So far as I can tell, there are only two basic categories in the New Testament that might parallel our system of denominations today: True Christianity and false Christianity.
Those are pretty basic categories, aren’t they? I think we might do well to return to thinking far more like that rather than thinking in terms of the many divided groups (denominations) that we have today. Those of us who are committed in theory to the Scriptures as the guide of all such matters, what basis do we have for dividing into so many denominations? I suppose the answer must be that expediency calls for it in practical reality today, but I am far from convinced that this is a strong enough reason to be at such variance with the original pattern found in the New Testament. Let me give a few thoughts about why this matter is important and a few explanations that might be called for in light of it.
1. First and foremost, denominations tend to cause barriers and separation between brothers in Christ. Do we appreciate the fact that one of the chief emphases of the New Testament is brotherly love and unity? The Scriptures are absolutely filled with this teaching. I wonder if we recognize just how significant of a sin it is not to be in loving harmony with our brothers in Christ. It seems to me that when we separate from brothers in Christ over smaller matters (I do not say irrelevant) of theology or church order, we do a great wrong. I have often heard it suggested that we might well love and appreciate a brother in Christ, but how could we possibly go to the same church when he believes in congregational church government and I believe in elder rule? How could the church operate? Or again, how could an Arminian and a Calvinist work together in the ministry?
Let me suggest to you that these are smaller matters of theological understanding that, though not irrelevant, are not as important as loving unity with those who are children of God. And many times, there is a common confession that those on the other side are good Christians. How can we say that while saying at the same time that it is not even possible or reasonable to think that we could worship together in the same local church and function together as members of the same body. For instance, if I think that congregational church government is most Biblical and best, but the local church of which I am a part practices a different form of things, is that really so problematic that I cannot work within that framework? Must I really go find another church to be a part of? Surely not! Let us learn how to work together in love!
I remember one time how I wanted to work together with some brothers in a ministry. There was a need for some training of local pastors in a rural area. The pastors expressed a potential interest in my working with them. But the American leadership (the rural pastors and I were in Southern Mexico) was not comfortable with my working with them unless I was officially a member of the denomination to which the group belonged, which I was not. In that case, even though I believed the same basic theology as the brothers, the fact that I was not a member of their denomination proved a barrier to their accepting my contributions to meeting a need in their ministry. I felt that denominational lines had proven a real detriment to the kingdom of God. This should not be! If you feel that denominations are a necessary reality for the present, at least be willing to work freely and openly with brothers from other denominations!
2. Does this mean that theology is unimportant and we open our arms to all who call themselves believers? Absolutely not. Nothing I am saying is to be understood as negating the value and importance of Biblical truth. I am saying, though, that we have to accept the fact that fellow believers will not understand all things alike, and we have to learn how to work together in love with those who are true fellow believers. Also, I am certainly not implying whatsoever that we should work with all who call themselves Christians. I am certainly aware that many who call themselves Christians are not, and we must not join hands with those who do not believe and practice the basic truths of Christianity. But we do not have to fall into the error of thought that we must either accept all who claim the name of Christ or we must separate into a thousand different groups of believers.
3. If we do not fellowship and work together with those who are children of God, we lose a great deal of spiritual good. God has gifted us each differently to serve as different members of one body. If we separate ourselves from those who have received different gifts than ours, we will be limited in our giftings. We will lose some of the power of the ministry that could belong to our body. We will become one-sided. We will grow less. We will not reach the same level of maturity. Now, thank God that He still works to help us even despite our wrongs and errors. He still blesses with the gifts that we need. But this does not remove the fact that we might well expect to be blessed more if we would have better harmony and unity with others who have received special gifts from God. This seems to me to be an important point to consider.
4. Unnecessary separation is very bad for our testimony in the eyes of the world. This is not the first and foremost point, as it is sometimes made to be, but it still is very important indeed. The ecumenical movement is fond of emphasizing the fact that Jesus prayed for His disciples to be one together and that that prayer was linked to the testimony of the church as a whole and its power in evangelism to the lost world:
“That they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21).
Now, we are not interested in the modern ecumenical approach that accepts everyone blindly (as stated above), but that does not mean we have any reason to toss out the wonderful truth of Jesus’ words in this prayer! It remains true and important. Our love to one another and our unity in faith is a part of what helps the world to believe that Jesus is sent from God as the Savior of the world. That alone should indeed be enough to make us feel the importance of the matter!
5. Is it impractical today? I do not believe that it is ever ultimately impractical to fulfill the teachings of the New Testament. I do believe that forms and patterns can and will change due to changes in culture and society throughout history, but not in any sense that alters the actual content of the message or practice of the faith. As an example of something that can change, we pretty much all meet in church buildings, though it seems unlikely that New Testament Christians knew anything other than meeting in the houses of believers. (Even when making that change, though, we must be aware of the importance of hospitality and intimate fellowship that might be far better achieved in the home; we should probably think a bit more about that in our day).
So, things can change. But do we think that taking the body of Christ and separating into various sects that do not feel they can work together and worship together is a matter of basic indifference that can change without any harm coming? I do not think so at all. We do not have the liberty to make this change. It is not a mere matter of practical expedience that we can decide as we please.
But how do we go about changing it given that we are already in a world where this is the reality? I confess that it will not necessarily be easy, but that does not mean we cannot be moving that way. Why not start by fellowshipping as much as possible across denominational lines (where there is true faith in Christ, still, I repeat)? Why not reach out to those who are true brothers but attend other churches? Or if you are ever changing locations and looking for a new local church, don’t limit yourself only to the denomination that you have always been a part of. If there is a good, strong Bible believing and preaching local church that happens to be of a different denomination, don’t let that stop you! Perhaps it would be good to stop labeling ourselves so much according to denominational titles. Why not call ourselves simply Christian more often?
Won’t this last idea lead to confusion, though? Well, if someone hears that we are Christian, they won’t know for sure what we believe, in one sense, for many different stripes of people call themselves Christian. This is true, but it is also true for many denominations as well. If I call myself “baptist,” that still does not convey a very clear meaning, I am afraid. Though my local church is a baptist church, I would not want to be associated with many baptist churches, for many of them practice and preach a false gospel. That is the simple reality.
What would happen if I just called myself “Christian”? Then people would have to talk to me and listen to me and find out what I actually believed. Isn’t that what we want, anyways? The “problem” here is that people would have to find out what we believed personally and directly from us before knowing if they have unity and agreement with us. Isn’t this the way it should be, anyways? Isn’t this what we want? Unity is based on a common belief and faith, not on denominational labels. I actually think it would be a good thing for people to have to do this.
Well, I am sure there are many other points that could be considered in connection with this large subject, but I have laid out a few that are on my heart about the matter. Feel free to comment and share your thoughts about it. I hope that it is helpful to you to have read this and that you will think about it. May God bring together in unity all those who are true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ!