I have felt for a while like I needed to talk about the divisions in the Church, which means I have to address my feelings on Denominations and membership. This is not an easy subject because it stirs up a lot of emotions because I have seen the damage that divisions have caused. I have seen and felt the hurts caused by the misuse of power, seen people actually give up on Jesus because of what they have seen in today’s church, and watched the damage of the kids that grew up in self-righteous churches.
It is also difficult because I live in the middle of it every day. This post will make some people around me angry because, “we shouldn’t talk about Jesus’ church”. I also want to explain why I use the words “Church” & “church”. This is most likely one of the biggest things that we have to address is our terms and what they mean.
There is the “Church”, universal. All people who are born-again and saved by the grace of Jesus Christ.
There is also the “church”, local. This is usually a group of people meeting together in a place at a time.
I also believe that to look at this in a Biblical way, we have to address the fact that Jesus’ Church is the one most often talked about in the New Testament, and when speaking about a church the Bible is not addressing it as separate from the Church but identifying which part of the Church is being referred to by where it meets. I like to call this local group of people meeting a “Congregation”.
The problem that we have with the subject of division is that it has become such a part of “Christian” culture that it is accepted as the norm. However, in Jesus Kingdom and the Church there are no divisions, and division is actually acting in the opposite to Kingdom principles.
The real issue with all of these things is that we too often address the fruit instead of the root or heart issue behind it.
Let’s look at membership first. I completely believe in membership! I am a member of the Church and a member of Christs Body, which really are just different words for the same thing. I believe that as a member, I have certain responsibilities that I should fulfill, and that I have certain expectations put on me when I became a member.
Some of the requirements are, that I must believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, I must live what the Bible teaches, I must choose to love others and God, and I must choose to live in a way that is not typical for this world and the way it lives. (We will save this subject for another blog post.) These are some of, but not all of, the things that we need to do. The Holy Spirit will show each of us the rest of what our new life is to look like as we grow.
The problem with membership is not membership, but instead how it is used. I am not saying by any means that this is always how membership is used, but it is how I have experienced it used. I know that there are churches that view membership correctly, so, let’s look at what I believe scripture speaks of to the idea of membership.
Membership by definition is:
the state of belonging to or being a part of a group or an organization : the state of being a member.
all the people or things that belong to or are part of an organization or a group
I would agree with this definition because this is how Paul talks about membership in the New Testament. Here are some examples of Scripture talking about member-ship.
Ephesians 2:19New Living Translation (NLT)
19” So now you Gentiles are no longer strangers and foreigners. You are citizens along with all of God’s holy people. You are members of God’s family.”
Ephesians 5:30New Living Translation (NLT)
30” And we are members of his body.”
Colossians 3:15New Living Translation (NLT)
15” And let the peace that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in peace. And always be thankful.”
As you can see in each one of these places, where Paul talks about being members, it is to remind each part of the Church that they are one. That there is to be no divisions and that there is of course a membership, because it is how we identify who is and who isn’t a part of the Church.
In my experience, the Scripture that is used most to validate church membership is 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. I believe that this is a most unfortunate understanding of this part of 1 Corinthians because I think that reading it as validation for the way I have seen membership used, really misses the whole point. Paul is talking about the beauty of how the Church (Body of Christ) working together, with all the different gifts, makes such a complete picture of Jesus. He is talking about how the members (parts) of the Body are so important that each one function as the Holy Spirit desires and that we understand that all of the parts are ultimately important to have a healthy functioning Body.
The problem that I have seen with membership is that it is usually used as a form of fear and intimidation. “If you don’t” or “If you do you will be banished”… The struggle with this thinking is that it really does not reveal grace or the love that Jesus paid such a price for. Instead, it just puts on more laws and burdens, but without the Good News that God always puts with truth. It is a balance of Grace and Truth that completes the picture of who Jesus is and what He did.
I absolutely believe in Church discipline because Jesus and the other New Testament writers talked in depth about how to handle it. It even includes revoking membership if you want to call it that. Most of all though it talks about giving each person every opportunity to turn from sin, and turn to God which will then bring them back into line with the Church. Sending someone out of the Church is really for them, so that they can no longer believe that Christ accepts their continued sinful, defiant behavior towards Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
Enough about membership, now let’s dive into denominations.
As I said I live in the middle of division. We have 25+ congregations in a county of 7,000. We have 3 congregations, all of the same denomination within 7 miles of each other. The problem is that this is too often the norm in America.
Again, I don’t believe that denominations in and of themselves are bad. However, the fruit that we often see today, coming from the current way that people view denominations within Christianity, is often not producing good fruit.
Denominations have become exclusive in that they often see themselves as the “right” way to believe, this leads to self-righteousness and for sure division. The problem again is in how things are viewed, and the fruit that comes from it. A Biblical view on Denominations is as a way to identify which part of the Church we are speaking of; an example would be the Church at Ephesus or Corinth. Also what worship may look like and some of the strengths that each congregation brings to the table. However, good fruit does not come when denominations are used, as I have often experienced, as a way to identify how we differ from everyone else. Often making statements that say that everyone else has it wrong in how they do Christianity.
We have become a people that divide over every part of the Christian faith. It doesn’t matter if it is worship, baptism, missions, tongues, profession of faith, church structure and anything else that can be disagreed on.
But even worse we have begun to elevate and identify ourselves by what version of church we go to instead of being a Christian.
How many people, including you, would identify themselves as a type or denomination of church instead of a follower of Christ? Nowhere in the Bible does anyone following Jesus, identify themselves by any way other than by identifying as a follower of Jesus. For example Peter identifies himself as an Apostle of Jesus Christ, in 1 Peter 1. James, who was Jesus’ half-brother, identified himself as, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul identified himself many ways but in 1 Corinthians he says, chosen by the will of God to be an apostle of Jesus Christ.
In fact Paul actually teaches against identifying as a follower of anyone other than Christ in these scriptures:
1 Corinthians 1:10-13New Living Translation (NLT)
Divisions in the Church
10” I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters,[a] by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. 11 For some members of Chloe’s household have told me about your quarrels, my dear brothers and sisters. 12 Some of you are saying, “I am a follower of Paul.” Others are saying, “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Peter,[b]” or “I follow only Christ.”
13 Has Christ been divided into factions? Was I, Paul, crucified for you? Were any of you baptized in the name of Paul? Of course not!”
So again I want to make clear that I don’t believe that Membership or Denominations are the problem, but the way that we allow them to be used is. God allows all of these things. He could wipe out every denomination and abolish membership, but instead He allows it because in His ultimate and perfect will, there is a place for each.
I do believe though that we must each understand, and view denominations as making the Church stronger, and not allowing them to weaken the testimony of the church to the world. We must study and understand the whole of Scripture, which always points us to Christ, and the oneness that we have with every other member of the Church through the finished work of Jesus Christ.
We have to stop identifying each other by things that divide, instead of the unity found in Christ. We must stop looking at the different convictions that people have as things to divide over, instead of revealing the enormity of who God is and how we can each worship Him differently.
Most of all we have to understand and recognize that a house divided will fall (Mark 3:24-25). This is what we are showing the world at this point in history, and we are reaping the fruits of what we are sowing.
The world always follows the Church, because the Church is the moral compass that Jesus put in place to govern the world. But, by most of us giving up that right, and choosing to live as the world does it has allowed the world to go further and further out of the bounds of God’s plan. Now we are at a place that if the Church cannot find commonality around the Cross of Christ, we will continue to divide until there is nothing left that reflects Christ.
We must come back to the place of recognizing that we are ONE Church, meeting in different places. We are ONE Church different in style of worship. We are ONE Church with different strengths. We are ONE Church with different weaknesses. We are ONE Church that is undivided because Christ is not divided and if we are following Christ, then we will all be drawing closer together.
We are ONE Church reflecting the amazing beauty of the Trinity of God—each part manifesting itself differently, doing different works, but all for the common goal of Salvation to each person. I believe the only way that we will really see our congregations grow, along with seeing the Church strong again, is by uniting because Christ is united. We don’t have to agree with everyone and we don’t have to accept unbiblical standards but we have to stop looking for reasons to separate and start standing on the things that unite us.
1 Corinthians 12:20New Living Translation (NLT)
20” Yes, there are many parts, but only one body.”
The question has to be then, where do we start? The answer is always the same. Real community, Christ-centered focus and loving our neighbors.
When the Church is doing these things well the world changes and Jesus is revealed in a way that transforms people and nations.
I am willing to start the conversation…I am not willing to sit around and hope anymore though that things will change without talking about it!
So let’s start the conversation… Today.