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A Raison D'être For Christian Denominations?

(With regard to God's-standard concerning "your love for ALL the saints [Christians]" in Ephesians 1:15-16).
Do church denominations really have a right to exist?
Are they not just a product of past politics and doctrinal disputes?      
Shouldn't spiritual Christians be completely free of denominational structures?
A church denomination has no right to exist before God unless its defining characteristic contributes to the Christian Church's character as a whole.

Well, let's look at some principles of Christianity's beginning.  
As it was then . . .
A Foundation Jesus Laid
 
Christianity's
founding documents, the New Testament, could not be clearer. There is only one Christian Church; the Church of Jesus Christ world-wide! (Ephesians 4:4-6).
 
 
This is so in the New Testament, not only doctrinally or theologically, but also demonstrably in the work of that greatest contributor to the New Testament writings, the Apostle Paul himself. Yet, Paul's personal behaviour speaks even more loudly than his words. His actions in difficult circumstances demonstrate to us that the unity of Christianity is intrinsic and essential to its identity.
 
Paul's
vehemence for the spiritual liberty of non-Jewish Christians was well known, to the extent that it even became the basis for the accusations that led to his arrest in Jerusalem.
As an example, Paul wrote to the Gentile Christians of Galatia –
"Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted?
...As for those agitators
[concerning circumcision], I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!"



Galatians 5:11-12
This
could have led to accusations that he was dividing Christianity by creating a separate Gentile church, but it did not.
 
 
For, even though Paul vigorously taught that Gentile Christians should not be bound by Sinaitic regulations or the circumcision sign of Abraham's Land covenant, he was, at the same time, at such great pains to deliver a letter to the Gentile churches from the leader of the Jerusalem church commanding the apparent opposite.  Paul delivered this letter from James and the Jerusalem church to the Gentile churches personally; a letter that laid very Jewish restrictions upon Gentile churches to avoid giving unnecessary offence by instructing them to abstain – 
"from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals".
Acts 15:29; 16:3-4
In
addition, he went even further and insisted that young Timothy, a Gentile convert, be circumcised (Abraham's covenant sign) to travel as a fellow worker in Paul's church ministry (Acts 16:3). Was this public hypocrisy? Most certainly not.
 
 
The Apostle Paul taught observance of James' letter, even though he regarded this as a compromise (1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Galatians 5:2-12), specifically in order to prevent the Gentile Christian churches being divided from the Jewish Christian churches at that time. It was then a good and necessary compromise to preserve unity!
 
To
this New Testament author, a Christianity composed of even two denominations, one Jewish and one Gentile, was absolutely unthinkable! Such division was to be vigorously guarded against, even if it required the curtailment of legitimate spiritual liberty among Gentile Christians during Paul's time.
 
 
The Jerusalem Church on the other hand (led by James, brother of Jesus) was happy that their Jewish Christians were zealous for national Sinai covenant law –
"You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed [in Jesus].
They are all zealous for the
[Jewish] Law...".
Acts 21:20
Even
if this was little understood by its participants, it was then a good thing in that cultural setting – so that the spread of the Gospel in Jerusalem should not be hindered by wrangling over Jewish law. This not only avoided unnecessary persecution by the dominant Pharisee sect of Judaism, it also served as a bridge for drawing in these "many thousands" to Christ.
 
 
For Paul, the internal perspective of Christianity did not consist in what was 'correct' or 'true'. It was much more than an issue of right and wrong. There was something far larger in his mind. It was the character of Christianity – that mutual love which stops a vegetarian from condemning a meat-eater and vice versa; and the unity that prevents a Sabbath observer from condemning the Christian who treats all days alike (Romans 14:2-6).
 
In this
was expressed the character of Christianity; this unity-in-love. For as Jesus had said – it is 'by this' that the world would recognize His disciples.
 
"A
new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another;
as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
By this shall all men know that ye are My disciples, if ye have love one to another. ...
Father ...Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word; that they all may be one;
as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee,
that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.
And the glory [spiritual enabling] which Thou gavest Me I have given them;
that they may be one, even as We are one: I in them, and Thou in Me,
that they may be made perfect [complete] in one;
and that the world may know that Thou hast sent Me,
and hast loved them, as Thou hast loved Me. ...
And I have declared unto them Thy name [character], and will declare it:
that the love wherewith Thou hast loved Me may be in them, and I in them."
John 13:34-35;
17:1,20-26.
Paul's
compromise is in the language of this love! This is the love that he preached in 1 Corinthians 13. It is the true language of the Christian Church's life and liturgy.
 
 
So, this message of the New Testament, from Christianity's founding documents with their binding principles and practical demonstrations, calls aloud to us all today –
Unity is Critical to our Spiritual Identity!

 
As it is now. . .
Deviations and Damages
 
Today,
Christianity is most marked by its denominational differences, in the varying styles of liturgy and the treatment of social events such as births, marriages and deaths. The doctrinal backgrounds to these differences are not always clear to the public, but the separation between the various church bodies is.
 
 
Paul expressed his warm appreciation to churches in the district of Ephesus for their –
"...love for all God's people" (Ephesians 1:15).
 
Theirs
is a noble example to us today - but it is not enough! It is only a starting point. Love, in attitude and sensitivity toward each other is wonderful, but it is little more than a stepping-off point, unless it changes the visible relationship among us – that which the non-Christian sees.
 
 
The differences that divide us have an appetite which we continue to feed.
 
 
Our continuing support for denominational distinctives therefore needs a validation that holds value in Christian circles beyond our own denomination, whether that value is appreciated or not. If it does not, it has no right to exist, that is – if Christ really did establish one Church for all, as His first apostles believed!
 
 
Even in communities where freedom of religious association and the spiritual benefits of individual preference are highly valued, these do not justify a falsification of Christian identity by continuing to smile upon the conflicting divisions of Christianity.
 
 
Some sincere souls have thought 'independency' (independent congregations) is the answer to the problem of 'denominations'. But this is a half-truth and therefore misleading. God's blessings bring growth and the new congregations that therefore form are unavoidably and rightly associated with their independent 'mother' congregation, even if only loosely - and so, another new 'denomination' is born, to compound the problem.
 
 
Is there really value to other denominations in the distinctives of our own denomination? Often, yes!
 
 
Without this, the value, that ought to validate the existence of any Christian denomination, is debased to nothing more than that of a religious club, and its organizational existence (not its members) is therefore unworthy to be regarded as a part of the Christian faith.
 
This
raises the issue of really – 'what is the Christian church?'.
 
 
Christian understanding took a step backward when the translators of the 1611 English 'Authorized' (or King James) Version decided to translate the New Testament 'ecclesia' as 'church' rather than 'congregation', even though William Tyndale had so translated it earlier, upon whose work most of their Authorized Version without acknowledgement was largely based. It thereby consolidated the misunderstanding that the church is the religious organization rather than the gathered people, gathered by grace.
 
 
Further to this, the very nature of Christianity has been confused. Christian and therefore Church identity relates to the Christ of our New Testament. So, for instance, scholarly disputations on the reliability of the Old Testament carry no significance if they do not reflect Christ's own attitude to the Old Testament presented in the New Testament. To remove this New Testament basis (the revealed Christ) from the Church's identity is to remove its historical foundation and substitute traditions which themselves bear the marks of historical fraud.
 
 
In this sense therefore, 'Christian' denominations such as –
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormon);
The Watch Tower movement (Jehovah Witnesses); etc.
– and even denominational subsets in mainstream Christianity, that have discarded continuity with the New Testament Christ, ought not to be considered as part of this spiritual restoration process for obvious reasons.

 
How?
Understand
 
1.
Understand that it is the local church in its spiritual identity (the people that worship together) which represents the universal Church of Jesus, and not the broader organizational or ministerial support structures! This has hugely liberating implications. Yet even here, there is potential for misunderstanding.
 
 
Too easily the person in the pulpit personifies the local church. Moves to counter this have added to the confusion of 'what is the church?' by using democratic processes, a board of elders, or some other mechanism, to refocus the identity of the church at a congregational level.
 
 
Regional organizational structures of administration and ministry, by their greater scope, often appear more senior and therefore significantly more important than the local church. This is misleading. The Church is the people. Not the people on a denominational register, but the people in spiritual union, as expressed in communal worship.
 
 
The spiritual interrelationship of God's people is the practice of being the Church. For this reason the Apostle Paul warns us that failure by individuals to perceive their fellow Christians as the body of Christ (i.e. as part of themselves), during the celebration of Holy Communion, negates their eucharist of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:17-34, particularly verse 29).
 
This
perception of the worshipping-fellowship as the tangible presence of the spiritual body of Christ is essentially recognition of the spiritual identity of the local church.
 
 
Unfortunately, denominational activity is generally geared to the numerical and spiritual growth of that denomination, through whatever form of service/ministry enjoying a particular focus at the time. Even where denominational activity is fully focused on benefiting the local churches, this is usually validated within the perspective of those local churches simply being branches, or representative, of the denomination. This requires a radical changed value system.
 
 
Local congregations/churches are not simply ministry centres, or support infrastructures for ministry. Ministry is only a by-product of their proper character.
 
 
To recover Christ's view of His Church as One, the local church needs to be seen, in principle at the very least, as a representative expression of the Christian Church universal.
 
 
Each congregation is essentially the epitome of the church universal, and therefore must receive the appropriate respect and treatment. This has nothing to do with membership rights or democratic process. But it has everything to do with Christ's love for His Bride.
 
In the
long term this perspective is essential to the practical unity of Christianity.
 
 
Evaluate
 
2.
We then need to define the merit of our denominational distinctives in their value to other Christians (Christians in other denominations), without seeing these values as a recruitment tool! That is the starting point of the relationships between congregations, or denominations, necessary to express the Church as being One.
 
 
In other words, what value is there to other Christian denominations in the special distinctives of your particular denomination? If none, what right does it have to exist as a separate denomination?
 
 
Finding consensus within a denomination, on the merit of its own distinctives to the larger Christian community, is a process that requires purposeful re-examination of denominational identity, in terms of the root values of New Testament church life. It is denominational leadership that must accept responsibility for this process, or it will not succeed in that denomination – with sad implications for the future of that particular denomination.
 
 
Here, it is important to remember that all truth is not equal!
 
 
Differing streams of spiritual awareness within a denomination sometimes begin to predominate at particular levels of denominational life. Schismatic tendencies naturally arise when the impetus of a growing spiritual awareness becomes frustrated by entrenched leadership levels that are less aware of Christ's ownership of His Church. The temptation to cession is then a deceptive by-path that sometimes creates a new denomination with many of the built-in intransigences of the old – delaying the purposes of God even further.

 
Who?
All for All
 
Denominational
leadership, especially, must take responsibility and thus be accountable for this process – if it is to succeed in any particular denomination. On the character of this leadership of God's people, the Lord presented a clear perspective, and stressed it by using His emphasis prefix.
 
Jesus
said, to the religious leadership of His day concerning their shepherd relationship to the Lord's people:
 
 
"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber. But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the Gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers."
John 10:1-5.
 
The Lord spoke this metaphor to them in response to their damning excommunication of the blind man whom He had healed on the Sabbath because he refused to condemn Jesus for it (Jn.9:1-10:6).
 
So
Jesus is saying –
A claim or right to leadership (entrance to the fold) that is not spiritually valid ('by the door') brands the religious leader as a spiritual 'robber' and 'thief' of God's people (seeking self-advantage). The true character of spiritual leadership is recognized by God's 'gatekeeper' – His Spirit.
Therefore God's people will respond ('hear') – not by herding-techniques of religious blessings and church censures – but by their voluntary response ('follow') to a spiritual leadership relationship. The true people of God ('the sheep') will always scatter from their false leaders. (Now please read the verses above again).
 
 
The Bible reports that Christ's Pharisee audience (9:40) did not understand its application to them, and so Jesus then extended the metaphor with the same emphasis, defiantly declaring Himself to be both the 'door' and the 'shepherd' and that after the 'other sheep', not of 'this [Jewish] fold', had responded ('will listen') –
 
 
"there will [ultimately] be one flock, one shepherd."
John 10:7-16.
 
Clearly, the authenticity of spiritual leadership is shown in their treatment of God's flock and that flock's voluntary response.
 
Obstacles
to Unity
 
 
Conflicting claims, such as:
1. Roman Catholic claim to a Primacy of Peter and apostolic succession;
2.
Anglican, Orthodox  and other churches claim of apostolic succession which thereby disallows non-episcopal churches from being considered a true spiritual continuance of the Christian Church;
3. Baptist insistence on democratic principles in church government;
4.
Seventh-day Adventist claim to be exclusively the remnant Church of the last days by its Sabbath observance;
5. etc....
 
In
the history of Christianity, the characteristic of particular Church groupings (denominations) where they have gained authoritative influence in any society (over its civil processes) has been its intolerance of all other religious groups. This is eloquently expressed by leaders of Europe's competing Churches during the mid-sixteenth century (when the secular world still tolerated religious domination).
Martin Luther in Germany –
'A secular prince should see to it that his subjects are not led to strife by rival preachers whence factions and disturbances might arise, but in any one place there should be only one kind of preaching' (1525). 
'Even if people do not believe, they should be driven to the sermon, because of the ten commandments, in order to learn at least the outward works of obedience
' (1529).
Theodore Beza in Lausanne –
'What greater, more abominable crime could one find among men [than heresy]? ...it would seem impossible to find a torture big enough to fit the enormity of such a misdeed.'
John Calvin in Geneva –
'One should forget all mankind when His glory is in question. ...God does not even allow whole towns and populations to be spared, but will have the walls razed and the memory of the inhabitants destroyed and all things ruined as a sign of His utter detestation, lest the contagion [of heresy] spread.'
Bishop Stobaeus in Lavant –
'Entrust the administration of a town or province to Catholics only; allow only Catholics to sit in the assemblies; publish a decree demanding that everyone should profess the Catholic faith in writing, and urging them in case of refusal to find themselves another country where they can live and believe as they like.' (1598).
 
These
ungodly attitudes led to the tribalizing of Christianity, each in its area of dominant influence – as cuius regio, eius religio. This truce at Augsberg (1555) was not any form of reconciliation. It was nothing but the establishment of a holding pattern after years of killing.
 
 
Christendom's abuse of God's flock has run out of time.
 
Ecumenical
process toward Christian unity took its momentum initially from the common situation of Christian mission in non-Christian societies during the late 19th century. The awakening sense of a common heritage in Christ in the face of pagan majorities helped to open doors of co-operation and understanding more than had been possible in the past.
 
 
Unless a new sense of the organic nature of the Christian Church really begins to develop, this process toward unity cannot continue toward anything other than the lowest common denominator (practicing indifference in the name of tolerance, or even dispersed into a generalized religious ethic). 
 
 
Doctrine has its place but it is not a substitute for a value system, a perspective, that sees the essence of the Church, not in its ministries, traditions, liturgies or structures, but in the common-spiritual-character of its people – the flock of God, the flock that spiritually 'hears'.
 
As
Jesus warned His own –
 
 
"Every branch of Mine that does not bear fruit He [the Father] takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes."
John 15:2.
Either
way, the blade will cut, and Christian history is littered with its cuttings!
 
 
For the Lord will not turn from His declared commitment, as He expressed under a different metaphor –
 
 
"...I will build My Church...".
Matthew 16:18.
Wholeness
in this Process
 
  Until We All    
 
1. 
Reconciliation
 Ephesians 2:14-18
2. 
Maturity and Unity
 Ephesians 4:13
 
 
In particular, Christ gave spiritual gifts of leadership to His Church so that His people would be equipped for service.
 
 
The Bible therefore makes the following awesome declaration.  But to digest it properly, we need to read it in stages –
 
 
"UNTIL we all ..."
"until WE all reach unity ..."
"until we ALL reach unity in the faith ..."
"until we all reach UNITY in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son..."
"until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become MATURE"
 
 
"UNTIL WE ALL REACH UNITY IN THE FAITH AND IN THE KNOWLEDGE OF THE SON OF GOD AND BECOME MATURE, ATTAINING TO THE WHOLE MEASURE OF THE FULNESS OF CHRIST."
 
 
Impossible?
 
Yes,
wholly impossible!  – unless the Lord does it  – of course... But!
 
 
It is the faith and the knowledge of Jesus that is the focus! 
Not faith in Him, but the faith of... !
Not knowledge about Him, but the knowledge of... !
 
This
is the product of a spiritual relationship in which we are seated [not 'will be'] in Heavenly places in Christ Jesus! (Ephesians 2:6). It is the natural product of the reality in Paul's favourite phrase – Christ 'in' you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).
 
 
No matter then whatever way any denomination may understand the words of Jesus –
"...on this 'rock' I will build My Church" (Matthew 16:18):
Jesus nevertheless said – "I will build My Church...".
This is what He is doing. This is what He will complete!
 
 
For this very purpose then, He gave the Spirit of God to His Church.
 
 
For this reason Ephesians Chapter Four links the following three factors –
1. 
unity of the Holy Spirit – 4:3
"Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit  through the bond of peace."
2. 
His supernatural leadership gifts – 4:11
"It was He who gave some to be apostles, ...prophets,  ...evangelists, and ...pastors and teachers..."
3. 
spiritual maturity in unity – 4:13
"until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature,  attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."
 
 
So, the Spirit of God's activity in the Church (and through the Church) is geared to this end.
 
Thus,
the value of the Spirit's activity in the various parts of the Body or kinds of ministry has its validity, not in itself, but in the whole; moving forward the task of bringing His precious Church to its full maturity – to this maturity!

 
An Illustration Discontinuity in Continuity  
A
pastor was approached by a young woman in his church to know whether she should accept an invitation to join a charismatic women's order in a local episcopal church. The young woman was sure only that God had given her guidance that she should ask her pastor to decide for her. Feeling unduly responsible, her pastor asked for the literature of the order and then set aside time to seek God's guidance on the issue for her.
 
In
that time, while in a state of worship, her pastor experienced a vision which answered more than his question and profoundly affected his perspective on the history of Christianity.
 
 
He saw a long and perfectly straight highway stretching back through history to the beginning of Christianity. The road was raised above the surrounding countryside with a downward sloping embankment on each side. On both of the sloping sides of this highway were wrecked vehicles, as far back as he could see.
 
 
As he worshipped, he was given to understand that throughout the Church's history the Holy Spirit had continually raised up new spiritual vehicles among God's people for His use, but that, as soon as each had momentum of its own on this highway, its very sense of being more 'right' in it's direction (in comparison to others) caused a lock on its spiritual steering and it lost its ability to adjust to the roughness of the highway. Inevitably, it's set-steering thus lost the Spirit's direction management and ran off the road to become another wrecked vehicle alongside the highway of Christ's Church.
 
 
As a consequence of his experience, the pastor understood that without constant willingness to change and adjust church structures, methods, traditions, etc., this charismatic religious order also would soon loose it's spiritual direction, as its parent body had already done. He advised the young woman not to join.
 
 
His experience left him with a sense of responsibility to personally hold all human definitions in his own church's life, concerning doctrinal definition, liturgy, etc., under continuing reassessment in an openness to make room for renewal in an unending reformation.

 
  Continuity  
The
above affirms a basic truth.
 
 
The continuity of Christianity lies not in a particular formulation of doctrine (such as that concerning Christ) or any aspect of continuity in organization (such as an apostolic 'line' or succession), but only in the person of the Holy Spirit Himself; the immediate presence of God within the living Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, by Whom alone the Church is regenerate and sanctified for Christ's coming.
 
 
The authenticity of this continuity, however, will certainly express itself in its treatment of the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ, and of His people. This has been demonstrated with tragic eloquence in the behaviour of denominations that have fed God's permitted structures of leadership with this world's powers (like a tumorous growth in the Body of Christ) and so become again and again the cruel enemy of God's people through oppression and persecution in their pilgrimage to spiritual maturity.
 
In
this world, the identifying marks of what constitutes the true Christian Church are to be found in its spiritual and moral character arising from its relationship to Christ, and not in either it's particular –
    • form of doctrine;
    • organizational structure; or,
    • historical continuity.
 
 
Thus, the Bible makes it plain that the continuance of an authentic Christianity in this world lies instead in the believer's personal relationship to the Holy Spirit Himself –
 
 
"I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you.
But the Anointing that you received from Him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you.
But as His Anointing teaches you about everything – and is true and is no lie, just as it has taught you
Abide–in–Him."
1 John 2:26-27
This
does not negate the Holy Spirit inspired gift of teacher, but it takes final authority off the platform of ministry (of any kind) and places it in the direct personal relationship of the Holy Spirit to the individual believer. His sheep hear!
 
SEE ALSO
Church Ordination Church Ministry Structures Ordination of Women


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