Rethinking Denominationalism

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May 12, 2012 by Kyle

Who First?

There are tons of church buildings in Philly. In certain densely populated neighborhoods you might see several churches on a block. On the corner you might see a Mount Blessed Baptist Church and a little further down the street you’ll see a Pentecost Fire Christian Center or if you look hard enough you might even find a Mt. Nebo African Methodist Episcopal Church. Undoubtedly, there are distinct doctrinal positions held by each congregation. You might hear a sermon preached in one of these churches and instantly recognize the weight placed on certain themes or teaching. Even with such diversity I still hear this question, ‘Why are there so many denominations if we serve the same Lord?’ or ‘Why are there so many divisions in the body?

 These questions beg a response and I’m pretty sure we’re really not ready for what it takes to eliminate denominational division. Who will move away from closely held doctrinal views on things like: infant baptism, sprinkling vs. immersion, tongues, women preachers or pastors, double election, congregational rule, etc. Who will move away from Calvinism towards Arminianism or perhaps abandon Lordship Salvation for Free Grace? How about instead of a pre-wrath rapture we lump together Jesus’ Second Coming and the Rapture as one and the same event? Not sure how many would be willing to give up a liberating worship experience where the Spirit is allowed to move for a stiff high church/liturgical setting. The city is a Petri dish of culture. When you combine familial and ethnic traditions with the Gospel you’ll have unique expressions of the “one faith” on every corner.

 Are We Really Ready?

For many, I imagine that price of genuine fellowship and collaboration is too great. I am the child of Conservative Evangelicalism out of the Baptist/Missional tradition. Yes, that’s a mouthful but it reflects the nuanced lineage that shapes who I am (who we are). My self-description makes sense within certain contexts. Descriptions can provide a kind of road map of where I ‘probably’ land on certain social and doctrinal issues. Categories work for a lot of things, but I’m still trying to figure out if they work or hinder the churches work in the world. We grow and may change our perspective on certain issues, mostly secondary issues regarding interpretation of ‘difficult’ Biblical passages. The question I have is how many out of the Reformed, Episcopalian, Anglican and any other Protestant denominations are ready to give up something for the sake of unity.

 Another perspective on denominations may be that they are the result of cultural and/or ethnic diversity.  I just think a better admonition is needed besides the one commonly used, ‘there are so many division in the Body of Christ–why can’t we just get along?’ How about recognizing what others bring to the table that glorifies our One Savior? I’m not at all suggesting that we indulge in practices that will lead towards Babylon or Gomorrah but for those that know of the missional call of Christ—there is work to be done. I mean really, when I think of what those in hip-hop church or those in hipster churches—I wonder who is better suited to reach those particular urban communities. We would label these churches as denominations in the traditional sense but in reality they simply reflect the uniqueness of their surrounding community.

 Meant for Evil but…

 Could it be that under the umbrella of Gospel believing churches unity exists despite what see as disunity? What we see as a divided church may not be totally true or totally negative. One example goes back to the early separation of White church and slave church. This division ultimately led to a church conditioned to be sensitive to matters affecting the marginalized and oppressed.  The division of White and Black was based on evil intent, but the product called the Black church remains a rich untapped resource for the education of White Evangelicals. (Genesis 50:20) Themes of worship, justice, forgiveness, incarnational urban ministry and the unique ability to live out our faith in complex and oppressive conditions are just some of the benefits born out of the Black experience. Many within the black church are waiting for an invitation to provide our unique theological perspective but many of us are not holding our breath. Additionally, the Black church remains the most acute cultural marker for the descendants of African slaves in North America. This corner of the church in North America is a kind of observatory of black history. A narrative of Blacks in America can be traced from slavery to the present. It is my opinion that this doesn’t happen in a melting pot.[1] Yes, the African American church in America has much more to offer than high stepping, long robed gospel choirs.  All this to say that they church of Jesus Christ has built in diversity which allows for a reservoir of unique opinions and experience on how to address issues in the land.

 One Possibility

 During my M.Div training I was intentionally placed in a cohort with individuals of different traditions.  There were saints from COGIC, Brethren, Independent, Nazarene, Reformed, African Methodist Episcopal and myself, one of Southern Baptist lineage. We were mostly African American and mostly male with the exception of two females and a white brother. There were differences.  Those differences would come to the surface at certain moments, but somehow through God’s grace we dealt with differing views. I am the richer for the experience as I was able to step outside of my theological context into a unique atmosphere where the intent was not to catechize, but to challenge.

 The missional focus seems to allow room for cohesiveness across various denominations. Although anecdotal, my experience does provide a glimpse into what could be.  As a cohort we are still together doing things for the Kingdom and we are still fully aware of our distinctiveness. In fact, we were able to minister together leaving room for our differences because we recognize that we have Christ in common and His mission remains before us despite our leanings.[2] I’m sure many churches from various traditions have gone beyond their comfort zones to explore ministry possibilities in times of crisis–especially within urban context where violence is prevalent and there is an immediate need to address these community issues.

 New City No Church

 Revelation 21:1-27 gives what many understand to be the future dwelling for believers.  The context of the description of this city called, “the new Jerusalem” is stated in (v.1.) “The first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.”  Not surprising is that this new place is a city or as the Apostle John describes, “…the Holy City,” (v. 1)  This is a place where those who know God will experience peace, fellowship and restoration with God.(vv. 3-4) There is a statement of consummation in vs. 6, “It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.” The language suggests that the end of things has come as The Apostle John records.  Humanity begins in the Garden and enters eternity by way of a city. The remarkable thing is that this city is beautifully adorned, yet it’s missing something that is familiar to us; a temple or a place of worship. (v. 22)

The absence of a place of worship is worth noting because it’s followed by a description of the abundant presence of the Lord in the city. His glory keeps the city ablaze with light. (v. 23) Some might see the city mentioned as mere allegory describing some sort of anticipated revival among the people of God throughout all ages—what John envisions is a concise representation of life in Christ. In other words, the “new Jerusalem” of Revelation 21 is the overcoming church  The church is a healing place full of intimate fellowship and worship where the glory of Christ outshines all else. The absence of the Temple merely reflects on Christ being the Sacrificial Lamb who nullifies the Law and its ordinances–cancelling the debt at the cross. Is this the place that Jesus mentions in John 14 when He says, “I go to prepare a place for you...”?

Reading the passage I can’t help but lean on the fact that there is no clear reason to take this as an allegorical construct. This is a real ‘place’ in eternity. Furthermore, it seems that this Holy City is especially suited for resurrected bodies that continue to carry distinguishing marks of lineage. I look forward to living in this real city in eternity. With that being said, if this is the consummate city then why not re-imagine urban communities in light of the New Jerusalem; a preview of things to come. It becomes a model of what the city should be [the already not yet]. We can seek to pre-create what will be—a place where the light of Christ sets the city ablaze.

In Discipling the City[3], the late Urban Missiologist Harvie Conn provides a paradigm for doing urban ministry utilizing forthcoming New Jerusalem. Conn says,

Christ’s lordship over the city does not await the fulfillment time of the new Jerusalem for its implementation.  It is to be heralded by His new earth ambassadors in the here and now, in the interim between the “already” of Christ’s victory at the old Jerusalem and the “not yet” of His consummation triumph in the new.[4]

He further states, “The task of Christians in the cities through which they pilgrim (Heb. 11:13) is to reflect the lifestyle of the heavenly city in which they are enrolled as citizens how (Eph. 2:19; Col. 3:1). The reality of things to come in Christ has made a breach into what is.” [5]  Conn’s observations provide an immediate challenge to the church of today. The challenge is not to wait until the consummation of all things to handle differences among God’s people. We can reflect both the diverse and unified nature of this Holy City.

I must admit that there are just some things that I am not giving up—if I were to evolve in some areas I would disqualify myself from ministry. (1 Cor. 9:16) The one area where I need to grow is working with those in the body of Christ to reach those outside of my context who are lost. We have Gospel of Jesus Christ in common and the Gospel changes hearts, families, communities and nations. There are various opportunities to reach across the aisle for the sake of the cross—it’s vitally important that we seize open doors to set the city ablaze with the glory of our Savior.

 


[1] Melting pot is used here to describe groups giving up their identity to adopt some homogenous identity

[2]The following is an example of diversity across denominations within the African American community in Antebellum South, “Even in small Black communities where denominational variation exists, its significance may be minimized.  In some instances, Baptist and Methodist congregations in small Black communities share the same building on alternate Sundays.  The pattern of informal ecumenism between Baptists and Methodists is further illustrated by the common practice of attending other churches on Sundays when one’s own congregation is not conducting a service.” Baer, H. A., & Singer, M. (2003). Religious Diversification during the Era of Advanced Industrial Capitalism. In C. West, J. E. Glaude, C. West, & E. S. Glaude (Eds.), African American Religious Thought An Anthology (pp. 495-533). Louisville, Kentucky, USA: Westminster John Knox. (p. 497)

[3]  Greenway, R. S., Conn, H. M., Copeland, E. L., De Ridder, R. R., Guy, C., Kromminga, C. G., et al. (1979). Discipling the City. (R. S. Greenway, Ed.) Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] ibid…pp. 247-248

[5] ibid…p. 249

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