I wrote this mainly as part of a discussion on the Adelaide Christian Scene Facebook group. We were asked,
While we could have a very protracted debate about sexuality and gender, what I’d like to hear about from you is what you believe is the right way for individuals to respond to these situations. Should we leave? Should we stay? Do we start a new denomination? Do we abandon denomination? How do we respond to and relate to people who hold a differing viewpoint?
I have a few thoughts. When I refer to “the church” I am referring to God’s people everywhere across time and space.
Firstly, the church constantly needs building and reforming because God’s work amongst his people is an ongoing work of transformation. The hearts of God’s people are still being renewed and so continue to produce sin in the church (Matt 15:18). We should therefore not expect that any particular denomination will even be ideal. So whether we decide to stay in a divided denomination or to leave, we still need to be building and reforming each other.
Secondly, denominations are not either evil to be avoided or good to be pursued. What matters is people. It is in people that God resides. It is in people that sin is found. The church is defined by God’s people, not institutions. If denominations do not define the church then what are they? I see denominations primarily as networks for ministry. God’s truth resides in his people but denominations are networks in which God’s people can support each other and reach out to others. Despite disunity, denominations typically have a global reach. For example, the Anglican church is connected to CMS, a world mission group. This is how denominations can be good things: they can help God’s people be his witnesses to the ends of the Earth, taking the message of Jesus to all nations (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). If a denomination is clearly enabling people to do this, this a great reason to join a denomination.
A local church is in a divided denomination but has decided to remain. Despite theological questions about the denomination, this church still has the benefit of its denomination’s extensive mission networks. I expect a primary issue for a church like this is how it can effectively pursue gospel-centred ministries in its own local area.
What are the problems with denominations? There has always been a variety of opinions and practices in the church. I doubt that Christians are concerned about this but rather division, that is, differences that seem so stark that they cause fragmentation. It seems to me that local churches will shrink for one of two reasons:
- There is extreme opposition to the gospel and, in God’s sovereignty, the church is allowed to be suppressed.
- The church ceases to preach Jesus as King and Saviour and either becomes boring and culturally alienated, or becomes so enmeshed in society that it loses its radical, proclamational voice.
The latter issue, on which the church finds itself dividing, is something many Christians today are concerned about: that their denomination may somehow have lost its Christian distinctiveness or perhaps even ceased to be recognisably Christian. I won’t say much about this now. However, rather than asking whether we should leave, I think two significant questions here are,
- Where can we be speaking the message of Christ clearly to our society?
- Where can we be encouraging and building up God’s people (1 Cor 14)?
Some Christians will feel that their denomination is no longer a place where this is occurring. They will move to a denomination where they feel that these things are being faithfully pursued. However, other Christians in that same denomination will feel that, despite division and decline, they can still help pursue these things.
There is something else here: to leave a denomination is to leave a local community. Regardless of the wider denomination, for some Christians the main question will be the impact of their decision on other Christians in their congregation.
I think there is a second, more insidious danger for denominations. Denominations can become cultural enclaves. Denominations tend to contain particular styles of Christian expression. For example, Anglicans may be very committed to having quiet, serious contemplative prayer while AOG congregations may be very committed to having loud, joyful music. The church is hugely diverse and this is a good thing. However, a danger within a denomination is that Christians may come to think that their own style of Christian expression is the “right one”. This constrains the gospel to human culture, which hinders the spread of the gospel to others. For example, many of the Lutherans I know are very committed to being Lutheran. This can be problematic when a particular cultural brand of Christian expression is presented instead of, or alongside, Jesus. I am often frustrated with my own Anglican church circles for being so entrenched in eastern suburbian Adelaide culture. I often wonder how the gospel will ever be communicated when the Christians are so obviously wealthy and committed to particular cultural values.
Should we abandon denominations, or perhaps start new ones? I think the problem that arises in either case is similar to when we over-commit to denominations. If we start new denominations or become anti-denominational, the risk is that we end up with insular micro-churches that are disconnected from the global church. Again, this hinders the spread of the gospel.
A local church has left its parent denomination for theological reasons. However, it has strategic ministry opportunities in its local area. This church is readily able to pursue these ministries without input or assistance from its denomination. I expect a primary issue for a church like this is how it can stay connected to global networks of God’s people. I expect the answer would involve getting connected with international mission groups.
How do we treat others as we sort this through? We are to “speak the truth in love”: this is the key to unity in the church (Eph 4). This is not something that some Christians are to do, some of the time. We must all speak the truth in love both to those who are “on the same page” as us and to those who think very differently to us. A question: What does this mean in practice?! :)
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.