Pastor Geoff Willour 6/25/12
“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:3-6, NIV)
“The visible unity of the Body of Christ, though not altogether destroyed, is greatly obscured by the division of the Christian church into different groups or denominations. In such denominations Christians exercise a fellowship toward each other in doctrine, worship, and order that they do not exercise toward other Christians. The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error, and some have gravely departed from apostolic purity; yet all of these which maintain through a sufficient discipline the Word and sacraments in their fundamental integrity are to be recognized as true manifestations of the church of Jesus Christ. All such churches should seek a closer fellowship, in accordance with the principles set forth above.” (Ch. IV.4 in “The Form of Government”; in The Book of Church Order of The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; Copyright 2011 by The Orthodox Presbyterian Church); pp. 6-7, 2011 Edition)
Not too long ago a well meaning believer informed me of her conviction that denominations are of the devil. She basically told me that she believed that denominations were instruments of the devil to keep Christians divided (the implication being that denominationalism is one of the great tools in the devil’s tool chest to weaken the influence of Christianity and to “divide and conquer” the Body of Christ). This is not the first time I have heard such a conviction voiced among evangelicals; indeed, it seems to be a popularly held belief in some Christian circles. In fact, a number of years ago a used-to-be-popular Christian rock band (whose concerts I had enthusiastically attended numerous times as a young person) wrote a song entitled “Denomination Demolition.” The very title of that song and its lyrics express the viewpoint that the various Christian denominations are a hindrance to Christian unity, effective gospel outreach, and Kingdom growth; and thus such denominations (and denominationalism as a whole) must be “demolished.”
So, are denominations of the devil? Are they instruments in Satan’s hand to weaken Christian influence in the culture and to hinder the progress of God’s Kingdom? While many today (like the well meaning woman who stated her conviction on this subject to me with such bold confidence) would answer these questions with an unequivocal “Yes!,” I would suggest to the reader that a simple “Yes” or “No” answer to these questions would be either ignorant or simplistic. In this present age between our Lord’s first and second Advents life is often messy, and the state of affairs is often not as clear as we might hope for it to be. Christ’s Kingdom has already come with the first Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. In principle and in the Spirit His church is already one — already united in the Spirit through faith in Christ and His gospel. But in actual everyday life and history the spiritual unity that we believers already enjoy in Christ is not perfectly manifested in this present age; nor will it be perfectly and consummately manifested until our Lord returns in glory. Nevertheless this fact is not meant to be a cop-out. As the passage from Ephesians quoted above makes clear, it is our duty in the Body of Christ to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Visible unity is the goal and ideal that the church must always strive toward. Obviously denominationalism obscures this visible unity significantly. But this observation does not mean that all denominations or all denominationalism are “of the devil.”
Of course, some denominations were, in fact, birthed as a result of sinful schism in the professed Body of Christ. Insofar as a denomination comes into existence due to such things as a sinful clash of personalities, church politics, petty or self-serving agendas, arguments over adiaphora (i.e., “things indifferent” where believers may legitimately differ), reactionary traditionalism, and so forth, we can rightly say that the devil and/or his minions had a hand in bringing about such division. However, those who have studied church history at even a superficial level will know that not all denominations came into being due merely to such fleshly behavior and attitudes. The formation of the various denominations has often involved a mixture of good and not-so-good causes, of both godly and ungodly motivations and agendas. Some denominations exist in large part because they are rooted in the history of a certain ethnic or cultural people group (for example, there are Korean and Chinese and other such denominations that exist to minister to those immigrants whose first language is not English, or who are more comfortable with their services being conducted in their native languages). Other denominations were formed for more principial and theological reasons. For example, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church – the denomination to which I belong and which Lake OPC is affiliated with – was formed only after numerous efforts were made to reform the mainline northern Presbyterian Church (the PCUSA), whose official Boards and Agencies had become infiltrated by theological modernists who rejected the Bible as the authoritative, inerrant Word of God, and who reinterpreted and/or denied classical Christian doctrines. In fact, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, the principal “founding father” of the OPC, had been unjustly defrocked of his ministerial credentials by the PCUSA due to his stand for the gospel and orthodox doctrine. Basically Machen and his supporters were shown the door. While Dr. Machen was certainly not without sin or fault (he would have been the first to acknowledge that!), nonetheless it would be both uncharitable and contrary to the facts of history to assert that Machen’s desire for a church that would be faithful to the teachings of the Bible and historic biblical presbyterianism was somehow “of the devil.” Is standing for the truth of the gospel against the tides of unbelief and the slanders of unbelievers “of the devil.” Is it “of the devil” to form a church coalition or (to use that dreaded word) “denomination” for the purpose of connecting local and regional churches that have a godly desire to uphold the Bible’s authority and one major expression of historic Christian Faith (namely, Presbyterianism)? To press this point home, was it sinful and “of the devil” for the great Reformer, Martin Luther, to break off from the medieval Roman Catholic Church when that communion continued to exalt church tradition to a level of equal authority with the Bible and denied the fundamental Bible truth of justification by faith alone, even in the face of Luther’s earnest efforts to reform that communion? (Keep in mind that Luther, like Machen, did not initially set out to form his own denomination; instead, he wanted to reform the Roman church and bring its teachings and practices more into line with Holy Scripture. For that he was unjustly excommunicated.)
The statement that “denominations are of the devil” is simplistic, naive, and shows both an ignorance of church history and a shallow understanding of how God has graciously chosen to work through His weak and sinful people throughout the history of this fallen world. As has already been mentioned, it is indeed true that the division of the Body of Christ into various denominations does obscure the visible unity of the church universal (the “catholic” church in the legitimate sense of that word). Denominationalism is not the ideal. It is also true that there are many “Christian” denominations which exist today that are either grossly impure in their doctrine and practice, or which are outright apostate. (Many of the so-called “mainline” denominations had once been faithful, orthodox bodies but have since been overrun by modernist, unbelieving agendas and deeply-entrenched unbelief.) Certainly we can say that such impurity and apostasy in these liberal/modernist denominations is in some sense “of the devil”; and certainly no true believer in Christ should affiliate with (or remain affiliated with) such apostate religious bodies. But at the same time, churches which are affiliated with orthodox, Bible-believing denominations are at least seeking at some level to express the visible unity of the Body of Christ beyond just the local congregation. At least biblically-confessional denominations seek to express the biblical connectionalism that we find in the church of New Testament times (for example, see Acts 15). I would venture to guess that most of those who would assert that “denominations are of the devil” are either affiliated with “Independent” churches, or perhaps not affiliated in formal membership with any church at all. (I find it ironic how some professing Christians who are the most critical of the church are themselves not even a part of any local church. It is very easy – but in a sense also quite short-sighted and hypocritical – to criticize the church from the outside. If you think the church has problems, why not be part of the church so you can be part of the solution, rather than criticizing it at a safe, insulated distance from the outside?) But if church denominations are “of the devil” because they divide Christians, wouldn’t it also be true that independent, so-called “non-denominational” churches are likewise “of the devil,” since such independent/non-denominational/un-denominational churches cut themselves off from a meaningful, biblical connnectionalism to other local congregations? Let’s be honest here: So-called “non-denominational” and “independent” churches are, in practice (though not on paper) in a sense denominations unto themselves. Often such churches are pastored by a strong leader who is unaccountable to other church leaders (pastors and elders) outside of his own local fellowship — a state of affairs that lends itself to the abuse of power by the pastor and the dynamics of unhealthy internal church politics. It seems to me that such independency is much more fertile ground for the devil to sow seeds of discord among the brethren than is the connectionalism and accountability afforded by congregations that are connected to one of the historic, orthodox denominations which have a history and heritage and church order that help to bring stability and clear guidelines to the life of a congregation.
While denominationalism can be (and often is) a hindrance to visible unity in the Body of Christ, ironically it can also be an aid to legitimate, biblically-ecumenical efforts toward greater visible unity in the church, when it is viewed and practiced in the right way. Confessional Christians (i.e., those who belong to a denomination that adheres to one of the historic confessions of faith) share adherence to a common doctrine, a common worship, and a common church order. At least on paper (if not always in practice), confessional denominational Christians confess together a common doctrine, participate together in a common worship, and submit together to a common government in the church. Denominationalism resists the problem of “everyone doing what is right in his own eyes” and following the latest, ever-changing trends and popular fads in the Christian world. Historic, well-thought-out precedent is followed, rather than the spontaneous whims of strong personalities in the church or the ever-changing fads out there in the Christian world, thus adding a measure of stability and “settled-ness” to the life of the church. When things are functioning as they should in such orthodox denominational settings, such aspects of denominationalism can actually be conducive to the peace and unity of the church. Furthermore, I would argue that it can actually assist helpful dialogue with Christians in other denominational and confessional traditions, for in such dialogue denominational Christians can speak to each other from the standpoint of a mature, well-developed theological and confessional tradition, rather than from a shallow, biblicist, “just me and my Bible in my prayer closet” individualistic and subjectivist perspective.