The Church in my City

Chapter 5 Denominational Garden

During the war when I was called up at the age of eighteen the sergeant took down my particulars and then asked "What denomination are you?" I said I was an atheist. "What denomination were your parents?" I said they were atheists before me. He said "You can't be an atheist. When you get killed in battle somebody has to bury you." I said. "I am sorry, I am not a Christian." Finally exasperated, he said to the clerk "Put him down as Church of England." Of course if I had been killed in battle I would have been put in a military cemetery between a Baptist and a Presbyterian.

Five years later I was demobilized, and my first week at Trinity College, Cambridge, I was converted from atheism to Christian faith. A few weeks later one of the other students drew me aside, and said I would need to be going to church. "What church?" He explained I had to be Anglican or Baptist, Roman Catholic, Methodist, or something else. Another fellow told me he belonged to the Plymouth Brethren, so I tried that for a few week. When I visited my family in Belgium I talked to Chanoine Leclerk, a Roman catholic professor at Louvain University. I finally decided to go with the freedom of the Anglican church, and I trained for missionary service at Trinity College, Bristol.

When Mollie and I were married in a tent at Duncan Memorial Hospital in Raxaul (on the border of Nepal) she was a member of Cheam Baptist Church in south London. Bishop Christopher Robinson suggested it would be good for her to be confirmed in the Anglican Church of North India. I was going to be involved in training their priests, and she needed that to take communion in Anglican congregations. Mollie submitted to this, and we joked that she was now a confirmed Baptist. But it took her 16 years to be comfortable with Anglicanism and its formal style of worship. None of our four children were baptized as babies, and two of them were later baptized by a Presbyterian minister.

That kind of denominational confusion is repeated in millions of families. Exclusive denominational claims cause a lot of grief and concern for the church in my city, Often there is a serious family crisis when a couple are married. "What minister do we pick? Where should the ceremony be? What do the parents on both sides think? What will our children be taught? How does this denominational jungle relate to the church that Jesus had in mind?

A simple change of image has solved the problem for me. I think of the church in each city as a garden. The head of the one church in Kingston is the Gardener. And he delights in a rich variety of flowers in his garden. He likes a clump of phlox next to a bed of tulips, roses in another place, yellow-eyed susans, chrysanthemums, lupins along the fence, and tiny primroses in between. There is room for carnations, lilies, orchids, oriental poppies, and much else. The bigger the garden, the more varieties are needed. No wonder our heavenly Gardener takes delight in groupings of Baptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Pentecostals.

Each clump of flowers fights for its own right to exist, and may try to widen its influence, but the Gardener carefully keeps them in place. He is not impressed when one kind of flower imagines it is chosen to be the only flower in the garden. Nor does he like it when lilies complain that roses have thorns, and carnations fault tulips for lack of scent.

We can see the common or garden varieties of Christian gatherings in the Yellow Pages of our phone book. Some have names like Union Street Gospel Hall, the Salvation Army Citadel, Bethel, Alliance. As we have seen many of them add the title church after name. But if there is only one church in each city, how can they name their own location as St. James' Church, Next Church, St. Paul's Church, the Church of the Good Thief, Holy Family Church, First Baptist Church, First Christian Reformed Church, the Church of the Redeemer, or Christ Church?

It becomes even more problematical when they add their denominational connection like St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Chalmers United Church, Bayridge Alliance Church, the Greek Orthodox Church. Others keep their denomination off the notice board, but you soon discover their rules when you begin attending. You are meant to toe the line and keep away from the others.

In the New Testament we find groups belonging to the one church in a city meeting in private homes (as in Romans 16:5-15). Paul mentions "Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house" (1 Corinthians 16:19). These house groups inevitably developed different styles of music, worship, leadership, ministry in their neighborhood, and prayer concerns. As Paul said, "There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone" (1 Corinthians 12:4-6). The idea that the Lord wants them all regimented into one standard format seems strangely wrongheaded.

Does that mean denominations are a mistake? Some groups try to call themselves non-denominational. Others say we should have nothing to do with the mainline denominations. But once we take seriously the Lord's delight in a variety of flowers we can see each denomination as supporting a different form of Christian worship and expression. Often a denomination emerges to recover and teach a neglected aspect of evangelical faith. Or to correct a wrong practice. Martin Luther rejected the selling of indulgences. John Wesley recovered the idea of being perfected in love. But beyond that a denominational organization is soon needed to offer training, ordination, housing, a pension and insurance, for ministers serving each kind of church expression.

The Anglican style of sacramental worship and freedom to explore alternative needs belongs to the world-wide Anglican structure of the Lambeth Conferences. Baptist pastors are very vulnerable if they do not have the ordination and support of a Baptist Union. Greek Orthodox congregations need the presence of Orthodox bishops. Presbyterian government by elders requires presbyteries and synods. No local Salvation Army citadel could survive without the world-wide organization of the Salvation Army. And the need for doctrinal direction and the disciplines of penance and celibacy are provided for by the Roman Catholic denomination.

But denominations go wrong when they demand exclusive loyalty and view themselves as competing branches of a divided church.

These days church members feel free to attend any of the many different kinds of meeting place in their city, and they work together to build up the body of the Messiah in that area (Ephesians 4:16). There is one baptism (Ephesians 4:5) in the sense that we are not baptized into a denomination but into the universal church. Disciples are baptized to begin learning from Jesus the Messiah (see Go, make Learners), and all Christians use the same Bible.

As we will see in chapter 8, we should be free to share at the communion table of any congregation of in our city. Or any other city in other countries. Some denominations do not approve of that. But more and more ordinary Christians ignore these man-made rules and feel free to share in the Lord's family meal wherever they feel comfortable. What kind of response would A & P get if they said nobody could buy groceries at their store if they ever went and patronized Loblaw's?

Chapter 6