by Robert Brow  (www.brow.on.ca)

Chapter 5  -  Church Denominations

In chapter 2 we worked with the idea of one church in each city (Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, Rome). We also saw that location in a particular building does not define the church. It is a pity we call our church buildings "St. Luke's Church, First Baptist Church, or even the Church of Christ." I prefer to say "I belong to the church of Jesus the Messiah in Kingston, and I exercise the gifts he has given me wherever I find the opportunity to do so. I mostly attend St. Paul's Anglican Church for worship, but I also feel free to join with any of the hundreds of other gatherings of disciples of Jesus in the city, or anywhere else."

By that definition it is inappropriate to speak of national and international churches such as the Anglican Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian, Methodist, or United Church. Even expressions like the Baptist or Pentecostal churches miss the fact that those gatherings are only part of one church in each city.

The existing terminology is not likely to change, but we need a way of seeing the function of denominational groupings. Our use of the word "franchise" is not meant to be a criticism or a slur on denominational structures. It merely expresses in familiar modern language a way of an organization serving the needs of units that would find it hard to survive alone.

In the business world it is very hard for smaller stores to grow to any size without the support of a franchise. It is not just the recognizable logo, but there are the benefits of ordering, training, and financial support to open in a new location. In Kingston we have food stores operating under franchises such as A & P, Loblaws, Food City, Loeb's. Grocery stores that want a degree of independence can link up with IGA (Independent Grocers Association). It is hard to sell fried chicken without the umbrella of Kentucky Fried Chicken. In each case the managers look to their franchise to help them, and the franchise demands certain standards and loyalty in exchange.

Franchises in the business world try hard to develop customer loyalty, but A & P could never say "You must buy exclusively from us or you will be excluded from our store." The problem with Christian denominations was that, instead of serving the local congregations under their name in each city, they began with visions of grandeur. They claimed to be the only true or correct or orthodox church in the land. Then they demanded loyalty.

"You should belong to us and to no one else." Christians were not meant to enjoy any other denomination, and if they did not submit to the rules there would be severe consequences. People who didn't conform were humiliated or put out by excommunication. The worst arrogance was claiming to be the true church of Jesus Christ. That is why denominationalism became such a major frustration for so many.

During the past century most ordinary Christians have begun to free themselves from unquestioned loyalty to one denomination. When they move to another part of the city they feel free to pick a church gathering that suits them and their children, regardless of its denominational label.

There is still a residual use of unhelpful language. "I was baptized Roman Catholic, but my husband was baptized Anglican." In the New Testament baptism is not into a denomination. We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, and it gives us the right to share in the life of any Christian congregation anywhere in the world. We may be refused communion here or there, but that is only denominational ignorance, not the intention of the Lord of his universal church.

Denominational bureaucracies have lost some of their absolute power, which is all to the good. But that still leaves us with the fact that denominations at their best perform a very important function. Ordinary Christians may be free to move as they choose, but for ordained ministers there is a much tighter denominational loyalty. They may have been helped through seminary training. Their denominational ordination gives them a recognized professional qualification. When they need to move their bishop or head office can open doors for them. The denominational pension plan, health benefits, and protection for dependents is important. When they are unjustly treated, there is an appeal beyond the local congregation. And throughout their ministry they have opportunities for fellowship with like-minded friends, continuing education, training, and a sense of involvement in a world mission.

It is hard to see how the ministers of struggling church gatherings could survive without denominational support. Things only go wrong when the denomination ceases to be a servant. It begins to interfere in private matters, tries to quench the freedom of the Holy Spirit, and makes unreasonable demands. Many ministers usually have to put up with this because for them moving to another denomination is usually made extremely difficult.

There are also very important values for ordinary church members. Most of the time they complain about the financial demands of their denomination (see chapter 9 on Church Money). But there are times when they need to turn to their denomination for help. Struggling congregations can be supported for a time rather than lose their building. A minister who goes badly wrong can be moved, and if necessary lose the right to function in that denomination.

From the point of view of the Lord who is building His church denominations serve the vital need for variety and change. His church in a city is like a garden with many kinds of flowers. There are groupings of tulips, roses, peonies, chrysanthemums, lily of the valley. You cannot grow orchids if they are mixed in with the petunias.  Similarly denominations permit styles of Christian life to develop their own identity. This enables them to contribute in their own distinctive way to the life of a city. Without some kind of denominational tradition congregations would be at the mercy of constant upsetting change.

An independent congregation can grow large and survive on its own with a powerful charismatic leader. And that form of church life also has a place among us. A lone tall blue spruce tree can add to a larger garden. But other Christians need their own denominational flavor. The stark severity of Calvinism has a contribution to the spiritual garden of the city. There was the deep devotion to the Lord among the Exclusive Brethren. Many long for the sense of mystery in a traditional Roman Catholic mass or a Greek Orthodox liturgy. The simple preaching and singing of evangelical congregations is needed in every country. We would miss the social concerns of the Salvation Army. And the exuberant responsiveness of black congregations. Every city should have centers of charismatic life. Not everyone is at home in the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, but Christians from all over the world have been healed and revitalized by that form of service.

We can imagine how an individual could get irked with the ritual or antics of this or that kind of gathering. But there is a worse problem when participants in one form of spiritual life imagine that they alone are pleasing to God. It is good when we can share the heavenly gardener's delight in the colors and scents and uniqueness of every kind of flowering.

We do not reject a garden because of one of its blooms. Perhaps in this next century we will learn a genuine appreciation of others. "In our congregation we offer the scent of carnations, but that does not mean we are more important than the odorless irises and daisies." And it is sad when someone quits the Lord's church because he cannot force a congregation to flower to his own liking

This model of the vital function of denominational differences would undercut the objection "I can't stand the church because it is so divided by denominationalism." It would also free us from the past century's obsession with denominational unity. We have lamented and prayed over "the sin of our divisions." During the twentieth century thousands of our best brains have committed their creative energy to figuring out a way to unite the denominational franchises. "We should all work from one efficient head office." But according to the model we have used the ecumenical movement may be a vast effort to solve a problem that does not exist. It does not seem the Holy Spirit is concerned with tidy organization. He chooses to do the dividing and grouping to suit the colorful design of our heavenly gardener. Having looked at the exuberance of the Lord's garden in each city, we now need to go deeper into the astonishing complexity of life in all its parts.

 Chapter 6 .....