13 September 2014

Inbox: Denomination Clarification

(Answering Questions #23)
Q. Regarding your post on Denominations- If the unity is found in the Spirit, how are denominations a hindrance? Don't they help bring groups of like minded people together? You said congregations will fellowship. Don't denominations create a way for that to happen?
A. No. They promote schism and try to find and establish unity in a man-made form.
Whether the denomination is rooted in a tradition... cultural, theological etc... or, in a lowest common denominator approach, it's still trying to find the unity through the creation of some kind of factional bureaucratic affiliation. The Scripture knows nothing of this.
Local congregations will fellowship with each other based on common beliefs and love. To enshrine detailed doctrinal statements which rest on historical contextual assumptions may indeed be preferred to say the approach of the Mainline Churches, but still erects barriers and hurdles that are in fact extra-Scriptural. They go too far in what they demand. They require their adherents to sign on to a factional narrative. The theology is rooted in the narrative. It may at times reflect Biblical teaching, but essentially establishes itself as the new authority.
Charles Finney was a heretic but he was right when he said the Presbyterians had created a 'paper Pope'. And in practice what that means is... the clerics atop the hierarchy get to determine what the paper Pope says. And though they don't want to admit it, it changes over time and is thus to some degree, arbitrary.
Presbyterianism ends up just being another form of Episcopacy resting on a tradition. Most denominations more or less function in the same way. They end up being self-serving bureaucracies that in no way promote unity.
The Mainline/Liberal Churches have basically been reduced to the admission that they no longer believe in much of anything that would keep them apart. Their main issues are really more about bureaucracies, buildings and pensions. Their narrative is rooted in the Enlightenment. The only reason for exclusion is if you retain old beliefs that they have moved beyond.
Regarding confessional bodies, that's great that they articulate what they believe. But again these confessional statements or constitutions are usually tradition specific and couched in terms of perpetuating a specific historical context and/or school of thought. I know they will insist that their tradition is the Biblical one. This argument fails on many fronts but again is rooted less in theology than it is in the story of the 'group'.
It's actually quite similar to what Americanism does in terms of geopolitical and ideological history. America's 'rightness' is rooted in the narrative, not in any actual historical or ideological fact. These are interpreted in different ways by different generations and when probed will be discovered to be far more nebulous and contradictory than most American apologists would care to admit. The same is true for the denominationalists and the Confessional theology they promote.
While another congregation may agree with 80% of what they do and believe, the fact that they can't quite 'sign on' means that there are now barriers erected that ought not to be there. These are man-made barriers that ought not to be.
Yes, they attempt to create umbrella organizations that bring the divergent denominations together, but in the end it just creates another level of bureaucracy and one that doesn't really have any meaning. At best it creates a facade, a faux unity.
And again... is it warranted from Scripture? If not, and if it's okay to develop extra-Scriptural polity out of veneration of tradition or pragmatic concern then at that point we're really dealing with a different set of questions.
In the end the Presbyterian claim that their polity is somehow Divinely sanctioned and commanded must be strongly rejected. In fact it is this point that makes them in many ways the most offensive of the denominational options. Their claim is spurious, anti-Biblical and deceptive. The same condemnation must rest on any other denomination which makes the same claim, though most are more likely to argue the Scriptures are more or less silent and allow the Church to formulate its own solutions to the inter-congregational political problem. Again at that point we're dealing with a different issue, one of authority and a question regarding the sufficiency of Scripture.
Church federation arose in the 4th and 5th centuries as a way for congregations to identify with the 'catholic' Church as opposed to a 'schismatic' body. But at that point who is guilty of schism? The Donatists certainly believed Rome had 'departed' the true faith and their claim seems vindicated by the Roman alliance with the Empire. But at the same time the Donatists are also guilty of departure or schism when they attempted to erect their own hierarchy. These events in which both parties bear some blame set the Church on a bad path.
But generally speaking we can state just because a congregation doesn't want to 'sign on' with a political innovation is suddenly guilty of schism? I don't think so.
How dare Presbyterians accuse of Congregationalists of being schismatic! It's an outrageous and unwarranted charge... all the more because it is the Presbyterian system and all such denominational polities that are in fact guilty of dividing the Church.
All quests to seek unity in these forms...bureaucracies and denominations are all fruitless. They don't create unity, only division.
How is the unity to be found? Not in any extra-Scriptural denominational structure. The unity is found in the Spirit and transcends any ability on our part to form it into some kind of tangible political structure.
You won't be able to point to a building or an acronym on a sign. It's not tangible in that way. There won't be an office that administers the 'unity'. Nor is it find in a fallen human being wearing special robes and sitting on some kind of elevated chair.
We all resent Rome's claim to Catholicity. They demand that you must be affiliated with and submit to the Roman pontiff in order to be part of the universal/catholic Church. We rightly reject their claim. They can point to tradition and doctrinal formulations and we also reject those even while admitting they claim some truth.
We might look at Presbyterianism and appreciate some of their doctrine, maybe even more than some. But ultimately they're making the same claim. They'll deny that, and though practically speaking they'll recognize other people as Christian, in practice they act more or less the same as Rome. They'll call you brother until you darken the doors of their building. Then at that point the only true brethren are the members of their faction.
Creeds and Confessions serve a purpose. I contend that many of the 'great' Confessions birthed by the Reformation are far too detailed and end up expressing a cohesive theological tradition rather than the actual teaching of Scripture.
Their excessive detail leads to reductionism. Their precisionist impulse ends up reducing the greater scope of the truth and the full spectrum of Biblical teaching.

Using them to delineate the 'true' Church from the false is ultimately unhelpful and at its worst...schismatic.