Christian unity and denominations

This is the third and final essay in a series by John Woodhouse on the nature of Christian unity. The first two articles are also available in our online archives: ‘When to unite and when to divide’ and ‘The unity of the church’.

Discussions of Christian unity usually focus on the relationships within and between the Christian denominations. The previous two essays in this series have argued that the unity for which Jesus prayed (John 17) and which he established by his death (Eph 2) is a spiritual or heavenly reality (“You are all one in Christ Jesus”, Gal 3:28). This heavenly reality finds expression in this world as the Spirit brings Christians together in various localities (1 Cor 1:10). In other words the unity of which the Christian gospel speaks applies first to the spiritual unity of all, from every place and every age, who are members of God’s household. It applies second to the relationships in the local gathering of Christians.

In this essay we consider the implications of this gospel unity for relationships within and between the denominations.

1. What is a denomination?

A definition

What is a denomination? Here is a working definition: A denomination is an association of some churches which does not include all churches. The features of a denomination I am including in
this definition are:

  1. It is an association of churches, but it is not a church.
  2. It is an association of churches, as distinct from an association of individual Christians.
  3. It is an association which, in principle, does not include, and does not need to include, all churches.

It is commonly suggested that the denomination is a relatively recent phenomenon in church history. Prior to the emergence of denominations, it is said, there was the period of the ‘undivided church’. Certainly the term ‘denomination’ is relatively recent. However the essence of the phenomenon we now call ‘denominations’ has existed since New Testament times. It has only ceased to exist in times and places where persecution or coercion of some kind has been used to prevent it. This essay argues that evangelicals should welcome and defend the phenomenon of denominations, but also be clear about what a denomination is and what it isn’t.

The term ‘denomination’, in roughly the sense employed here, was popularised in the 18th century by leaders of the Evangelical Revival and the Great Awakening. Suffice to say that in that context the concept was humble. It implied only that the group referred to shared the ‘name’ givento the association on view. Denominationalism, in this sense, is a deliberate rejection of sectarianism. Sectarianism is the view that a particular group is the only legitimate expression of the church. However denominations (without the term) have existed from the beginning.

‘Denominations’ in the New Testament?

Within the New Testament we see certain churches sharing an association which did not include all churches. The most obvious example, from the evidence we have, is the so-called Pauline churches. These churches had in common their personal link with the founding apostle and evangelist, Paul. Paul’s letters and their circulation, his visits and those of his associates, and the famous ‘collection’ are all expressions of this association. There was no organisational link between these churches. Some were more closely associated than others simply because of their location (Col 4:15-16; 1 Thess 4:10). Paul’s authority with respect to these churches was real, but not institutionalised (cf. 2 Cor 10:8; 13:10), and was exercised by persuasion and exhortation.

There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with the association of churches who shared this relationship with Paul. Neither is there any basic reason that other churches should or should not be drawn into that association. Churches like Laodicea and Colossae which were not established by Paul himself, but by those who had themselves been brought the gospel by Paul, were drawn into the association. The collection for the saints in Jerusalem (emphatically not one of the Pauline churches) was an important expression of the relationship of the Pauline churches to believers outside that association.

The potential for disagreements to arise between churches associated on one basis and others associated on another basis is as real as the potential for disagreements within a congregation or between churches that share some association. It is reasonableto suppose (indeed it is difficult to imagine otherwise) that there were churches who did not see eye to eye with the Pauline churches on some matters, indeed some matters of fundamental importance.

Therefore, in principle, the essential elements of modern denominationalism appear to be recognisable within the New Testament. This is not to suggest that the mere existence of these things in New Testament times justifies or requires their existence today. It does, however, alert us to the fact that our responses to denominationalism may find more direct guidance from the New Testament than we might otherwise have expected.

Denominations in history

History has produced an enormous variety and complexity of associations between churches. Some of these associations have become expressed in complex organisational structures with their own long histories. Various understandings of the significance of these structures have emerged.

Over time the organisational structures have taken on a life of their own. ‘Anglicanism’, for example, has become something valued in its own right. For a wide variety of historical reasons the churches (congregations) associated by the structures have become increasingly diverse in faith and practice. Certainly the older denominational structures now include many groups of people where the word of God is never heard, and where those who gather may all be unbelievers. Such gatherings are no longer churches of God. Further, the organisational structure as a whole can fall into the hands of people who do not believe the gospel. This constitutes the dilemma facing evangelicals in the historic denominations today.

The evangelical denominational dilemma

There are at least three approaches evangelicals are taking to this situation:

  • There are those who take the view that evangelicals cannot remain in an organisational structure that has utterly lost the gospel, or promotes a false gospel.
  • There are those who want to stay in the structure in order to change it back to what it was ‘originally’ meant to be.
  • There are those who take the view that the organization was set up by gospel churches for gospel churches, and there is no way we are going to leave.

The argument of this essay may be summarised as follows. Denominations can be an expression of the unity of the Spirit. However when the nature of the denomination is misunderstood and inappropriate policies and actions developed, denominations can oppose the unity of the Spirit. Some simple implications for evangelicals and evangelical churches will conclude the essay.

2. A denomination can express the unity of the Spirit

By his Spirit, through the gospel, the Lord is building his church. In this world the effect of this work is seen as the Lord calls people to himself in various places. Those drawn by God to himself are drawn by his Spirit to each other. The word ‘church’ and the glorious significance of the church of God according to the New Testament, including the unity of the Spirit, applies to this reality, both in its spiritual, or heavenly aspect and its earthly physical expression, the local gathering of believers.

However local congregations should not regard themselves as ‘independent’. The church of God in Corinth shared the experience of being sanctified in Christ Jesus, of being called, of being holy “with all who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place—their Lord and ours” (see 1 Cor 1:2). “The same Spirit which draws us into each other’s company to share Christ together will also give us a spirit of love and unity with other congregations as we come to know of their existence.” If a congregation or house church asserts its independence, in the sense that it has no desire to relate to other believers or churches, there is a defective understanding of the church that Jesus is building, and an inadequate experience of “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor 13:14). Such a group tends to become a ‘club’ rather than the church of Christ. A club is a group that exists to satisfy the felt needs of its members rather than being the gathering that God is gathering to himself.

Fellowship between congregations

The question is, how should we express our unity with believers beyond our local congregation? Because of limitations of time and space it is impractical to meet with those believers (at least not all of them!). Yet they too are members of the one church that Jesus is building. What expression should be given to that reality?

The answer will vary according to circumstances. There may be opportunities to communicate, to co-operate, to help, to be helped. Physical limitations mean in these ways, too, it will not be possible to relate to all other believers. However we will want to express our love and unity with others to the extent that it is feasible.

Such opportunities are especially likely to arise between churches that share common characteristics or common experiences. A special relationship with Paul provided such opportunities in New Testament times. A shared history and way of doing things may provide such opportunities today. However it is highly unlikely that there will be significant opportunities for all believers all over the world to express their fellowship in any meaningful way, simply because of the limitations of the physical world.

The denomination (an association between churches) arises out of the Spirit of fellowship between believers beyond their own congregation, and its purpose is to express and facilitate the fellowship of the Spirit beyond the local congregation.

In the early days of the gospel, this wider fellowship was expressed in relatively unstructured ways. In time, structures were developed to advance the fellowship between churches. Structures developed in complexity over the centuries. A permanent central bureaucracy developed. The structures did not necessarily arise or develop in ways consistent with the fellowship of the Spirit. These structures therefore often became problematic, for the purpose of the association must always be remembered: to express and deepen fellowship between churches.

We will return to those problems shortly. First we need to take note of some specific advantages in the denominational way of associating.

Freedom of conscience

One of the features of what we are calling a denomination is that it does not embrace all churches. Discussions of denominations use the expression ‘parallel denominations’ to indicate the existence of several churches in one locality, each belonging to a different association of churches.

There may be various reasons for more than one association of churches, even in one geographical area. One is the inevitable development of conscientious disagreements between believers. Because we recognise the imperfection of our knowledge and wisdom we do not anticipate complete agreement on all things between all believers in this world. Parallel denominations provide for liberty of conscience. The alternative to parallel denominations is one denomination which could only be maintained by persecution. This was attempted by the medieval Roman Church, and in England by the Church of England with the 1662 Act of Uniformity.

To allow freedom of conscience on certain matters requires parallel associations. These are not necessarily the most important matters, but they are the matters in which disagreement makes practical cooperation of some kind unworkable.

The Anglican Church of Australia has not yet resolved the question of whether one denomination can cope with opposite views of the ordination of women. This is not because this is the most serious theological issue within the life of the Anglican denomination. It is clear that Anglicans can cope more easily with an enormous range of mutually exclusive views on the atonement and the resurrection than opposite views on the ordination of women.

This is because of the nature of the association that the Anglican denomination happens to be. It involves formally recognising and accepting (ordaining) ministers. For the first time the association has formally agreed to ordain ministers whose ministry will be recognised by some in the association, but cannot in principle be accepted in conscience by others. If the denomination cannot come to genuine agreement on this matter there are only two ways forward: coercionof one group by the other or the creation of two or more associations either separately or within the broader association. History suggests that coercion will win. Some are already pressing for this solution. A proper understanding of denomination would be more willing to develop parallel associations within the broader association that has the name ‘Anglican’.

One of the chief benefits of denominationalism is the freedom of conscience it allows. The unity of the Spirit cannot be coerced against conscience.


Another obvious benefit of churches associating with one another in denominations is the potential for cooperation in projects that require more resources than those at the disposal of most local congregations.

Examples could include the recruiting and training of ministers, the support of gospel work in difficult areas, the sending and support of overseas missionaries, the publication of literature for use by the churches, the scholarly investigation of issues facing the churches, the provision of joint ownership of property, the provision of retirement support for ministers—and so on.

These different tasks could be pursued through different associations. Most of them could be accomplished through the cooperative action of individual Christians, rather than an association of churches. Indeed the support of overseas missions has historically worked well through voluntary societies of Christian people, outside denominational structures. In principle, such voluntary societies are very like denominations. They arise out of the fellowship of the Spirit—the unity of the Spirit—beyond the local congregation. Such societies may provide links of fellowship between churches. Then, in principle, they are denominations.

Many such associations exist and many more are possible. In reality we do not only have parallel denominations, but overlapping denominations. There are the churches which are associated through their support of a particular ‘interdenominational’ missionary agency. We might call this an interdenominational denomination! In principle, all such associations are to be welcomed and encouraged so long as they encourage the fellowship and unity of the Spirit.

However a denomination does not always work as it should.

3. A denomination can oppose the unity of the Spirit

A denomination is not a church, and it is dangerous to treat it as though it is. Then the denomination inevitably becomes opposed to the unity of the Spirit, for it confuses its own structures with the unity of God’s church.

A church—that is, a congregation—is ruled over by God’s Spirit through his Word. A denomination, because it rarely (if ever) meets for this purpose, is not under the influence of God’s Spirit in the same way that a church is (or should be). It is particularly easy, therefore, for a denomination to lose sight of its proper spiritual role.

Once a denomination has developed institutional structures that people come to think are ‘the church’, the trouble has begun. Instead of being an expression of the unity of the Spirit, an outworking of the fellowship of those who in different places call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the denomination can then impede the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. History suggests that over time this temptation is close to irresistible. There is a solemn responsibility on those who belong to such an association to ensure that the association works for good and is not allowed to quench the Spirit.

Let us consider the potential for the denomination to oppose the unity of the Spirit under three headings: Denominational centralism, Denominational loyalty, and Denominational distinctiveness.

Denominational centralism

If our understanding is correct, the spiritual justification for the denomination is the spiritual unity that exists between believers beyond the local congregation. The congregation remains the primary expression in this world of the unity of the Spirit. The relationships created by Christ’s demolition of the barriers are most directly manifested in this world in the congregation. That is where we should especially see humility, gentleness, patience and love (Eph 4:2).

The first temptation for the denomination is for the association’s central organization to become more important than the churches it exists to serve. The denomination becomes a franchise operation, where the local outlets have permission to market the brand-name.

With centralism comes control and interference. Whereas in spiritual reality the local gathering of believers is assembled by Christ, ruled by his Spirit through his Word as the members serve one another, the denomination is tempted to rule the congregation from a distance, and according to its own interests. The greater the control exercised by the central body, the more passive the members of the local congregations become, until they abandon their responsibilities for the church’s life, and do not care about faithfulness to Christ and to one another.

There is an urgent, necessary and grave duty to see that the control of the denomination over the life and ministry of the local congregations must be broken. In the case of a denomination where the values and goals of the association as a whole have lost touch with the biblical gospel, this is absolutely imperative and pressing. Otherwise very soon there will be no place for evangelical ministry in that denomination. If we are prepared to accept that outcome, we should leave the denomination now. If not, we must act now.

What would it mean to break the control of the denomination over the life and ministry of the churches? Here are four suggestions:

  1. Local churches must have full responsibility for who serves them as their ministers.

    The power of the denomination to impose a non-evangelical ministry on a church against its will is unacceptable. Likewise the power to refuse to allow an evangelical ministry approved by the congregation is an abuse of denominational power.

    If the denomination could be trusted to use such power to ensure the orthodoxy and good standing of ministers, it would be appropriate for the churches to delegate such power to the denomination. However, where the denomination can no longer be trusted to do that, then it has no right to hold on to that power.

  2. For Anglicans: Episcopal ordination must cease to be required for full gospel ministry in the local church. For other denominations apply the relevant ministry authorising procedures.

    This is a corollary to the first point. Episcopal ordination is the chief structural instrument of the Anglican denomination to control ministry. It was intended to be a form of recognition and authorisation of appropriate persons, properly prepared to be “shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers” (1 Pet 5:2). The Ordinal of 1662 is a superb expression of this function. However once episcopal ordination ceases to serve this purpose, but instead authorises inappropriate persons, and refuses to authorise appropriate persons, then it cannot continue to be the sine qua non of ministry in our churches.

  3. The denomination must not control who is trained for gospel ministry in our churches.

    The denomination is often in control of funds which support the training of ministers. This is a further instrument of control. While it is used for the purpose of training faithful gospel ministers, the funds are being used responsibly. However if, either through shortage of funds or changed understandings of Christian ministry, able evangelicals are refused training, other funds and training paths should be found.

  4. Steps must be taken to put church property under the control of the local congregation.

    Today’s denominations generally control vast amounts of land and property. These have been inherited from the past. Whatever the particulars of the law, morally these inheritances are trusts. Once again denominational ownership of church property is an instrument of control which may be exercised responsibly for the advance of the gospel, or may be used to obstruct and prevent evangelical ministry. When the latter position is reached, faithful congregations have a moral right to control the property entrusted from the past for gospel ministry. While such changes call for careful wisdom, they are too urgent for procrastination. These matters cannot wait for twenty years. In ten years it will probably be too late.

Denominational loyalty

A denomination, once it has developed, appears typically to demand the loyalty of the individual churches and their members to the association itself. The denomination very easily loses sight of its proper role of encouraging faithfulness to Christ and to all who belong to him. Instead of being a means to this end, the denomination becomes an end in itself.

Loyalty is not a Christian virtue. Indeed it can be sinful. The Christian virtue is faithfulness, and faithfulness is exercised towards persons, not institutions. Faithfulness to Christ is our first duty, as he has been faithful to us. Faithfulness to our brothers and sisters into whose company God has drawn us is a second. Faithfulness to brothers and sisters beyond our circles is a third.

Loyalty to a denomination is often expected in exclusive terms. Relations with believers of the same denomination are seen to take precedence over relations with other believers. It may be regarded as disloyal (or improper in some other way) when a person moves to a different town if he/she joins a church of a different denomination. But this is an improper expression of denominationalism.

The scandal of denominationalism (which is neither inherent in the concept, nor necessary in practice) is the creation of barriers to fellowship with those who do not belong to that denomination, based on the traditions of men. The denomination exists to foster the Christian fellowship of member churches, not to create barriers to fellowship with other churches!

Denominational distinctiveness

It is only natural that an association of churches that has a history will develop some distinctive expressions of their relationship, or distinctive ways of doing things which they share.

There would appear to be no great problem with this until these distinctives become regarded as essentials. Once the distinctives of your denomination become part of your religion, your denomination has become a sect. Once the distinctives (of dress, liturgy, polity, or other practice) become hindrances to relating to believers who do not share these distinctives, then the distinctives must be challenged.

It is not to be wondered at, then, if evangelicals tend to take the lead in dispensing with denominational distinctives that have no basis in God’s word, and have lost any usefulness in expressing the spiritual unity and fellowship between churches. Distinctive titles, distinctive clothing and commitment to distinctive denominational polity are obvious examples. Certainly changes in these areas may, depending on circumstances, require patience and wisdom. There may be circumstances where change is not possible or desirable. But we ought not to be among those who resist changes because of denominational identity. Uniformity of distinctive practices between churches of a denomination is of no spiritual value. It establishes a false unity, which all too easily substitutes for the unity of the Spirit, and has often done so. It is Babylonian unity.

4. The unity of the Spirit is both smaller and larger than the denomination

To conclude this essay (and the series), let us consider some in principle implications of the understanding of unity, church and denomination that we have outlined.

Evangelicals claim to be gospel people. We must not allow this claim to be the basis for arrogance. Then it would be a claim falsely made. For the gospel humbles all whom it touches. We are miserable sinners, saved by the extraordinary grace of our God.

Humility, however, demands our submission to the word of God and our recognition that biblical gospel Christianity is authentic Christianity. We are far from perfect either in our confession or our obedience. But if evangelicals have become one sub-group in our various denominations, then we have to insist that our claim is that it is only believing the gospel of Jesus Christ found in Holy Scripture, only trusting in the Jesus of that gospel, that makes a man or a woman a member of the church of God.

How should evangelical Christians in churches associated with the modern denominations think about their Christian relationships?

The unity of the Spirit is unity in the gospel

First, we must be people whose focus is on the gospel, its true understanding, and its faithful proclamation in the power of the Spirit. The unity that matters to us, and the only unity that matters, must be the unity created by God himself through this gospel, unity in this gospel. Only unity in this gospel is the unity of which the gospel speaks.

Therefore we will not neglect the study of the gospel, the discussion of the gospel, the working together through differences that arise. We will not take the gospel for granted, as though we all know it so well. We will contend for the gospel. It will matter to us when it is denied, compromised or ignored. We will care about the disagreements that arise among us, and work hard at coming to one mind. The serious study and exposition of the Scriptures will be at the centre of our activities.

We will contend for the gospel in the forums of our denomination. We will contend for the proclamation of the gospel in this land, and throughout the world. We want to discern where denominational structures or rules can help the progress of the gospel, and recognise that the association has no right to hinder the gospel. And when it does we oppose it, or bypass it, or get around it.

We will be more concerned for the prospering of believing churches than for the prospering of the denomination. It is in the churches and from the churches (not from the denominational ‘centre’) that we expect the gospel to grow.

In our denominational activities we must resist the temptation to be people-pleasers. All too frequently evangelicals who get involved in the denominational structures are tempted to dissociate themselves from other evangelicals who are less committed to the denomination. That is unfaithfulness. Our unity with those who agree in the gospel is too important for that game to be played.

The unity of the Spirit divides the denomination

Second: we must expect that the unity of the Spirit will divide the denomination.

If we are committed to unity and avoiding division, we will not be faithful to the gospel. It will never be the ‘right time’ to push gospel issues hard. There will always be reasons to put off action. We need to accept that the gospel and gospel mindedness will divide denominations.

We cannot be gospel people if we will not accept that it is good for the differences to come to the surface; for the unity of the Spirit to take absolute priority over the unity of the denomination. We do not want the Anglican Church of Australia to be united (unless, of course, it comes to be united in the gospel). In our denominational discussions we aim to make clear how we disagree, rather than to find a set of words that hides our disagreements and portrays an illusion of unity. Denominational unity is Babylonian unity, and typically an alternative, a rival, to the unity of the Spirit. If you are for one, you will be against the other.

The unity of the Spirit demands trans-denominational fellowship

Evangelicals must ensure that we are responsive to the Spirit of God who draws us in love towards “all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:2).

If we are responsive to the Holy Spirit, we will be drawn to fellowship not only with Christians of the same denomination. If we are, it would seem that we are responding to something other than the Spirit of God, who knows no such limitations.

We ought to take up opportunities given by our denominational association for believing churches to relate to other faithful churches. However, it is also important that we express our unity with gospel people and churches across recognised denominational boundaries. Evangelicals working together, fellowshipping across denominational limits for the sake of gospel churches and gospel proclamation will, at some point, encounter denominational opposition.

To conclude: Let us value denominations for what they are, but appreciate clearly what they are not. Evangelicals must repudiate the idea that our Christian identity is associated with our denominational label. The folly of denominational loyalty expresses walking by sight, not by faith. Our agenda with respect to our denomination must be the good of churches and the spread of the gospel. When the denomination loses its usefulness for those ends, it has lost its usefulness for anything.

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