Denominations: An Unnecessary Evil

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift (Eph. 4:1-7).

When we think upon the writings of Paul compared to our own context, it is interesting to think about those whom he is addressing. He is not writing to the First Baptist Church of Ephesus or to the Ephesus Presbyterian Church or to the Reformed Church of Ephesus, but he is writing to the church at Ephesus. And what exactly does the apostle mean when he says that he is writing to the church at Ephesus? He explains this at the beginning of his letter: “To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus” (v. 1:1). Therefore, his letter (shockingly) is intended for all who are in Christ in Ephesus–who have been bought with his blood and who share in the Blessing of his Spirit.

Though we are not told how many souls comprised the church at Ephesus, it is safe to assume, granting the size of the city of Ephesus, that there were many and that they were scattered throughout the great city in multiple congregations. Yet despite this, Paul addresses them as a single body comprised of those who are set apart for God and are faithful in Christ Jesus.

In our present context, the apostle’s address of the Ephesian church in this way is strange to us. Because of centuries of religious distortion, the church has been transformed from those who are the Lord’s (church from the northern dialect’s kirk from the Greek’s kuriakos– “Of the Lord”) to a sacred building intended to house worship services on Sundays. The distortion is profound, for it rails against Christ’s declaration that his people would not worship geographically but in Spirit and in truth (cf. Jn. 4:23), and it reinstitutes the shadow which Christ himself fulfilled. God’s people alone are the Church, and to label any building, place, or group that is not the faithful saints of God in Christ “the church” is a misnomer and a false declaration.

Taking Paul’s declaration of the church and applying to the text from Ephesians 4, it is an extraordinary exhortation. For he is exhorting a church comprised of multiple congregations and, no doubt, differing opinions on doctrine, to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (v. 4:3). This point cannot be missed. The apostle is not exhorting particular congregations to be at peace within their own congregations merely, but that all of the saints in Ephesus would be at peace with one another. Such a declaration would be no less extraordinary than exhorting the saints who comprise the Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran congregations all within a quarter mile of one another on Six Forks Road in Raleigh to eagerly seek peace and unity with one another.

And this unity within the Church of God is not something that is merely icing on the cake of Christianity, but the apostle calls it the fruit of “[Walking] in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (v. 4:1). In other words, unity within the Body of Christ, i.e. unity among all the saints of God, is accomplished by Christians walking as they ought to walk.

How then are we to walk so that we, the saints of God, are unified as one body? The apostle writes, “[Walk] with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing one another in love” (v. 4:2). All these things when practiced by the people of God bring about unity in the Body. For when God’s people are humble, they understand who they are and the darkness from which they were brought and therefore understand that all who are saints of God are being brought from that same former darkness. This humility makes the people of God gentle people, for God was gentle with them in their own lack of understanding and sin. Recognizing God’s gentleness with them, the people of God are patient toward one another, suffering long with one another’s flaws knowing that God has long suffered their flaws. All these things culminate in love for one another, understanding the great love with which God has loved them, they are therefore eager to return it to those whom God loves.

When all these things are practiced by the saints of God, unity occurs. And it is not a man-created unity, but these things, being fruits borne by the Spirit of God, are a Spirit-created unity. For where the Spirit is present, unity is present, because, as the apostle writes:

There is one body (i.e. one church) and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope that belongs to your call–one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (v. 4:4,5).

The issue, therefore, is not an issue of unity of all those who label themselves “Christians,” but it is an issue of everyone whom God has called to himself. It would be foolish to strive for unity with those like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc., who do not worship the same God as we worship or with those who profess Christ but live unholy lives, but when our God is singular, our Savior is singular, and his Word is singular, why then are we divided into many? I have heard it said by some that denominations are a necessary evil, but I believe the apostle Paul by his exhortation begs to differ. The greatest problem that we as the church face is not our doctrinal differences, but it is our unwillingness to be humble, gentle, patient, and loving to those whom God has been humble, gentle, patient, and loving. Oftentimes, we are more like Pharisees than we are Christians, measuring out a tenth of our mint, dill, and cumin, while neglecting love and mercy. If we were able by the Spirit to become humble, gentle, patient, and loving people, I sincerely believe that right doctrine would naturally follow.



Categories: Theology

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12 replies

  1. I know I've bugged you enough on this issue, Matt, but someone's bound to bring this up anyway: 😛

    -Do you think Paul was disobeying his own command when he parted from Barnabas over an apparently non-doctrinal issue of ministry methods (Acts 15)?

    -Also, if denominations are an unnecessary evil that is disrupting unity, in what practical ways would you work to do away with them without minimizing the importance of right doctrine?

    Thanks man! We obviously differ on this issue, but I wouldn't split fellowship with you over it. hehe 😛

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  2. To Daniel: Unity is necessarily predicated upon right doctrine. It's incorrect doctrine that causes schism (Rom 16.17), but unity in the Church is a hallmark of its divine nature (Jn 17.21).

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  3. @Daniel

    Answer 1: Perhaps. Paul was human. Doctrine from narrative is a bit shaky.

    Answer 2: Though I know Josh and I differ in some / maybe many ways on what is right doctrine, I agree with his answer. Unity is not for unity's sake alone. Paul later in Ephesians 4 states that unity exists for the sake of teaching right doctrine so that the church might be built up. The problem with division is that it gives no opportunity for the teaching of right doctrine. Obviously, people will leave the church when right doctrine is taught, but as the apostle John wrote, "They went out from us, because they were not of us."

    To give you a practical example, take for existence Ergun Caner. Do you make peace with such a man who openly rails against the teachings of Scripture? In his case, no, because he puts himself in the position of a teacher of the Word and knows what the Scriptures say, but openly defies them by the teachings of men. He is, what you say, a false teacher, and a pastor would by requirement of the position would need to evaluate such a person before letting him join the fold of his local congregation. The thrust behind this unity I believe is the stronger bearing the burdens of the weak in love. A weak brother is one thing, a false teacher is another.

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  4. Matthew,

    A little food for thought. You wrote,

    "If we were able by the Spirit to become humble, gentle, patient, and loving people, I sincerely believe that right doctrine would naturally follow."

    I would suggest something of just the opposite is true. To use a couple of .50 cent words, our orthodoxy (right teaching) drives our orthopraxy (right practice). In other words, it is as our understanding and submission to the Word of God grows that we better reflect it's character in our life. We must be correctly taught from God's Word what true humilty, gentleness and patience is before we can exercise them in our lives. So, I would ask you to please consider the possiblity that it is Spirit filled living (becoming humble, gentle, patient, etc.) that follows right doctrine, not visa versa.

    Also, doctrine always divides, but it also unites. Ours is not to be so concerned with the uniting, and dividing of the people. Leave it to the Lord to draw men unto Himself. Yet, we should seek to be faithful to the Word, rightly dividing it, then God's people will be rightly divided as well. Blessings.

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  5. I agree that denominations are an unnecessary evil, and that unity is accomplished by love (especially when you consider the traits of genuine love in 1 Cor. 13), which comes from God.

    As for whether orthodoxy proceeds orthopraxy, or vice-versa, I like Bonhoeffer's explanation in The Cost of Discipleship: it is a cyclical process. The Lord gives us faith, and then He gives us an opportunity to obey. Obedience produces more faith, and more faith produces more obedience. It is a feedback loop of sanctification.

    I think the key to unity is knowing Jesus and growing in our experience and expression of Him (Eph. 4:13). Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are biproducts of abiding in the vine (John 15). I think the tough thing about preserving unity is extending grace to Brothers that we consider errant, or maybe not even Brothers at all (e.g., Brother Caner). The truth is that we are all heretics and hypocrits; we just don't know how bad we are. As you said in your post, we should follow the Lord's model of patience and cling to His promise in Phil. 1:6.

    Grace and Peace.

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  6. @David: I suppose I could have fleshed out what I meant by right doctrine flowing from humility, etc. Clearly, for humility, etc. to exist, right doctrine must be known. These who know such right doctrine and practice humility, etc. are called to minister to the weaker in the faith who have not yet comprehended right doctrine and therefore are not humble, etc. This humility, etc. demonstrated to the weak will, by the Spirit, grow them up to be strong so that they understand right doctrine and thus making them able to minister to weak after them. Peace flows from this, not because everyone in the Body agrees on all things, but because each one in the Body regards others in the Body as better than themselves.

    Though I agree with you on several points in what you said, I do believe that we are called to be concerned about unity. The apostle Paul goes to great lengths to exhort us to seek unity in love, humility, etc., and our Lord's prayer for us was that we would be one as he and the Father are one.

    The key is love, for love covers a multitude of sins and disagreements. Should we divide because we esteem one day as better than another? Should we divide over eating and drinking? Should we divide over style of music used in church services? I believe the answers to these are a clear "no," yet we are all too eager to divide over these things plus countless more out of selfishness rather than out of love. For we are eager to be comfortable with those who are exactly like us, rather than being "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" by regarding others as better than ourselves.

    Will disunity occur over heresies and false doctrines? Yes, they will, but division over anything less than the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ seems to me to be in vain. Many divisions in the church occur over lesser things, which is why we are able to have conferences entitled, "Together for the Gospel." If we can come together for the Gospel, I do not understand why we simply cannot come together. Oh, right, because we do not know how to love.

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  7. Thanks, Shane, for sharing that. I like what you said a lot, especially about the cyclical nature of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Both are fruits of the Spirit, or as you put it–abiding in the Vine.

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  8. Matthew,

    My intention was not to say that we should not be concerned with the unity of the body – obviously we are as this is Paul's admonition here in the text. We are to demonstrate Christian charity (love) to all. But, my point is to help you see the need to prioritize our concerns. People will come and go. Some will leave for right reasons, some will not. And as far as this goes, we should always seek to maintain the peace, purity and unity of the church to the best of our abilities.

    But I would contend that while we have relatively limited control over if and when people leave, we do have a great deal of control over how we handle the things of God – including the proclamation of the truth. Ours is to faithfully preach Christ in all things – it is God's to give them ears to hear.

    My point is: The Lord's people will be drawn to His Word by the Holy Spirit. Those not drawn to truth, have not the truth in them. Jesus knows His sheep, and they hear His voice. Therefore, if we would only keep a closer watch over what comes and goes out from our pulpits, then who comes and goes out of the doors of the church would take care of itself. Agreed?

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  9. I, too, agree that denominations are an unnecessary evil, except for the case of dividing from fellow believers, but from the lost–the false teachers and their followers, etc. But we who are truly saved should have one denomination.

    I wonder, though, how to practically go about unifying.

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  10. I agree absolutely. However we (including myself as chief) are usually very good about speaking the truth, but are very poor about speaking the truth in love. Goats, of course, are going to be repulsed by the truth and leave, however I fear that we who bear the truth at times repulse sheep by our haughtiness and lack of love.

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  11. @Jason – Love, gentleness, and humility in our particular contexts, I believe. I think that we would be frustrated beyond belief if we attempted to achieve unity, in, say, the American church.

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  12. Matthew,

    Agreed. So, what this tells us then is that it matters not only WHAT (orthodoxy) comes out from behind the pulpit – and consequently from our lives – but also HOW (orthopraxy) it comes out as well. Truth in love. Oh, that God would grant us more of that! Blessings.

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