Now, some kinds of denominationalism are worse than others. The worst kind is the “we’re saved and you’re not” kind. I think the Bible is entirely clear that all with a submissive faith in Jesus as Son of God and Lord are saved and hence members of the only church there is.
But the other kind is bad, too — although not nearly as bad. I have friends who are Baptist, and they like to say things like, “I’m a Christian first and a Baptist second, but Baptist is a very close second.” It’s right and good to recognize that the Baptists are a subset of Christians in general, but I just get this feeling that the attitude comes very close to —
(1Co 1:12 ESV) 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
Now, I pick on my Baptist friends because Baptists have long rejected creedalism and accepted other denominations as fellow Christians. And this is good, and they do in fact sometimes cooperate with churches of other denominations. So — in theory — the Baptists are right. And the progressive Churches of Christ are moving in a very similar direction. We have doctrinal differences, but many among the progressive Churches would be inclined to say, “I’m a Christian first and a Church of Christer second, but the Church of Christ is a very close second.” And they’d mean it.
But is this really what the scriptures command?
(1Co 1:10 ESV) I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.
(Rom 15:5-6 ESV) 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s go a little deeper — past the prooftexting. The biggest internal issue that Paul confronted in his ministry was the division between Jews and Gentiles. Many Jews demanded that the Gentiles be circumcised and honor Jewish food laws to be saved. The Gentile Christians were delighted to worship Jesus, but didn’t want to become Jews. How did Paul respond?
Well, think how we’d respond today? If we had two ethnic groups that took tremendous pride in their ethnic heritage, who spoke different first languages (Greek was the second language of many, if not most), who had different food scruples, and who had different attitudes toward worship, wouldn’t we say something like, “Let’s celebrate our diversity! And if the two groups want to form different denominations, have separate lectureships, have separate ministries, and only cooperate in token ways, that’ll be just great, so long as they recognize one another’s salvation! Praise God that we can form distinct fellowships and yet recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ!”
That’s very 21st Century thinking. It’s not Paul’s thinking.
(Gal 2:11-14 ESV) 11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
All Peter did was refuse to eat with Gentile Christians — and Paul declared him condemned because his conduct violated “the truth of the gospel.”
(Eph 2:14-22 ESV) 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
V. 14 says that the death of Jesus removes the wall that divides Jews from Gentiles. Jesus died to bring all together to form “one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (v. 15). The cross therefore binds us into “one body” (v. 16) — making us into a single “household of God” (v 19), built on a single foundation, which is a temple (singular) “in the Lord” (v. 20), indwelt by the Spirit (v. 21).
Paul repeats the concepts of “one body” and “one Spirit” in chapter 4 to re-emphasize that, as Thomas Campbell wrote, the church —
is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and of none else as none else can be truly and properly called christians.
Now, imagine Paul telling the Jews and Gentiles to form separate denominations and to cooperate in token ways here and there. I really can’t think of anything less Pauline than advocating that we resolve our differences by separating. Indeed, Paul told the Corinthians,
(1Co 3:4 ESV) 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
Paul doesn’t argue that they were damning each other — only that they were divided by having divided loyalties. How is this even a little different from “I follow Luther” and “I follow Wesley” and “I follow Campbell”? All would declare that they follow Jesus first and the men second, but they follow the men into division, which is not the same as following Jesus.
The problem, you see, is that we’ve been divided into denominations for so long — 500 years — that we don’t know how to do church any other way. We are so eaten up with denominationalism that when we try to escape it, we do so through the denominational structure — counting on state and national denominational institutions (or colleges and periodicals in our case) to lead the way. We can’t even imagine finding unity other than via our precious denominations.
Sorting ourselves into denominations is therefore sinful. They could be even more sinful, but division is division is sin, and denominations are, by definition, division.
To quote Thomas Campbell again,
That although the church of Christ upon earth must necessarily exist in particular and distinct societies, locally separate one from another; yet there ought to be no schisms, no uncharitable divisions among them. They ought to receive each other as Christ Jesus hath also received them to the glory of God. And for this purpose, they ought all to walk by the same rule, to mind and speak the same thing; and to be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment.
I guess I’m just old-fashioned that way.
Now, there are obvious challenges to leaving behind our denominational structures, but rather than just assuming there’s no better way, I think we’d do well to consider how we might do just fine without them. But that’s for a later post. I haven’t quite figured it out yet. But I’m working on it.