It is not uncommon to hear Christians voicing deep concern and regret about today’s world-wide church scene. The proliferation of denominations is seen as a gross indication of the failure of Christianity to maintain her unity through the ages. One parody of a well-known hymn, which I heard in the late sixties went like this:
Like a mighty tortoise
Moves the church of God.
Brothers, we are treading
Where we’ve always trod.
We are all divided,
Many bodies, we,
Strong in faith and doctrine,
Weak in charity!
Critical and mournful statements galore abound. In the view of those who speak thus, the church has fragmented and splintered, and has moved away from the original intention of the Saviour. They cite His prayer in John17 –
“… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17 vs 21)
If you heed the doomsayers, since the New Testament church, it has and is all going devastatingly wrong, with so many denominations arguing with each other and not enough emphasis being placed on ditching the differences and pitching in to evangelising the world. So what the world sees when it looks at ‘the church’ is a feuding, squabbling collection of argumentative factions, all convinced that their group is ‘most right’ and all the others are wrong. Some go further and say that this will only be remedied when ‘the church’ discovers its unity once more and stops messing about!
I don’t buy it!
And the major reason I will not accept that that is the conclusion we ought to reach is that I wholely believe that God knows what he is doing. Are we really to accept that the history of the church, through the centuries, has completely run away from Him, and become something He never intended? Or do we believe that our Lord Jesus Christ is as much the head of His body, the church, today as ever He was when He first founded her through His Apostles? Are we to think that His declared aim for His bride, which is:
“… to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5 vs 27)
… on the final Day, will be thwarted? Or do we trust that He is yet working towards that end with all the work, within the saints, of the Spirit He fills them with, and that the gates of hell will, indeed, not prevail? It seems to me that those who are being so negative, and are so ready to widely criticise the church in the world are actually lacking faith in the promises of Christ, however ‘non-visible’ it would appear that they are actually being fulfilled. We should yet assert, boldly, that
“ … I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day.” (2 Timothy 1 vs 12)
You see that the strength of this promise lies not in the ‘entrusting’ but in the ‘keeping’. Who does that? God does; the One in whom we have believed – not us. He persuades us that HE is able. It’s His work to do that, not ours. Will He do it? Of course He will. He is God! After all, whose church are we? We are Christ’s church, from first to last, and He IS building us. And who can destroy what He builds?
If we have such a ‘down’ on the church and on our age, we are doubting God’s control of history, and the plan He has to bring everything into subjection, to place it at the feet of His Son. We may now see how He is achieving this, but we must believe that He is. At the end of time, the verdict will not be that He saved His children in spite of history. It will be that all history served Him to save them.
Of Motives and Mistakes
I am not saying that the church through the ages has not made mistakes, and has not ofttimes behaved abominably towards fellow-believers who have not held their particular viewpoint on one thing or another. I am not saying that some of the things over which there has been bitter division have not been trivial incidentals over which mature men and women of God ought to have known better and behaved in a more Christ-like manner. And we need to bear in mind that future saints of God may look at the differences we hold as majorly important, in retrospect, and judge these in the same way. But someone has said that wisdom in hindsight is as good as giving a bald man a comb! Too late, we cry! It all seems so vital when we are actually in the midst of the argument. And demonstrates our deep desire to be doing the truths of our God justice, and to be living consistently with them and by them. Let us not quickly dismiss the passion of those hearts of Christians in the past who have done what they could to defend God’s word. We bear them witness that they had a zeal for God – and Christ – however unenlightened we might now see that it was in some respects, at least.
But let us say more about that passion. Is it not precisely that desire to see the Biblical tenets vindicated that have also protected the core-church of Christ from so many heresies? Is it not true that brave souls have withstood the fiery breath of hell in its endeavour to burn out saving grace and silence the saving gospel? If there had not been men and women of that spirit, surely the great Christian truths of salvation and grace would have been buried long ago under the amassed doctrines of heresy. What of the Reformation? Even if they did not ‘get it all right’, and reformation needs to be ongoing, when they stood against the vast might of Pope and priests, nailing theses to doors, resisting scathing criticisms, political pressures, and even outright persecution, were they not displaying something as noble as the three, in Daniel’s day, who refused to bow the knee to Babylon’s king, choosing to trust God ‘even though He slay them’? Do we so easily demean such faith? Is it not by such as these that Almighty God has preserved His people for Himself through the ages?
Surely, there is nothing wrong with this. We must not downplay it. We must look to the direction in which it is aimed. It is the target at which the arrow is pointed which must be determined properly, not the force behind it which should be weakened. Such passion, I say, is essential to the church’s ongoing existence, and it derives from hearts on fire with love for God and concern for the things of Christ. Who would want to extinguish that fire?
Branching, not Fragmentation
So let us do a little examination of the church ‘family tree’, as it has grown through the years. And this by way of some general observations, in a positive light, rather than looking at specifics. It may help us to see how we have ‘evolved’ to become so diverse, even amongst those congregations who would deem themselves ‘orthodox, conservative evangelicals’ (and I make no attempt to define what that means here). How, then, have these divisions come about?
The departure of the antichrists
“They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.” (1 John 2 vs 19)
John describes these as ‘mini antichrists’. There will be one, great Antichrist before Jesus returns. But before he comes, his like will be amongst the churches, and will reveal themselves in this way. They may begin within the church proper, but they will not remain. Unable to tolerate sound doctrine, and the Spirit of Christ, they move on. But we must ask what becomes of them? What do they ‘go out’ to? To disappear forever? To vanish into the air? Well, maybe some do. But others will form their own gatherings, collected around their errors. They will become cults and sects – even entire other religions – in their own right, pseudo-Christian and deficient, but with the appearance, to the undiscerning, of that from which they came – the true church. Their doctrine will be deadly, and they will not show forth the fruit of Christ, of His Spirit, in their lifestyle. Indeed, it is against such as these that John writes his first letter. Rapidly after the birth of the church on the Day of Pentecost, as Paul predicts at Ephesus:
“ I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard.”(Acts 20 vs 29, 30)
Two sources, then, of these disruptive influences – both from without and within. As the hymn ‘The church’s one foundation’ puts it:
“… with a scornful wonder the world see her oppressed,by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,”
Their aim? To draw away disciples after them’ – to gain a following at the expense of the real church of Christ. Their method? They will ‘distort the truth’. These, then, are predicted by your Bible. They are now, in our world, fully-fledged, fully grown organisations and religions in their own right. You see them, don’t you?
The Distinctives of Difference
So we see that competing with the churches who hold to the truth – the ‘orthodox’ – we will have alongside us those so-called churches who do not. This is anticipated by God’s word – no surprises. But also, we have these distinct ‘movements’ who, for all their differences, hold to the God of the word and the word of God. The differences between them are over what are often termed ‘secondary doctrines’, that is to say aspects of faith which do not damage or destroy the Gospel. And it is these that the saints so often sigh over. ‘Would that it were not so’, say many. ‘Oh that we were combined and united in our agreement of what the Scriptures teach’. Well, I am going to argue that although ‘we’ might have done it differently, this is all in the plan of God – is necessary to that plan for the development and perfection of the bride of Christ in preparation for His coming. My reason? Just that otherwise, it would not be so, it would not be happening.
Another trait we can trace through history is that as new truth is rediscovered from God’s word (after so much was lost in the institutionalizing of the faith which became the Roman Catholic church), so new movements emerge to maintain them. It works something like this:
- The ‘mainline church’ (Group A) has a body of doctrine which it holds as valid
- Something is discovered in the Scriptures that shows that that body of doctrine is in some way deficient.
- A group is formed (Group B) of those who hold to the ‘difference’ – and they make much noise about it
- Group A disagrees and wants to maintain its assertions, its status quo
- Group B splits off in order to establish and preserve their new-found truth and awareness of the Scriptures
Let’s be clear that we are not here speaking of the emergence of error, but the emergence of truth. This ‘truth’ could be one of two types:
- A difference of doctrine – what is believed
- A difference of practice – what is done, or how it is done
So we now have two streams, one ‘old school’ and one ‘new school’. Both hold to the basic Biblical doctrines regarded as essential for salvation. But in faith and practice, perhaps both, there is now not only disagreement, but segregation between Group A and Group B. I would argue that this process is inevitable. It is also necessary in order to keep the discovered truth, else it would be ‘reabsorbed’ and buried again. And each new group has the ‘potential’ to divide again. History has demonstrated it time and time again. I suggest that this is not ‘fragmenting’ – it is ‘branching’. As long as the ‘branches’ are connected to the true vine, they are legitimate.
The Practice of Preference
Some of the differences between church and church are purely practical. If one group prefers to worship in a certain way, why should they be made to conform? Is this not just the freedom we are given? After all, it doesn’t destroy ‘oneness in Christ’, it just displays diversity. If you are more comfortable standing to pray and sitting to sing, and I the other way around, why should either of us insist on making the others do it the other way? Sometimes these differences can be accommodated without problem within the same fellowship. And it is important that we accept we must not legislate where the Bible doesn’t. But with some things – the form of church leadership, for example – they are ‘structural’ and it is impossible for a single fellowship to be both. A decision has to be made. And if it is your choice that ‘my’ shape of fellowship is not to your taste, and you are happier elsewhere, so be it. The one who eats meat must not look down on the one who only eats vegetables, or vice-versa. Sometimes, it is hard to know which one IS the ‘weaker brother’.
Tim Keller is on record as saying that tolerance is not a question of not drawing lines – we all do; it is impossible not to. Rather, it is a question of how we treat those the other side of the lines we draw. That’s very useful, isn’t it? And with ‘one another’ – in whatever ’groupings’ we find ourselves, we have Christ’s direct command to that end. We are to love as He has loved us.
The Importance of Inspiration
What is important for all believers, in whatever denomination they are, is that they are persuaded to what they hold as true from Scripture. It may be more comfortable for me if everyone agrees with me and does things my way. But if their hearts are not where their professions are, what a terrible price to pay for that superficial unity. It is nothing more than uniformity. We must not dream that we will solve all our problems by painting a veneer of ‘sameness’ over the top, of simply wallpapering over cracks. The insistence of one person, or one group’s convictions, over all is nothing less than tyrannical. Our faith depends upon inner conviction, persuasion to, not imposition of, the truth. I simply do not want you to ‘believe’ what I believe because I believe it – I want you to believe it because you believe it. Else I am your authority, not God, and you have submitted to me, not to Him. That just produces plastic faith – a mere substitute for the real thing.
The Impetus of Inertia!
So, I implore you, stay in your denomination. And let us, as brothers and sisters, who will one day share eternity together, explore how to look at God’s word together, bringing our distinct views under its sound and its rule. Let us both have the openness of mind and of heart to ask the Spirit to reveal to each of us what we do not yet know, as well as what we think we know, but have not got quite right. Let us hold our ‘doctrines’ in an open hand and not grasp them tightly in unremitting fingers. That way, if God needs to add or remove anything, He doesn’t have to prise open our clenched fists in order to do so. We must remain teachable as well as fully persuaded.
In conclusion, then:
- Denominations are with us to stay. Nothing you or I can do is going to change that. So we have to learn to live with them, and make them do what glorifies Christ. They don’t have to be viewed as the church’s great failure. Let’s look to see what God is doing.
- Let’s treat each other with all the love of Christ and respect.
- Let’s be transparent and clear, not only about what we believe, but why. Exposing our hermeneutic helps others to see how we got to what we believe.
- Let’s not take difference over doctrine personally. We don’t have to be aggressive in the assertion of ours, or defensive when others assert theirs. It’s God’s truth, not ‘mine’. It will stand if it is true. Whether I ‘defend’ it or not.
- Let’s be prepared to change. Intractability is not a virtue, although steadfastness is. We need to know the difference.
- Let’s get back to God’s word with absolutely everything. The Berean spirit prevails.
- Let’s look for opportunities for unity. Fellowship. Rejoicing in our vast ‘common ground’ rather than retreating to the disputed edges.
The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
she is his new creation by water and the Word.
From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.
Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth;
her charter of salvation: one Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name she blesses, partakes one holy food,
and to one hope she presses, with every grace endued.
Though with a scornful wonder the world see her oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping; their cry goes up: “How long?”
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war,
she waits the consummation of peace forevermore,
till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest,
and the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.
Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One,
and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won:
O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we
like them, the meek and lowly, may live eternally.