Denominations and differences within Christianity: Reflections from a CRCS field trip

The Reformation within Christianity has resulted in massive division. According to a report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, as of 2012, it is estimated that there are more than 43,000 Christian denominations worldwide. The Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs recognizes almost 300 in Indonesia and many, if not most, of them have congregations here in Yogyakarta. But who are they? How do they differ from another?

In order to have a better understanding of these enormously varying denominations in Christianity, CRCS students taking the Advanced Study of Christianity class, accompanied by their lecturer Dr Gregory Vanderbilt, visited three different churches around Yogyakarta on April 13th, 2018. The first church to visit was Gereja Kristen Muria Indonesia/GKMI which is one of the Mennonite synods of Indonesia. The second was the Seventh-day Adventist Church or Gereja Masehi Adventis Hari Ketujuh/GMAHK. And the last was the Orthodox Church of Saint Dionysios of Zakinthos.

At GMKI, we were welcomed by a woman pastor named Rev. Janti Diredja who has been serving this church since 2008 and ordained as the second woman pastor at GKMI Yogyakarta. In the beginning, she explained to us that the name of the church is taken from Mount Muria, located in Kudus, Central Java. Its founder was of Chinese descent named Tee Siem Tat living in Kudus. He established GKMI in the early 20th century after recovering from serious illness.

During the discussion with Rev. Janti, we rarely heard her talking about theology, but rather about the ethics of nonviolence. Although they have suffered from centuries-long persecution in Europe and are still stigmatized by Christians from other denominations, Rev. Janti explained that no space at all for violence in Mennonite theology. “Jesus never demonstrated acts of violence even though he was harshly tortured by Jewish people. By the same token we as Christians have to obey his teachings of compassion,” Rev. Janti said when answering the question why Mennonites are put such a high value on pacifism despite persecution. Persecutions against Mennonite Christians are often motivated by disagreement from other Christian denominations in the issue of adult baptism and church-state separation.

Talking about compassion, Rev. Janti then explained that the Christian compassion is not exclusively given to fellow Christians. In GKMI itself, there are pastors given a special duty (called pendeta tugas khusus) to serve people outside the church. They are assigned to give assistance in education, disaster relief, and peace advocacy in cooperation with organizations from other religions. “When we went to Aceh after the 2004 tsunami disaster, we even had some collaboration in social services with an Islamic hardliner group like Laskar Hizbullah. Later on when there was an earthquake in Bantul, Yogyakarta, the Mennonite church there was turned into a shelter for non-Christians refugees,” said Rev. Janti. In a nutshell, conversation with Rev. Janti has helped us to know a distinct feature of Mennonite church, that is, its emphasis on non-violence.

Moving to GMAHK, we were greeted by Rev. Robinson Marbun and Ferry Goodman (CRCS student of the 2015 batch). Most explanations from both of them notably underscored the Seventh-day Adventist Church as the first apocalyptic movement. Adventist eschatology is underpinned by the biblical prophecy of 2,300 days in the book of Daniel. The purpose of this apocalyptic movement is to prepare them for Christ’s imminent second coming while maintaining righteous characters in dealing with humanity.

Adventists are also known as strict followers of the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. One of the precepts of the Decalogue is to remember the Sabbath day. It is believed that after six days of creation, God took rest and commanded people to do the same as a time for remembering creation. Adventist church therefore holds its worship services on Saturdays rather than Sundays like other churches. Besides a strict prohibition from doing mundane activities during the Sabbath, Adventists also have dietary restrictions the rules of which they derive from the Old Testament.

As followers of the law found in the Hebrew scriptures since their emergence in the 19th century, Adventists pay great attention to kosher laws. These laws outlaw pork, shellfish, and other foods declared as “unclean”. The church also discourages its members from the consumption of alcohol, caffeine (which can be found in coffee and tea), tobacco, and of course illegal drugs. The main reason of this dietary restriction is their understanding of human body as God’s words. Since they believe that Christians are waiting for Christ’s imminent second coming, they must in the best condition to witness the moment. 

The last church we visited was the Church of St. Dionysios of Zakinthos, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox church. Romo Lazarus Bambang Sucanto in his black robe warmly welcomed us. As we entered the church, stuffs inside the church captivated our attention since they are largely different from those of the two previous churches. On the wall hang images and iconographies.

Like in other churches, our discussion started from a brief explanation about the church. Romo Lazarus affirmed that it is a misleading conception to translate orthodox as an antonym of modern. Established in the second century, the word orthodox is derived from the Greek ortho meaning “correct” and doxa meaning “belief”. This term was first used to counter heterodoxy from Gnostic communities. The orthodox declare the teachings of the Gnostics deviate from the apostles’.

Our discussion in this Orthodox Church was mostly on theology. Romo Lazarus recounted many orthodox practices and their biblical bases. One of them is prayer or sembahyang. Orthodox Chritians practice sembahyang ritual seven times a day facing towards the east. Explaining about this practice, Romo Lazarus cited John 8:12 which reads, “Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life”. Orthodox Christians interpret the light of the world as the sun, and sun rises from the east. Based on this verse, Orthodox Christians believe that Jesus will come from east. Therefore, by praying to the east direction, they face Jesus Christ.

For us who are non-Christians (the Christianity class cannot be taken by Christian students), it was at first not easy to answer why there exist many denominations in Christianity. Of all explanations, it makes clearer for us that historical-political context and theological discourses matter to trace their differences. The important questions that follow are, after these divisions, many of which were bloody in the beginning: are there efforts to bridge interdenominational gaps and bring them into unity as fellow followers of Christ or these differences are something irreconcilable? How significant it is the idea of oikumene (the community of churches) especially in this increasingly globalized world in which interreligious encounters have become much more intense and inevitable? No less important is the question of how these churches try to be rooted in each locality.

The sensitive topic about interdenominational conflict was barely talked about in the churches we visited; each mostly tried to show their distinctiveness from other churches/denominations. And each also tried to show how their being Indonesian Christians has influenced some of their practices or activities. The Church of St. Dionysios ia a good example: it does not have rows of pews showing, as Romo Lazarus himself told us, that they attempt at adopting Javanese culture of lesehan or sitting on the floor.



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