In the first installment of this series I pointed out that while disunity among believers is a problem, many (especially skeptics) fail to appreciate the tremendous unity among historic Christians. The Christian faith encapsulates a defining and shared set of beliefs, values, and a broad world-and-life view. In these three critical areas, the faith holds a robust unity.
But what are we to make of the various divisions in the body of Christ? Isn’t denominationalism scandalous?
Some elements of the denominationalism phenomenon are indeed regrettable and I will elaborate on that problem in part four of this series. However, there are also positive features that come from having various theological traditions within Christendom. Let’s consider three of those positive elements.
Fullness of the Faith
I don’t think any particular denominational body can, by itself, encompass all the richness and completeness of the broad historic Christian faith (some boldly claim otherwise). Rather, the various denominations reflect a collage of God’s redeemed people.
Christ’s church is indeed one but it is found within the various ecclesiastical traditions that make up authentic Christianity. The Holy Spirit and the truth of Scripture are not the exclusive property of any one denomination. Therefore, believers of various traditions have both common elements as well as distinctive features to share with their brothers and sisters in other denominations.
Diversity Can Provide a Needed Corrective
These varied ecclesiastical traditions can serve to challenge and correct each other on doctrinal and moral matters—a healthy type of peer review. Christian denominations can also learn from the strengths and weaknesses of other theological traditions.
When conducted with gentleness, respect, humility, and theological integrity, debate on such issues as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and eschatology (end times issues) can serve to enrich multiple bodies. Heretical sects (those that depart from the essentials of historic Christianity) often suffer from having no legitimate competition or peer review to provide theological correction.
Principled Protest Has Its Place
Unfortunately, there are times when historic Christian denominations apostatize (fall away from the faith). When churches or denominations renounce belief in the essential truths of the faith (such as the ecumenical creeds), Christian members of these bodies have no alternative but to leave in response. Therefore, some forms of denominationalism are based upon principled acts of protest. The unity of the faith is very important, but never at the expense of essential biblical truth.
While denominationalism poses clear challenges and difficulties when it comes to Christian unity, it also emits positive features that contribute to the health of the various theological traditions.
In the next issue of this series I will discuss the difficulty of sin and hypocrisy when it comes to the problem of disunity within Christianity.
--Kenneth Richard Samples
For a principled call for reunion among evangelical church bodies, see John M. Frame, Evangelical Reunion.