You’ll often hear Christians lamenting the fact that there are so many different denominations and fellowships. One of the points that is usually made early in those conversations is how grievous all this must be to the Lord.
I’m not so sure. There you go, I said it.
It’s become such conventional wisdom to decry denominations that it seems unconscionable to challenge it. But the arguments are so old and worn (I’ve been in the church for 45 years and have heard the mournful refrain constantly), maybe a little fresh perspective on the whole thing is just what we need.
Let me offer some reasons why I believe that God, far from being distraught over denominations, is actually the glorious Designer of it all.
7 reasons (and there’s probably more):
1. The Historical Reason
Most of the denominations that we have today were birthed in a revival movement. Have they lost their way? Has the great momentum they once had dissipated? Largely perhaps, but the very existence of these groups traces the fingerprints of God through 2000 years of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world. They are like the annual rings you find in the trunk of a grand old tree. Each one is a testimony to a season of fresh growth and life that came with a new Spring.
We’re all so quick to point to denominations that don’t seem to have the zeal and power that they once did. When you get up close, however, you usually find that there are still faithful Christian people and lively congregations in each. And God has always delighted in working with remnants.
2. The Egalitarian Reason
This may be the most important of all the 7 reasons.
Imagine if we did have only one structure in the Church. That would mean one great totem pole. You can bet your bottom dollar that sinful human nature would see to it that one regime would climb that pole and seize control. One person would end up at the centralized top (and very compelling reasons would be offered for why that was a good thing.) But power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
We don’t need to wonder what this would look like; God has left us a terrible warning of this in our history. A time when there was only one church, centralized in Rome by the emperor Constantine. What grew up over the next centuries was a single hierarchy that resulted in the institutionalized abuse of power.
Don’t want denominations? Prefer just one big Church? Be careful what you wish for.
3. The Unity Reason.
At the center of what I believe as a Christian, I am on the same page as other believers everywhere and throughout history. I can join my voice with Jesus’ whole Church and recite the Apostle’s Creed. I believe in the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the atoning death of Christ on the Cross, His Resurrection from the dead, His imminent return, etc.
On more peripheral issues, however, I disagree with brothers and sisters because of my understanding of Scripture. And my convictions are sometimes strong, as are theirs. On the perpetuity of spiritual gifts, the time and manner that people should be baptized, the future order of events for Christ’s return, and so on.
Denominations have helped us to explore all these things from different perspectives, and to have programs of worship and teaching in our churches without being paralyzed by in-house disagreements. In short, they keep us from killing each other.
Closely related to the Unity Reason is …
4. The Diversity Reason.
It takes more than one kind of church to reach everybody.
Some will find Christ because they come to a very traditional setting, and are touched by the grandeur of great choirs and architecture that speak to them about the transcendent nature of God. Others will find Christ because they come into a very informal, simple setting, and are overwhelmed by a sense of the immanence of God.
Some will come to faith by attending a church that has an emphasis on apologetics; reasoning for the faith. Many people need that. Others will come to faith because they were shown love in acts of compassion. Many people need that.
Denominations have reflected great differences in style and approach over the years. God has used them all.
5. The Completion Reason.
No one person or group has a monopoly on truth. God has seen fit to reveal different emphases of His Word through different movements along the road of church history.
I have labeled myself on this blog, for want of a better term, a “Reforming Pentecostal”. Not just “reformed”, but “reforming”. That’s because God’s work of reformation in the church is not a 16th century occurrence, but it is perpetual.
All the denominations who have an orthodox Christian core have contributed something to the whole of our understanding. (Which is a glorious subject in itself for another day.) The Christians who sound silliest today are the tiny pockets of people who actually believe that they are the holy huddle who’ve cornered the market on truth.
6. The Sanctification Reason.
On a micro level, in our local churches, God clearly uses our “togetherness” to promote our sanctification. Like sand in the oyster creates the diamond, so the irritations of having to work out our differences with people we’re stuck living with forces us to deal with our own self-centeredness.
But on a macro level, across the Body of Christ, isn’t it possible that God uses our “separateness” for our sanctification? It keeps us as Christians grappling with the problems inherent in denominations, and asking these wonderful questions about how we all relate in godly ways to one another as movements within the whole.
7. The Eschatalogical Reason.
Imagine the glory that will be ascribed to God when all of the stories become one under Him. What looked to some like a fragmented body on earth will actually reveal the wisdom of God in doing it this way, and bringing all His many sons and daughters to glory. And then, in the eschaton, when we no longer see in part and through a glass darkly, the One bride will step forward. Prepared and made beautiful from every tribe and nation, and from every denomination too.
Now having said all of that, it is important that we draw a distinction between denominations and “denominationalism”. Denominations seem to me to be the genius of God. Denominational-ism, on the other hand, is surely not God’s design. I’m talking about the wretched party-spirit that wants to divide Christians all the time on the basis of tribal loyalties.
The new reality of our day, however, is that by and large there IS grassroots unity. Let me give a simple illustration. It used to be that when a Presbyterian family moved to a new town, they looked up the local Presbyterian church to attend. Methodist families looked for a Methodist church, and Baptist families, and Assemblies of God families, and so on. This is no longer the case. When a family moves to a new area they will probably check out the church of the denomination they’ve been in fellowship with most recently, but they’ll do the rounds of other churches too. What’s more important to people than the sign on the door is the spiritual life they sense in the congregation, the faithfulness of the preaching, the programs available for their children, and so on.
Denominationalism is still alive, but it’s not as robust as it once was. I personally enjoy wonderful friendships across all the old lines of demarcation, and I don’t tend to think of the “labels” as positive or negative – I don’t think of them much at all. And I know that I’m not alone.
Finally, a word of caution from Paul’s admonishing of the Christians in Corinth. That church was ravaged by sectarian divisions. It was a church that split, but nobody left. They stayed and fought over their little camps, each with a favorite hero. Paul wrote –
“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 1:12-13)
Now if you read that on the surface you might think that Paul was saying “At least one group in the church are getting it right, the ones who just follow Jesus. Everybody needs to get over in that camp.”
I don’t read that as Paul’s tone at all. Paul is calling that group a faction just as much as any other. In fact, they sound to me to be the most obnoxious group of all. This is the group that lifts their pious noses in the air and says “We’re not following any man, we just follow Jesus.” It sounds spiritual inside their own heads, but to others it just smacks of an unteachability that will not accept authorities that God has put in His Church for safety and truth.
So, denominations? I’ll be as glad as anyone when we get to heaven and they fall away to become part of our history. But for now I think we need them, and I love them all.