|EXPLORING CHRISTIANITY - THE CHURCH||
LIFE AFTER DEATHChristianity's Hope & Challenge.
What about denominations
Speaking at the Open Doors USA headquarters in Santa Ana, California, the Dutch-born veteran missionary, Brother Andrew, said:
There is only one message I would have for American Christians: let them acknowledge that there is only one Body of Christ. It would solve 90 percent of the problems of the poor and suffering. It would make the whole world so much better if you don't see things in terms of denominations and nationalism and if you could literally do what the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12, "Taking the same care of one another".
In New Testament days, denominations did not exist. Paul could write to the Christians in Corinth or the Christians in Philippi or the Christians in Ephesus. Now he would have to write to the Methodists, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Brethren, Salvation Army, Elim, Apostolic, New Life - and all the others - in any given place. Denominations have sprouted over the history of the church for a number of reasons. Some have formed over differences in doctrine, some over differences of structure or practice. However it has happened, our situation today seems very far removed from the kind of unity that the New Testament talks about and which God so much desires. Most denominations have little to do with each other. Artificial barriers, caused by denominationalism, abound in every local community.
Lesslie Newbigin, in his influential book Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, has a significant passage about denominations which is worth quoting at some length:
It is the common observation of sociologists of religion that denominationalism is the religious aspect of secularization. It is the form that religion takes in a culture controlled by the ideology of the Enlightenment. It is the social form in which the privatisation of religion is expressed. As Thomas Luckman says, "Once religion is defined as a private affair the individual may choose from the assortment of ultimate meanings as he sees fit." ...It follows that neither a denomination separately nor all the denominations linked together in some kind of federal unity or "reconciled diversity" can be the agents of a missionary confrontation with our culture, for the simple reason that they are themselves the outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual surrender to the ideology of our culture...One of the encouraging features of church life in England today is the growing number of "local ecumenical projects that bring together the denominationally separated churches in one place in order to create a more coherent and credible Christian witness to the whole human community in that place. These are scattered, fragile, and vulnerable enterprises, but they indicate the direction in which the church must go.
Obviously, God loves diversity, and diversity should be no problem in the church. But denominations tie diversity to disunity, whereas the new Testament links diversity with unity. When the things that make us different are seen to be more important than the things that hold us together, then we are in serious trouble. We are totally missing the vision of the New Testament. Four decades ago, Karl Barth wrote:
If a man can acquiesce in divisions, if he can even take pleasure in them, if he can be complacent in relation to the obvious faults and errors of others and therefore his own responsibility for them then that man may be a good and loyal confessor in the sense of his own particular denomination, he may be a good Roman Catholic or Reformed or Orthodox or Baptist, but he must not imagine that he is a good Christian.
An Irishman was asked by an American tourist, "How do I get to Cork?" After pondering for a minute or two, the Irishman said, "Well, if I were going to Cork I wouldn't start from here." It would be great if we could start from scratch again, though with humans being what we are, even though we may have found a relationship with God, we would probably still make a mess of it. We have got to start from where we are and it is likely that we shall be stuck with denominations for a very long time, unless there is such violent persecution of Christians that we are forced to get together! But I believe we must learn to think biblically, rather than thinking denominationally. We are so accustomed to thinking denominationally that taking such a step will require a major adjustment. For a start, we must begin to view all the Christians in our local community as a necessary part of the Body of Christ, rather than focusing on our own little group. Unless we can come together, and pray, plan and work together in our local areas, we are not going to make a significant impact on our communities. George Webber, in The Congregation in Mission, gives a challenge we must face:
Only congregations oriented to mission and not to membership and institutional success will pay the price of co-operation that does not necessarily build up the numbers of the local church, but does witness in a community to the gospel. Churches, more rigorously than individuals, hate to give up their own life for the sake of the world.
Recently Challenge Weekly reported an account of how five churches in Taupo had joined together for a weekly combined Service. The pastors of the five churches met on a weekly basis to pray and plan together. Since taking this step, several hundred people had become Christians in the community. In Invercargill, twenty to thirty church leaders have met to pray and plan together for the last seven years. Brian Hathaway, who travels widely in the country as Principal of the New Zealand Bible College, says:
From Invercargill in the South to Kaitaia in the North pastors and ministers are seeking new ways to work together. This is a far more significant thing than the Toronto blessing or a lot of other things that we or the media get excited about.
However, we have a long, long way to go. Hathaway gives three good reasons for Christians to work together. Firstly, the Trinity longs to see it. Secondly, the world needs to see it. Thirdly, the enemy hates to see it. Disunity grieves the Trinity, confuses the world and gladdens the enemy.
I love a passage by Dr A. W. Tozer in which he expressed the spiritual maturity of those who grow in grace as they grow old with God:
There is a glorious catholicity of the saints, a mystic brotherhood of the farsighted, who have long been straining their eyes to catch a glimpse of the King in His beauty in the land that is very far off. With great joy and deep humility I claim membership in that brotherhood. This is the oldest and largest church in the world; it is the church of the Cross-smitten, of the God-enamoured.
So as the years go on, I am coming to care less and less about any man's denominational ties. Let a man have a faraway look in his eyes, let him bow his head and whisper the ever-blessed name of Jesus, and he is my brother, whatever his name may be. And whether he will admit it or not. If by some bit of unfortunate education he may believe his church to be the only one, and consign me to perdition because I am not in it, I will still own him a member of the family of God if I find in his life the marks of the Cross and in his eyes the long look that reveals the man of faith.
Stewart Henderson has written a poem he entitled Certain Resolutions:
What about denominations