To use the Christianese phrase, God's really been putting something on my heart the past few days - He's been teaching me new things about my long-held approach to denominationalism (the practice of having multiple denominations, like Baptists, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Bereans, etc., within Christianity). I'm going to talk about that today instead of posting a Bible study tip.
I'm going to be bold right up front, and if it offends or shocks you, please keep reading - I'll be attacking myself, too. ;-)
I believe that the American method of splitting the church into denominations is contradictory to Scripture - that it is anti-Biblical. I believe that, for those Christians who do not have the same interpretation of Scripture regarding this issue as I hold, it is not a sin issue because they're not consciously doing anything wrong, but, that doesn't change the fact that (in my view) it has many extremely negative consequences. These consequences damage the Church and inhibit witnessing to the lost.
Okay, hang with me. Let's look at the Scripture that I base this belief off of:
1 Corinthians 1:10-13
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe's people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, "I am of Paul," and "I of Apollos," and "I of Cephas," and "I of Christ." Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
The problem in this passage is that the Christians in Corinth were no longer using "Christian" as their way of identifying their beliefs - they were latching onto their favorite Christian leaders, and those leaders' personal doctrine. This is exactly the case with the denominations today. And I see it play out all the time - when a Christian is asked what religion they are, so often they don't say, "I'm a Christian," they say, "I'm a [insert denomination name]." The fact of the matter is, we should all say "I of Christ"!!! Christ is our identity, and the rest additions, not labels - they can describe our beliefs, but they should not be used to identify ourselves!
Alright, so what bad comes out of this? Two consequence groups: (1) Division within Christ's Church, and (2) Appearance of division to unbelievers, which inhibits witnessing. Let's start with number one.
Okay, division within the Church [when I say Church, I mean all Christians everywhere; when I say church, I mean a local group that fellowships together]. Recently, I have seen a missionary's account where she was lauding Christians who responded to a natural disaster overseas...only, she didn't say "Christians" - she said her own specific denomination. I've also seen an organization offer free resources on how to share the gospel and disciple believers - but the large note at the bottom said it was only available to people who belonged to that specific denomination. Saints, this is evil! It breeds arrogance and hostility toward other believers - both of which are out-right sins. And it prevents churches from working together to accomplish things for God's kingdom!
In addition, it negatively impacts our ability to share the gospel! Many unbelievers don't see denominations as different forms of Christianity, they see them as different religions altogether. They think that if Christians can't even agree with each other, why should they bother believing it? Therefore, denominationalism may result in fewer people being saved from Hell.
But, I also can understand why Christians throughout history have thought that splitting into denominations would be helpful and beneficial:
(1) Let's look at division for branches instead of denominations - Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. I would lack all academic integrity to claim that the above 1 Corinthians passage doesn't apply to this division, because there is absolutely no Scriptural or logical reason I could claim that. I fully believe that there are some Catholic Christians who are genuinely saved, some Protestant Christians who are genuinely saved, and some Orthodox Christians who are genuinely saved. Yet, these types of Christianity are so radically different that, other than Christ alone, they have virtually nothing in common. Saying one word - Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox, is a quick way to explain so much about what you believe. It's a major time saver.
(2) Branching off of this, there's the practicality of fellowship. For example, a woman praises God with worship songs done with electric guitars and a man who praises God with worship songs done in Gregorian chant are unlikely to be able to attend the same church service and both feel edified. Likewise, a woman who believes that no spiritual gifts exist today and a man who believes that every congregant should exercise his/her spiritual gifts at every church gathering are unlikely to leave the same church service both feeling edified. Now, in both of these cases, Biblically, they should treat each other as brethren - as fellow believers - and they may even be good friends. But this doesn't mean they'll attend the same church service. So, by having denominational labels, a church makes it much easier for people to immediately identify which church would fit their worship and teaching style best.
(3) When you get to the absolute extreme ends of any doctrine, the two opposing sides view each other as absolute heretics, and follow the Biblical command to cut off fellowship with that who proclaim false teaching. And the thing is, in at least some cases, one side is right. But how do we know which one? I don't have an answer - God alone knows which approach to every single doctrine ever is correct, because no man ever has or ever will have perfect doctrine. So, in this case, denominational labels are a way of disassociating with perceived heresy. That's a good thing - IF they're right. It's a really sticky issue.
Okay, so we've looked at a Bible passage, at the negative consequences of denominationalism, and at the reasons why denominationalism may have been perceived as necessary. Now I'd like to share how my own approach has changed.
I used to classify myself as "non-denominational" because of the Bible passage and negative consequences shared above. But I've recently realized that in my mind, this view had shifted to me making "non-denominational" into a denomination, and I was growing arrogant and slightly hostile toward those who preached denominationalism! In other words, in the name of the Unity of the Church, I was fostering Disunity! That made me a hypocrite. I've encountered a term that I can think of myself as to fix this mental shift, but unfortunately, the term means different things to different people. The term is "pan-denominational" (pan means all). Some people use this to mean all religions, and I do NOT mean that. I mean all Christian denominations. I mean that I will not reject any Christian who believes the basics of Christianity - things like the Trinity, that salvation comes through grace by faith in Jesus Christ alone, etc. (check out what I consider the core basics under the "About" tab) - and that I will continually strive to not take a divisive, arrogant, hostile attitude toward those who have different doctrinal views than I do on non-salvation issues.
But that still doesn't solve everything - there's still the imbalance between the negative and postive effects of denominationalism. My personal view at this moment is that perhaps there's a happy medium where labels exist only for the purpose of simplifying whose church services you're most likely to mesh with, but without creating a divisive mindset among Christians and without creating the appearance of disunity to unbelievers. Perhaps steps toward this would include identifying ourselves as "Christian" alone in conversation and not sticking to "church circles" where we only work together with identically-minded congregations.
Please feel free to share your thoughts. What negative impacts of denominationalism can you think of? What postiive impacts? How can we fix these problems? How can we overall balance the situation? Do you have personal experience (good or bad) with denominationalism?
Your opinions are 100% welcome. However, personal attacks on individuals or specific denominations will not be tolerated and I reserve the right to remove them - that will only breed division, which is the very thing I'm trying to prevent here!
Finally, on to a bit of "house keeping." I'm on Christmas Break for a month, so I will be able to post much more frequently during that time period. Here's the new schedule:
Mondays: Verse-by-verse Bible study in Matthew
Wednesdays: Personal commentary on a social issue or topical study
Fridays: Verse-by-verse Bible study in Matthew
Saturdays: Weekend post - combination of Bible study tip, Christian media review, song, etc.
Bear in mind that these posts will often show up in the late afternoons, unless I write it the day before and schedule it. If checking back a few times on posting days to see when I get a post up drives you crazy, you can either: (1) Follow the blog if you have a Google account and regularly visit your Blogger dashboard, in which case my new posts will pop up there automatically, or (2) Follow by e-mail, in which case Blogger will send you an e-mail every time I put up a new post. Both of these can be found on the right side-bar.
Finally, because it's the weekend and we're getting close to Christmas, I'd like to share a Christmas song you may not have heard before - "A Soldier's King" by Kenny Rogers. I find it incredibly touching.