One Body In Christ – 9
Chapter 9: What About Sects and Denominations?
If it is then true that the Ekklesia exists wherever there is fellowship with God in Christ–and the consequent fellowship among believers– what about the existing churches? How should we react to all the creeds, dogmas, doctrines, interpretations of the Bible, ceremonies, sacraments and legal systems?
In the first place, we should not deny or seek to avoid the fact of variety in doctrinal and practical matters. Man is a creation of God and God does not create like a factory, by mass production. Every person is individually created by God as an independent being and is, therefore, more, or less different from all others. We err if we expect to find mechanical similarity among men, even among the children of God. The Ekklesia is one Body consisting of many independent, though inter-dependent, personalities. Even biological science tells us that the more life is developed the more complex its construction.
Some believers have deep theological insights, others passionate evangelistic tendencies, some this gift and some that gift; also there are differences in race and language, in degree of education and in social customs. Each have our own special duty to fulfill as a result of the differences in God-given gifts and circumstances. These differences, however, ought not become the cause of divisions. Why do we think that division is always the only alternative to uniformity or sameness? The innumerable varieties of human mind show the intended manifold character of the Body of Christ. Each member should not only retain his distinctiveness, but should also develop his special gifts in order to be able to serve the whole Ekklesia and make his necessary contribution to the fullness of Christ in His Body.
In this sense, the different emphases of many denominations and sects are not bad in themselves. These very differences would profit the whole Body if each group would only be humble enough to recognize the value of the others, instead of making their differences the basis of exclusivism and separation.
It is not only unnecessary but actually harmful to endeavor to nullify the differences and make a mediocrity out of them–and still worse to try to unify them by political or ecclesiastical power. Instead of condemning or excluding those whose knowledge or understanding is different from our own, we should love them, thanking God for what He has given us in them. Although it is quite natural (fleshly) that these differences be the cause division, Christians must not yield to this worldliness. It is pride that despises others who are different. If we will respect different tendencies, in love for each other, this variety of the local groups of Christians will contribute to the Body of Christ, rather than hurt it.
It is just such differences which have caused sects and denominations.
The existence of these varied characteristics is, in itself, not to be condemned; but instead of appreciating how greatly we need the contribution which those who are different can make to our faith, we have made our own differences a rallying point–substituting for Christ our special expression of Christianity as the center of faith and fellowship. As a result, what God meant to be a blessing to the life of the Body has become a curse, dividing Christians into little groups, separating them from each other. Everywhere we see believers putting fellow believers out of their fellowship and rejecting, condemning and despising those in whom Christ lives. How awful in God’s eyes is the sin of disobeying God’s command to love all Christians, not just in spite of, but because of their differences.
Can we so lightly ignore the Apostle Paul’s words, “I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” He goes on to show that the basis of this attitude is in the seven-fold unity that makes us one in Christ. “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 us all, who is above all, and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:1-6).
In the human body the eyes, mouth, nose, ears, hands, feet and many other physical organs each work according to the purpose for which they were created, never intruding into the sphere of the other’s work nor belittling others’ functions. Each fulfills its “calling” according to the command of the head. The foot does not say, Because I am not the head,
I don’t belong to the body”; nor does the ear say, “Because I am not the eye, I don’t belong to the body.” The eye should not despise the ear because it cannot see the beauty of nature; likewise, the ear should not condemn the eye because it cannot hear beautiful music (read I Cor. 12).
Saying this, however, does not mean that the Christian can believe anything he likes, and that any kind of faith equally will be Christian faith. No, there is one essential which we can never dispense with-the living fellowship with God and Christ. This is the center of Christian faith, without which–or opposing which–no one really can be called a Christian. Christ Himself is the object of our faith and we believe in Him as a Person, not just in facts about Him. Whatever ideas or concepts we hold must find their source and focus in the One who, as the object of our faith, is that Rock from which flows the water of life. Without this life (indwelling Spirit) we are none of His.
Unity in Diversity
A most helpful teaching on this theme is found in the 14th and 15th chapters of Romans. There Paul uses the example of differing opinions about food and days among the believers in Rome to teach that Christians should not despise or judge one another. Note that he does, not advise them to find a happy medium between the contending opinions or to average the two extremes into a compromise. On the contrary, he admonished that “every one be fully convinced in his own mind.” He
declares that God is able to make both stand, since both are serving the Lord in obedience to their individual conviction of His will (cf. verse 4).
The weak in faith should not pass judgment on the strong, and the strong should not look down on the weak.
In this connection, it is also totally unscriptural to define the will of God by a majority vote. God’s will cannot be defined by the wishes of the majority; therefore, each of us must find personally what is the will of God for himself. Each must do what he believes to be the will of God for his own life, and let all others meet their responsibility to do the same. The will of God may differ for each of us, but that does not matter. By giving different commands to many, and putting them together according, to His plan, God shall accomplish ultimately His complete will. Individual responsibility is necessary for doing the will of God because God’s will is compound and complex, differing according to each person concerned. On the other hand, Paul tells us that we should live in harmony, “being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil. 2:2). He says we should “be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (I Cor. 1 :10), and “live in such harmony with one another in accord with Christ Jesus, that together we may with one voice glorify God.”
The question, then, is how those who are “fully convinced in their own minds” of different convictions are able to be likeminded and with one mouth and one mind glorify God. Is it not obvious that this can only be realized if the one essential center, out from which our whole Christian experience flows, is the love and oneness of spiritual fellowship with God in Christ? This is unity in diversity and diversity in unity. The true Ekklesia has neither uniformity nor conflicting differences, neither individualism nor collectivism. It is one living Body, with diverse members.
This is a strong admonition against the sectarian spirit of the churches. The God-given differences, which should contribute to the fullness of the one Body, have become cause of division instead of unity. Each sect and denomination has its own institution and creeds. When there is a difference among the members of a church, some of them separate themselves from their fellow-Christians and form their institution and creed. Such an institution and creed clearly distinguishes that group from all the others and thus becomes the cause of division.
Only Basis for Division
This raises the question as to whether or not anyone should ever be excluded from Christian fellowship. The answer is quite evidently yes, but we must be careful to notice the Scriptural circumstances of such exclusion. According to Paul, such cases, rise when there is someone among the brethren who commits gross sin. Paul instructed the believers “to stop associating with any so-called brother if he is leading the life of a fornicator, a greedy grasper, an idolater, a slanderer, a drunkard or a robber–even to stop eating with such a person.”
Such “believers,” if they prove incorrigible, will have to be considered as unbelievers (Matt. 18:15-17). However, such separation is not among Christians, but is rather the expulsion of those who cannot be accepted as Christians in spite of what they profess. If we allow such sinful people to mingle with the members of the Body of Christ, the Ekklesia, it is as if we allow infectious germs or a malignant growth to remain in our physical body–the whole body will be corrupted.
There is a fundamental difference between immorality or Christ-denying doctrine and the variations in doctrine or practice found among individual Christians who basically have Christ as the center of their faith. While the former will corrupt and destroy the Body of Christ, the latter will make up the completeness of it. Therefore, the one ought to be rejected and driven out, while the other must be accepted and treated as God-given contributions to the fellowship.
This, of course, does not mean that all doctrinal differences ought to be accepted. When Paul reminded the believers of the essence of “the good news which I proclaimed to you, which you accepted, on which you are
now standing, through which you are saved— unless your faith at first was spurious” (I Cor. 15: 1-2 ), he must have intended to emphasize the importance of what he had preached. His message was that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve . . . “(I Cor. 15:3-5).
At that time there were some “Christians” who insisted that there is no resurrection of the dead. This presented a very serious problem for Paul, because the center of faith was fellowship with a living Christ, He “who died for us and rose again from among the dead” . Therefore, this difference was not a question of theological opinion, but a denial of the essential basis of the Christian faith—i.e., the fellowship in the Spirit with the risen Jesus. If Jesus did not rise again, this fellowship with Him was only sheer fantasy, lacking reality, and “then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain” (I Cor. 15:14). Paul could not be silent about this.
But even in such a case as this, Paul was not thinking of excommunicating those people who did not believe in the resurrection, for he had no institution or organization from which they could be excluded. Being convinced that they had no living fellowship with God, he sought to persuade them about the fact of the resurrection. By this attitude he demonstrated what a Christian should do when confronted with those who disagree on important, central facts and teachings of the Gospel. Rather than driving out at once those people who did not understand the resurrection, he wished to help them understand the true Gospel and come into living fellowship with the risen Christ.
The Issue Defined
In conclusion, we return again to our reaction to the existing sectarian churches. It is true that these usually have their origin in those variations and differences, which must be recognized and appreciated for their needed contribution to the life and fellowship of the whole Body. However,
we are forced to conclude that the organizations and institution men have built on these differences have only hindered and interrupted the life of the true Ekklesia. History has proven this to be true again and again. Even at their best, they do not add anything to the reality and practicality of the koinonia with God in Christ, which the Spirit produces in the Body of Christ. Believers who are outside the sects and denominations will find no need of them in having full and complete fellowship with God and men in the Ekklesia. As to those who are within, though they need not give up their institutional organization, they certainly must face squarely the issue of obedience to God in the practical outworking of the unlimited fellowship He has meant them to have as members of the whole Body of Christ.