N. T. Wright’s After You Believe: Regarding Denominationalism, For Discussion

Regarding denominationalism —

Our denominations, with all their ambiguities and puzzles, are often rooted in the very kind of ethnic distinctions or personality-based divisions which Paul went out of his way to combat. Perhaps that is one reason why moral discussions in the church tend to go round and round in small circles on a few favored issues, especially sex: discussing how, why, and when two human beings come together in a loving or quasi-loving act may be, after all, a displacement activity when we can’t cope with the question of how, why, and when a whole family of Christians should (but can’t) come together in mutual love and support. That doesn’t mean that sexual ethics are unimportant. On the contrary, they are symptomatic of the health or unhealth of the wider community. But we shouldn’t focus all our worries on the fact that the church secretary has run off with the organist’s spouse when the promised unity of Jesus Christ with all his people is flouted by structures and customs — and sometimes, yes, theology! — which destroy the fabric of the church just as surely as adultery destroys the fabric of the community.

(pp. 209-210). Wright is an Anglican bishop in England. He’s part of his denomination’s denominational structure — and yet he considers denominational division a worse sin than adultery. I agree. Disunity of God’s church is one of the greatest of all sins. It doesn’t excuse any other sin, but unity is of the essence.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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19 Responses to N. T. Wright’s After You Believe: Regarding Denominationalism, For Discussion

  1. John says:

    If Jesus lived in our heart, so would our brother.

  2. John Grant says:

    I see denominationalism as Adultry.

    Where I see us going wrong is in our interpretation of the words adultery and fornication being only sexual. Seems we are obsessed with sex!

    Those words in my opinion encompass much more and how many people having been hurt by those with that narrow view is sad.

  3. Ray Downen says:

    Jay is right as usual. Wright is right. Jesus wants us to love one another and serve Him TOGETHER, not as separated bodies of believers. He says so. Yet we each assume that only those who agree with us are real servants of the Lord Jesus. Don't we? Good for Jay to point out our need for unity, not in opinions, but in obedience to the one Lord. Surely we each should speak where the Bible speaks, emphasizing the inspired words rather than anything we might want to read INTO what was said.

  4. Jim Haugland says:

    We recently had a Renovare (Renewal) at our church (Grace Crossing C of C), an excellent ecumenical seminar! The President of Renovare, Chris Webb, President of Renovare, is also an Anglical Monk and an excellent speaker on the grace of God and the unity of all disciples of Jesus, regardless of denominational affiliation. Founders of Renovare include Richard Foster (Quaker), Dallas Willard (Baptist) and other disciples who believe that unity resides in one's faith in the person and perfected work accomplished by Jesus, rather than denominational teachings (doctrines) that too often separate us from the unity Christ prayed for (Jn 17). Unity, one of the many functional roles of the indwelling Spirit (Rom 8), is only made possible by the power of God. Jesus said (Mt 28:18-20) our baptism into Christ is to make us disciples of Jesus, NOT denominational converts!

  5. K. Rex Butts says:

    Wright is right. As for me, I neither want to be a denominationalist (where I acts as though a denomination is what God wants) or a secterian (believing my denomination is the only true church). One of the strange challenges of that desire is that the fellowship of churches I have been brought up in, came to faith in, and have a deep appreciation for (as well as frustration at times) has desired to be non-denominational yet has acted very much like a denomination along with a secterian mind-set at times.

    Ironic? Yes but also disappointing. It is easy for me to refrain from secterian practice since I don't believe "we" are the only Christians and I treat every professing Christian as such unless they give me a reason to believe differently. On other side, it seems much more difficult to practice non-denominational Christianity when the fellowship I am a part of (and have no intentions on abandoning) has numerous affiliations and para-church ministries that it labels as "Churches of Christ ______ Ministries" and affectionately has most of its congregations named as "________ Church of Christ."

    So the real question for all of us who, in addition to be non-secterian, also wish to practice non-denominational Christianity is: how do we practice non-denominational Christianity as Christians who are part of a fellowship that has acted if not (arguably) became a denomination in many ways? Where does the recommittment to non-denominational Christianity begin? What does it entail?

    Grace and peace,


  6. Jim:

    I'm surprised but glad to see a CofC welcoming Renovare to their fellowship. I wish I could drum up enough support here locally to bring them in.

  7. steven says:

    I'm curious, are Anglicans typically more ecumenical in their attitudes towards other Christians, as Wright is? I know they're much closer to Catholicism than most Protestants. And is it okay to, as Wright apparently does, support your denominations structures and customs as long as you're not flouting the unity of all Christ's people? What if sectarianism is built into the structures and customs?

  8. "Wright… considers denominational division a worse sin than adultery."

    Where does Wright say that? I have read his statement over and over and I cannot find that. I don't have the complete book. Does he say that somewhere else in the book?

    Wright's statement indicates that both adultery and division are sinful. At least that is what I read.

  9. Mick Porter says:

    After our church ceased to be ICOC, it truly was non-denominational – which was a little difficult, for all kinds of reasons. We managed to network with various informal groups of Christians around our city, but it became clear that it's essentially impossible to be truly non-denominational and really interact with other churches.

    I find the CoC claim to be "non-denominational" quite intriguing though. We once had an American CoC "progressive" who was visiting our city come as guest preacher. I explained that we were genuinely non-denominational, but he still managed to mention a Baptist guy in his sermon and qualify that he didn't consider the Baptist a true Christian. Aaarghhhh – fortunately there were no Baptists visiting with us that day!

  10. K. Rex Butts says:


    That's not surprising…unfortunately. Too many of us claiming to be non-denominational yet acting denominational in the worst way…as a secterian.

    Grace and peace,


  11. Bob Harry says:

    Jay and others

    Brother Jim Haugland, elder and expert on the bible and applications for Christian unity leads a group of Christians in the Woodlands/Conroe Texas that in my opinion are on the cutting edge of Christian unity much as you are now espousing. You should get to know Jim as you both are making the same plea. I have known and studied under Jim for almost forty years. He and his wife for fifty years worship at the Grace Crossings Church of Christ.

    Jim's post here is great and you all should talk to him about what they are planning.

    Another great preacher in the same area Kenneth Wells of the Woodsedge Church constantly prays during his service for other Christian churches.

    Unity on the Gospel and the two great commandments are possible, but first take all the rocks out of your pockets. We all live in glass houses.

    There is one church as stated in the Nicean Creed the Holy Apostolic Church. We don't adopt that creed today but in 325AD it did bring unity.

    In His service


  12. Jay Guin says:


    Anglicans tend to say theirs is a non-creedal communion. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anglican_doctrine

    That is, they don't get much beyond the Nicene and Apostles Creeds in what they insist on. They favor unity above complete agreement on all points.

    Officially, they teach and practice apostolic succession, and so they have an Episcopal system — with bishops having authority over local congregations. But their dioceses are almost entirely independent of each other and can vary significantly. So some dioceses (and bishops) are quite conservative, whereas others are quite liberal.

    Wright is very conservative, in the sense that he teaches from and about the inspired text as inspired text, with the greatest respect for the authority of the text. I've never seen him write on apostolic succession, but he's a bishop, so he must not be opposed to the idea.

    Modern Anglicans and Episcopalians are therefore active in ecumenical activities and very resistant to division over doctrines they perceive as not central to the faith.

    I recently attended an Episcopalian funeral at which communion was served. The minister invited all baptized believers to partake with the church.

  13. Jay Guin says:


    I may be reading a bit into what Wright said in light of his participation in the Windsor Report of 2004, dealing with the Anglican community's response to the ordination of practicing homosexual Gene Robinson as a bishop.

    The report refused to reject his ordination, on the grounds of preserving unity, but also expressed grave reservations. Wright is personally persuaded that homosexual sex is sinful.

  14. Larry Short says:

    Isn't it possible that various types of churches is good? If each congregation is a body, then like the human race, there are a lot of body types.
    Disunity is the evil. Spirit inspired differences are OK and probably natural due to the different cultures, but we are all the bride of Christ. We should not argue againist other's understanding.
    However, if we compare the way we do things, and ask why, we could find the next guy has a better understanding or a more clever method. Ofcourse that requires that we talk to each other, rather than insisting the other is in apostacy.

  15. Eric says:

    Those churchmen, who for the sake of convenience? have undertaken to redefine ‘adultery’ don’t seem to realize (or care?) that they are threatening the traditional view of marriage. Key to all this is the argument that Christ understood marriage in a new and relational kind of way. Agreed, but I’m sure it was not Christ’s intention (in using the wedding metaphor to describe the relationship between Christ and His church) to dissolve what was adopted and would become the church’s historic understanding of marriage, that is as a joining together of a man and a woman, not simply, nor even primarily, as a sexual joining, but joined together in a yet more distinctive and important way. Oddly, the recent and broadened interpretation of adultery, expanded now to include any ‘illicit’ sexual relationship, whether involving marrieds or not, is coming from the conservative wing of the church, thinking perhaps that a broader definition of adultery will add force to disciplining sexual active ‘singles’ in the church…who under the new definition would be guilty of ‘adultery’. Confused? You’re not alone.

  16. …just trying to understand why we need a more inclusive understanding of ‘adultery’? I’m not encouraging what used to be called ‘fornication’, but all of this seems nothing more than a search for a larger net. Whatever seems to fit the occasion, it would seem.

  17. Mick observed, “… it became clear that it’s essentially impossible to be truly non-denominational and really interact with other churches.”

    I think this is more a function of the raison d’etre of almost all local religion clubs, which is to stay in business themselves by attracting members. Because of this, the clubs gladly poach members from one another and call it “church growth”. They also work hard to keep their own sheep in their own barns. If Mick’s group reaches out for fellowship to another club, that club’s leaders immediately worry about losing members and at best half-heartedly offer their fellowship. As a leader, I fear that real fellowship might result in MY sheep spending time in YOUR barn, and that is the worst possible thing I can imagine. After all, I am not a leader in the Kingdom, but a leader of OUR kingdom, and my allegiance is to that smaller fief.

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