Wednesday, December 01, 2010

What's in a Denomination? 2

The first post in this series is here.  Although my verbosity may need edited, my intention is that this would be translated and used as an introduction to Wesley Seminary at IWU in Spanish, perhaps also for the Anglo students as well.
Denominations are not particularly popular these days, and understandably so.  At least in some parts of the Western world, the individual is more empowered than ever.  The idea of a bureaucracy or hierarchy dictating what you must believe or how you must behave is less and less attractive.  Veils of secrecy have also come down, revealing how spiritually ordinary, even inferior many Christian leaders are.  We hear of prominent Christian leaders having affairs or priests sexually abusing children.  In the "Information Age," things that used to be hidden all too easily come to light.

In my own pilgrimage, I used to hold ministers in much higher regard until I actually became one.  Then as I studied and I became a scholar, I realized that even those who made recommendations on denominational articles of religion and codes of practice were also individuals just like me.  I came to the conclusion that it was the charge of a minister that is sacred, the office of a minister, as it were.  And the beliefs and practices of denominations represent the convictions and commitments of a particular group of Christians, a sweet smelling offering to God rather than the final answer on absolute truth.

So I have come to believe that denominations can be servants of God as well as individuals, means of grace to those within their reach, if their leaders and participants have the right spirit, if they have the right perspective on their place in the universal church.  We sometimes speak of the "invisible church" to get at the truth that God's church cannot be identified with any one church or denomination.  Individuals within the Roman Catholic Church, in this view, are part of the invisible church, but the Roman Catholic Church is not the same as the church catholic, for the church catholic includes all true believers in all times, all places, and all churches.

At the same time, language of the invisible church is only a proverb for one side of the truth.  An equally true proverb is that there is no such thing as an invisible church.  The true church of God is always visible.  That is to say, God's people meet together and can be seen together visibly.  The visible church does not have to be in a dedicated church building.  Many if not most of the earliest believers met in houses.

But there is no such thing as a lone Christian.  The very notion of the "body of Christ" implies believers in connection with other believers in local assembly.  In fact, this is what the word "church" means in Greek, an assembly.  You do not have to meet in assembly every week to stay in Christian community.  Yes, you can experience God as an individual in a boat on a lake.  But your spiritual vibrancy will fade away if you do not connect for long.  Intentional removal of oneself from the body of Christ is a path away from the head of the body, Christ...

1 comment:

JohnM said...

"...the convictions and commitments of a particular group of Christians" is as good a short answer as I've heard for why denominations exist.

I wonder if we're going to see a resurgence of denominationalism - which I use as a neutral term, there may be a better one for what I mean, owing to:

1. Growing emphasis on the collective, in reaction against individualism
2. The independent (or independent acting) megachurch model wearing thin
3. Disillusionment with generic non-denominational churches and their minimalist approach to doctrine

Am I way off or what do you think?