Ekklesia values 5 (nondenominational, nonsectarian)

In the context of the church sign a couple of weeks ago, Sarah commented on the passage in 1 Cor. 1:

Paul chastises the believers in Corinth for following evangelists of different name and using their names to cause divisions in the church.

It’s alarmingly amusing, or ironically distressing, or something, that I once found myself in a hotbed of disunity and trouble because I pointed out the same thing in 1 Corinthians. Here’s the setting. . . .

After I returned as an adult to the church of my youth, it seemed to me that things were going pretty well. We were moving in ways of worship, the mission team was functioning with heart, the newer elders were shepherding, our fairly new preacher was going in-depth with Pauline passages, we were having reasonably good Bible studies, good times of togetherness, good plans, etc. And then I was asked to fill in as preacher on a Sunday night. I spoke on the church universal and the denominationalism within us. This suggestion, in Church of Christ setting, was tantamount to an act of terrorism.

I exaggerate, of course. And I do regret saying a few things the way I said them–needlessly provocatively. But quite a few people were visibly upset at the very suggestion that we could be using the name/title of Christ divisively. Yet in fact that can be, and often is, precisely the situation. It is the height of hypocrisy to do something covertly — with a huge tapestry of wool over the collective eye — that we accuse everyone else of doing to the detriment of Jesus and His cause. The name “Church of Christ” is no different from the name “Jehovah’s Witness” or “Methodist” or “Roman Catholic” if it is employed in the same way. And something along these lines was even happening in the 1st century, or Paul wouldn’t have warned against being divisive with Jesus’ name.

God’s church is

==> Nonsectarian and non-franchise

  • Affiliated with no denomination, yet not isolated from the larger Christian community
  • Aware of, and informed by, history and tradition
    • focused on the 1st century
    • particularly attentive to the frontier American Restoration Movement (a/k/a Stone-Campbell Movement)
    • conversant with the strengths, foibles, and idiosyncrasies of diverse religious traditions

At a peak in my campaign for nonsectarian Christianity, even I passed on a bumper sticker that proclaimed the driver a “Generic Christian.” That seemed a little chincy to me. But Christianity in its purest form is not attached to marketable “brand” or to the ownership and control of a franchise that’s attached to a larger organization.

It may be helpful here to offer a brief treatment of terms and concepts.

To denominate = to name; denomination = named thing or group (not necessarily a bad thing)

The general progression from movement to sect to denomination is fairly well documented. In a movement, at least a few aspects are likely purposeful, germinal. But given human nature, this will likely change over time. A developing sect is presumed to be countercultural, to some degree; this is a progression from “purposeful and germinal”–the tenets become more locked-in, more rabidly held, and it becomes an us-them mentality. But later … a denomination, which has much less excited sense of purpose, is a crystallization of a sect or movement.

These are of course insufficiently simplistic descriptions, but they give some linguistic context to my belief that a denomination is not in itself in the wrong for being denominated. The mere use of a word to name or identify is not necessarily divisive.

To be part of a movement is to be passionate, to be incendiary, to be progressive. To be part of a sect may be ill-advised, because the sect’s counterculturalism may be either cultish or off-putting. But “secting” may also be exactly what we’re supposed to do—“in the world but not of the world,” or, if you prefer, not “conformed to the world.” The problem is when “sectarian” becomes divisive. As I hear the word “divisive,” in no case should a Christian be in that camp. A divisive person causes division. This divisiveness differs from merely being separate from the world; to be divisive is to create sharp lines of fellowship within the body of Christ … to divide those that Jesus died for … those who accept Him on some level.

I’ll be quick to point out that practical divisions are a necessity for those who have standards. I have walked out of churches, and will do so again, because they believe and practice things I find to run counter to the scriptures. But I must leave the theological, eschatological (ultimate, final) dividing lines to God alone. I may not be able to worship or study with this group or that, but it is not mine to assign them to hell.  Further, it is not necessarily divisive to decide to split, or merely to be elsewhere on Sundays. These are natural outgrowths of convictions and study. One may be sincerely convicted that he cannot conscientiously be in this or that group of Christ-followers on Sundays, without having a divisive, contentious spirit.

(To be concluded)

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