I have enjoyed reading The Church: One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic the past week or two. Plus, I had the wonderful opportunity of having lunch with the lead pastor of a large, evangelical Presbyterian church in town. It was an encouraging meeting where we both clearly sensed our mutual commitment to the gospel, yet we recognized our differences in terms of belief and vision. We saw our great unity, but we saw our differences, as well. In other words, we saw how we could work together, yet we also saw how there was a need for both of us in our community. One of the chapters by Richard Phillips in the book led me to think a bit about the presence of denominations today. First, we can be sure that, as there is no mention of denominations in the new heavens and the new earth, that they are, in one sense, a product of the fall. They are contrary to the unity Jesus desires. One day, I will worship, around the clock, right beside my Presbyterian brother. Men and women will be unified, once again, as in Eden, in the new Promised Land.
Second, though, we can also say that denominations are also a product of grace. What could I possibly mean by that? This is where Phillips' chapter is so helpful. We could argue that, in God's providence, denominations actually, in another sense, allow for unity between brothers to flourish on earth. In other words, I am not in a congregation with my Presbyterian brother where we argue about the issue of baptism, or the relationship between the covenants, for example. We don't feud about the proper expression of church polity (although we hold much in common there). We are, in God's providence, because of our personal convictions, in different congregations. Now, rather than having a relationship potentially based on disagreement, we come together solely to express and appreciate our agreement around the fundamentals of the faith. We can gather together around the gospel. We can rejoice in our unity. At the end of the day, we can head back to the places God has called us. But we can lock arms and work together.
There is an alternative to this that I have experienced first hand. We can be a part of a group that finds its identity in denying creedal statements. Everyone gathers in one church, denying the distinctions present. This invariably leads to feuding over these secondary issues. And, in my experience, those types of churches always have unwritten creeds that are enforced by leadership. There are distinctives that are adhered to, often quite rigidly. And ironically, those types of churches are often the least likely to see cooperation with other denominational groups, around the gospel, as a possibility. Therefore, based on my experience, I would argue that evangelical attempts to deny the relevance of denominations lead to a lack of unity within and without. Churches have much strife. And those same churches refuse to partner with others.
Of course, there is another, non-evangelical alternative. You have churches that stand for nothing linking with other churches that stand for nothing-- all for nothing. A recent "Tom in the Box" post decribed this sort of "unity" at the lowest common denominator. This may lead to a sort of unity, but it's no unity at all, as it's being "together for a bunch of other stuff." It's cheap, false unity.
Is it not much better to be who we are, recognizing our differences, being honest with those, and yet gathering around the essentials-- the glory of God, the gospel of Jesus? We can have diversity and unity. The "diversity" part may not be as wicked as some might lead us to think, and I'm not sure the alternative is all that appealing.