Ecclesiastical Winds (5)
For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 1 Corinthians 1.11-13
Our great sin
Every true Christian understands that Jesus has commissioned the Church to be His witness to the lost world (Acts 1.8). We are called to seek the Kingdom and righteousness and glory of God (Matt. 6.33; 1 Thess. 2.12), and a primary means of fulfilling this calling is to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom to the lost, and to lead people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
This is completely in line with the teaching of Scripture, Old and New. Both Isaiah and Micah saw the Church as God’s city on a hill, chief in splendor and beauty and influence, her citizens dispersed throughout the world to live and proclaim the Word of the Lord, with the result that multitudes of lost people would make their way up to the Church to learn about the Lord (Is. 2.1-4; Mic. 4.1-8). Consequently, righteousness, peace, and joy would pervade the earth as Christ, through His Church, filled all things with Himself (Rom. 14.17, 18; Eph. 1.22, 23; 4.8-10).
Thus, whatever impedes, hinders, compromises, and obstructs our witness for Christ should be anathema to us. We have been sent to the world as Jesus was sent, to bring near and proclaim the Good News of Christ and His Kingdom (Jn. 20.21). We are ambassadors of the Kingdom which is not of this world (2 Cor. 5.20, 21), to represent our Lord for righteousness and to call the world to be reconciled to Him. The Church is the sign to the world that the Kingdom has come, and it is the outpost from which that Kingdom advances on earth as it is in heaven.
As Jesus set His face like flint to fulfill His calling (Lk. 9.51-53), so we must set our face to fulfill ours, undeterred, undistracted, undaunted, and unfailing in our mission to show and tell the Good News to the world.
But if we are to realize success in this calling, we must work hard, with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, to maintain visible unity of the Body of Christ (Eph. 4.3), as one people with one common mission, devoted to one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; for if we fail to realize such visible unity, we will not be persuasive in our witness for the Lord. Jesus Himself said it: “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (Jn. 17.20, 21).
This is nowhere the case in the Christian world today. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
The Church today is fragmented. In the unity of the Godhead, there is continuous communication, constant cooperation, and ongoing mutual enrichment. In the Church of Jesus Christ, no such unity exists. Indeed, what the world sees, when it looks at the Christian movement, is not a unity that expresses the unity of the Godhead, but a divisiveness marked by hypocrisy, jealousy, taking advantage, indifference, and one or another form of spiritual self-interest. Denominationalism is that spiritual ill wind which recognizes the dividedness of Christ’s Body, but accepts it as inevitable and nothing to get exercised about.
The Christian movement today is comprised of more than 35,000 different denominations. Most of these are Protestant, but even Catholicism and Orthodoxy are splintered in various ways. The fact that there are so many different denominations is not inherently evil. Denominations form around theological emphases, cultural and ethnic distinctives, cherished traditions, and charismatic individuals. I want to say again, this is not in itself evil, and it need not be a hindrance to maintaining visible unity of the Body of Christ in the bonds of the Holy Spirit.
But denominationalism erects boundaries and barriers between congregations of believers, set up out of hubris, scorn, distrust, self-righteousness, and a lack of love. In Corinth in Paul’s day, the various house churches that constituted the Body of Christ in that city boasted of their superiority over the others by their identification with one or another of the apostles; one group even boasted the “No creed but Christ!” mantra as their unique distinctive. What Paul denounced and labored to overcome as a small-scale, local aberration has today become a tragic universal norm.
And almost no one seems to mind.
Problems with denominationalism
In our lifetime there have been some notable efforts to overcome the disunity that exists between congregations and denominations. The Vatican II Council, the Lausanne Movement, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Gospel Coalition, and Evangelicals and Catholics Together have all sought, in a variety of ways, to address and overcome the barriers of disunity which denominationalism sustains. They all bear witness to a reality we sense within us – that need to be one in Christ as Christ is One in the triune God – but they all have amounted to little more than well-meaning words, which are easily ignored by most believers and church leaders.
Denominationalism – not denominations – fragments the Body of Christ in local communities and throughout the world. It prevents us from seeking common experiences of public worship. It encourages mere ecclesiastical self-interest, promotes disharmony and a lack of cooperation at the local level, and robs the lost world of the warm and illuminating light of Christ, shining through the lighthouse of His one Body.
Denominationalism promotes a competitive mindset among local churches. It stifles cooperative efforts to show mercy to those in need in the local community. It diminishes the power of united, extraordinary, and public prayers for revival (cf. Acts 4.23-31). And it obscures any common vision of the Kingdom of God in the local community and the world, and thus promotes a skewed and shrunken view of the new not-of-this-world realm that has been given to us and into which we have been conveyed by our Lord Jesus Christ (cf. Dan. 7.13, 14, 18-27; Col. 1.13).
Scarcely a believer or church today has escaped the influence of this ill wind of doctrine. Indeed, the sails of our souls have become so filled with the winds of denominationalism, that we think them to be normal, inevitable, and in some weird and dangerous sense, welcome. But denominationalism is ruining our witness for Christ and leaving the lost world to languish in its unbelief.
To the extent that we suffer the ill wind of denominationalism to guide our journey in the Lord, we fail in our mission, exacerbate the lostness of our neighbors, and thumb our noses at the clear and unchanging teaching of our Lord.
1. What forms does denominationalism take in your local community?
2. How have we come to believe that denominationalism is just normal?
3. What can you do to encourage more visible unity with other believers?
Next steps – Preparation: Pray, like Jesus, for the visible unity of the Body of Christ. Pray for your church, the churches in your community, churches all over the world, and for your own role in flushing this ill wind from the sails of your soul.
T. M. Moore
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.