In What Are We United?
Organizational unity instead of Gospel unity is death. The failure of Christian ministries, be they church or para-church, commences when they lose their direction and become organizations that demand organizational unity over theological unity in the service of the gospel.
We all can see how churches have lost their way over time, but the para-churches can just as easily lose their way. We look at the great churches of the past and lament their decline in congregations or worse in gospel ministry, theological faithfulness or moral integrity. However, the same can be said for many para-church ministries set up in previous generations by Christians that today are hardly recognizable as Christian at all. Some even go out of their way to hide their Christian foundations.
The beginning of this downward fall is nearly always the loss of gospel clarity. The theological reason for establishing a ministry of the gospel is put on the back burner while the practicalities of running an organization become paramount. In next to no time, the organization is fighting to maintain the loyalty of its supporters and fighting with other organizations about their rights and relationships.
A classic in this slide is when non-denominational ministries start to function as inter-denomination ministries or worse still denominational organizations.
A non-denominational ministry is one that has no relationship or regard for denominationalism. This is quite different to an inter-denominational ministry, which is set up with equitable representation of all the denominations that support it. On a non-denominational committee there may be many, or no members of your particular denomination; nobody is there representing their denomination. All are involved because they believe in the particular cause of ministry. While on an inter-denominational ministry there will be careful balance of all denominations as each person is serving as a representative of their denomination. Consequently, there may be little theological agreement or there may be great unanimity, but either of these situations is an accident of history not the basis of membership. The next person on the committee will be chosen not because they believe anything in particular but because of their representation of a denomination.
The slide from ‘non’ to ‘inter’ usually happens un-noticed as politically sensible decisions are made. We are looking for a new committee member or a speaker for a conference, and it is pointed out that if we had somebody from denomination ‘X’ they would be able to bring greater support to our cause. The politics are right – broadening our base can bring greater strength to our organization, but the basis for the decision is poisonous to the whole ministry.
For a non-denominational ministry to stay on course it must always seek contributions from the person most committed to their cause and most able to make the contribution needed. Genuine non-denominational ministries are totally unconcerned whether every speaker comes from the same background or different ones, for the only concern is whether the new person will be most effective in advancing their cause. When people of less ability are included because of their denomination, the ministry is weakened. When people of great ability who do not share the common theology or vision are included the ministry will inevitably be weakened. Fellow travellers are more dangerous than enemies.
In Christian ministry unity comes from the centre drawing people in, not from the edges making alliances and coalitions. These alliances work in the short term, increasing the numerical power and resources of the organization, but usually undermine the cause in the long term as they shift the central focus of the original ministry.
Here is the failure of the 20th century Ecumenical Movement. It was always about organizational alliances rather than theological agreement - let alone truth.
Denominations are para-church organizations with all the strengths and weaknesses that go with being ‘para-church’. They exist beside (para) the church to enable it to do its work or to extend the gospel beyond the work of the church. Often, they have planted the church and can be holding the title deeds of the property. But the more the denomination places organizational unity over theological unity in gospel ministry – the more it becomes an obstacle instead of a help to the individual church.
This is not to say denominations have no place or the individual congregation is sovereign. It is the word of God, which should rule our activities and fellowship. Within the New Testament the church is neither one organizational unity nor totally independent congregations. Paul consulted with the ‘influential’ leaders in Jerusalem but knew his commission came directly from Christ and they could not add anything to him but should in fact be opposed when they were in error (Galatians 2). Yet he can talk of practices that should be followed as a rule laid down for all the churches (1 Corinthians 7:17, 11:16, 14:33). So within the New Testament the churches are not independent congregations with nothing in common nor centrally organized as one singular entity.
However there is great danger when denominations take to themselves the title of “The Church of God”. For there is one church – the bride of Christ, gathered in heaven around his throne, and all Christians are baptised into that one body. Yet there are many churches of God in this world, each with as much claim to the title as the others (1 Corinthians 10:32, 11:16, 2 Thessalonians 1:4).
Any church is the church of God when by Christ’s Spirit it gathers in his name, prayerfully preaching his gospel, believing his word, seeking in his mercy to be obedient to his will. Or as our denomination has it: “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance” (Article 19).
Feature photo: Orin Zebest