and calculated movements with friction and with heat. In other words — it’s uncomfortable.
If we wish to be sharp, we must be willing to surround ourselves with those who don’t simply feed us that which we wish to hear. We must challenge ourselves and our belief systems by hearing thoughts and beliefs of others and by challenging one another. This can lead to a much deeper understanding of spirituality.
Pastor Helms Jarrell of Charlotte, North Carolina, says, “Denominations are primarily a culture or a language of religion.”
Jarrell points out that typically, a person grows up knowing one denomination or comes into the faith knowing one denomination — but God is bigger than just one. The Divine is so multi-faceted and multi-layered, it does us a great disservice to focus only on one culture of understanding. When we befriend those outside our denomination or belief system, we are able to experience God in a more holistic and dynamic way.
While denominations bring people together in an orderly fashion, which is biblical, they can also be cause for pointless and petty arguments — which are not biblical. When you allow yourself to be so tied up in who doesn’t believe exactly as you do and focus on what others are doing wrong, you miss the big picture. You miss opportunities for true relationships and for growing spiritually in ways not always possible when surrounded only by those who simply regurgitate your ideas and understanding of God and scripture.
We can be far more effective if we focus on the similarities we have instead of the differences. Being quick to listen and slow to speak — and slow to become angry — can be great biblical traits to incorporate into discussions and conversations with those different from us.
Because of the struggles of feeling shamed for her belief system, Raleigh, North Carolina, resident Naomi Hansen shared her issues with denomination-based depression: “I had a very abstract view and it never sat well with my overwhelmingly Wesleyan/Southern Baptist friends and family. I view the Bible very abstractly and enjoy communing with God over a pretty sunset or watching stars at night … My spiritual journey has been fraught with depression and disappointment.”
Hansen also explained that at one point, she even walked away from the faith altogether, feeling shamed for her more “abstract” understanding of Scripture.
Christians believe Jesus came that we may “have life and have it more abundantly.” If we are called to love our neighbors and even our enemies, why do we have such a hard time extending this love to those who are within the body, though differing slightly in doctrine and liturgy?
Friendships with others outside our own faith can give us a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Christ. These friendships can uplift and thrive when given life and opportunity.