Welcome to our Wednesday “Ask Beau” post. The purpose of this weekly feature is to provide you, our readers, with biblical responses to questions you have about practical issues that you face.
As always, you may submit questions for future “Ask Beau” posts by contacting us at email@example.com, or by leaving a comment on this post.
On Monday a thought-provoking discussion arose in the Frontier men’s Bible study about denominations and whether or not their existence is a bad thing. At the time we were considering a chapter written by Os Guinness in which he argues that there is a corporate aspect to the Lord’s call, and that it is impossible to live out God’s call on our lives when we pursue that call strictly as individuals. The conversation moved to this question: if we are all to be about the Lord’s business, and to use our gifting to serve others rather than our own preferences, should there even be any denominations?
Let me offer my take on this question (which builds off of some of the comments offered on Monday), and we can continue the dialogue in the comment section.
As much as the idea of having one unified church might appeal to us, we should recognize that the writers of Scripture were comfortable with at least one criterion by which local churches distinguished themselves, namely geography. A look at Paul’s missionary journeys and pastoral correspondence (see especially Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5) shows that from the beginning, churches popped up in various locations in the ancient world. Each one, functioning under its own leadership (Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:5), surely adopted at least slightly different practices because they were operating in different cultural situations.
Note also, as one man mentioned in our Monday discussion, that it is possible for godly people to disagree strongly on issues of procedure or strategy—we see Paul and Barnabas parting company due to a disagreement about whether or not to take John Mark along on their second missionary journey (Acts 15:36–41). While Luke, the writer of Acts, does not endorse the division, he also does not indicate that either man was in error. It is not illegitimate to express respectful disagreement or disapproval.
Sometimes the term denomination can cloud the discussion as well. Often there is tremendous variation in practice and even doctrine within a particular denomination. New Testament scholar D. A. Carson underscores this point by writing that in his experience, “there is probably no more diversity in Protestantism than there is within the bowels of the Roman Catholic Church” (Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church, p. 174; emphasis quoted).
Furthermore, because of human sin and even differences of perspective, denominations will continue to form and divisions will continue to occur. This is reality. Sometimes believers will find it necessary to separate from other believers because of legitimate doctrinal concerns or even heresy that has arisen.
With all of these factors in mind, I would argue that the existence of denominations and of variation between the practices of different church groups is not necessarily a bad thing, though some distinctions result directly or indirectly from human sinfulness. There’s one very important caveat, however.
We have spoken often on thefrontieratgrace.com about the various cultural forces that influence us. When we are aware of these forces, we can be aware also of tendencies against which to guard ourselves. Our American culture is fiercely individualistic and encourages a consumer mindset. We relish personal choice, freedom, and the ability to determine our own path for life. Is it any surprise, then, that Americans are particularly apt to struggle to deny our personal preferences, to submit to leadership, and to build one another up (Luke 9:24; 1 Corinthians 12:14-27; Philippians 2:1-4; Hebrews 13:17), and that we sometimes even “church hop,” looking for a church that has all the programs, emphases, and people that we find to be (to quote Goldilocks) “just right”?
I am not immune to this. Some years ago I left a church because of various reasons that I now question. Yes, I did not agree with everything going on at the church. In retrospect I wonder, though, if the justifications I offered for leaving weren’t a little too much about, well, me.
In a culture as individualistic as ours, pushing ourselves to stick it out with our churches and pushing back against our personal preferences is sometimes uncomfortable, but it is important. After all, church is ultimately about the Caller, not about the called.