The visiting preacher was asked by the minister’s precocious offspring, over lunch: ‘And what abomination do you belong to?’
The wry smile produced by such an enquiry indicates how much we all struggle with the cultural expressions of ‘church’ in our society. Archbishop William Temple once suggested that the biggest hindrance to the spread of the Christian church is the Christian church, and one can see why, when the record of the past and the mistakes of the present are examined.
Of course, the Bible does not deal with the category of denominations. They did not exist in New Testament times, though the seeds may have been visible in Corinth, where the Christians seem to have been lining up behind their favourite leaders and forming separatist groups, or parties. ‘I follow Paul; I follow Apollos; I follow Cephas; I follow Christ.’ But Paul will have none of it. ‘Is Christ divided?’ (1 Corinthians 1.12-13). Then how can his followers be?
However much their ministry may be blessed and valued, no earthly leader can serve as Christ serves the church, by giving himself up for her. His person and work are the only ground of Christian unity, because they are the very heart of the gospel, which brings us to new life. ‘So then’, Paul concludes, ‘no more boasting about men!’ (1 Corinthians 3.21).
The Bible knows only two expressions of the body of Christ, the church of which he is the head. The first is the church universal, which is the total number of the redeemed both here on earth and already in heaven. The picture in Revelation 7.9 of an innumerable multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language is the Bible’s destination-point for the saving purposes of God through the work of our Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb’ (Revelation 7.10). When we gather together as believers in corporate worship, here on earth, we are an outcrop of the greater heavenly reality of the worshipping church, already in the presence of Christ, so that our ascriptions of praise join with theirs, since we are one body.
But this universal reality is expressed in the local church, here in this world. This is why active involvement in a local gathering of Christians, however imperfect it may be, can never be regarded as an optional extra. When first we believe the good news of Jesus and receive his salvation, we are born again, made spiritually alive, as the Holy Spirit comes to live within our now redeemed personalities. So, we are all different, unique even; but we are all one in Christ Jesus, because the very life of God has been implanted in our souls. That is why the Bible talks about Christians as members of one body, each with differing gifts and tasks to fulfil (Romans 12.3-8, 1 Corinthians 12), but the same life energising us all. We belong together, because we each separately belong to Christ — and Christ is not divided.
It is a mark of the new birth to join together with my fellow Christians (now brothers and sisters), to strengthen and encourage one another, in fellowship, by the participation in corporate praise and thanksgiving, intercessory prayer and sound biblical teaching, as a local gathering (congregation) of the one universal church. The local church is the fundamental unit by which the locus of God’s presence and the glory of Christ are to be revealed to the world. This point is clearly made in the opening of Revelation, where John receives an overwhelming vision of the risen Christ (1.12-18), whose location is ‘among the lampstands’. Later, we are told that the seven lampstands are the seven churches (1.20), which are then delineated as seven local congregations from Ephesus to Laodicea, in chapters 2 and 3. You find the risen Christ among the local congregations of his people, where his rule is exercised. They are the contemporary expression of the gospel.
Most probably, the total congregation in a city would be made up of several house churches, and sometimes different city groups had links with other cities, as when Paul’s letters were passed around, or they received apostolic messengers. What did not exist were denominations, as we now have them, though they were not necessarily forbidden. What they must not become is the focus of unity or of our ultimate loyalty. That must be Christ alone at the centre of his faithful people, everywhere. But more about that next month…
David Jackman writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.
This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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