Presbyterian. Methodist. Catholic. Do denominations matter?

Before I knew it, I was in their car, propped in the passenger seat while he drove and she sat silently in the back.  The heat from our bodies filled the car as a stench from somewhere inside us leaked from our pores.  Sweat seeped through my worn t-shirt as I guzzled another gulp from my water jug. 

“Want some?” I asked, glancing behind me and noticing perspiration pouring from my teammate’s brow.

“Yes please!”  It was as if she’d been in the desert eating sand for the past month.

I passed the water back as her dad drove out of the gym parking lot and towards my house. Somewhere along the way, our small talk transformed into a discussion of faith.

“What denomination are you, Kelsey?” the driver asked in his cordial, fatherly voice. My ears had heard sermons a handful of times in my 13 years of life, and those only happened during vacationed family reunions when everybody else went. Even then, it was uncomfortable for me to speak the name “Jesus,” even though I’d heard of him before and bought into the stories.

A crucifix.

A crucifix.

“Christian,” I said firmly, finally landing on a conclusion.

“Oh,” my friend’s father replied, “I didn’t mean which religion. I meant which denomination.”

Wasn’t there only one group of people who believed in Jesus? And weren’t those people called Christians? I asked myself, feeling panic color my cheeks.

“Christian,” I echoed, less confidently. Jesus was tough enough to discuss, but this conversation had quickly turned its searing eyes on me. The cool air blasted through the filter, landing squarely on my face, but I could feel the sweat begin to form again on my forehead and upper lip. When the driver shifted into park in my driveway, he was only halfway through his explanation about denominations.

I hopped out of the car, grateful for the ride and the timing of escape, and waved goodbye. When I walked in the door, I told my mom about the conversation in the car.

“You said Christian?” she exclaimed, putting a hand to her head. My gut feeling was confirmed. I had done something incredibly wrong. 

“You could have said Methodist or Presbyterian – anything but Christian!” my mother continued, her speech gathering speed. “Oh my God, they’re going to think we’re heathens for never taking you to church! Your great-grandma was a Presbyterian so next time someone asks you that question, just say you’re a Presbyterian.”

I had no idea what those words meant, but in that moment, the term “Presbyterian” was forever singed into my brain. I was one, after all.

So, the next year when I enrolled into a Catholic high school, I suppose it must have been easy to spot the religious minority. I sat silently at the library table working on a school project when the librarian approached me. The crevices of old age had sunk deeply into her skin and gravity had taken a toll on her spine. Barely breaking five feet tall, she shuffled swiftly to my table. Unmistakable joy shined from behind her bifocals as curly grey hair framed her wrinkled face. A necklace hugged her neck and the cross pendant hung atop her bosom. She was a nun known for sweetness and spunk, and it wasn’t unlikely for her to freely give a wink and a finger gun.

“What are you working on?” she asked with genuine interest in my project. When I told her, she looked pleased and patted me on the shoulder. Then the conversation took a quick left turn as the dreaded inquiry reverberated from her lips.

“You’re not Catholic, are you?” she asked inquisitively, peering into my soul. 

“No ma’am,” I replied.

“What denomination are you?”

“Presbyterian,” I blurted much too quickly. I had learned my lesson the first time.

“Did you know that Catholicism is the only denomination that stems directly from Jesus?” she asked excitedly, holding up her pointer finger and leaving me alone with my thoughts for a moment.

Not this again. I just want to get this project done. I don’t have time for a religion lesson. Don’t all denominations originate with Jesus? 

I began looking for another escape route like the one that had saved me last time. The search came up empty and Sister Pauline returned to the table with quickened steps. She smacked a large sheet of paper onto the tabletop and showed me the lineage of Christianity. All I saw were lots of black lines, some of which veered away from one, solid line that started in the time of Jesus. 

“See here?” Sister Pauline said, pointing to the beginning of the longest black line. “This is when Jesus lived. And it’s also when Catholicism began.” Passionately, she explained the remainder of the timeline.

Martin Luther, founder of Germany?s Protestant (Lutheran) Church, nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Today, the church he founded is facing an uncertain future and dismal demographic trends that could eventually mean less state funding for church operations.

Martin Luther, founder of Germany?s Protestant (Lutheran) Church, nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Today, the church he founded is facing an uncertain future and dismal demographic trends that could eventually mean less state funding for church operations.

“This is when Luther broke off from Catholicism and started the Lutheran faith. And this is when your Calvin did the same thing. See how they were all started by other men long after Jesus? The only originator for Catholicism is Jesus so we trace our steps all the way back to his life, death and resurrection.”

What? My Calvin? I couldn’t understand the information she had so desperately hoped I would absorb. I didn’t know who this Calvin fellow was, nor did I understand why he belonged to me. Nor was I familiar with Luther or Wesley. Much less what it meant for them to “break off.” My confusion and distaste for the conversation must have been evident. She returned to her desk after saying, “I’ll leave this here in case you want to look at it some more.” 

The Protestant reformer John Calvin broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. Today, the Presbyterian denomination follows his doctrinal positions on Christianity.

The Protestant reformer John Calvin broke from the Roman Catholic Church around 1530. Today, the Presbyterian denomination follows his doctrinal positions on Christianity.

Then she was gone. I pushed the paper out of the way so I could finish my project.

It wasn’t until my journey into the Catholic Church more than a decade after Sister Pauline’s lecture that I finally grasped what she was saying. Her version, though technically correct, wasn’t entirely complete. 

She failed to mention the struggles throughout the beginning of Christian evangelization. That Christians were persecuted for their faith in Christ. That all people who believe in Jesus at that time were called Christians. That, after centuries of investigating and discerning the Christian faith, the leaders of the church wanted something concrete in which they could summarize their faith. So, in 325 AD, the leaders of the time gathered together at the First Council of Nicaea and constructed a proclamation trusted to encapsulate the beliefs of the original Apostolic church – the church began by the apostles after Jesus’s death and resurrection. After withstanding the test of time, the statement became known as the Nicene Creed and is still acknowledged today by all denominations as the foundational proclamation of Christian faith.

She also left out the fact that in Martin Luther didn’t actually desire to branch off from the Catholic Church a millennium later in 1517. He merely wanted to right some wrongs – 95 of them to be exact – that were occurring due to corrupt leadership in the Catholic Church. When the split occurred, two branches of Christianity remained: Lutheranism and Catholicism. Lutherans were those Christians who chose to follow Martin Luther. Catholics were the Christians who remained with the original church (‘catholic’ simply means ‘universal’).

John Wesley was a Christian theologian in the 1700s and is credited with founding the Methodist denomination.

John Wesley was a Christian theologian in the 1700s and is credited with founding the Methodist denomination.

Others after Luther followed suit, including John Wesley and John Calvin. While I choose to believe the pursuits of these gentlemen were noble, the instability of these denominations worry me. 

Let me clarify: I do not think parishioners who attend Protestant churches have unstable relationships with Jesus. In fact, if those services ignite and enhance their relationship with Jesus, I am certainly all for it. 

However, what’s to stop a seminary student from “breaking off” from that church? And then another from that church? And another parishioner from that church? Suddenly, there are several churches preaching under the same denomination that have no solid form of unity.

When I was church shopping as a young Christian, the main attraction for me was the preacher. If the preacher enticed and entertained me, I continued going. I even found a Methodist pastor I liked so much I registered as an official member at her church. When I realized that her perception of Jesus and her perception of the world may not be universal throughout her denomination, it made me wonder: Who keeps her in check? 

To my knowledge, there are religious bodies that govern pastors, at least in some Protestant denominations. And there are conferences where Protestant leaders come together to reconnect and reinvestigate their doctrine. Yet as a parishioner who spent years searching for a Protestant church to call home, I was never once briefed on doctrine. In fact, I still don’t know exactly what each denomination believes about every issue – or if one Presbyterian church is always in complete agreement with the next Presbyterian church down the street. 

I know all Protestants believe in Jesus, of course. But what are their opinions on abortion? Gay marriage? Do they have any special prayers or tools to help them pray? Do they believe in the communion of saints? What is their perception of Mary? What is their perception of God as the Father, God as the Son and God as the Holy Spirit?

As a Catholic, I am confident that I when I walk into any church across the globe there will be universality in its liturgy. I appreciate the opportunity to ask questions about the doctrine and seek answers in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – the book of our doctrine that is used in the Vatican as much as it is in third world countries. And, like every Christian, I wholeheartedly believe the words written within the Nicene Creed. Plus, I relish the opportunity to profess them each week at mass.

Now, I eagerly await the question I dreaded so long ago. 

“I’m Catholic,” I’ll reveal with a smile. Then, a bit unlike Sister Pauline, I will inquire about their faith and what they find appealing about it. For in spite of our small differences, I truly want to learn about my neighbors and their relationship with Christ. And, if my questions are returned, my heart will sing its answers back to them.

About Kelsey Gillespy

Kelsey Gillespy delves into discussion from a Catholic perspective on ColumbiaFAVS.com. She coaches basketball at Rock Bridge High School, has received recognition for her academic efforts and also co-authored a book about sports psychology techniques. 

16 Responses to “Presbyterian. Methodist. Catholic. Do denominations matter?”

  1. roy

    Kelsey – it is all about Jesus. And our Savoir is personal. No one can rely on their denomination, as that is an institution of man. I have been Lutheran all my life, but it was rather later in life that I made it an issue to delve into the nuances. The more I look, the more I appreciate my history.

    I have but one problem with your essay. No denomination is immune from inconsistency. Sooner or later, you will run into a Catholic that does not share your definition of Catholic. Just don’t be surprised by this.

    I have a friend who was doing missionary work in Mexico, and he would assure you that the Catholic Church in the part of Mexico where he lived did not remotely resemble any Catholic Church here. The ones here are immeasurably better.

    And still, it all comes back to Jesus. I think you and I have enough on our plate with the people we can reach, the people God put in our lives.

    Now, a terrible problem. You see, the QUESTION I have to answer to submit this post is “How many colours in the list shark, eye, duck, coffee, blue and black?”

    Credit for the proper spelling of “colour”, although I think the punctuation is lacking something like a colon after “list”, that is not the problem.

    You see, I think they want me to say “2″ – but black is not a colour…..
    The correct answer would be “1″, but that won’t let me submit the post. :)

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  2. Kelsey

    Roy, thanks so much for your input! I really appreciate you a) taking the time to read this post and b) sharing your opinion about it. I agree with you that you’ll run into Catholics who struggle with different areas of the doctrine; however, that doesn’t change the fact that the doctrine is consistent and universal. It states clearly what the Church stands for because the governing body is global, as opposed to national or even regional (otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to call it ‘catholic’/’universal’). In regards to your missionary friend in Mexico, I am uncertain what you mean about the Catholic Churches being ‘immeasurably better’ here in the US. If you are referring to the types of buildings where the services are held, I understand. During my honeymoon last summer, my husband and I attended a Catholic service on a tiny island in the British Virgin Islands. The structure of the building was much different than the ones I have been to here in the US (the ones in the US are ‘immeasurably better’). The structure of the mass itself, however, was completely identical. And, although the tunes had a breezy island flair that represented the BVI culture, the songs were the same ones we sing on a weekly basis. And, the scripture verses they presented at mass were the same ones that every other Catholic Church in the world was reading that day (http://www.usccb.org/calendar/index.cfm?showLit=1&action=month). We knew exactly what to expect when we walked inside the doors, even though those doors didn’t look familiar. It didn’t matter who was preaching or what the building looked like, the way we worshiped and the presentation of the mass would be exactly the same–even though it took us three planes and a ferry to get there.

    As for that pesky “colour” riddle, I’d say you’ve outsmarted the computer! Thanks for appeasing it, though, so you could submit your post! =)

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  3. Steve Swope

    Kelsey, I enjoyed your reminiscences very much, and am glad you wound up at a place, and in a community, that gives you joy!

    In my tradition we have a saying: in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. The trick is figuring out what’s “essential” and what’s not; it may even be a different list for you and for me.

    The “doctrine thing” can be confusing – if one assumes it’s about finding definitive answers, which may be comforting for some. For others, the continual journey “further up and further in” (as C. S. Lewis puts it in “Chronicles of Narnia”) is equally joyful. Either way, I think it’s about locating that place/group within which one can explore “the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God.” (Romans 11:23)

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  4. Kelsey Gillespy

    Thanks so much for your comment, Steve! I really like the saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” That has a nice little ring to it. However, I did have a question. If everyone has a different view of what’s “essential”, how can they truly form unity?

    Also, the faith journey of a Christian is a lifelong endeavor–one in which we constantly discover new things about God and new ways to love Him more. If the doctrine is simply viewed as a rigid set of rules by which we have to abide, then I would say you’re right: that can be confusing. And frustrating! I love good ol’ C.S. Lewis! I wholeheartedly agree with him in that the continual journey “further up and further in” is what’s joyful. In fact, I’d say it’s not only what’s joyful, but it’s also what’s important. Having definitive answers is not comforting (or good) at all if you are expected to accept them blindly. Our doctrine is not there to simply brainwash Catholics to blindly believe everything it says. Rather, it gives Catholics a chance to press in and find out more about this Church and what it stands for. For instance, if someone disagrees with the Church’s stance on, say, gay marriage, they can investigate WHY that teaching is in place to begin with. After all, the Church didn’t just decide to put their teachings in place because they felt like doing it one day. Scripture, history (of Jesus’s life and the Apostolic church), and deliberate discernment contributed to the Church’s decisions. Thus, in the process of pursuing the “whys” of doctrine, one of two things will happen: 1) Catholics will uncover a deep richness and truth in their faith that they never knew existed before or 2) they will remain in disagreement, be able to see that their beliefs do not line up with the Catholic Church, and understand WHY their perspectives differ. In which case, if they so desire, they can find another church/denomination with which their beliefs are more identical. Either way, it is helpful in discovering more about one’s faith. So, the doctrine isn’t simply some stagnant thing that serves as a fruitless, mindless enforcement. It is a beautiful thing that can serve as a guide to a deeper, richer faith. But, like any pursuit in a growing Christian faith, it is up to the individual to take the initiative.

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  5. Kris Katarian

    Kelsey, the Catholic Church seems to satisfy your need for uniformity and unbreachable boundaries. I’m glad it works for you. But I can guarantee you that not all Catholics’ beliefs are identical. I have a friend who is a very faithful Catholic, and we’ve had many conversations about what the Church “tells” her to believe, and how she really feels about certain things. Your choice to let the Church provide you with definitive answers must be a source of great comfort and guidance.

    The absolutism of which you speak sounds lock-step to me. My Deist faith allows me to discover free-feeling truths through observation and reasonable inference, and it continues to evolve as my life experience expands. My beliefs are a continual learning experience that requires no memorization of creeds, prayers, rituals, etc. For me, those are obstacles to a more creative faith.

    Freedom of religion is a wonderful thing.

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  6. Kelsey Gillespy

    First of all, Kris, I have to admit that I do not know a whole lot about Deism, so I’d be happy to learn more about your story and your faith.

    Secondly, it’s important to me to mention that the Catholic doctrine doesn’t eliminate creativity or force anyone into a “lock-step” lifestyle. Believe me, as a woman who makes her living in the creative arts, I wouldn’t be able to survive in an absolutist, black-and-white world. Life without creativity would feel stifled and dissatisfying. To me, Catholicism is like a coloring book. Since it is a Christian denomination, the Catholic doctrine serves as the unchanging outline of God’s face. Those who constructed the doctrine (and continue to revise it if necessary) studied the Bible to discern who God is according to the Christian faith; and, through their studies, they constructed the doctrine in an attempt to further point people toward God. However, like I mentioned, the doctrine is merely the outline. It is up to each faithful follower to color their relationship with God in their own way. They can choose whatever color they want and spend their life filling in the picture in their own way. When individuals disagree with or doubt the doctrine, they are simply coloring outside the lines. The doctrine does not change based on the personal beliefs of each individual (nor should it), but those colorful strokes become another piece of that person’s faith painting and journey.

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  7. wrdickson

    I don’t know if this is representative of Kris’s deism, but in general, deism is a belief in a “watchmaker” deity — one who created the universe and its laws, set them in motion, and then either disappeared or sat back to watch passively, taking no active role.

    Jefferson once said (paraphrasing here) that it seemed to him that people from (or descended from) Protestant countries eventually become deists, while people from (or descended from) Catholic countries eventually become atheists.

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  8. wrdickson

    Here’s that quote. I had completely forgotten the context:

    “If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such thing exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than love of God.”

    – Thomas Jefferson, letter to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814

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  9. Kelsey Gillespy

    Thanks for the info about deism, wrdickson! And thanks also for the interesting quote by Thomas Jefferson.

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  10. Kris Katarian

    Hi Kelsey. I hope you did not take my post as demeaning to your religious faith. I never want my comments to sound that way. To each, their own.

    I was attempting a bit of “compare and contrast” of the Catholic Church as you described, and the Deism which I believe in. Very little in common, it seems.

    wrdickson gave a reasonable description of Deism, although there is much more to it. I believe in Modern Deism, which is somewhat different from the older model of Classical Deism. I will be writing more on this later.

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  11. Steve Swope

    Kelsey, 2 comments. First, I like your “coloring outside the lines” concept, very much! That helps me understand your thinking better.

    Second, in re: how unity can be found when “essentials” aren’t agreed on – I think one of the reasons we Protestants continue to be separate from the Roman Catholic Church (and sometimes from each other) is just that: we differ on what’s “essential.” But when we find someone who agrees with us, we want to band together. (It can be stressful, for instance, to support same-gender marriage among fellow Christians, and it feels good when we find others of the same mind.)

    So to continue your image, rather than coloring outside the lines, we start a new version of the picture, perhaps with some of the lines adjusted. I think it’s safe to say, though, that we’d all like to be in unity; it’s a value for us, as well.

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  12. Uoldo M

    @Steve Swope– “In my tradition we have a saying: in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This quote is attributed to Wesley (Methodist) or Meldenius (Lutheran) or an even older Roman Catholic source.

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  13. Steve Swope

    Correct, Uoldo! Rupertus Meldenius is the most often cited (although recent research I’ve seen suggests a slightly older RC citation). Meldenius is most often tagged as Lutheran theologian. My denomination, the United Church of Christ, has roots (through its German Evangelical forebears, whose descendants are numerous in this area) in that tradition.

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  14. RG

    Years ago on a college campus I encountered a dozen people dressed in orange robes, chanting and shaking tamborines. To one side, a young man similarly dressed seemed to be taking a break. I asked him how he became a part of this group. He replied, “I used to be Baptist but I felt I wasn’t being spiritually fed.”

    I found this ironic because I have often heard people say they joined the Baptist Church because they weren’t being “spiritually fed” in some other denomination.

    In “Theological Worlds” W. Paul Jones showed that Christians’ beliefs are tied to personality type. This confirms our experience that where there is religious freedom, there will always be disagreement about what Christianity is (and isn’t).

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  15. Kelsey Gillespy

    Kris – No worries! I never interpreted your comment as demeaning of the Catholic faith. I just wanted to make sure people weren’t inaccurately perceiving it as cut-and-dry and absolutist based on what I had written. I look forward to reading your piece on Deism.

    Steve – I appreciate how you altered my analogy to better show me the difference between Protestant and Catholic “coloring books”. =)

    RG – “Theological Worlds” sounds like an interesting read. Have you read it already? If so, would you recommend it?

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  16. RG

    I have read “Theological Worlds” and recommend it as a tool for acquiring a deeper understanding of your faith. First take the “Theological Worlds Inventory” (http://app.razorplanet.com/acct/43124-0842/resources/Bible_Study.pdf), then read the sections of the book that explain your score. The book is available at Amazon. BTW, W. Paul Jones was a professor at St. Paul School of Theology, an ordained United Methodist pastor (as am I) and an ordained Catholic priest affiliated with the Trappist monastery at Ava, MO.

    Reply

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