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Thursday, March 19, 2015

By Any Other Name

Pretty, but you get better light when it’s in one piece ...
What is the church, really?

If we want to understand the concept as God designed it and as he sees it, we have to start with the New Testament. The truth about the church cannot be known any other way. Sure, there are lots of invented, historical ways in which we may conceptualize the church. But if we believe in the inspiration of the Bible, this is where we need to begin.

The word ekklēsía is not a specifically religious term. It is a perfectly ordinary Greek word for a public gathering. Any spiritual significance it has acquired comes from its New Testament usage, where it is translated “church” 109 times and “assembly” or “congregation” five times.

One Word, Two Senses

Let’s ignore the general usage and concentrate on the spiritual one, since that’s our subject. In this context the word ekklēsía may be legitimately and scripturally used in two (and only two) ways: (1) the universal church of which the Lord Jesus spoke when he said, “I will build my church”; or (2) the local gathering of believers in any specific geographic location, as when the Lord addresses the “church in Pergamos”, the “church in Thyatira” or even, marvelously, the “church in your house”. Every single “religious” use of the term in scripture falls into one of these two categories.

The church is either microscopic or massive, depending on whether we think of it locally or universally. In its historical and geographic sense, the church Christ is building is immeasurable, taking in every believer in Jesus Christ from Pentecost to the coming return of the Lord for his people, from every hidden corner of every nation on earth. In its local sense it may be very quantifiable indeed, encompassing two or three who gather in a living room to the name of the Lord Jesus.

In what we might call its “universal” sense the church has no human head, either individually or organizationally. The head of the church is Jesus Christ. All authority in the church is derived directly from him. The apostles are dead and gone, and there is no mechanism in the New Testament by which apostolic authority may be passed on. There is authority at the local level, of course. The apostles established a pattern of appointing elders in every church, committing them directly to the Lord, then conveniently left instructions as to how local churches might recognize elders in the absence of an apostle to do it for them.

So we can legitimately speak of a local church or a universal church. We can legitimately speak of local “shepherds” and a Chief Shepherd.

What we don’t find in scripture is anything in between.

That is to say, we do not find any legitimate human authority in the church beyond the immediate local setting. Other than location, we do not find any means of distinguishing some Christians from others, nor do we find formal unions among churches. No boards, no head offices, no official practices and positions of any particular group of churches, and no way of enforcing them if they did exist.

In short, we do not find denominations.

No Denominations

Denominations are just plain absent. There are no New Testament instructions to churches to band together on the basis of agreement about particular scriptural themes or ideas, nor are there are instructions to churches to disassociate from one another on the basis of a lack of orthodoxy or faithfulness. Nothing. Crickets.

In fact, the opposite is the case. The tendency to take the name of any honoured servant of Christ is specifically called fleshly, infantile and “merely human” by the apostle Paul. He asks
“Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
It cannot be argued that the current state of affairs — in which Christendom all over the world is divided into a multitude of groups of various sizes named after theological ideas and ordinances, renowned historical church figures and who-knows-what else — was the intent of the apostles or reflects the desire of the Lord himself, who prayed that his disciples “may all be one”. 

So how have we gotten to where we are today?

A (Very) Little History

Though there have been plenty of disagreements among Christians going all the way back to the apostles, denominationalism, in the obvious way we see it today, is a fairly recent feature of Christendom. It is not my purpose (nor is it my area of expertise) to spend a lot of time examining debatable claims to be “pre-denominational” on the part of Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox, who parted ways back in the 11th century. Both claim the title of original, apostolic church. Clearly both cannot be correct. The Assyrian Church hived off back in AD 431 or thereabouts and we hear next to nothing about them today. But Protestantism and its myriad subdivisions are a post-16th century phenomenon, and many branches of Protestantism have flourished, if only intermittently. Most denominations in North American are at least that recent.

It is also not my purpose to play Monday morning quarterback to those Christians who believed particular truths in scripture were important enough to separate themselves from their friends and loved ones. If we could be confident we had all the facts, we might be able to assess whether they parted ways with their fellows graciously or not, but it is clear that in many cases they were obeying their consciences.

And in all cases, they are accountable to their Master and not to us.

How Does Christ See This?

Of course the most important thing to determine is how the Lord views division among his people, since is impossible to imagine that he did not fully anticipate the current state of affairs, or any of the other acrimonious divisions that have taken place throughout church history.

He said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it”. We may safely conclude that the work of Christ over two millennia is not even slightly endangered by denominationalism, as much as he may dislike its effects and the spirit of independence and superiority that so easily arises out of it. A universal “church” such as is spoken of in the New Testament is a spiritual entity not subject to the limitations of geography or history. You and I, if we are believers in Christ, remain as united with everyone else who calls on his name as ever.

That is the reality, and no apparently-schismic event engineered by Martin Luther or anyone else can affect it. The church universal does not depend on any one person’s efforts, be they great or small, nor can its construction be stopped or even delayed by the opposition of any individual or group, however determined. She would exist if we were never saved, and she will be presented as a pure bride to her Bridegroom one day in the hopefully-near future.

How Can I Reflect the Oneness of the Body?

If such unity, permanence and significance is the purpose of almighty God, how can I reflect that spirit in the here and now?

Let me suggest a few ways:

1.    Some Christians react very strongly to the criticism of other denominations and feel doing so is un-Christlike. If in this they object on general principle of politeness to the mere pointing out of error, I would strongly suggest they re-read their New Testaments, especially the parts about the Lord and the Pharisees, or some of the later epistles where false teachers are discussed. It is perfectly legitimate, even necessary, to repudiate specific instances of false doctrine or bad practice. It may even be appropriate to point out where the particular error is most frequently to be found. But it is the error that we should attack, not the people of God. Blanket criticisms of Baptists, Pentecostals, Catholics, etc. simply because they attend a denominational church are as bad as any other meaningless generality and do not reflect the spirit of the Head of the Church.

2.    Anything that is said from an attitude of superiority puts us in dangerous spiritual territory.

3.    Where feasible, we should give serious consideration to the possibility of regularly gathering to worship with Christians who think the same way. One can hardly object to the taking of sectarian names by Christian congregations when one attends a church where that is the tradition.

4.    Where friendships are concerned, a spirit of exclusivity as a believer is also foreign to the spirit of Christ. If I decline to associate with Christians who do not believe precisely what I do, I fail to give opportunity for iron to sharpen iron as we interact, I keep myself from hearing things that may help me walk more closely with the Lord, I shut myself off from all manner of delightful fellowship, and I cease to reflect the oneness of the Body.

5.    When we hear objections like “we have to call ourselves something”, the best pattern is always the scriptural one. Local churches in the New Testament are referred to by their location, that’s all. There are probably dozens or hundreds of church groups in most cities, so referring to ourselves as “the church at Philadelphia” may be a little presumptuous. (“The church on Maple Street” may not be taken yet, though.)

6.    For those of us who already gather non-denominationally, we really need to watch out for creeping sectarianism. It is a battle that needs to be fought every generation, and in the heart of every new believer.

The Spirit of Denominationalism

On that last note, among the Christians with whom I fellowship I am now hearing all-too-frequently words like “in OTHER denominations”. Such things may be mere slips of the tongue. If so, we shouldn’t be too harsh. But they may also be a sign that we are not teaching the truth of the one Body clearly or frequently enough, or that we are not effectively modeling it in our lives and in our churches.

If you think like a denomination, you probably are one — even if the particular distinction you embrace is your non-distinctiveness. Sectarianism is an attitude that does not disappear simply by reducing the number of capital letters you use in your name.

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