Let’s talk a little more about denominationalism. I know of no Christians who would take issue with Jesus’ prayer for unity: “that they may be one, as I and the Father are one” (John 17:11,22). Nor would they argue with Paul’s unities in Ephesians 4, beginning with “one body” (v.4). So why does denominationalism seem normal and unity abnormal?
The concept of denominationalism grew up in the early years of the Reformation, especially in England, when the Church of England broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. When then the Separatists, the Anabaptists, and others including Calvinist reformed churches and the Presbyterian congregational churches solidified into something other than the Church of England, none of them wanted to claim to be the exclusive Body of Christ, so everyone except the Roman Catholics abandoned the theology of One Body=One Church and moved to One Body=many denominations.
Lest we forget, however, these early denominations were rarely, if ever, in fellowship with each other either. The New World became the haven for persecuted denominations, which often then persecuted other denominations after the formerly persecuted gained the ascendency.
And so we in the US are exactly as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described us in his 1939 essay Protestantism Without Reformation after visiting the US. He said, “It has been granted to the Americans less than any other nation of the earth to realize on earth the visible unity of the church of God.”
Bonhoeffer goes on to say that “The unity of the church of Jesus Christ is to American Christianity less something essential, originally given by God, than something required, something which ought to be.”
A denomination, if seen as just a convenient association of Christian congregations, or just a brand, seems pretty innocuous to most of us. What truly frighten us today are those radical Christians who claim to be the one true church!
These polar opposite positions prove to me that we have been living in and rationalizing disunity so long that we are now to the point of celebrating the division among us instead of abhorring it.
Many will agree with me and will call with me for true unity–but, let’s be honest: describing what that unity really looks like is a daunting task for us—another indication of how far removed we must be from it! I certainly don’t have all the answers, but here are a few possibilities:
- Jesus’ disciples would love one another—not just in words, but in deed and truth. Don’t be tempted to ask at this point “who is a true disciple?” It sounds too much like the “who is my neighbor” question from Luke 10. Instead, make a list of those things you would do for or with other disciples of Jesus if you love them.
- Jesus’ disciples would be found in ever-growing gatherings. They would eagerly welcome others of like faith, and they would be telling others of God’s great love, so the Lord would be adding to their numbers daily those being saved. Theirs would be a spirit of inclusion, not exclusion.
- Jesus’ disciples would “love the brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17). I’m quite confident that this verse does not mean love just your family, or your small group, or just your congregation, or just those who read from the same version of the Bible or sing the same songs that you do. In fact, the same word for brotherhood is used in I Peter 5 to talk about the brothers and sisters in Christ “throughout the world” (v.5).
With these last points, perhaps we have laid the groundwork for talking about less pride in autonomy and greater value for fellowship.
My conclusion then is that denominationalism is a convenient rationalization, but that it is not the unity with which churches of Christ should be satisfied.
Allow me just a few more insightful words from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Where the unity of the church is forgotten as a goal . . ., the work of the Holy Ghost, who will fulfill the promise of the unity of the church, is no longer taken seriously, and a separatist Pharisaic claim takes the place of the divine unity of the church.
Next we will get into the questions raised about autonomous churches.