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José Hutter
 

Denominations: the positives

A visible unity would make our voice more effective and credible? This is not so obvious as it might seem at first sight.

FEATURES AUTHOR José Hutter 28 DECEMBER 2018 09:30 h GMT+1
Photo: Dylan Gillies (Unsplash, CC0)

If the Bible is true, then why are there so many denominations? Isn’t it scandalous that evangelicalism is fragmented into so many denominations, churches and factions throughout the world?



We have all been asked questions like these. Maybe we ourselves have actually asked them. Wouldn’t our witness to the world be so much stronger if we all spoke with one voice. Just one church, full stop!



Lurking behind questions like these there is a presupposition: only one denomination is needed. Personally, I would dispute this: the “biggest” is not always the best.



But before my readers get mad at me and point out that it was Jesus Christ himself who taught that we must be one, I would like to make one or two observations.





WHEN THE CHURCH(ES) WAS/WERE ONE



When the vast majority of Christian churches were united under a single denomination, how well did things go? Before the year 1054 AD – when Christendom was divided between the Roman Catholic church, and Eastern Orthodox churches, there was only one church (Roman, Catholic). But what State was that one church in? Was the Bible preached? Did people know the gospel and the way of salvation by grace? Was there an army of missionaries striving to preach the gospel throughout the world?



In fact, the opposite was the case. The Church, united and increasingly powerful, was plunged in spiritual darkness of a kind that would make your hair stand on end!



Do we really want a monolithic church, united by some centralising authority? Who would preside over such a church? Who would be its visible representative? And if it were not just one person, after the papal fashion, who would make up its “board of regulators”, or whatever we might want to call it?



The dictum “absolute power corrupts absolutely” does not hold true only in the political realm. The response to the corruptive nature of overweening power has always been decentralisation.



It was precisely for this reason that Israel was not going, to have a king. It was not a monolithic nation, but 12 tribes. Each tribe was “self-governing”, in present-day parlance. There was no king because the Lord was their king. This fact is reflected in the famous saying: “unity in diversity”. In fact, Samuel did not hesitate to read the riot act to the nation in I Samuel 8 when he listed all the disadvantages of a united monarchy. But even this warning did not change their minds.



But let’s unpack the arguments one by one.



The first argument is that Jesus Christ prayed in John 17 v 11 that “they might be one”. Many believers understand this request to mean that all Christians should be united, and they are scandalised by the plethora of different denominations and churches. And what if this prayer has already been heard and answered?



What happened on the day of Pentecost was actually the miracle of all miracles: Paul wrote the following to the church in Corinth, more afflicted than most by the problem of internal division, “Because in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13).



Paul uses the past tense (or rather, the aorist tense in Greek), stressing that it is a “fait accompli”. There is no longer any need to pray that we be one: we already are, even those who tried their best to divide the body of Christ, as happened at Corinth. All those who are born again are united by one thing: we all form part of the same body. The New Testament emphasis the fact of unity within a particular congregation (Ephesians 4:3) and presupposes that there will be cooperation among churches that remain faithful to the doctrine of the apostles (Acts 15). That is why we have the Scriptures: to determine what is true and what is not true in the Church of the Lord.



Our cooperation should be based on our common reception of divine truth (2 John 1: 9-11). And indeed, the truth can divide. It is our perception of this truth that is fallible.



In Revelation 1, we see Jesus Christ walking amongst the churches. It is worth noting that these churches are represented as seven individual lampstands. In the Old Testament, there was only one lampstand, with seven branches. Not so in Revelation, where each church is represented individually under the sovereignty of Christ. It is also worth noting that Jesus Christ threatens to remove the lampstand only of those churches that compromise the gospel (chapters 2 and 3).



An interesting question arises from this: can churches whose lamp is still burning have fellowship with those whose light has gone out, supposing that such churches can be identified? It will often be difficult to know where to draw the line, but those that have denied the gospel again and again will not be difficult to pick out.



Historically, the churches of the first two centuries were not organised along very consistent lines. But even in the second century certain different ways of practicing faith and worship were starting to emerge. Some groups were clearly heretical (the Marcionites, the Ebonites among others). Then there were the Montanists, very similar to our own Pentecostal and charismatic churches. No lesser a theologian than the great Tertullian, to whom we owe a large portion of our theological vocabulary, including the word Trinity, for example, became a member of this church, or should we say “denomination”?1



In the first two or three centuries of the Church there was no such thing as the kind of unity that ecumenists dream about today. But what we do notice is that they were able to separate themselves from groups that crossed non-negotiable lines, precisely because the Scriptures (the Old and New Testament canon, which at that time was reaching its definitive form) took precedence over everything else.



It was precisely while the Bishop of Rome was assuming an increasingly unifying and centralising role that the organisation of a system began to be given priority over Scripture. Therein lies the rub: while we accept Scripture as the overriding authority, we cannot seek an organisational unity.



As regards the argument that a visible unity would make our voice more effective and credible, this is not so obvious as it might seem at first sight. Undoubtedly, a monolithic and  united organisation is always impressive. It was precisely for this reason that the people of Israel at the time of Samuel wanted a king, like the other nations. And yet there are many advantages to Christianity remaining decentralised, in terms of its organisational structure I mean.



Large centralised organisations have the reflexes of an oil-tanker! However, when the distances to be covered are short, and the organisation is local, it is possible to react much more quickly to any challenge that might arise.



And there is a further advantage, difficult as it might be to admit it: competition is always a good thing, not only in business, but also in the spiritual realm. Brotherly competitiveness, where healthy ethical principles are kept to the forefront, can contribute more to unity than all attempts to centralise. It is true, of course, that this principle can lead to a kind of consumerist attitude among pastors and their sheep: the pastor preaches what the sheep want to hear, because they are paying him, and the sheep will tend to go somewhere where no one annoys them or expects anything of them. What often happens is that in a movement that is nurtured by the power of God, the two extremes tend to cancel each other out. We might also say: Christ renders them redundant.





ADVANTAGES



In the Spanish Evangelical Alliance, we are working to promote unity among all those who value and cling to the basic truths of the Christian faith. The fact that we come from different denominations is not a disadvantage. On the contrary, it is a huge asset, and should be prized as such. Because though I love my denomination with every fibre of my being, I must recognise that other believers can live out their faith just as well as me, though they might not have the same eschatology, ecclesiology or have a different way of seeing Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We can disagree about these things, and even have the occasional argument, and that’s alright. Because we know that one day, we will be worshipping the Lamb with one voice. And on that day, there will no longer be any denominations.



Let me stress at the end of this article that I am not arguing in favour of a denominationalism that shuts itself off from all others and pulls up the drawbridge! Isolation only breeds sectarianism. If we ever get it into our heads that we are the only ones who are left to hold up the standard of truth we will probably be very much mistaken. Elijah the prophet thought that he was the only faithful one left, only to be told that there were still thousands who had not bent the knee to Baal.



During six years I had the privilege of pastoring a church which had no denominational label, even though it was in full fellowship with the other six evangelical churches in the city. In our dealings with the City Council, and with the outside world, we always spoke with one voice: the voice of the gospel once given to the saints. And that united voice gets listened to.



José Hutter is Pastor of a church in Madrid and Chair of the Theology Group of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance.


 

 


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