by Bob Wheeler


Most American Christians do not realize how far removed our current practice is from that of the First Century Church.  There were no denominations then.  The entire Christian community within a given geographical area was conceived as a single church.  You were recognized as a member of that church by virtue of having been baptized.  There were no church buildings; the large metropolitan church met in small groups in private homes.  But they were all one church, under the oversight of a board of elders.  In that way they maintained their visible unity.

Jesus brings out a striking reason why visible church unity is so important: “. . .that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21; NKJV).  And again, “ . . . that they may be made perfect in One, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (v. 23).  Today a great deal of attention is paid to church growth strategies, with the emphasis often on the physical layout of the buildings, the style of music, and a friendly, informal atmosphere.  None of this is necessarily bad, but how much church growth is simply people who are already professing Christians transferring their membership from one church to another?  How many actual conversions do we see?  And meanwhile the surrounding culture sinks even more deeply into unbelief and moral chaos.  Our methods are clearly not bringing the results we expected.

But why would an unconverted person want to embrace evangelical Christianity in the first place?  Why would he want to give up a life of freedom and pleasure to follow Christ?  The obvious answer, here, is whether or not the claims that Jesus made for Himself are true.  And how can an unbeliever know that the historical Jesus of the First Century was the Son of God come down from heaven?  The answer, according to Jesus Himself, lies in the visible unity of the church.  How can the world know that Christ makes a difference in a person’s life?  They look at the church and what do they see?  Carnal, self-centered people dressed up in nice Sunday clothes?  Or a loving brotherhood of believers devoted to one another’s well-being?  The proof is in the pudding, as the old saying goes.

The Nineteenth Century Scottish preacher Charles Ross makes a telling observation: “Oh! Brethren, it is not until the spiritual unity of believers in Christ shall show itself strong enough to destroy the selfishness. Carnality, worldliness, and indifference that feed like a cankerworm at the root of our Christianity, in all the visible sections of it – it is not until then, that we may expect the world to be won to the Saviour . .. The Church of God is too much divided.  There is, indeed, a real spiritual union amongst all God’s true people; let us thank God for that.  But we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that there are too many divisions . . . Sectarianism is one of the crying evils of the day’ (The Inner Sanctuary, p. 231).  And if that was true of Nineteenth Century Scotland, how much more true is it of Twenty First Century America!

Granted, denominational differences are not easily overcome.  Theologians have been arguing and debating them for centuries.  But we should all be humble and honest enough to reexamine our positions in the light of Scripture and see what the Bible actually says.  Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.  The question must always come back to what does He want?  In the meantime we can try to work across denominational line to achieve common goals, such as Christian schools and crisis pregnancy centers.  In this way Christ is glorified through the testimony that we can bear to the surrounding community.

George Whitefield, D.L Moody and Billy Graham were some of the most successful evangelists in history.  But what made them successful?  Was it loud praise bands and overhead screens?  (In Billy Graham’s case, maybe).  What brought results, real, genuine conversions, was the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.   And how did this happen?  Partially because they were willing to work across denominational lines.  May we all learn a lesson from their examples!