Many lament the state of divided Christendom. Not infrequently are we reminded of the thousands of denominations which exist today. It is an argument used by secularists, ecumenicists and those who wish to forge a Catholicity based on the claims of Rome's so-called bishop.
Many are embarrassed by the state of things and not a few groups work to form pan-denominational structures. In Reformed circles NAPARC would represent an expression of this type of effort.
As a Congregationalist I'm not troubled by any of this even for a moment. Neither the New Testament nor the Early Church knows anything of denominations and in fact when the Corinthians behaved in a manner that begins to smack of sectarianism they are rebuked by the Apostle.
The response to Paul's rebuke and exhortations isn't to try and forge pan-denominational bureaucracies. The problem isn't an abundance of denominations.
The problem is denominations.
Denominations have attempted in virtually every way possible to fashion some kind of unity rooted in form. Everyone signs on to a creed, or everyone agrees to polity or hierarchical government.
These are all false man-made attempts at forging a unity that can only be built by the Holy Spirit Himself.
Individual Congregations do not 'ignore' the rest of the body as some falsely charge. They aren't necessarily myopic or self-focused. They simply reflect a local commonality. If the denominations didn't exist there might not be so many congregations. The denominations create a factious spirit and then of course bureaucracies, money, property and all the rest (that necessarily go with denominations) also play a part.
Congregationalists can all too easily fall into these traps too. But not if they understand the meaning of Congregationalism and are conscientious about it.
The authority exercised in Acts 15 was Apostolic. No assembly or bishop can claim to speak for the Holy Spirit. I am of course assuming the finality of the God's Word as expressed in the Old and New Testaments.
This is key. Yes, the Cessationism/Continuationism issue plays out directly in this question.
If there's extra-Biblical doctrinal revelation then certainly new polities can be revealed and traditions can be sanctified. Prophets whether wearing mitres or expensive three piece suits can declare new forms. If their authority is accepted, then the discussion is over.
But if Scripture alone is the sole guide and epistemological source of ecclesiastical authority then we cannot accept man-made innovations in the realm of polity.
Unlike Presbyterians we do not treat Scriptural polity as an axiomatic starting point allowing us to formulate an administrative bureaucracy through speculative deduction... which seems more driven by pragmatism and other political concerns than any real concern found in Scripture.
And unlike most groups (which would certainly include Presbyterianism) we reject all tradition associated with Church government.
Scripture envisions individual congregations interacting with and communicating among each other but not under any formal basis, nor does it imagine any sort of overarching authority.
Yes, Apostles could address the congregations within a particular region. These were of course the Apostles sending out 'general' epistles. It does not imply diocesan rule nor does it suggest normativity for the post-Apostolic age. There is no record of Apostles establishing any such system of government. And there are no Apostles today who can write authoritative general epistles.
Congregations are obligated to work toward maintaining contact with other bodies which seem orthodox and separating from those who do not.
Ironically it is denominationalism that prevents this from happening, or at least establishes unnecessary boundaries.
I know of Presbyterian and Baptist congregations that are 'friendly' but often there are restrictions regarding who can speak from the pulpit. Sacramental administration is tied to denominational guidelines etc... There are many difficulties in groups actually worshipping and fellowshipping together. Thankfully it sometimes happens in spite of the protective barriers the denominationalists seek to impose.
There are certainly plenty of things to legitimately divide over but factionalism is repugnant.
Years ago I was on my way to a PCA seminary and while waiting for the semester to begin I attended an OPC congregation. When I mentioned I was on my way to this particular school that had loose affiliations with the PCA, the two chaps I was speaking with could not hide their disgust. The PCA was obviously substandard to the all-glorious OPC.
I've been a member of the OPC and I assure you... it is not glorious in the least.
Now will this broad and loose and seemingly chaotic Congregationalism succeed in forming the united body of John 17?
Of course not. John 17 finds its fulfillment in eschatological terms.
And I would simply point out the denominational path hasn't exactly worked either has it?
In fact it has caused more problems than it has fixed.
Men may glory in their denominations and think they've achieved something by throwing up walls around traditions and creating bureaucracies that protect the 'system'.
But in the end, if it's not wrought by the Spirit it is little more than dung.
And if the unity is wrought by the Spirit, once again I will insist it is 'in spite of' their efforts.
Denominationalism is a sin and that's true whether we're speaking of a denomination of five congregations or the billion plus individuals who bow the knee to the Papal Baal.
So when someone says there are thousands of denominations and insinuates that therefore Christianity is false or the Bible is an unreliable guide, I simply respond, "So what?"
In truth they are all illegitimate. I only care about the individual congregations. That said even in Reformed circles there are PCA's and OPC's I have attended and might still if threatened with violence... and there are others that I wouldn't have ever considered attending.
In the end when I was Presbyterian... which praise be to God I am no longer!... I still had to judge individual congregations. The acronym on the sign wasn't really all that helpful.
In the end they're just sort of starting points and yet the tragedy is there are cases when I would cross a congregations off my list or pass it by because they might belong to this or that group. In reality there have been times I have been pleasantly surprised by groups that were far sounder and more refreshing that I would have expected them to be due to their denominational affiliation.
The institutionalization of the Church which began in earnest in the 4th century has been nothing less than a curse. The solution is to reject them part and parcel. Whether created by the state or factions of clerics they are still man-made political structures that seek to lord it over the consciences of individuals and ultimately they undermine and supplant the work of the Spirit.