Christ’s people should organize associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God.



Christ’s people should, as occasion requires, organize such associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God. Such organizations have no authority over one another or over the churches. They are voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner. Members of New Testament churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people. Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.

Exodus 17:12; 18:17ff.; Judges 7:21; Ezra 1:3-4; 2:68-69; 5:14-15; Nehemiah 4; 8:1-5; Matthew 10:5-15; 20:1-16; 22:1-10; 28:19-20; Mark 2:3; Luke 10:1ff.; Acts 1:13-14; 2:1ff.; 4:31-37; 13:2-3; 15:1-35; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:5-15; 12; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 1:6-10; Ephesians 4:1-16; Philippians 1:15-18.

Can Christians disagree about some matters and still recognize one another as true believers? In this brief clip, W. Robert Godfrey examines the crucial role that denominations play in the American religious experience.

Denominations in the American Religious Experience, W. Robert Godfrey

Understanding Denominations and the Principle of Denominationalism

This brief survey of the denominational church in North American indicates that the capacity of the church to create new organizational forms seems almost limitless. All of these church structures profess, in some manner, a biblical rationale for their existence. Some bolster their biblical claims with historical arguments. Others consider it a value to think ahistorically and operate as if they were a direct application of what the New Testament intended the church to be. The question requiring an answer is not so much, Do denominations have a right to exist? but rather, How are we going to explain this church form? This collage of church forms needs to be sorted out if we wish to develop a missional ecclesiology for North America. Such an ecclesiology should provide criteria and direction in assisting these diverse forms to express more fully God’s design for the church in our context.

A Biblical-Theological Perspective. Most denominations take a biblical-theological position as the starting point for explaining their existence. The Independents in England, who originated the rationale for this type of church organization, sought to establish biblical grounds for its legitimacy over against the established, Anglican state-church. They defined the essential New Testament principles for what constituted valid local churches. Many denominations have followed this approach by arguing that their organization is patterned after the New Testament ideal.

Other denominations representing historical traditions usually provide some biblical principles for their existence but rely on a confessional statement as the primary rationale for their legitimacy. Most of these denominations tie themselves to the ecclesiological developments flowing out of the Protestant Reformation. They typically employ some formulation of the criteria for the “true” church in order to justify their claims for legitimacy, and then use these criteria as a test for the viability of other denominations.

Biblical-theological approaches to justifying the legitimacy of denominations have problems. A missiological reading of the New Testament makes clear that no one church form existed in that context. The early church was developmental in character and found expression in a number of different organizational arrangements. The effort by any denomination to justify its existence as representative of the New Testament ideal of the church is simply misdirected. No one such ideal exists.

Establishing legitimacy for the church on a confessional statement has a similar problem, especially when the particular confessional statement used was developed to define that church over against a false church. It is most critical for the church to develop a confessional understanding of all that God intends for his church, and for the church within this understanding to define itself over against a fallen world.

The approach needed, however, is one that starts with the biblical intent God has for the church and then reflects on how organizations might be designed to carry out that intent. Applying biblical and confessional rationales to denominations after they already exist is not sufficient to establish legitimacy. Denominations may have legitimacy, but they must be evaluated critically in order to assess the extent to which they represent all that God intends the church to be. A missional ecclesiology requires the church to start with biblical and theological foundations before proceeding to designing organizations or assessing the viability of our present denominations.

An Historical Perspective. Denominations exist. They now represent the primary form of the church in North America and, in many ways, in large parts of the church throughout the world. We have already pointed out in this chapter that the emergence of denominations in North America represents something of an historical accident. The historical reality of particular denominations has often been turned into sacred history by its adherents. This transformation occurs when key events in a denomination’s story are declared providential, and key leaders given legendary status. These events and figures then become part of the rationale for the denomination and often function as an authoritative guide for interpreting its true essence. A denominational ethos is transmitted through the retelling of the story in these terms. These stories usually function as important interpretations or applications of a denomination’s formal ecclesiology and polity.29 Those denominations with less formal ecclesiologies and polities usually rely more heavily on such event and leader histories to reinforce their legitimacy. But the practice appears common to all denominations.

Since denominations exist as our historical reality, we cannot go back and rewrite the script. We must start where we are in North America and try to develop a holistic understanding of the church in light of the present reality. A missional ecclesiology takes the context seriously, as it explores how God’s Spirit forms and sends the mission community in a particular setting. It is important, then, to reflect carefully on the formation of denominations from a biblical perspective and to draw out lessons from that study for translating the gospel into the current context of the church in North America. This process will inevitably involve a critique of present organizations and a search for ways to further their development toward missional faithfulness. Thus the missional ecclesiology that we seek will not only be biblical and historical but also developmental in character.

A Sociological Perspective. Another perspective used to understand the formation and development of denominations examines the sociological factors that shape their membership and ministries. This perspective provides the important insight that most denominations tend to organize themselves around particular social characteristics such as ethnicity, race, social class, shared traditions, discrete cultural characteristics, and even gender and age. There is more at work in shaping a denomination than just shared biblical commitments and a common history. Shared social features powerfully galvanize group identity and cohesion.

It is important for the church to understand the social forces in its midst because of the church’s dual nature: social and spiritual. The church is a social community. Moreover, churches function in society as carriers and translators of culture, just as do many other social institutions. From a biblical perspective, however, it is critical that the church be not just a vehicle for people to associate with others who are socially the same. The church is called to be God’s divine presence on earth, and as such, it lives by an eschatological set of values that brings people with different social characteristics together through the common bond of mission under Jesus Christ.

A missional ecclesiology challenges the church to be intentional about its unique social potential. Congregations should reflect the full social mix of the communities they serve, if they are truly contextual. In like manner, denominations as larger communions of congregations should seek to reflect the broad social reality of the North American population. Taking this approach will require substantial changes on the part of many congregations and most denominations. But it is in taking such an approach that congregations and denominations will rediscover what it means that the church is “sent” into a particular context. If the North American church is to regain a public voice for the gospel, it must address this issue.

An Organizational Perspective. The denomination is a voluntary association. As such, it is a collection of self-selecting individuals who make a commitment to participate. Through their commitment, persons bear responsibility to contribute to the whole, but they also receive membership rights that are constitutionally guaranteed. Implicit in the nature of the denomination, then, is the freedom of every individual to make or break their commitments. Since the implications of this freedom for denominational church life have been enormous, a missional ecclesiology must address the denominations’ voluntary character. Personal freedom is important, but it needs always to be framed for Christians by the biblical perspective of the covenantal community of God’s people sharing an inherent unity. This inherent unity critiques as inadequate the assumptions of Western individualism and the current practice of voluntarism in organizations.

The denomination is also an organization. It provides a shared structure for the orderly management of numerous congregations by offering a common purpose and identity. This naturally focuses the denomination on the tasks of planning, organizing, structuring, and managing. But while these tasks are all essential to give order to the church, the church itself is more than its organization. One of the interesting features of Christianity in recent decades has been the formation of a host of large independent or community churches. These congregations carry the principles of “member as volunteer” and “church as organization” to their logical conclusion. While these congregations may ally with other churches on occasion, they function for the most part as self-contained church communities. A missional ecclesiology will examine critically the powerful role of organizational factors in defining such megachurches.

A missional ecclesiology will always include organizational forms, but one should not see these as the essence of the church. Organization needs to serve, not determine the nature of the church with its duality of being both divine and human. It also needs to serve the ministry of the church with all of its diverse functions. We must establish clearly the church’s nature and ministry before we proceed to design organizational forms to concretize both in a specific cultural context. Unless we do so, we may fall subject to the illusion that managing the organization is equivalent to being the church. This illusion already plagues many denominations and their local congregations.

Lois Barrett et al., Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America, ed. Darrell L. Guder and Craig Van Gelder, The Gospel and Our Culture Series (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 67–72.

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