Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Tag: denominationalism



Jesus goes on to reinforce the command to “love one another” by saying, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16; NKJV).  This takes us into deep and difficult doctrine of election.  Jesus clearly states, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”  Some have imagined that the doctrine of election would leave to a life of lawlessness and sin.  If God is the One who does the choosing, if it is not my free will that chooses to become a Christian, then why should I exercise my will to live a godly life?  But that line of reasoning misses the whole point of election.  God had a specific purpose in mind when he chose us, and that was to redeem us from sin, set us apart from the world, and consecrate us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.  Jesus chose us, “that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain.”  If we have been chosen by God, if we have experienced the work of grace in our hearts, we will be people different from what we were before we were saved.  We are new creatures in Christ Jesus (II Cor. 5:17), and so we live differently.  Our aim now is to please Him.  And it is significant that Jesus specifically says that He wants us to bear fruit, and that our fruit should remain.  He wants us to be successful in the Christian life; He does not want us to be defeated Christians.

And Jesus further reinforces the exhortation by reminding them of what He had told them earlier, “. . .that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give it to you” (cf. v. 7).  One of the benefits of having a vital connection to Christ is that He acts as our intercessor.  If we pray in His name, our request carries the weight of His authority behind it, and the Father will not deny a request from His Son!  This is all the more reason why it is vitally important that we remain in close fellowship with the Son.  And so Jesus comes back to His original point: “These things I command you, that you love one another” (v. 17).

The practical implications of all of this are hard for American Christians in particular to grasp.  We are used to a plethora of denominations dominated by a professional clergy.  We accept divisions within the Body of Christ as normal, and can scarcely conceive of the existence of a universal church.  Yet Jesus is beseeching His disciples – all of His disciples – both then and now, to love each other.  That means that there are several things about American church life that are highly problematic.

Perhaps the first thing that should be mentioned is overbearing pastors.  Most churches today have just a single pastor; or, if they are large enough to have more than one, one is designated as the “senior pastor.”  This pastor, or senior pastor, is then in charge of the ministry of the church.  Unfortunately in some cases he can be an overbearing tyrant, and some churches have been brought to ruin by poor decisions made by the impulsive and stubborn personality in charge.

But the model of church life that we see in the New Testament was quite different.  All of the believers within a given geographical area were considered members of a single church, and if the Christian community in Jerusalem is any indication, one of these community-wide churches could number up into the thousands.  Within this larger church there would be smaller groups that would meet in private homes where they would “break bread” (Acts. 2:46), evidently a combination of fellowship meal and Lord’s Supper.  The large, metropolitan church was led by a board of elders which at one point was called a “presbytery” (presbyterion) (I Tim. 4:14).

But the elders were all on an equal footing – there was no “senior” pastor.  It was not until the Second Century that “bishop” and “elder” were considered two separate offices, with a single bishop being in charge of an entire diocese – what is generally known as a “monarchical episcopate.”  This became a characteristic feature of early Catholicism, and eventually led to the papacy.  But in New Testament times the terms “elder” and “bishop” were used interchangeably, and , as noted, were all on an equal footing.  And the elders were told to “shepherd the flock of God among you . . .not as being lords (katakurieuontes – exercising dominion) over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:2,3).  “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will give them repentance, so that they may know the truth . . .” (II Tim. 2:24,25).  How very different from what we so often see today!

But the larger problem in American church life today is the sin of denominationalism.  The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians and rebuked them for dividing into factions and saying “I am of Paul,” and “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas” (I Cor. 1:12), and yet we say “I am Lutheran,” “I am Mennonite,” “I am Wesleyan.”  Granted, denominational differences cannot be easily papered over.  But each of us needs to engage in careful self-examination to see how many of our beliefs and practices are really found in the Bible; and we need to strive together to achieve as much visible unity within the evangelical community as possible.  What is especially pernicious in this regard is the practice of “Second Degree Separation” – the idea that not only must we separate from unbelievers (First Degree Separation, which is Biblical), but we must also separate from fellow believers with whom we might disagree over some secondary point of doctrine.  Granted, there are serious doctrinal errors that should not be allowed within the church.  But the question should always be asked, is the other brother acting in good faith?  Can he build a solid argument for Scripture?  If so, we should be working for peace and unity, not rancor and division.

The “bottom line” is Christ’s commandment that we love one another.  Love is the evidence of a life transformed by grace, and is the most eloquent testimony that we can offer the world.  May the love of Christ shine through us as we love one another!



Raphael: St. George and the Dragon


Culturally Relevant: Connection or Compromise

Dennis Bliss

Christian Faith Publishing

174 pp., pb.


Dennis Bliss is a longtime Christian musician and counsellor who has spent a lifetime observing the Christian scene, and his recently published book Culturally Relevant, expresses the deep concern he has over the direction that many churches have taken.  It is a call to reexamine the depth of our commitment to Christ, and to rededicate ourselves to His kingdom and glory.  It is a much needed book at the present hour.

Denny begins (and he happens to be a personal friend of mine, so I will call him “Denny”) by asking what it means to be “culturally relevant.”  The church, of course, exists in a surrounding culture, and ideally seeks to win the people of that culture to Christ.  But to do so it must connect with them somehow.  But how?  What does it mean to adapt to a local culture?  Is it simply a matter of speaking the same language so that they can understand what we are saying?  Or does it mean changing the message so that we are telling them what they want to hear?  Or, even worse, is it conforming to their standards of behavior so that they will accept us?

Denny argues a strong case that in seeking to win the lost we must never compromise our moral or ethical standards.  People will not be won to Christ if they cannot see any difference between the church and what they already have in the world.  In the end the strategy of compromise is self-defeating.

Denny then goes on to discuss a wide variety of issues confronting the church today: love and marriage, child discipline, evolution, abortion, divorce, adultery, premarital sex, homosexuality, feminism, the use of alcohol, and dress.  Many of his observations are borne of his many long years of experience as a Christian counsellor.  He then goes on to address certain issues that affect the church as a whole – evangelism, Bible translations and church music.  On the subject of Bible translations he expresses the confusion and dismay that many feel when, confronted by the bewildering array versions on the market today, and not having access to the underlying Hebrew and Greek, are not in a position to tell which versions are more accurate.  On the subject of church music we will have more to say in a subsequent blog post.

On most of these issues Denny takes a conservative stand: he is opposed to alcohol consumption in any amount, as well as tattoos.  He is in favor of spanking children, and believes that men should wear suites to church.  He prefers the old King James Version of the Bible.  (He does make a concession to modernity by using the New King James Version in his book.)

Occasionally Denny gets caught in an apparent contradiction.  On one hand he condemns denominationalism and suggests that it arose through human pride.  But then he wants churches to separate themselves from doctrinal error and take an uncompromising stance on what they believe to be the truth.  But is that not how the different denominations came into existence in the first place, and continue to this day?   One could only wonder what Denny would have told Luther and Zwingli at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 after they could not reach an agreement on the nature of the Lord’s Table.  Which one was being proud and stubborn, and which one should refuse to compromise?

Denny argues a very strong case throughout for non-conformity to the world, and argues that obedience to Christ must always be our top priority in life.  He makes the helpful observation that this does not mean that the Bible spells out in detail exactly how we are to act in every situation.  What is needed, he points out, is spiritual discernment, and toward the very end of his book he lays out his “Twelve Step Program” – twelve basic principles or tests that we can use to determine if a given course of action is in line with God’s will.

At first glance Denny’s book may come across as the work of a cranky old man throwing a hissy fit.  And yet his book comes out at a critical time in history.  Up until now American Christians have had the luxury of living in a country where the freedom of religion was enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It was respectable to be a Christian.

And yet the times began to change.  The surrounding culture became increasingly secular and materialistic, and the bulk of the population lost its interest in church.  At first church leaders thought that they could entertain people back into church.  The church became consumer oriented, but in the end fought a losing battle with TV, sports and shopping to get peoples’ attention.

But now the surrounding culture is not just indifferent to Christianity; it is becoming increasingly hostile towards it.  Anyone who dares to take a stand for traditional Judeo-Christian morality is liable to be called “sexist” and “homophobic.”  Thus we are rapidly moving toward a time when modern Christians will have to learn anew what was perfectly obvious to believers in the First Century: that if anyone wishes to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24; NKJV).




Paul in Athens


Characteristics of a New Testament Church

Robert Gessner

Spread the Word, 2000

24 pp., p.b.


Robert Gessner is affiliated with a fellowship of believers generally known to outsiders as the “Plymouth Brethren,” although they themselves eschew any denominational titles.  In Characteristics of a New Testament Church he has given us a brief but thought provoking study on what a New Testament church should look like.  It is certainly a subject worthy of consideration by any genuine Bible believing Christian.

Much of what Mr. Gessner has to say is obviously true and many of the issues he raises need to be taken seriously by Christians today.  He points out, for example, that in the New Testament there was no distinction between “clergy” and “laity,” that denominationalism is unscriptural, that teaching in the church should be based solidly on Scripture, that prayer is central to the life of the church, and that there should be room for the exercise of spiritual gifts.  He is also quite correct in criticizing modern churches for the ways they try to increase membership and raise funds.  To all of this we can only say a hearty “amen”!

In some other areas, however, he wades into treacherous waters.  He tries to argue, for example, that the Lord’s Supper “ought to be given absolute priority over every other meeting of the church” (p. 2).  Yet when we read the general description of a New Testament church in the Book of Acts, the Lord’s Supper, while it is obviously important, is listed as just one of several different activities (Acts 2:42,46).

Mr. Gessner also raises the difficult but important question about the role of women in the church.  Here he runs into the apparent contradiction between I Cor. 14, in which women are instructed to remain silent, and I Cor. 11, in which women are described as praying or prophesying, albeit with an appropriate head covering.  The apparent solution to the problem is that the early church appears to have functioned on two different levels.  According to Acts 2:46, the early Christians in Jerusalem were “continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house . . .” (NKJV).  What this suggests is that there were large public meetings in the temple and small gatherings in private homes.  Elsewhere in the New Testament we are told of city churches in places like Ephesus, Corinth and Thessalanika, and of house churches (e.g., Rom. 16:5; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15).  Very likely, then, I Cor. 11 describes small gatherings in private homes where the Lord’s Supper was observed, while I Cor. 15 describes larger public gatherings where unbelievers might be present.  Women, then, were allowed to pray and prophesy in the house assemblies, albeit with their heads covered, but were not permitted to speak in the larger public meetings.

Mr. Gessner says that “the word of God is very clear and explicit” that women should remain silent and wear head coverings (p. 16).  Yet the assumption on the part of many expositors is that the head covering was a cultural adaptation, and Mr. Gessner does not furnish us with an exegesis of I Cor. 11:3-16.  (A strong case can be argued, however, that the passage is in fact enjoining the practice of women wearing head coverings).

Mr. Gessner, of course, is not the first person to consider what the Bible has to say about the church, and theologians from a couple of the denominations that he criticizes (Presbyterians, Baptists) have written extensively on the subject.  Yet the fact remains that over time the older denominations drifted away from their biblical moorings and settled into an institutionalized pattern of church life that bore little resemblance to that of the early church.  Instead of being close-knit fellowships of Spirit-filled believers, they have become purely human organizations managed by professional clergy.  They adopted practices and procedures that had no warrant in Scripture and contributed nothing to the spiritual life of the people.  The churches spiritually became lifeless corpses.

Mr. Gessner’s little booklet, then, raises some valid questions, and the Evangelical community at large would do well to take those questions seriously.


Jesus’ prayer for the church was “that they may all be one” (John 17:21: NASV), and “that they may be perfected in unity” (v. 23). Yet that goal has proven almost impossible to attain. The church today is as hopelessly divided as ever. The question is, why?

    Given the fact that much of what separates denominations from each other are doctrinal issues, one might suppose that it is doctrine that causes divisions. The Bible makes it clear, however, that doctrine is meant to unite, not divide. Sound doctrine is necessary for spiritual growth. Christ has given the church a variety of leadership gifts in order to build up the body “until we all attain to the unity of the faith” (Eph. 4:13). To that end Scripture is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (II Tim. 3:14-17). Heresy, on the other hand, is, by its very nature, divisive.

    How, then, do we tell the difference between good doctrine and bad? To begin with, good doctrine is doctrine that conforms to the teachings of the apostles (Acts 2:42; Rom. 16:17; II Tim. 1:13,14; 3:10). Since we do not have an unbroken tradition that extends all the way back to the apostles, practically speaking, the only way we can know what they taught is through their own writings, and those of their close associates; in other words, the books of the New Testament. Hence the Bible is our only rule of faith; and our theology, if it is to be sound, must be derived from Scripture.

\    But secondly, sound doctrine is meant to be edifying – its aim is to build up the saints in the faith. Paul instructs Timothy not to pay attention to myths and endless genealogies, and then says, “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (I Tim. 1:5). It is “the doctrine conforming to godliness” (“piety toward God” – Amp.) (I Tim. 6:3). It deepens our faith in God and increases our love for others, and this is what promotes unity.

    Bad theology, on the other hand, often involves “wrangling about words” (II Tim. 2:14-18)) and “foolish and ignorant speculations” (“controversies over ignorant questionings” — Amp.) which “produce quarrels” (v. 23). Significantly, false doctrine is often marked by strained exegesis: “. . . the untaught and unstable distort [the teachings of Paul] as they do also the rest of the Scriptures, to their own destruction” (II Pet. 3:16).

    But nearly every evangelical theologian, however, will insist that his theology is biblical. Why then are there so many divisions among us? Obviously they cannot possibly all be right – at least someone is misinterpreting Scripture.

    It is a striking fact that many of the most useful and effective spiritual leaders of the 20th Century had little or no formal theological training. The number includes such luminaries as A.W. Pink, C.S. Lewis, Harry Ironside, A.W. Tozer, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Billy Graham, Jerry Bridges, and Jim Cymbala. This is not to say that there are not good men who have had a seminary education, but it does point to the fact that many of those whose ministries have been most greatly blessed were not trained that way – they came from outside of the system. Might this not point to a problem in our method of preparing men for the ministry?

    Most seminaries and Bible colleges are connected with specific denominations or are committed to promoting a particular point of view. They are Reformed or Wesleyan, Dispensational or Pentecostal. As a result they often display a sectarian spirit, and find themselves emphasizing their own denominational distinctives at the expense of what they have in common with other denominations. Their systematic theology is polemical in nature, defining issues, stating positions, and marshalling proof texts.

    Then there is the tendency to engage in hero worship. Luther, Calvin, Wesley and Edwards have all won loyal followings (too loyal, in our opinion), as have also D.L. Moody and Billy Graham. While they were all great men of God, they were not infallible. The tendency, however, is to defend their errors as well as their genuine insights.

    In the heat of controversy exegesis is often strained in the effort to prove a point. The result is a tenaciously held dogma with almost non-existent scriptural support. Theologians have contrived ingenious arguments to “prove” infant baptism, the Pre-Tribulation Rapture, and the idea that tongues is the necessary evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Scripture is practically silent on all of these issues).

    On the other hand, when we look at the men who were not trained in seminaries, we see a different way of approaching Scripture. They were more inclined to start with the concrete problem of their relationship with God. Who is He? What is He like? What is sin? Who is Christ? What has He done for me? How can I be made right with God? What happens to me in the New Birth? How can I grow spiritually? What will happen to me after I die? They then went to the Bible for the answers. They read other material too, of course. Many of them were remarkably well self-educated. But in another sense they were men “of one book” – they immersed themselves in the Word of God, and they never lost their focus on what the Bible says about the central issues of life. As a result they tended to develop a more balanced perspective. They also had a theology that could be directly used in the practical work of ministry.

    Our concern here is to draw attention to our theological method, the way we arrive at our doctrine. To state the matter bluntly, our divisions are caused and perpetuated largely by our academic theologians, and, as it turns out, they have not always proven to be our safest guides in theology. If real unity is to be achieved, we must be prepared to look past our theological nostrums and take a fresh look at Scripture itself. We must begin by recognizing each other as brothers and sisters, seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and examine Scripture as faithfully and honestly as we can, comparing Scripture with Scripture, and taking each passage in its natural sense wherever possible. Let us especially beware of idiosyncratic doctrines held by only one particular group.

    We are looking at potentially perilous times ahead. Let us hope that when the time of persecution finally comes that the faithful brethren who take their stand for Christ will find a way to reach a consensus on the issues that have so long divided us. For in that hour of trial the fellowship of the saints and the love of the brethren will become more precious than ever.