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This... is the church...  Discuss this Article


“This… is the Church” Response

 

Here are some thoughts I have on Ryan’s latest article…

 

 

This article is a well written piece on a very important issue today.  Dealing with a definition of “church” is a very complicated matter and so many have struggled with it for centuries.  Part of the problem is that there are multiple groups defined by the same word “church” (and even an architectural structure with the same name).

 

Let’s not waste time discussing the “church building”.  I think most Christians today have a good understanding that the Church described in Scripture is not referring to an architectural structure.  Modern day church leaders have done a good job hitting this point home and I do not see this as a problem within the church itself.  (We do still have the mindset of the unchurched to deal with – which will take more time.)

 

Putting buildings aside, we are then left with several groups that go by the name of “church”.  The first of these is the local Body of Believers.  “My church… your church… the church over there…”  You get the idea.  Each congregation of local Christ followers – out of the necessity of location meets together on a regular basis.  This would be much similar to the early Church as it met in local homes around each person’s residence.

 

The next “church” involves the denominational affiliations of the Body of Christ.  This is probably the one that brings about the most criticism and questions.  This “church” grouping is the community of local church bodies connected to a particular denomination (i.e. the Wesleyan Church).  This is the organized “church” that I will discuss a little further down the page.

 

Our next “church” is found merely in the context of the unchurched.  It is the perceived Body of Christ as the world sees it.  This group includes all religious participants and organizations, especially those that concern themselves with a deity known as God.  It is important to recognize this as a different group than the universal Church we will define next.  This grouping may contain a large cross-section of differing views – of God, the Gospel, and the Word.  Nonetheless, the unchurched (and most of the media) reflect this grouping as the “Church”.

 

The final grouping that we will look at in this response is the Universal Church.  This is the “church” as referred to in the Scriptures.  It is the collection of all Christ followers everywhere and the true Body of Christ.  There are many people world-wide, with different perspectives and viewpoints, found within this “church”.  Democrats & republicans, Baptists & Catholics, Boomers & Millennials…  but all of them have a real relationship with Jesus Christ in common.

 

While confusing – the reality is that each of these groupings of people all co-exist and yet go by the same simplistic name of “church”.  It is important to identify which grouping you are targeting when discussing this issue.  Usually the grouping most often targeted by criticism is the denominational church, so I will focus my attention to that one in particular.

 

I am still young enough to remember back to my youth years with some clarity… to a time when I was ready to abolish denominations.  I saw them as man-made boundaries, doctrines on preference, and as segregation of the Universal Church.  I would like to expand a little on my understanding today as one who has been a part of several of them. 

 

In order to present my perspective, let me first give a rundown of my colorful denominational history. 

 

  • I grew up in a Conservative Baptist Church
  • Attended at least 2 other flavors of Baptist as our family moved
  • My father became the pastor of an American Baptist Church
  • I attended a United Brethren In Christ college and church for 2 years
  • I attended a Nazarene Church for 1 year while continuing my education
  • I did an internship of sorts with a Evangelical Congregational Church for 1 year
  • Returned to my father’s American Baptist Church as their youth leader
  • Moved to PA and served in a Christian & Missionary Alliance Church for 4 years
  • Became a licensed pastor in the Wesleyan Church where I continue to serve

 

That is a lot of denominational exposure for my 30 short years.  These experiences, especially the last 9 years as a pastor, have given me some new insights into the denominational structure in America.

 

I have organized my thoughts into points and questions which I feel are important when discussing this issue.  I also want to make sure that this response is not misunderstood.  I am not arguing that the current state of the Church in America is necessarily healthy or that the denominational structure in America is the most effective means of carrying out the functions of the Body of Christ.  I do, however, believe there is a lot more to consider than what is usually discussed.

 

Point 1:  Early Church Denominations

According to the definition of the word “denomination” - “a group of religious congregations having its own organization and a distinctive faith” – each individual home church described in the New Testament was a functioning denomination of their own.  Aside from a fancy name – they were groups of religious congregations that organized themselves and had their own distinctive interpretation of what they believed.  Instead of the “Wesleyan Church”, you had “the church that meets at Lydia’s house” and so on…  The fact that we have record of many personal letters to these various congregations, each with its own correction of their teachings and practices, proves that each one was independent and under it’s own organization and distinctive faith.  So, one could argue that the formation of organized denominations has minimized the overall number of “denominations” (congregations with their own organization and distinctive faith) that we would have if each local church was independent.  Didn’t I say this was confusing?

 

Point 2:  Denominations Provide Consistency

In this world that is getting smaller all of the time – denominations provide a way to ensure consistency around the globe.  It is not unusual today for families to move to different states or even different countries multiple times during their lives.  With the modern advances of technology, people are moving farther and more often than ever before.  This provides some new challenges for the family that wants to locate a group of Christians to worship, fellowship, and serve alongside.  Denominations provide a sense of consistency from one church to another… one location to another…  This purpose for denominations is a fairly new one, as most generations that have come before us tended to stay in the area they grew up in.  Your choice in a local church should not solely depend on their denominational affiliation, but it is a good place to start.

 

Point 3:  The Crusades

You really have to be careful with this one, especially to not use the Crusades as evidence to any spiritual cause.  It is very easy to generalize about the Universal Church, Catholic Church, and all of the Christians present during this time in our history.  The reality is that there were many individuals and groups that opposed the Crusades.  Not all Christians or “Christ followers” were pro-Crusade, just like not all Christians today are pro-Iraq War.  In fact, in the case of the Crusades – one could make the case that the real Body of Christ could not support the Crusades.  I often hear the true Church criticized for the Crusades, but that is simply not the case.  The Crusades were perhaps the biggest example of why we need a separation of church and state as our Constitution intended… a governmental structure where the people’s religious choice is not mandated to them by the state.  The Crusades were born out of a few political and religious leaders agendas and were then mandated to entire countries and armies.  Many, if not most, of the Christian commoners would not have favored the Crusades.  Most of the “soldiers” were just following orders.  There were many true Christians that survived the Crusades without selling out the message of the Gospel – we just never hear about them.  Funny how the media works, some things never change…  Maybe if there had been stronger denominations during this time, the Church could have stood up against it with greater success.

 

Point 4:  Denominations Provide Protection

The denominational structure in America does have some great benefits to the local church and its leaders.  I have experienced first hand what a transition in leadership can do to a church body and sometimes to its leader.  Witnessing this in a couple of different denominations, I can also say that some denominations have a much better system than others.  When there is a change in the leadership of a local church, the opportunity for disaster is very high.  When a church brings in the wrong leader, it is devastating to the ministry.  When a church leader goes to the wrong church, it is devastating to both.  Denominations provide a framework of accountability and consistency that makes this process much easier for everyone involved.  If you take a look at most non-denominational churches and you will find that most of the ones that are thriving have not been through a major change in leadership.  There is good reason, for when a non-denominational church begins its search for a leadership replacement, they have virtually no standard or system by which to make a healthy transition.  Often times the doctrinal beliefs and practices are tied to the leader that started that particular church and to nobody else.  The ones that have gone through a major change in leadership often make drastic changes to their own doctrinal beliefs and practices… one leader to another.  This is not an absolute statement but is a fairly common reality among non-denominational churches.  The same goes for the potential new pastor.  Going into a non-denominational church is pretty scary, as you have no idea what to expect.  Most non-denominational churches do not even have a Doctrinal Statement or Statement of Belief to which you can refer.  I know of many non-denominational transitions that have resulted in catastrophe for the church and the new pastor.  Denominations do a good job of limiting these casualties to the Body of Christ.

 

 

I have already expressed my own “away with them” feelings towards denominations, especially as I was in High School and College.  I believe this is a common feeling amongst Christians that are defining their own faith.  Part of my feelings came from a great non-denominational ministry I was a part of, Camp Fair Haven.  This Christian camp saw many denominations come together for the cause of Christ and was very successful.  Each person let go of their unique (and insignificant) doctrinal beliefs and unified together to share the Gospel we all agreed on.  This worked very well in the context of short-term ministry, but each person still clung to their own beliefs and interpretation of Scripture and returned to the comfort of that each Sunday as we attended our own churches.  This non-denominational model worked well in the context of camp, but what would it look like if this was the model of the church?  I now believe that our ministry was successful, not because it was non-denominational, but because it was multi-denominational.  Here are some more critical questions to consider:

 

Question 1:  What are the ramifications of ending all organized denominations?

If we all rallied together and abolished all of the denominations, what would happen?  Who would be affected?  Most people do not think past the lay-person.  What about the church leaders that rely on the denomination for guidance, support, placement, retirement, legal protection, insurance, etc…?  What about the multitudes of ministries that are sponsored and funded by these various denominations?  What about the missionaries and churches located in the most remote places of the globe that rely on their denomination for support and protection?  What about the churches in transition that are looking to their denomination to recommend a new leader?  What about the churches in the middle of a building campaign and are depending on their denomination to help fund their project?  There are a lot of issues to consider beyond anyone’s personal feelings about the denominational structure.  As our government well knows, you can’t just remove systems easily without major ramifications.

 

Question 2:  Is there a difference between “church traditions” and “spiritual disciplines”?

We have to be careful not to confuse spiritual disciplines with church traditions.  Spiritual disciplines are rooted firmly in Scripture and are largely agreed upon by most denominations, while church traditions often vary and are less Scriptural in context.  This article referred to “church disciplines” in a more negative light and I am just not sure what that is referring to.

 

Question 3:  What does faith, hope, and love look like in the context of “church”?

I like the reference to faith, hope, and love as a definition of church, but I just wonder how that looks.  To which “church” grouping is this accomplished and how?  If  A + B + C = D…  and faith-hope-love = worship-fellowship-service… then is the current Church’s focus that far off?  I will have to wrestle with how to correlate “faith-hope-love” with all of the purposes of the Body of Christ – but I like the idea and simplicity.

 

Question 4:  How do we improve the effectiveness of the Universal Church within the context of the current denominational structure?

I believe this is the real question at hand.  Since denominations are not going to go away and do serve a purpose, how do we become more effective at reaching the lost as a universal Church?  Whoever answers this question in a way that is received by well by all denominations should write a best-seller.

 

 

Thank you, Ryan, for a great piece that will no doubt inspire a lot of thought and consideration by its readers.  I hope this response will spur more thought on this topic by you and anyone else who reads this.

 

P.S.  I am glad we are part of the same “church”.

 

 

Pastor Scott

 


This... is the church...  Discuss this Article




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