The Hobbit & The Battle of the Five Denominations

January 6, 2015 at 9:11 pm


41,000 That was the figure given in 2011 by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity as an estimate for the total number of Christian denominations and organizations worldwide. Unfortunately, it is probably safe to assume that the number has only risen in recent years, not declined.

As a member of one of those denominations, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, I can assure you that I am not opposed to the founding and organization of denominations, per se. Admittedly, the particular theology, polity, doctrines, and creeds that often distinguish one denomination from another are not always “minor issues” that should be swept aside for the sake of unity. Indeed, as much as I value my colleagues serving in non-denominational and independent churches, I am hard-pressed to discern how we could plant a church together that is simultaneously autonomous and accountable to either a local presbytery or a national denomination. Likewise, my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, while confirming my commitment to Jesus, would nevertheless refuse my offer of non- transubstantiated[1] communion elements. Added to these examples are a myriad of equally tricky distinctives that one would be hard-pressed to reconcile: women can/cannot be in senior leadership; believers should/should not speak in tongues; the Bible is/is not inspired and inerrant…and the list goes on ad nauseam.

Given these realities, it is tempting for some to preach that our divisions have the potential for a “poor witness” among the unsaved. After all, didn’t Jesus pray for unity among his family (John 17)? And didn’t he preach that the watching world will know us (his followers) by our love for one another (John 13)? Undeniably, he did. But I am not convinced that his exhortation was aimed at stemming the creation of multiple denominations as much as it was pointing towards the danger of a divided army who confuses the enemy with each other.

The point was illustrated for me last week when my family and I were taking in the latest Hobbit film The Battle of the Five Armies. Midway through the movie, at the base of Lonely Mountain, a battlefield emerged populated by the hobbit, humans, dwarves and elves who are each preparing to run each other through with all manner of medieval weaponry. They are a rather angry and self-righteous bunch, each group singularly focused on destroying the other in order to lay their hands on a treasure they believe is rightfully their own. And yet, while they are busy organizing their battle lines, Orcs are marching their way towards the same mountain to kill them all. The Orcs are far more ferocious, brutal, and potentially more powerful precisely because they are undistracted by the particularities of their enemy, be it a hobbit, human, elf, or dwarf – anyone who is against them dies.

Then, in an instant the four armies realize they will all perish lest they band together to fight the Orcs as one. This, I believe, is the type of unity Jesus envisioned. Christian unity is not ultimately a unity of polity, confessions, or liturgy, but one of purpose. We do not all need to become dwarves, elves or hobbits in order to battle against the Orcs, but we do need to remain undistracted from the real enemy that plagues us. Contrary to our popular belief and practice, it is not the other church down the street who seems to have possession of the mountain full of gold who is our enemy, it is the Evil one who wants both churches destroyed- and he is plenty content to sit on the sidelines and watch them do his dirty work for him.

As the Apostle Peter once reminded us:

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pt. 5:8)

It should be our common suffering at the hands of this roaring, devouring lion that unifies 41,000 armies under the single banner of King Jesus who leads us into the only battle he has called us to fight. Our denominational strengths where never designed to be used against one another. As Jesus said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Mt. 12:25). Or as J.R.R Tolkien once put it himself, “all previous grievances between them were put on hold in face of the greater threat.”




[1] Transubstantiation is the Roman Catholic belief that once the bread and wine that are used in Communion (or the Lords Supper, or the Eucharist as Roman Catholics call it) have been blessed by the Priest that they become the actual body and blood of Christ. Presbyterians, along with every other Protestant denomination, do not agree.