I grew up in — and still happily attend — independent Bible churches, which for those of you who don’t know, is a bit like independent Baptist churches, with a small variation in spelling. To be fair, the Bible churches have sometimes also left behind a certain amount of legalistic drivel that the independent Baptists have, in my experience, largely kept. These things aside, they’re about the same.
Except for one thing. We claimed no larger family affiliation. People would ask, “What denomination are you with?” We would say — rather proudly, to be honest — “None. We just study the Bible and believe what it teaches.” This was, presumably, different from those denominational folks, who believed in the Bible and their denominational distinctives (and, we thought, tended toward the latter in the event of a conflict).
Which is to say, we just followed Christ, and never mind Martin Luther, or John Wesley, or Menno Simons.
Paul once wrote to people who thought very similarly. He castigated those who followed one human teacher to the exclusion of others — they would say ” I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos” or “I am of Cephas,” and Paul shot back, “Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” A little later he says,
For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?
Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building.
“Exactly,” we would say. It wasn’t about the human teacher at all; it was about following Christ. And that’s just a lot holier, isn’t it?
Not so fast. While there were those in Corinth who would say “I am of Paul” or “I am of Apollos,” there were also those who would say “I am of Christ.” And Paul had a rebuke for them, too: “Is Christ divided?”
When we claim to follow Christ, but we find ourselves constantly divided from our brothers, something is wrong. If it is our very devotion to Christ that seems to be dividing us from the rest of His Church, then we need to consider whether we are in fact worshiping Christ, or ourselves.
“But the Church is filled with apostasy today,” we say. “Of course we have to separate ourselves from that.”
As if the Corinthian church were some sort of paragon! Paul wrote this rebuke to a church that was corrupt to the core. Their services were a mess, their men consorted with prostitutes, they didn’t practice church discipline, they sued each other in secular court, they got drunk at the Lord’s Table, they tolerated heresy and every sort of license…let’s face it, what the Lutherans down the street are up to is apt to be pretty mild by comparison. Yet even with all that going on, Paul doesn’t treat sectarian divisions as a solution, but as yet another problem — and the first one he tackles, at that.
It’s pretty simple, really: if we are following Christ, we’ll find ourselves drawn toward His people. If His people have gone astray, we will find ourselves seeking to return them to the Shepherd, not just avoiding them…again, if we are really following Christ. When we find ourselves dividing from His people then we are not really following Christ, no matter what it says on the church sign or the doctrinal statement.
Denominations exist because believers wanted to band together, and as long as the denomination is a force for unity, glory to God for all of it. There’s nothing wrong with being nondenominational, either, if in your particular circumstance that doesn’t hinder unity. Conversely, if your affiliation, or proud non-affiliation, becomes a point of division from your brothers instead of an occasion for unity with them, then you’re warped and sinning, no matter what the affiliation or lack thereof.
Tim and others,
Your comments on this thread and our previous reflections on “Whom to Ban from Theological Debate” have raised—for me at least—the question, Is it possible to have “true community” in Christ on the blogosphere? People seem much more prepared to offer “rules for disconnecting” than “guidelines for unity,” such as Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who…[you fill in the blank].
A number of blogs have been spawned in reaction to the sense of parochialism you describe so well, so they present some appeal to those who have become disillusioned with more conventional “church” affiliation yet who also don’t want to “abandon Jesus.” I am intrigued by the question of what keeps these internet “communities” going whenever the inevitable disagreements arise among their members, whose only criteria for belonging is a willingness to keep posting comments or responding to those of others. It’s hard for me to imagine that the “lurkers” in these communities get any real “life” as mere spectators until they find the perfect comment from someone else, thus enabling them to then to “swoop down” and post the “perfect” response—probably one of the more sophisticated forms of narcissism in this age of information technology. (Yes, I too am guilty of such narcissism.)
Sometimes, depending on the content of any given thread on such blogs, I will insert a subversive question for reflection like “OK, we’ve heard how the ‘institutional church’ [a phrase all but patented among such groups, often pejoratively abbreviated, ‘IC’] has departed from “real” life in Christ; how then do we ‘reconnect’ on the blogs to form true community? Is that possible? Why even affiliate on the Internet if this is all we get?” All I typically get is the Internet equivalent of a “blank stare.”
Occasionally—and this has happened on all the blogs I follow—a comment will spark the desire for one or another person to want to communicate with me directly by phone or by e-mail to try to achieve a somewhat deeper level of “connection,” yet this still leaves me deeply dissatisfied in some ways, yearning for a “bigger,” more “inclusive” sense of community within the Body of Christ.
One thing these more intimate conversations do accomplish is that the initiative to connect more deeply—and the more obvious “directness” of the conversations that develop from these initiatives—immediately changes the “tone” of Christian conversation to become more inviting and receptive of the other’s points of view, and less reactive or dismissive. What this seems to do is leave the door open for further exploration of apparent points of disagreement rather than categorical rejection of the differing “point of view,” whether explicitly stated on the blog or not. (All one has to do on the blog is simply ignore the other, and their expressed “contribution” to community dies of simple neglect.)
This alternative (and more intimate) “engagement” of people who meet each other on the blogs certainly leaves open the possibility of deeper connection in ways that are not possible in the larger on-line discussion, but it still seems to leave an unexplored “space” of community that I sense in the Biblical descriptions and definitions of “Body life,” such as John 17. This is what I long for, and this is what I have yet to find a satisfactory answer for in current ecclesiastical models—whether in the local church, at the denominational level, or in Internet communities, who typically become no less parochial than the others.
How shall we then live?
Amen to all of that. Online communication is a distant second to in-person communication, and even talking now and again in person can’t hold a candle to daily, or near-daily, participation in the lives of other members of the body. Online “body life” is to real body life as online “community” is to actual community. When you’re largely anonymous to start with, participating at will, held by no bonds, and it costs you nothing to leave, the sort of “body life” you get is pretty cheap, for the most part. God’s people, behaving as they should, can transcend some of the media’s limitations some of the time. But when things go wrong — and they always do — people are just a click away from deleting their profile and moving along to the next forum, under a new handle.
Which is to say that in some ways, the kind of community you can get online is about as deep and meaningful as the kind of sex you can get online.
Maybe that is why Paul commands that we KEEP the unity of the Spirit… in Eph.4:3. it is ours in position as you say, & we are to keep it, or make it real in our experience in the world. I’m just thinking out loud here. Of course, his command to keep this unity is after 3 solid chapters on true doctrine. Pointing to where our unity is based. If we look to Christ, we will be uited in Him.
This is certainly an interesting and tough issue to get straight.
As I see it, Christ is both in the unifying and the separating business. And His separating work is not just between believers and unbelievers, but also believers from believers.
In the area of personal sin, there is mandated separation from believers under certain conditions. There is separation between spiritual infancy and spiritual maturity, between the rewardable and non-rewardable, and so on. Ultimately the separations will result in a unity that only He will accomplish. And even when He brings about this unity, there will be separations that both He and we with Him will guard until the eternal state, I suppose.
You mention denominations vs. non-denominations and each being fine as long as it is not an occasion for division, but are they not already a division in actual form? How do we bring about unity between the two?
Using my own search experience and studies along the way for illustration, I went through several Church models, denominational and non-denominational in several forms looking for a home during a certain number of years some time ago. I’m quite content to be separate, or divided from most of what I found and I see my division from just as important to my division to. In fact they are two sides of the same coin.
I think we’re just dealing with one of those ever prevalent tensions in the Scriptures that have to do with the ever prevalent tensions we see being lived out in this world.
You’ve done a lot of work in Ephesians. What for instance do we make of 4:13? How about translation of the genitives let alone the meanings of all the terms therein? Just when is the MEXRI?
You mention some very admirable and biblical mandated things for us to be doing, like returning a straying sheep to the Shephard. Just how successful have you been at this in these days? As for me I’m finding that whatever level of maturity I’ve gained it’s just as much a deterrent (division) to some believers as it is an attraction (unity) to others. I’ve attempted to guide obviously straying sheep, teens and beyond, back to the Truth (Christ), and I’m amazed at the disrespect from know-it-all kids (temporally and spiritually) who base their rejection and disrespect on what they have been taught in so-called Churches – Churches I most certainly will stay divided from and suggest that others do the same.
Ultimately, at this stage of my understanding, I am comfortable with divisions of several kinds and I’m comfortable that this is a biblical position. Does not walking with Christ demand that we be divided from the world and believers that are in the world and are wanting to stay there? Obviously this is not a question of denominational vs. non-denominational, but I guess I’m bringing it in because the issue of division vs. unity is one that needs to be thought well in many regards.
There’s a place of balance in this tension. The real unity will come with Christ. Whatever unity there can be here and now, we do our best to seek it and find it in Christ. I’ll understand it better and better as He manifests Himself more and more to me and to others around me, and this will take place as Iand we learn to love Him/obey Him and obey/love Him to ever greater degrees.
People are people and we believers are still people. Some of us are denominational and some of us are non-denominational, some of us are of this theology and some of us are of that theology, some of this eschatology and some of that eschatology, same for ecclesiology and probably all of the other ologies. At some point I think we’re all going to find out that the true theology was a matter of us all having parts of the true but none having all of it. If there’s any real unity for us now, its in our mutually realizing that all of us have a long way to go.
In a denomination, believers all over the world unite in their mutual disagreement with the church down the street from them. In a non-denominational church, believers just disagree with everyone, more or less. (They will often recognize other basically like-minded churches for the purpose of some ad hoc event, but not in any way that’s formally binding, which is to say that when the chips are down, it’s every man for himself.) A non-denom church is, functionally, a denomination unto itself, and when two of them get together and form a new denomination, they decrease the total number of denominations in the world by one. So denominations contribute something positive. That said, they also can be a force for division, one denomination from another. The day will come when Christ’s church is truly unified under the direction of Christ Himself, and in that day there will be only one denomination. Denominations, plural, are a temporary measure, like swords and spears. But just because they’re temporary doesn’t mean today is the day to beat the spears into pruning hooks. In the meantime, I believe it’s possible to have a godly use for a sword, or a denomination.
I love your last line: “If there’s any real unity for us now, its in our mutually realizing that all of us have a long way to go.” Amen, and I think that’s a large part of it. Take the Eastern church: They would say that God has permitted them to survive because they are The True Church, and everything else is a schismatic splinter that needs to rejoin them. I’ve heard the arguments, and I can’t agree with them. But God has permitted them to survive, against overwhelming odds and under tremendous persecution. There is surely a reason, and I expect that they have lessons to teach the broader church. Myself, I find them to be transmitting a living tradition of corporate prayer and psalm-singing that is desperately lacking in the church at large, among other gifts. The Pentecostals have a tendency to get out of control, and fail to evaluate the prophets, as the NT plainly says to do — but they bring a wealth of emotion to their worship. The Psalms attest to the emotional nature of worship; the Pentecostals have something to teach us about that. The Presbyterians have a very careful mechanism of church discipline; when they actually use their own system, the wheels turn slowly, but they grind very fine (this as opposed to some of the recent monkeyshines at the PCA and elsewhere). There’s a care, sober-mindedness, and righteous concern for justice and due process that many churches fail to live up to. I grew up in a nondenom church that had a heart for missions that I have rarely seen matched since, and they put their money — well over half the annual budget, IIRC — where their mouth was. This, too, is a lesson many churches need to learn.
There’s a strong trend of abandoning one’s own tradition in disillusionment and moving to something else, only to discover in due time that the new tradition has its own set of problems. Sometimes that’s the right thing to do; some traditions do simply need to die off. Myself, I’m content to work in the tradition in which I was born, and seek to shape it toward what it should be — and this means learning the lessons that other denominations have to teach. That is a large part of what I mean when I talk about working for unity in a nondenom context. I have good working relationships with people across a variety of denominational lines, because we don’t let the divisions be larger than they need to be.
Of course you’re right that there are times you just have to walk away, times when the organization is at war with Christ rather than at peace with Him. At that point, separation is a step toward unity. Take the church discipline case in 1Cor.5 as a paradigm for this. They put him out of the church so that he would repent and be restored. When division is the right thing to do, it is a necessary precursor to discipline that will lead, ultimately, to unity. That said, I think the times when one must walk away are far, far fewer than most people think. God is not a perfectionist; we always fall short this side of glory, and yet He is pleased with us. All too often, we take any failing on someone else’s part as a reason to walk away; we’re like the prodigal son’s older brother. God is overlooking the offense and gazing upon whatever is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous and praiseworthy in love and acceptance, and we’re standing out on the driveway, too ‘holy’ to join the party.
Well said, Tim.
I’m finding myself more and more experiencing this little phrase popping into my head when listening to or reading many of the debates between different Christian groups – its a phrase from an old commercial that stopped a silly debate by saying, Stop! You’re both right! Some of the theological debates seem almost as silly as the one on the commercial did – I think it was about a breath mint or something.
You in a way summed up this same concept in the term you’re using to refer to your eschatological view these days (dominion premil).
I think there’s more of this in reality than we’ll know until we get past ourselves and get where we’re going. And this end goal I greatly yearn for.
Glad you found it useful. Credit where due: although that view of denominations had been with me for years, I owe that particular way of explaining it to Doug Wilson, who is an outstanding wordsmith and worth listening to for that reason alone, to say nothing of his other good qualities as a thinker and public theologian.