If you don’t know about the recent special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the issues at hand nor the potential for that denomination to split, I’m going to assume it’s because you have been trying to avoid hearing about it. I’m not even going into it here. I suspect you either know all you want to and more or you are really trying hard not to find out.
I only bring it up because one of my friends posted a link to Facebook last week and one his friends, that I do not know, went off on a tangent about denominations. He first denounced the Methodist Church for even having a vote on such an issue then denounced all denominations across the board referring to the practice of denominationalism. What does he even mean by that? When adding the -ism suffix to the end of a noun we indicate the belief in or practice of that thing. In this case the word would only be used in the criticism of such practice. For example, some churches still schedule a spring and fall revival, or perhaps an annual revival meeting. Other churches critical of keeping that tradition alive might call them revivalists but no one planning a church revival would use that term. There are hundreds of Protestant denominations but no Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian would say “I believe in denominationalism.” The friend of a friend I encountered was being critical of the fact that Christian denominations exist.
If all you do is identify the problem without offering a solution, you have done nothing more than complain.
Denominations exist. Some have a very strict hierarchy with a top down power structure while others have very few rules and no one to enforce them at all. Within each denomination there are numerous sub-groups. It’s really just a way for us to associate with other Christians that we agree with. Or perhaps I should say agree with on most things. If one argues that denominations are evil and should not exist – where do you go from there?
I understand his argument, to an extent. Denominations are man-made organizations that God did not ordain. Okay. And in the Bible they used coins for wages and purchases. Does that mean we should abstain from paper money? What about debit cards? We do things every day that were not ordained by God. I understand the issue and yet I’m making fun of it at the same time. At the heart of the issue, in all seriousness, is that there should not be division among the people of God. We should read the Bible and be led by the Holy Spirit. That would be great. But what do you do when some Christians disagree? There were already rivalries and disputes in the first century. There is no point in pretending the church ever functioned in perfect harmony without them. In the first century when a dispute arose an Apostle like Peter or Paul would come along and issue a decree that settled the matter. A major difference between Roman Catholics and most (but not all) Protestant Christians today is over whether apostolic authority still exists. The RCC says apostolic authority has been handed down in a direct line from Peter to the Pope today. As a Christian who is not Catholic I do not believe that. There is no one person to lay down the law and set us all straight; and if you believe there is there are others who do not recognize his authority. See the problem?
Divisions among Christians were already happening in the first century. Paul says to the church at Corinth “For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not being merely human?” (1 Corinthians 3:3-4) The believers were already dividing themselves up based on which leader they wanted to follow. Imagine how each church in the Greek and Roman world might have related to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem. A point of contention for Paul when he wrote to the Galatians was the Judaizers, who came along behind him and tried to get faithful believers who had received the Holy Spirit to learn and practice the Old Covenant Law. Let’s look at how Paul responded to the divisions that were already forming. “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9) He says to the Galatian churches that as many as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ and to the Ephesians he writes: There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
It is possible that no two Christians anywhere agree on 100% of everything. While we are led by the Spirit we contend with the flesh and while being conformed to the image of Christ is the goal none of us are there yet. Paul himself explained he had not yet obtained such perfection. Worshipping together with other believers that we agree with on most things allows unity and harmony among the local congregations. Think back to a time, between Emperor Constantine and the Protestant Reformation, when all of Christianity was united under a single leadership. There had already been a schism between eastern and western European Christianity basically resulting in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. The selling of false indulgences (and 94 other issues he compiled in a lengthy list) drove Martin Luther to insist that some things had to change. And that was within a unified system before denominations. Problems existed in the churches before denominations and before the Roman Catholic Church, all the way back to the time of the Apostles in the first century. The problem lies in our humanity. It is our sin nature which cannot be separated from the flesh our spirits dwell in.
This is a long blog post. I was afraid that would happen. Let’s review then wrap up. Denominationalism is the belief in or practice of denominations. I see no other way for Christians to function. The first century church couldn’t do it, the RCC couldn’t do it. Denominations may not be the ideal but we cannot achieve the ideal of perfect unity until Christ returns and we enter his Kingdom. Until then we do the best we can with what we have. Some churches claim to be non-denominational but that just ends up being another denomination. Nice try though. It is quite impossible to go to church and avoid denominations altogether and the New Testament is very much in favor of supporting the local church. Let me leave you with a few words from Christ himself. Some of his disciples came to him about a man that was casting out demons in his name. He was not following with them so they tried to stop him. “John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.’” (Luke 9:49-50) Now Jesus did not say Go out and form denominations. But think about the existence of denominations in light of what Jesus did say.