05 March 2007

Unity Across Denominational Lines

by Phil Johnson

This is the final post in a four-part series on unity. Previous entries, in order, may be found here:

  1. Sola Scriptura and the Proliferation of Protestant Denominations
  2. Sectarianism and Separation
  3. The Wrong Kind of Unity




ere's a fact many miss: To a very large degree, the unity Christ prayed for does exist among genuine believers, and it is a unity that transcends denominational lines.

All Christians are "in Christ"; therefore they are all one with the Father, and one with each other as well. Notice carefully what Christ says in verses 22-23: "[I pray] that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them and You in Me, that they may be perfected in unity." The basis of that unity is not a denominational affiliation; it is our position in Christ.

Faithful evangelical Protestants believe God is answering that prayer of Christ even now. We enjoy an amazing degree of unity with one another, despite our denominational distinctions. In other words, the kind of spiritual unity Christ prayed for does exist in the true body of Christ worldwide despite denominational barriers. Our Lord's prayer for His church has not gone unanswered.

Christ's true church is not confined to a single congregation, denomination, or earthly organization. The church is composed of all true believers in Christ, regardless of denominational affiliation or membership in any earthly assembly. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, "The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all" (25.1). When the Confession speaks of the church as "invisible," it does not mean the church is inconspicuous or utterly hidden from view. It means that its precise boundaries cannot be detected through human perception. There are people who claim to be, and appear to be, part of the body, but they are not. Others, perhaps unknown to us, are true believers and members of the body. The exact boundaries of the true church are not always easy to discern. But nonetheless genuine believers are "all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28)—united with Him, and therefore united with one another. "For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

During His earthly ministry, Christ told the disciples: "I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd" (Jn. 10:16). The "one shepherd" is Christ himself, not an earthly vicar. And the "one flock" is also a spiritual reality even now, with believing Jews and Gentiles united in one new body, and the middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile having been broken down (Eph. 2:14-16). The perfect manifestation of that unity awaits fulfillment in a future time, when "we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ" (Eph. 4:13). In the meantime, to settle for the superficial unity imposed by a monstrous worldwide ecclesiastical hierarchy would be a serious mistake.

The unity Christ prayed for has always existed in the true body of Christ. It is an organic, not an organizational unity. It is a spiritual, not a corporeal unity. And it is not a unity without diversity. (If He had wanted unity with no diversity, He would not have gifted us with different spiritual gifts.) But the kind of unity Christ prays for is a unity in spite of our great diversity.

The truth is that on the vital issues there is far more agreement among Protestants than Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church leaders would like to admit. All evangelical Protestants are in agreement on the doctrine of justification by faith (sola fide) and the authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura).

Proof that unity is the rule among believers despite their denominational differences can be seen in a survey of the denominational backgrounds of the men who have contributed to this book. We may not always agree on every point and every particular of secondary doctrinal questions. But on the essential gospel truths we are in full agreement. And our unity in Christ is unbroken by denominational lines between us. We embrace one another with sincere love as members of the one body of Christ. We are one in Christ.

The evangelical school where I studied is an interdenominational Bible institute. My professors were Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, and Independents. Students came from an incredibly diverse array of Protestant denominations. We prayed together, studied together, and did evangelistic work together. Our denominational differences were no barrier to our unity in Christ.

The church I'm a member of now is a non-denominational church. Our members come from backgrounds as varied as Baptist, Brethren, and Presbyterian congregations. Our pastor is regularly asked to speak in all kinds of denominational settings. In recent years he has spoken in Anglican churches, Baptist conventions, Presbyterian conferences, and charismatic congregations. We do enjoy a tremendous unity with all those who truly love Christ and are faithful to his word—regardless of our denominational differences.

The limits on this trans-denominational unity are set by Scripture itself. We cannot welcome into our circle of fellowship people who deny truths that are essential to the gospel (2 John 7-11); and we cannot embrace people who affirm a gospel Scripture condemns (Gal. 1:18-19). The gospel and all truths essential to it are therefore nonnegotiable points of doctrine, and unity on these matters is a prerequisite to any other kind of unity.

But there's nothing inherently sinful with holding denominational convictions on secondary issues. Denominations in and of themselves are not necessarily an obstacle to true Christian unity, and Protestants should not be bullied into conceding otherwise.

Of course, when differences on secondary issues are magnified and used to promote strife and hostility between brothers and sisters in Christ, that is sectarianism. It's the very attitude Paul condemned in Corinth when some of the believers there were dividing in groups loyal to Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, and refusing fellowship to members of the competing groups. Such sectarianism is certainly sinfully divisive. But that is not a necessary result of denominationalism. And those of us with broad denominational associations and close friendships in Christ across denominational boundaries are living proof of that.



There is room for brethren to disagree within the bonds of unity, and sometimes those disagreements can be sharp (cf. Acts 15:36-39). In fact, it is unlikely that there are any two Christians anywhere who will agree completely on the meaning of every passage of Scripture. Unity does not mean that we must agree up front on every point of truth. On the other hand, unity certainly does not mean that we should ignore the issue of truth altogether and settle for a superficial organizational unity.

As far as we are concerned, both the ecumenical idealogues and the Roman Catholic Church can keep the phony substitutes for true unity they are peddling. The unity we already enjoy with all people of God who submit to the authority of Scripture and who truly love Christ is far superior to the appearance of unity brought by a hierarchy of priests or a ministerial association that deliberately masks essential differences.

It is a fearful reality that when "we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13), those who merely profess love for Christ but have no true regard for His truth (including, we fear, many of the same people who do the most talking about "unity" nowadays) will find themselves sent away with the goats rather than united with the sheep.

Phil's signature

31 comments:

jc said...

Isn't "non-denominational" a denomination itself?

Ric said...

jc said...

Isn't "non-denominational" a denomination itself?

Ric replies,
No.

Cindy said...

Phil,

I enjoyed reading this post. One question.........why would you say, "the westminster confession of faith, we believe the catholic church or universal church"?

I am a bit confused. If a catholic is reading this post, he or she would wholeheartedly agree because they dogmatically state that their church is the ONE TRUE Church. Please don't misunderstand me. I am not critiqueing your post, I am just want to understand why you included the catholic church.

Believers know the catholic church propagates a false gospel so why would you even mention it along side the universal church in the Westminster Confession of Faith?

Even So... said...

the men who have contributed to this book.

?

Phil, do you have something to tell us?

Good post, even if it is not part of a good book...

Doug said...

Cindy,

The "catholic church" is old theological language (found even in the Apostle's Creed) which means "universal church." Catholic means universal. It in no way denotes the Roman Catholic Church.

Mark said...

Cindy,

Catholic is not the same as Roman Catholic. In the west, we are protesting catholics...protestant catholic. Technically I am a Baptist Protestant Catholic.

What has happen is that over the years the protestants have abandoned the identification of catholic in an attempt to distance themselves from the Roman Catholic Church.

The apostles creed, which I have stated in worship, states a catholic church. Not a Roman Catholic church. The Roman Catholic church has "tweaked" church history in an attempt show they are the only true church and were always the leaders of the church and that Peter was the first leader after Jesus. The scriptures in The Acts of the Apostles (Acts) disputes that...but what is that when you have revised history and doctrine.

Go to your pastor and ask him to recommend some early church history books. Eusebius' History of the Church is a good start. Written in the 4th century and gives a good account of the church, personalities, movements etc associated with the early church.

Phil Johnson said...

Even so:

Thanks for asking. This blogpost was excerpted from a chapter I contributed to this book. I think it's out of print now.

Cindy:

The word catholic (note small-c) means "universal." Hence "Roman Catholic" is technically an oxymoron. The word doesn't belong to the pope.

"I believe in . . . the holy catholic church," and I've seen enough of the Vatican counterfeit to know that neither adjective applies.

Cindy said...

My last comment did not post. Anything wrong?

Phil Johnson said...

Cindy:

The new "improved" blogger software seems to do crazy things.

Try posting again.

By the way, does anyone else hate the new Blogger as much as I do? It makes me log in constantly. If I don't do the word verificaton thingy almost immediately, it thinks I got it wrong, and then I have to retype not only the word verification but also my passord.

I really do hate it. WordPress is starting to look really appealing.

The Doulos said...

Well said, Phil. I have found thru partnering in ministry with brothers and sisters from other denominations that we have far more in common, the essentials of the gospel, than we have conflicts due to denominational distinctives. It is only those that want to focus on the distinctives that damage the unity of the faith.

Recognize that I say this from the perspective of a member of a local church that is part of an affiliation that does not have strong theological distinctives - the Evangelical Free Church of America. But even within our local church, while individual members' views on areas like eschatology may vary, we still enjoy strong unity around the gospel imperatives. I think in this way we see a microcosm of the true unity that Christ spoke of and that you refer to here.

Kent Brandenburg said...

You write: "Of course, when differences on secondary issues are magnified and used to promote strife and hostility between brothers and sisters in Christ, that is sectarianism. It's the very attitude Paul condemned in Corinth when some of the believers there were dividing in groups loyal to Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, and refusing fellowship to members of the competing groups. Such sectarianism is certainly sinfully divisive. But that is not a necessary result of denominationalism. And those of us with broad denominational associations and close friendships in Christ across denominational boundaries are living proof of that."

Sin is disobedience to God's Word. We are sanctified by the truth, which is all of God's Words. Myself and someone else both claim salvation through Christ alone and Scripture sole authority. We have one Holy Spirit.

Yet, he sees baptism as OT, so he refuses baptism as OT ritual. Is he disobedient?

In another case, his church rents out the swim park and men come in speedos and women in bikinis. Is he disobedient?

In yet another case, the Messianic Jews don't think Sabbath worship was rescinded, so they meet on Saturday, never on Sunday, and keep the Sabbath. Is he disobedient?

I can name dozens more of these. If someone does not repent of disobedience to Scripture, what is our responsibility to them? How do we keep friendships with people who are in continuous disobedience to God's Word?

LeeC said...

Kent,
Is obedience a prerequisite for salvation?

Every single person on earth, and every church is short of fully complying with the Word of God. If we are to dissasociate with everyone who is in sin there would be no church.

I am not infallible, and neither is anyone else here today in temporal form. If you and I disagree, you can be right, and I can be wrong, I can be right and you can be wrong or....we can both be wrong.

Far more often than many would like to admit the latter is the case. I can show serious issues with any Christian from today to the Apostles days when they are held up to Gods holy standard.

Does that mean we should be apathetic?
No.

But let me ask you this. Are we capable of understanding Scripture on our own? Or do we need the Holy Spirit to enlighten us? If we need the Holy Spirit, do we tell Him what you need to understand and He hops to it, or does He enlighten us when He wills?


We are all being grown at His pace by His will. Some things we will never be in full harmony with Scripture on until he perfects us at the end. I have known men who love the Lord dearly, and have for fifty years, but are babes doctrinally. Like wise I have known twenty somethings who after being saaved for two years you would swear they had a doctorate in theology from TMS or Westminster. Is this because of thier intellectual acumen? No, it is the Holy Spirit using us as He wills, for His purposes.

The main trait is a willingness to change, a desire to grow more like Christ every day as we place the template of Gods Word over our lives and cut off anything that sticks out.

But some of us start cutting off sections in the upper right hand corner, while others of us start by trimming the lower left ect. May the Lord forbid that we would dissasociate with someone who is in Christ, and Christ is in him merely because he has trimmed from one area nd we another.

And yes, I find the new blogger truly vexing.

Kent Brandenburg said...

LeeC, I answer your questions:

"Is obedience a prerequisite for salvation?" Obedience to the Gospel. Believing in Jesus Christ.

"Are we capable of understanding Scripture on our own? Or do we need the Holy Spirit to enlighten us? If we need the Holy Spirit, do we tell Him what you need to understand and He hops to it, or does He enlighten us when He wills?" We need the Holy Spirit. 1 Cor. 2, 1 John 2. Since He is a Person, and, therefore, always with us as believers, as long as we don't quench Him or resist Him, He will always lead us to the truth when we are submissive to Him.

How or why would individuals disobedient to or in violation of Scripture be more willing to obey when we offer them continued fellowship? 2 Thess. 3:6-15; Eph. 5:11; Romans 16:17, 18; 2 Timothy 2:20-22; 1 Timothy 6:5; 1 Cor. 5:10, 11

The idea of a catholic church first originated in the patristics, especially Irenaeus, full blown with Constantine, in a visible way. Then the Donatists challenged Augustine about the veracity of a catholic church, and he said there are two catholic churches, the visible and the invisible. The reformers took their view from Augustine. I don't see it in Scripture. I see spiritual entities in the kingdom of God and the family of God, being universal, but not the assembly, the ekklesia.

In the very early patristics, we don't see this "catholic concept" for the church. Clement of Rome, for example, begins his letter---"The Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth"---and it continues like that the entire letter.

Sewing said...

Phil, a great post that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside (except for the strong corrective at the end)!

"In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity," wrote Augustine in the well-worn aphorism.

I would like to think there is room for a wide variety of Christian churches to find common ground, at least among those who uphold sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria.

And the New Blogger commenting feature is not so hot. I have the same problems as you.

Sewing said...

Oh, there are some individual Orthodox and Roman Catholics in history whom I admire and whose sincerity I don't doubt, but needless to say, they were friars, nuns, and suchlike, and apart from St. Anthony of the Desert, not wrapped up in offices of ecclesiastical administration.

Mike Galetta said...

leec,

John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not OBEY the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him

Belief and obedience go hand in hand.

BTW this is not a defense nor an endorsement of Kent's comment

also, I too have to log in and "word verify" several times to post a comment...

Catez said...

Phil,
I've had the same thoughts on the new bloger log in. Wordpress does look appealing - but probably comes with it's own small headaches. I select and copy my coments before submitting them now - so I can paste them in when the inevitable repeat log in is required.

Great post. I have often thought that we do have much more unity across denominations than some would like us to think. It was encouraging to see that affirmed in your post.

Carla Rolfe said...

Phil,
thank you so much for this. For me personally this is a rather timely address of an age old, in-house debate.

Re: the new blogger? BLECH. Some things are good, other things stink, like the constant logging in. Hopefully they'll get that resolved before too long.

Cindy said...

I have no problem with the Westminster confession of faith. I agree with it wholeheartedly. What I will continue to have a problem with is the word......catholic. My dictionary Thesaurus says "all-embracing", which embarrassing enough for me, I was unaware of. I would just rather omit the word catholic and leave universal church. With all the confusion today with ECT, many believers think catholics are saved. So that is why I personally would omit the word catholic and just leave "universal church".


Nevertheless, I enjoy post like these because believers are one in Christ, as the post says......our postion in Christ, and the Truth trumps over all denominations provided those denominations include authentic believers.

Jeremy Weaver said...

The Church edited by Rick Phillips is a great book oalong these same lines. The chapter by Mark Dever on the catholicity of the Church is enough to make the book worthwhile.

Yes...Southern Baptist Mark Dever on catholicity.

LeeC said...

I wholly concur Mike. Or you could get even stronger wording from 1 John.

But then we also have Paul in Romans 7 and 8

"Romans 7:19 (NASB95)

19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. "

Should we dissasociate with Paul?
I'm not talking about gross sin that has been confronted repeatedly. But who here is without error in some way, please raise your hand.

*hopefully insert the sound of crickets chirping here*

I in NO WAY endorse ignoring sin, or error. I also IN NO WAY endorse splitting from everyone who is not the perfect image of Christ in the flesh.

For instance, in Kents 1 Corinthians reference Paul is rebuking the church for allowing gross immorality amongst them.

Notice this, he tells them they have become arrogant, a sin and yet he does not dissasociate with them.

Again, The main trait is a willingness to change, a desire to grow more like Christ every day as we place the template of Gods Word over our lives and cut off anything that sticks out.

But some of us start cutting off sections in the upper right hand corner, while others of us start by trimming the lower left ect. May the Lord forbid that we would dissasociate with someone who is in Christ, and Christ is in him merely because he has trimmed from one area and we another.

I fear we may be in danger of a far greater sin in creating uneccesary divisions amongst Gods chosen people.

I do not say this because I am some mamby pmaby ecumenical, but because I know my own heart, and how I like everything to be on clear cut lines of demarcation and have in the past sinned, against brothers in Christ due to my unyielding nature, and hence sinned against Christ Himself.

All I am saying is if we want to honour our Lord we had better be REAL certain that our actions and attitudes match up with 1 Cor 13 before we bring out the pitchforks and torches against someone covered in the blood of Christ.

I'm also not a very god writer so I am most likely making a hash of what I am trying to get across, and for that I apologize.

Jeremy Weaver said...

Oh yeah...the only advantages of new blogger don't apply to my blog since I have a custom template. I've thought of changing it but really don't want to go through the hassle of rebuilding another blog.

Sharon said...

Phil: By the way, does anyone else hate the new Blogger as much as I do?

Is that why I now get This page contains both secure and nonsecure items. Do you want to display the nonsecure items? nonsense every time I want to access the comment page? And there's no way to disable nor permanently answer the preference!

Bleah!

Al said...

zSharon,
If you are using Internet Explorer then click on Tools-Internet Options- Security - Custom Level - Scroll down to Miscellaneous and under that section you should should see a section titled "Display mixed content" clik on "enable" then "OK" and that should clear up your problem.

al sends

Sharon said...

Thanks, Al--that did the trick! I knew it had to be an easy fix, but had no clue where. I muchly appreciate the help!

Rhology said...

--both the ecumenical idealogues and the Roman Catholic Church can keep the phony substitutes for true unity they are peddling.
>>Indeed they can! As can the squabbling ethnocentric Eastern Orthodox...

Love this series, gives me a reason to look forward to Tuesdays. On Mondays I watch police-car chases and Taserings.

apodeictic said...

Cindy,
One problem is that words can be used by different people in different contexts to mean different things. Just think of the word "American". A Citizen of the U.S. would normally use it to refer (exclusively) to the U.S.A. Yet this is a usage that differs from that by the vast majority of people of the American continent(s). Most people from Latin America (eg Argentina, Brazil) would use the word "American" to refer to their part of the world, intending no reference to the United States of America. Are they "wrong" in their use of the word "American"? Are citizens of the U.S. "wrong" to refer to themselves (to the exclusion of Argentinians, Brazilians etc) as "American"? Or are both usages legitimate, so long as we can discern what is the intended referent in a given context (which we usually can)?

Use of the word "catholic" is partly analogous to this, but also partly different.

We can use it in a "denominational" sense to mean nothing more than someone who is a member of the "Roman Catholic" (or "popish" -- and I use this term non-pejoratively) church. Or we can use it in an "ecclesiological" sense to refer to the one true universal church founded by Christ and his apostles.

Normally if my neighbour were to tell me that he is "Catholic" I know exactly what he means. He is speaking denominationally and not ecclesiologically. If, however, I were to start using the word in relation to myself and went telling my neighbours that I was "catholic" they may start to get confused since I attend an evangelical church and not "Roman Catholic mass" and I do not recognise papal primacy and the Roman magisterium.

But that is not to say that there are never times when it is appropriate to use the word ecclesiologically and even in contradistinction to the ecclesiological claims of Rome. Protestants should in fact vehemently reject Roman (and Eastern Orthodox and Anglo-Catholic) claims to "catholicity" in so far as they conflict with their understanding of "catholicity".

One thing that all professing Christians (whether Protestant, Roman, Anglo-Catholic or Eastern Orthodox) have in common is that there is but "one holy catholic and apostolic church". Jesus Christ did not, after all, found two churches. But this leads to an important questions: Where is this catholic church to be found? How do we reconcile the fact that there is one catholic church and yet many different local congregations (both geographically, doctrinally, and denominationally)? How does the local congregation (and the denomination for that matter) relate to the universal (or catholic) church? And this is where professing Christians disagree.

There are competing and *mutually exclusive* claims to "catholicity" among professing Christians. Is this "catholic" church found in the church of Rome and all those other local churches in submission to the Bishop of Rome ("Roman Catholicism")? Or is it found in those churches which submit to the Patriarch of Constantinople ("Eastern Orthodoxy")? Or is it, as Anglo-Catholics insist, found in some form of "apostolic succession" (which would include Roman, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican branches of Christianity)?

Well, protestants (including me, an evangelical Anglican) reject these three views of catholicity and as the Westminster Confession expresses, believe that the catholic (or universal) church is "invisible" (that is not to be identified with any particular visible organisation such as Romanism and Eastern Orthodoxy or some form of apostolic succession), consisting of "the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all".

Now things get complicated because our denominational use of the word "Catholic" [that is "papists"] emerges from Rome's ecclesiology [that is Rome's exclusive claim to "catholicity"]. Rome calls itself "the Catholic Church" because it believes that it is the one true church of Christ to the exclusion of all those who do not submit to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome and the Roman magisterium. As a convinced Protestant I cannot accept Rome's claim to catholicity. It is a profoundly mistaken and arrogant claim. And because of this conviction I also do not like using the word "Catholic" denominationally because it tends to imply that Rome is right in its ecclesiology and that we Protestants are "schismatics", separated from the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

Cindy said...

Apodiectic,

Very thorough explanation. I appreciate the people here who are helping me to understand this issue. Like I stated in my last post, I was embarrassed to say that I was unaware that the word catholic meant "universal." So you learn something new everyday.

I do know that catholicism was born under Constantine who claims he saw a cross in the sky, which was satanically inspired. And then he merged the pagans and christians in hopes that they would get along. This is why catholicism is full of idolatry......or paganism. Satan tried to destroy Christ when He was here on the earth by having Him crucified.........he soon realized that that plan did not work, for Christ rose from the dead. Then he tried to destroy the early church by having Christians persecuted and tortured to death. He soon realized that did not work either for the early church proliferated under that persecution. So he decided to become more devious by marrying paganism and christianity.......you know a little leven. Well it worked because the masses have been so grossly deceived by Roman Catholicism.

So what I am understanding is that the word catholic was here long before Roman Catholicism. But frankly, it's too confusing that is why I would omit it, even though the universal church has the claims to it first, not the Roman popery.

To me the universal church does not mean any denomination in particular as Phil stated in the post. To me it means the invisible church because that is what scripture says. For the Holy Spirit tabernacles with us and those indwelt with the Spirit of God are the house of God.

Mark said...

Phil,

Would you care to ellaborate on what is essential to believe for unity? (You mentioned Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura) Or maybe even point me in the right direction as to what might be a good resource for answering my question.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Cindy,

The terms "invisible church" aren't found anywhere in Scripture. The idea of an invisible church comes through the reformers through Augustine through Plato. It is also a contradiction in terms, somewhat oxymoronic. I realize Trinity isn't in Scripture either, but it describes something that is in the Bible.

Cindy said...

Kent,

Yes, you are right. Invisible church is not found anywhere in scripture, just like the word trinity. I do know that, but sometimes I don't always look over what I write.

The word tabernacle is found in scripture and because the Spirit is invisible and He indwells each believer, Like Paul said his body was just a tent that he and God's spirit indwelt. When I wrote that I was thinking in spiritual terms, not physical terms.

Oh and I looked at your blog and you and I don't agree on the women wearing pants issue because I have something to say about that at my blog! No disrepect intended.