Monday, 21 January 2008

Denominationalism, Local Church Membership, or Simply Dissensions and Factions?

The acts of the sinful nature are obvious 
… dissensions,  factions …
those who live like this will not 
inherit the kingdom of God.
(Galatians 5:20-21)

Rome had its legions;
Christians have their divisions
From time to time over the years a non-Christian has stopped me with a question that I’ve never been able to answer properly. This question has disturbed me, partly because I’ve never been able to give a decent answer to those who’ve asked. Why? Probably because I don’t have a decent answer. Probably it’s because I’ve often asked the same question myself. To be sure, those to whom I’ve asked this question, or those books I’ve read that have attempted to give an answer to it, have never provided satisfactory answers because they so often seem to contradict several passages of New Testament Scripture. Likewise, the answers I did get were often “pat” answers that seemed to attempt to justify what the Bible clearly calls a carnal and sinful situation that has no place in the kingdom of God.

What is the question? The question is, “what’s with all those names and types of churches?” The question always arose in reference to denominational names on church signs. Why do we have Baptist churches, Pentecostal churches, Mennonite churches, Alliance churches, United churches, etc., etc., etc.? Good question! Why do we have so many different groups under the umbrella of evangelical Christianity, never mind those sects and cults that have sprung up, such as Mormonism, which also like to use the name “Christian”? I don’t have a good answer other than to say that it all springs from our “me-and-you-infested” nature that the Bible calls carnality.

This begs another question; if we recognize our carnality, or worldliness, as existing in our Christian disunity, then why aren’t we taking serious steps to repent of this and clean up our acts? To be fair, some have attempted to correct this problem, partly at least, under the umbrella of ecumenism. Before we attempt to deal with this question any further, it’s important to look at some verses of Scripture that deal with this topic.

Jesus’ prayer and Paul’s appeal
After praying for His disciples, Jesus prays for all believers that,
“... they may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe … may they be brought to complete unity ...” (John 17:21-23)
Are we united as God the Father and God the Son are united? Hardly! Does disunity lead to the world’s coming to know Jesus Christ? Not very well, I’m afraid! How much more would they believe if we really stood united? I wonder!
I appeal to you brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ’. Is Christ divided?" (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)
Who is it that we are following? Are we following this pastor or that pastor? Are some of us following the Baptists; are some of us following the Pentecostals; are others of us following the Mennonites; or are we following Christ? How sad that there are those of us who seem to identify with a denominational handle before we identify with Christ.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:3-6)
Stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.” (Philippians 1:27)
What really bothers me is that unity in Christ is not just some once-occurring and obscure passage that can easily be dismissed. The theme of Christian unity was serious enough to warrant Jesus praying about it and Paul appealing to the church to “make every effort” to make sure that it happens. What have we done instead? It’s as if we shrugged our shoulders and said, “what ever!” Isn’t it amazing that we seem to know better than Jesus did, and that we are so much more in-the-know than Paul was, when it comes to unity in the body of Christ? Surely Jesus must have been mistaken! Paul obviously never dealt with that same bunch of morons that we did over at _____ Church! How obtuse we are! One friend of mine likes to say, “there’s no opening in the Trinity!” Funny, the way we act you’d think we were next in line for that position! Do we really know better than the Lord Jesus in regards to the urgency of keeping the church united?

The pros and cons of the ecumenical movement
Sometimes it seems to me that we must believe that God has prepared a special Heaven for us based upon our denominational (and carnal) tendencies and traditions. While we might think that preposterous, and even laugh at such a notion, we often act and carry on like we believed exactly that.

There’s an old story of someone getting a tour of Heaven by Saint Peter. In the tour the visitor was shown one area where the Baptists all gathered. In another area he saw the Pentecostals gathered together for worship. In another area were the Anglicans, and in still another were the Catholics. It was all very cliquish, as people from one denomination after another were grouped off in their own little piece of Heaven. As Peter showed the visitor another section of Heaven, he talked in a whisper. The visitor asked Saint Peter about the whispering and he replied, “This is the Mennonite section, and they think they’re the only ones up here.”

I don’t mean to pick on the Mennonites, for in truth we could insert almost any denomination into that part of the story. None of us, I’m sure, really believe that Heaven will be like that. It’s ironic, isn't it, that we act here on earth like it will be factioned and segregated in Heaven too? Surely God will have to do a mighty miracle in glory to get us to all be united there since we seem to be having such a hard time of it here.

According to the “Concise Dictionary of Christian Theology,” ecumenical movement is defined as, “A modern-day movement, which has attempted to bring about the unity of believers. It began in 1910 as a result of international missionary conferences.” Likewise, the same dictionary defines ecumenism as, “The attempt to bring about unity among believers. It may take the form of either cooperation between separate groups or actual merger into one organism.” So what’s wrong with that? At the outset, it sure sounds Christian enough. After all, we are in fact after the promotion of Christian unity.

The problem is at least two-fold. First, there’s the question of reconciling issues that deal with what we perceive to be “truth.” If I hold something as true and non-negotiable, whereas you hold something different as true and non-negotiable, where and how do we meet in the middle? Secondly, what’s usually sought after is a unity of organization rather than unity of Spirit.

So what are we to do about all those dearly held doctrines that we perceive to be “truth?” Do we give up on them for the sake of unity? Do we water them down so that we might stand more united with those who think differently than we do? Is a watered down Gospel for the sake of unity still the Gospel? On the other hand, if someone thinks differently than we do on what we hold as a key doctrine, can we even go so far as to call him or her a brother or sister in the Lord? With such people, should we even bother to seek unity, or would a continued apartness be a more favourable option? Is unity really worth the cost? Evangelicals have long since wrestled with many questions such as these.
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1 Timothy 4:16)
For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4: 3-4)
He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” (Titus 1:9)
You must teach what is in accord with sound doctrine.” (Titus 2:1)
Part of the problem is that we don’t know what to do with “Christians” who think and act and worship differently than we do. We don’t know what to do with those who value different doctrines than we do. Who is right? Who is wrong? We like to think that we are the ones who are always right and it’s the other guys who are wrong. The problem is that everyone believes that they themselves have a correct interpretation of biblical teaching, whereas the next guy does not.
Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face."
(1 Corinthians 13:12)
If all that any of us can hope for is a poor reflection, does that mean then that correct doctrine is subjective? Certainly that cannot be true, can it?

The second issue concerns the typical ecumenical agenda of developing a unity of organization rather than being preoccupied in developing a unity of Spirit. I don’t believe that God is interested in us being ecumenical if all we mean by that is that we join ourselves together into a common organization. No matter what else we may call it, any organization, including Christian ones, are still man-made and not God-made. So long as all we’re interested in is a commonality of organization, we will always have divisions and factions. Man’s interests will always win out because he is the one who orchestrated the whole thing in the first place. There is no getting away from it.

No matter how many meetings and conferences we hold in an effort to get a united mind in the development of a common organization, we will still fail. Why? The answer is, because it is still man-made. The whole thing is little more than man’s church; it’s not Christ’s church. It is just like the “United Church of Canada.” They may have had admirable ecumenical intentions when they were formed in 1925 by the union of the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists. Where are they today? For the most part they are a liberal organization under the Christian umbrella that even ordains openly gay ministers. If it’s sound doctrine that we are after, then what are we to do with Scripture such as 1 Corinthians 6:9 which says that the wicked, including the “homosexual offender” will not inherit the kingdom of God (ouch!). Having now stirred up that hornet's nest, what are we to do with that? Obviously that's an issue for some but not for others.

So if we are not after a unity of organization, then we must be after a unity of Spirit. How are we to do that? It may be that the answer lies in finding a new place for our doctrines and re-visiting what Jesus called the “Greatest Commandment.”

When Doctrines No Longer Divide
Are doctrines important? Certainly they have their place. Maybe my doctrines, those things that I believe about God and His will for me (and others), is better kept between Him and me. Maybe I need to be more careful about when and where I share my doctrinal views, because, “Doctrines Divide,” as suggested by the title of a book by Erwin Lutzer, “The Doctrines that Divide: A Fresh Look at the Historic Doctrines that Separate Christians.”

Maybe instead of focusing so much on putting forth my doctrinal views, maybe what we each need to do is to re-visit what Jesus said was “The Greatest Commandment.”
All the Law and all the Prophets hang on these commandments.” (Matthew 22: 36-40)
What commandments was He referring to? He was referring first to loving God and secondly, to loving each other. Now if all the Law and all the Prophets hang on that, then we could rightly say that all our doctrines also hang on our love for God and our love for others. If this is true, and I think that it is, then the priority for us is to first of all be concerned with real and un-pretentious love. If we really learned to do that, it seems to me that the issue of doctrines would automatically work themselves out as well.
When Christians divide and faction themselves off into various groups and denominations, they do so primarily because they still haven’t learned to really love each other.
Furthermore, if we haven’t learned to love each other, then we also haven’t learned to love God either. As a matter of fact, 1 John 4:20 goes so far as to say that if we claim to love God but don’t first love one another, then we’ve just lied in saying that we love God. I like to think that I love God, but where is the proof of that love? The proof is in my genuine and loving relationships with others. If we truly realize that goal, then we will also realize a time when doctrines will no longer divide either.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious … dissensions, factions …those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5: 20-21)
Notice those words, “dissensions and factions,” in other words, anything that in any way promotes the dividing of the body of Christ, does not lead to our inheriting the kingdom of God. Anything at all, including things like denominationalism and local church membership, is in reality cultish at best, and probably better said, actually anti-christ. Maybe it is high time that we start to re-think exactly we are saying when we speak of a local church membership. What are we really saying?
Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (1 Corinthians 3: 1-4)
When we promote one denomination over another, or membership in one local church over that of another, we’re saying that we are “mere infants in Christ.” We are saying that we “are still worldly.” Isn’t it time that we grew up in our faith? Isn’t it time that we start to recognize denominationalism and local church membership as being the cults and factions that they really are?

That's the way I see it anyway. Peace.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

1 comment:

  1. "Isn't it amazing, that the mighty army of the children of God, clothed in righteousness, sheilded with glory, and armed with the word of Christ, spend most of their time polishing their armour or fighting one another."
    - Mike Warnkey (I can't remember which tape)