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Some Thoughts On the Issue of Denomination

 

Written in response and with respect to Brother Steven’s (not the author) opinion on Christian denominations

 

 

Introduction

Denomination[1], the word itself is an anathema to any Christian who loves the Lord. It denotes disunity, fraction, division and bitterness, all which are incompatible with the teaching of the Bible, whether of the Old Testament ( “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brethren to dwell together in unity” )[2] or the New ( “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” )[3]. The Lord Jesus, in His last hours in the flesh had prayed for the unity of His believers, asking God the Father to preserve His disciples and all who come after them in the great fold of the saved – His Church. Yet we know that strife happened from the very beginning. Indeed the breaking away of an organization into splinters is not exclusive to Christianity. The ancient religion of Judaism was not spared when it broke up into sects and groups, often initiated by a single charismatic leader who claimed to have received or revealed of some great truth previously unbeknown – the famous ones in the bible being the Pharisee-Sadducees divide which centered on issues such as the existence of angels and the question on resurrection. Even when our Lord was alive, there was a contention among the people as to whether they should follow Him or the Baptist ( whose ways made him seemed much more likely to be a prophet by the standards of the old dispensation, for he was indeed the last of them ). The overzealous disciples once bid Jesus to stop a foreign group to use His name. Such was the strong sentiment of otherness, that is, the spirit that rejects rather than relates or communes.

 

Some Thoughts on Otherness – reference to the work of Metropolitan John Zizioulas[4]

The rejection of the other is brought over from the days in the world and is one of the proofs of the still and ever-present presence of sin in our lives. For Paul clearly wrote that envy, strife and division are carnal. What exactly is this “rejection of the other”? It is the refusal to relate to another entity than oneself. Adam, by his choice, turned away from the great Other and in doing so, sinned, for he had diverted his attention from the Worthy to the Unworthy or even Worthless Object. We being the children of Adam in the flesh had inherited this fallen sentiment towards the other. For God in His creation had been pleased to make things unique in their quality and existence (Zizioulas distinguished between the two), such differences were not meant to go against one another, but to co-exist in an orderly manner. Division is a perversion of difference and is the consequence of the Fall.

 

In the Christian thought, there none other better model of communion and communication than that of the Divine Trinity. The First was from eternity to eternity the Father, the great Initiator of things and the Second was from eternity to eternity ever begotten, loved and beloved of the Father, the Son and the Third was from eternity to eternity proceeding from, mediating within and holding together the blessed Fellowship, the Holy Spirit. Notice my usage of ordinal declension; it was in the same breath as the ancient church that addressed the Triad as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit – these are relational designation. In the ordinal address, the Godhead is seen as subordinating to One Another, the Father assuming the role of the Monarch and the Son voluntarily submitting to the Father’s will and the Spirit glorifying the Son.  In the typical church address, the Godhead is seen as a communion of love, unique yet united – One cannot exist without the Other (for the Father is the Father because of the Son). In recognizing this model of relationship, we should realize that man ought to relate and not reject one another as the bearer of God’s image.

 

The Division of Denominations

During the time of the apostolic administration, the ancient church already faced threats of separations and divisions. Indeed the apostles themselves were willing to severe ties with many splinter groups for their heretical teachings and distortion of the truth. Disputes that threaten division, however, were not only between the catholic church and the heretics. A great chasm was caused between the apostles themselves. So great the matter at hand that, I believe, if not for divine intervention, would have split the early church into the Gentiles communion and the Jewish communion. Paul the apostle to the Gentiles had openly opposed some Jewish Christians in their stance in regards to the ancient customs of Judaism – circumcision, partaking of kosher meat and their view of Gentiles believers. Of course, we know that later the issue was resolved among the apostles.

 

Throughout her history, the church had seen much schism, mainly because of the issue of doctrine. Now, maybe we would think that this is a small thing to fight for, but did not the apostle Paul argued so fiercely the great doctrines of justification and salvation by grace? Did not the first Christians and martyrs stood boldly at the face of death defending the truth of Christianity against Pharisee-styled religion and paganism? Did not the great saints of old devote their whole life to the preservation of the apostles’ teaching? It is by these doctrinal truths that we are distinguished from the other religions. We believed in the Son of God, who loved us and gave Himself for us. This is doctrine (of course it has to be received in faith as not merely facts but reality). We believed in the resurrection of our Lord and Saviour – a doctrine uniquely Christian for we may ask which of the foreign gods or prophets were not laid silently in their grave today, bearing witness to their own impotent teachings.

 

The church, in preserving the pure teaching must inevitably cease to fellowship with those who by their own ego and evil desire seek to pervert the basis of our communion – the facts on the reality of our faith. Paul warned the Corinthians to not even eat with one who is, though a Christian in name, yet profane the faith by his evil doings.[5] His was not a new teaching but was based on the principles of the old Jewish law and of the Abrahamic convenant[6] that the one that defies the covenantal law shall be cut off from Israel and hence God’s blessings. In the New Testament, Israel as a whole was found to be wanting before Yahweh and was severed off the True Vine in their rejection of the Messiah.[7] This type of separation is not only necessary but also inevitable in the fallen state of humanity, even in the church, yea for she is yet to be perfected.  During the Reformation, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the likes were in one sense, fervent reformers but reluctant protestants. For protestant give the connotation of the negatives, dissenters and troublemakers. Their intent was to reform the church from within and not create division. Nevertheless, the latter was indeed the lesser of the two evils of which the other was communion with the heretical Roman Church.

 

What then is the cause of today’s denominationalism? I believe it is the same reason that had caused divisions in past generations. The zeal to preserve the purity of the church operating in such condition as the depraved moral state of man will surely lead to confrontation among opposing camps. Though we renounce and regret of the evilness of man that causes such divisions, we have to discount for the sincere and honest conviction of the leaders and elders of such groups that what they are following are indeed biblical and correct. Take for instance the practice of infant baptism. Both camps have very strong arguments to justify their stances and both equally believe by their faith that they are correct. How indeed to have them come together as one so called catholic communion when their practices clearly differ in such contrary manner? Can we have one group in the church baptizing infants one Sunday and another not attending the baptismal service because of their disagreement to such practice? Surely this will complicate the matter even further than to have each-one-to-his-own denominational traditions or practices. The proposition that the unity of Christianity is hypocrite – shaking hands over the fence, after which each will mind his own business – is both unfair and uninformed. Who is there to say that one practice is wrong and the other is right when both camps are equally godly and fervent in their seeking of God’s truth? How then to reconcile the two other than to have a separate practical communion while maintaining a spiritual communion? To call for a unity by ignoring the differences of opinion is not graceful. There is no point in creating unity if it is only to mean uniformity, in which everyone is expected to do the same thing. Such unity is hypocritical and based on a false pretext.

 

Some Suggestions In Our Approach Towards Denominationalism

“And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” – 2 Timothy 2:23-26

 

Such were the exhortation of Paul to the leaders and teachers who is faced with opposition. Indeed if the other party has fallen into the captive of the devil, we are to gently instruct them with hope in God’s working in their lives, what more if they are genuine believers who strive to live the normal Christian life. It was taught us from the godly wisdom of the old saints that we ought to have unity in things necessary, liberty in things less necessary and charity in all things. Our communion and communication that constitute the oneness of the Body is in the fundamental elements. These are the deep things of God that are vital for our salvation such as the triune nature of the Godhead, the Incarnation, the Cross and the Resurrection, the Spirit’s work, the End Times, the Depravation of Man, the Grace of God and some others. Upon these things we must stress. Issues such as whether the pastor is just another name for the office of the elder, whether we should baptize the infant child of a Christian parents or whether we should administer one mode of baptism or another (sprinkling or immersion) is, however, of lesser degree in importance in pertaining to our faith. Upon these things we must suffer. And in the manner of the Christian grace, reflecting the redeeming love of our Lord, we must approach one another in all matters in brotherly affection.

 

Therefore, it is very important for every Christian to affirm his brother in another denomination so long as they are in agreement of the fundamental things. Of course, I am not one who is qualified to comment on such deep matters as the sacrament of the Lord’s supper, but I am of the opinion that we ought to extend and open the Lord’s table at our respective Sunday services to other Christians whom we have can have communion on the basis of the above said principle. That way, as we partake of the same bread, we affirm one another’s faith in the same Lord and Saviour.

 

In mirroring the Trinitarian relationship, each one of us must in all humility recognize our own imperfection, whether in our teachings or our living and seek to put others before oneself. We ought to consider others better than ourselves and to serve our brothers and sisters in humbleness of spirit. Today, there is no longer any revelation which is of apostolic or canonical authority, hence no one must claim that he and he alone has the special anointing to be God’s spokesperson. We must also acknowledge the genuine faith of our brothers and sisters who too, love the Lord and seek Him always.

 

As for the issues that continue to divide us, we ought to hold on to the hope that God will work His way in the midst of these disputes. We must constantly pray that He will grant [us] repentance leading [us] to a knowledge of the truth and at the same time work together with the others in dialogues, fellowships and discussions to seek such truth.

 

Maybe my approach towards the issue of denomination is oversimplified and naïve, but I sincerely believe that even though complete unity cannot be achieve, we can have a unity in the spirit as all Christians are quicken, indwelt and empowered by the same Spirit. It is high time that we stop perverting the differences, turning them into division, but find ways to make the best out of the situation. Look forward to the glorified Bride of the Lamb and see how the Church as a whole complete the beautiful picture, not individual splinter groups.

 

Lastly, let God be true but every man a liar – Romans 3:4



[1] I take it for granted that readers know the meaning of denomination. The intended usage of this word is according to common and popular understanding.

[2] Ps 133:1

[3] Ps 133:1

[4] Communion and Otherness

[5] 1 Corinthians 5:11 and the verses before this one on excommunication where Paul told the church to purge out the old leaven

[6] see Gen 17:14 ; Ex 12:19; Levi 7, 17, 18, 19 & 20

[7] Rom 11