Why denominationalism?

I have been pondering the following verse: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23) In my ponderings, this one thought has emerged. Perhaps the reason Evangelicals are so divided is because our focus has been off-center from the Reformation on.

<%image(20050215-MartinLuther.gif|50|50|Martin Luther)%>The Reformers was reacting to the abuses of the Catholic Church. Their writing and beliefs were fueled by a desire to right the wrong of the doctrinal errors of Rome. As such, their perspective in searching Scripture was shifted to an organizational, church-centered focus, as were the debates. Think about the issues that divide us as believers: Sacraments, Predestination/Free-will, End-time debates, etc. Are these issues any one of us would arrive upon on our own so strongly as to cause us to break fellowship with a brother/sister of Christ? I don’t believe we would.

Our faith is a personal one, between an individual and his Creator. The Sanctification process is at work on our hearts and lives. The Holy Spirit has been given individually to each one of us to make plain the mysteries of the Scripture. As such shouldn’t the approach we give to dividing with another believer be based on the issues that affect a personal relationship with Jesus? Let me know if this rings true…

3 thoughts on “Why denominationalism?

  1. Ed

    I think you are hitting on the sticky issue for Protestants. Let’s face it, we began because we left part of the church over the issue of doctrinal purity. Over the centuries before the Reformation we had one church (don’t forget the split between the East and West though) that was fairly stable as far as doctrine goes. If a theologian wanted to stay in the church, he needed to stay within the bounds of the creeds and councils of the church.

    Once the Reformation hits, there is a vacuum for what is the final arbiter in Biblical disputes. If we broke away once, we can break away again! Under the influence of the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason, human reason was determined to be a gift of God to rightly interpret the Bible. 500 years of disagreements and 9,000+ denominations world-wide later, have pretty much killed my faith in reason alone as a guide to unity.

    I have found a few things to be helpful practices in seeking unity:

    1. Get to know church history. If someone advocates a view that has at one time been held by an orthodox group in the church, then they deserve the benefit of a doubt.

    2. Dialogue with different perspectives and theological views. There are lots of books out on global theology such as those by William Dyrness. Many of the issues that Americans hold so near and dear are not even on the radar for other Christians around the world. For example, Indian Christians have no problem with the apparent paradox of free will vs. predestination. Are they wrong? Are we wrong? Are we different?

    I think that you hit on something when you mentioned that our faith has a personal dimension in Christ. While we do not want to miss the essentially communal nature of our faith as well, it would seem to me that our union with Christ is what makes us Christians. Therefore, if someone denies something such as the divinity of Christ, then true fellowship is not really a possibility.

    I think the situational nature of things arises out of the question, "What does ‘division’ look like?" If someone denies the divinity of Christ, I’m not sure how far I would go in my division. In fact, I may invite that person to be a part of my church in the hope that they would eventually come around. So while there may be a spiritual division, I do not know if I would go as far as making that a physical or social division. I feel like I may be splitting hairs here. I probably need to stop thinking!

  2. PHarv

    I thiink that it is important to remember when interpreting the Reformation that our Protestant forefathers were reacting to the errors that had resulted from centuries of regressiion. It might be more appropriate to say that what they actually were doing was "re-affirming" those truths that were clearly confessed at various times in church history, going all the way back to the apostolic teachings. Because bad doctrine is potentially destructive to the Bride (church) that Christ so dearly loves, God has raised up men (such as Paul, Luther, Knox, Calvin) throughout redemptive history to combat error with the truths that God has revealed to us in Scripture. These truths not only represent the Living Word, but lead us into a deeper knowlege and understanding of our Lord and Savior.
    Why denominationalism? I can think of several reasons.
    Before listing any it is important to address the concept of division. There is an underlying paradox that exists regarding denominationalism. Though used as a means of dividing Christians into different camps, at the the same time there is unity among the whole regarding those truths that are essential to the Christian faith. If on a particular Friday night I attend my men’s group and my wife attends her women’s group, I don’t feel any less connected to her. Our unity or "oneness" remains the same. I think the reality of different denominations work much the same way. We can go to that church that most lines up with our particular convictions and modes of expression, assuming we are seeking to honor God in all we do and be faithful to the teaching of Scripture. And we can do this while at the same time recognizing that our brothers and sisters in other churches have different convictions and modes of expression, but together we affirm those truths that are of highest priority.
    It has been argued that denominationalism was part of God’s plan from the beginning. Should we imagine that a God who is at some level too complex and wonderful for us to comprehend could be captured adequatedly by one single "church of….?" Or do all the various denominations function similiarly to a Body, each one expressing a predominate aspect of God’s greatness, a particlular attribute or revealing a portion of his nature and character? I am not a charasmatic but I can admire and emulate the zeal and childlike faith which they often exhibit. I am not a Presbyterian, but I can be motivated to a more disciplined walk with God by their rich theological heritage and high view of God, church & Scripture. And so on down the line.
    I believe denominationalism is not necessarily a reflection of the church’s failure in establishing unity, but rather an inevitability considering the reality of the world and existence we are born into. Scripture presents our situation best: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
    1 Corinthians 13:11-13

  3. Josh Post author

    Ed, thanks for your practical points toward unity. I appreciate the thoughts. PHarv, I believe your comment strikes a blow toward greater unity amongst believers and I thank you for that. I guess the main thrust of this topic would be my own realization in my 20th year of Christianity, that I have spent many years worrying, debating, and studying issues that do not effect my life in any way. The day I came to Christ, I could have been raptured away. Our Father left me here for a reason. Here’s some of them:

    – Glorify God by experiencing his sanctification process in my earthly body.
    – Living obedience.
    – Loving the body of Christ.
    – Loving the world with the Love of Christ.

    If I was to build beliefs from this point of view(bottom up) I doubt if I would arrive on the issues that most believers separate over. My point was that the arguments stem from a top down approach to theology. Church first, services, pastors, missionaries, order of services, the congregation as a whole, then congregants.

    See, it is through the unity of believers that the seal of authenticity is placed on our communities by God throught the world. (John 17:23)

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