Laurie and I were in Bible school in 1998, and one of the guest speakers told us to get into small groups, look up John 17, and talk about the pros and cons of denominations. These two verses changed my whole perspective:
“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one even as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.” – John 17:22-23, NLT
Jesus prayed for his Church to be unified. That unity was to be infused with his glory and love, reflecting the very unity of the triune God, standing in stark contrast to the greedy, self-serving people of the world.
This is not our reality. And I’m afraid we’re okay with that.
Paul rebuked the Corinthian believers for acting like the rest of the world, breaking into factions, some with Paul, others with Apollos, others with Peter (1:12), yet we seem very comfortable calling ourselves Wesleyans or Calvinists or Lutherans. In fact, we tend to stand in our denominational sub-cultures and point fingers at other denominational sub-cultures, making jokes, as if we are not of the same Spirit, as if we do not share the same Father.
Even though I was raised in a home church during the Jesus Movement, I have spent the majority of my life working in various denominations as a teacher or worship pastor. I have experienced great fellowship with the Nazarenes, Presbyterians, Methodists, Assemblies of God, and all sorts of people in multiple non-denominational mega churches. I still have great relationships with many of them. But I can understand why they stand apart.
Our divisions allow us to have different interpretations of Scripture without living at each other’s throats. They allow us to be comfortable in our worship services, letting thinkers think with thinkers, and feelers feel with feelers. Sadly, this only seems to reinforce the idea that we are dealing with human issues in a spiritual ideal.
When God created Adam and Eve, he called them one flesh, setting a precedent for all future marriages. He said that it wasn’t good for humans to live in isolation. Marriage reveals and reinforces the communal nature of the Godhead. And even though divorce was never God’s intent, it was permitted because of the human weakness that came with the Fall.
In the same way, I think God permits his people to stand apart, even though he said, “Let them be one even as we are one.” In our fallen state, our divisions seem to be necessary, just like many divorces are necessary in order to avoid all kinds of physical, mental or emotional distress.
So what should we do?
If we try to form a new church to include every believer we might find the water so shallow and lukewarm that it is almost impossible to pick an appropriate worship song or sermon topic. We would have to avoid key issues like salvation, the work of the Spirit, or eternal security. We would essentially form a church without the rich sense of history and tradition that we find in so many of our longstanding denominations.
But Paul did offer a solution to the struggling Corinthians. He gave them a vision of God’s ideal.
The people of Christ are like unique and important parts of a body, unified under one head (Christ) through one central nervous system (the Spirit). The problem with God’s body, as opposed to a human body, is that each part has an individual will. If God’s people do not yield themselves to the Spirit, or submit to one another in love, the Body will not function as a unit. It’s that simple.
Love is the binding agent. Not a worldly love, which expects something in return, which will abandon truth for the sake of peace. No, this is a love based in the very nature of God, a God who exists as a unity of three persons, a God whose very mantra can be summed up in seven words that we should all take to heart:
“Not my will but yours be done.”