I hate that question with a passion, because I have found it to hide a truckload of Christian prejudice in my time. “What church do you go to?” I remember being asked that question while still a college student by a well-meaning evangelical acquaintance. “I attend a Methodist church…” I began. “Oh, so you’re not ‘born again'” my young acquaintance responded. I was incredulous, insulted, and a little bit angry. I discarded the rest of my cordial answer and latched on to his prejudice instead. “So, I can’t be ‘born again’ because I attend a Methodist church? You think nobody there is saved?”
He began to explain himself, pointing out that some churches do not accept the Holy Spirit. Little did he know that there were and are many people in all denominations of Christianity who enjoy the full revelation of the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and seek to obey his Word as revealed in the Bible. He also didn’t understand that I actually came to faith in an Evangelical setting, had worshiped for a while in a Pentecostal gathering, and was at that time helping out with the Sunday school in the Methodist Church. I didn’t interact much with that man after that day; he retreated into his Christian prejudice and I into my cave of righteous indignation.
Denominationalism is not of God
So easily do we forget Paul’s exhortation in his first letter to the Corinthians:
“I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas ”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?”
1 Corinthians 1:10-13 NIV
We Christians sometimes live as if those verses do not exist! We define ourselves by our separate congregations, assuming ourselves to be the sole custodians of the whole truth and looking down on other expressions of the faith through our holier-than-thou spectacles. The Pentecostal denounces the Orthodox because the latter is too quiet. The Othodox denounces the Pentecostal for the opposite reason. One Christian congregation emphasizes holiness at the expense of the message of grace. Another shouts grace from the rooftops leaving the holiness message unexplored. Yet another emphasizes the gifts of the Spirit above all things, while their estranged brothers focus on deep study for the careful understanding and application of the scriptures. Each congregation looks down on the others, each secretly believing they know best, and each seeking their own glory and expansion.
Non-Denominational Gatherings Do Exist
The fact that a gathering calls itself non-denominational does not make it so. Is the congregation seeking the growth of the wider body of Christ as opposed to its own numbers? Is it seeking to do so in collaboration with fellow Christians from other congregations? Do sermons from the pulpit or stage focus on Christ as the Saviour and role model, or is there undue reference and deference to the human leaders? If not, I humbly submit that it is still denominational at heart.
I have sat under many church leaders in many congregations and am most grateful for the ministry of those who understand these words of Jesus, and share his heart expressed in this prayer:
““My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
John 17:20-23 NIV
Martin Luther’s Mistake?
Complete unity. I sometimes wonder if the Protestant split led by Martin Luther was a mistake. In the midst of all the injustice and the heresy in the established Church of the day, was there another way in which the matter could and should have been dealt with, to bring change and revival within one body? Was division the right answer? Examine the fruit – division, subdivision and ultimate fragmentation. Each denomination breaks away because it has uncovered truth being ignored by the parent denomination, and runs strong for a while until they become the orthodoxy and another denomination breaks out again from under them. Ultimately, we are faced with multiple groups, including many fragments accountable only to themselves, lacking the oversight of any elders of the faith and running unchecked with all manner of private revelations and visions. Surely this is not how it was meant to be.
What About Heresy?
Of course not every congregation truly follows the gospel of Jesus Christ, and false teachers abound. There are indeed some fundamentals of the faith which cannot and should not be debated. But all other things – doubtful things, Paul called them – need to be dealt with delicately and with consideration for one another, leaving the judgement to God. In Paul’s time, it was the matter of whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols, as well as disagreements over the observance of holy days and the Sabbath. In my time, it has been over such things as proper Christian attire, secular music, appropriate Christian music and the place of television in a Christian home.
Here are some helpful verses of Scripture to consider:
“Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.
Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”
Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.”
2 Timothy 2:14-15, 19, 23-26 NIV
“Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. But whoever loves God is known by God.
But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do. Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.”
1 Corinthians 8:1-3, 8-9, 13 NIV
The True Church
The true Church of Christ isn’t the Methodist or the Anglican or the Evangelical or the Pentecostal… the church – the “body of Christ” – is made up of everyone who confesses with their mouth and believes in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead.
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”
Romans 10:9-10 NIV
This true church also recognizes that their faith will be evidenced by what they do. Nobody can truly have faith and live a life unchanged.
“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?
But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.
As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
James 2:14, 18-19, 26 NIV
Members of the true church are everywhere, in all sorts of Christian gatherings, seeking God quietly or loudly, waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe this with all my heart. I am not an Evangelical, or an Anglican or anything other than a follower of Jesus Christ… a Christian.
May he find us faithful when he comes, or calls us home. May he say “well done…” (See Matthew 25).