How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live in unity!
(Psalm 133:1, NIV)
On our summer holidays this year we visited the fabulous Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides. In this beautiful place there is much evidence of Christian life, and many churches – the long-term result of the arrival of the gospel in much power in 1824 and its faithful preaching ever since.
But the churches are riven by denominationalism. Amongst the Presbyterians alone there are these associations of churches: Church of Scotland, Free Church of Scotland, Free Presbyterian Church, Associated Presbyterian Church and Free Church (Continuing). Each has its denominational website and presbyteries of elders. And that’s just the Presbyterians; there are also Baptists, Brethren, Salvation Army and Episcopalians.
The New Testament lays its biggest emphasis on the local church (the principal meaning of the Greek word ekklesia, which is normally translated church). There are relationships between churches: for instance, Paul instructs the Colossians to pass on his letter to them to the church at Laodicea, down the road. Such relationships are surely helpful. Denominations in the right sense can spring out of a godly desire to work together. But the local church is where the main action is.
We must note that in the New Testament, our unity is in the gospel, rather than defined by secondary issues such as the exact form of church government, baptism or even a big argument decades ago that has not been cleared up. Every time we create an association, we produce a group of outsiders as well as insiders. It is sad when the group of outsiders is defined by a secondary issue, rather than the gospel.
Of course without perfect understanding we will reach different conclusions about secondary issues. Moreover, division between Christians will sometimes be a sad fact of life, as it was when Paul and Barnabas parted company in Acts 15. Gospel preaching can happen out of envy and rivalry (Philippians 1:15-18), and this is not the disaster we might think it is, if competition leads to the gospel reaching more people. Moreover, sometimes splits really are necessary, if an association of churches wanders right away from the clear authority of the Lord Jesus Christ.
But the Psalm above should caution us about the kind of division on secondary issues that a strong denominationalism can imply. The Lord’s blessing comes when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity!
How, then, in the real world of denominations can we live as local churches seeking to express our unity as in the Psalm above? A good practical answer is to work hard on building friendships with churches which may not be exactly the same as ours but who share the same understanding of the essential Christian message. In East Anglia (as in many parts of the UK) we have a ‘gospel partnership’ which includes Baptists, Anglicans, Presbyterians and others. We have a shared doctrinal basis of classic Christian belief (for unity must be in the truth). It is the gospel which defines us, not secondary matters.
From this has come the excellent TEAM course in Cambridge. We also seek to co-ordinate and support each other’s church plants, and try to co-ordinate our efforts so as not to plant in the same place for purely denominational reasons – for our aim is the spread of the gospel.
This Monday the ReNew conference meets, in Leeds, for Anglicans concerned for the gospel in the Church of England. The conference is vitally important. Please pray for it: we long to secure and multiply healthy churches in the UK.
But as we do so, we’ll be wise to remember that we are Anglican Evangelicals, not Evangelical Anglicans – the less important adjective (‘Anglican’) qualifying the more important noun (‘Evangelical’). Our overall aim is not to promote Anglicanism, but the gospel our nation so urgently needs.