Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A biblical defense for denominations?

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. 
(1 Corinthians 11:18-19 ESV)
I think I understand what this verse is talking about.  Within the context, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for eating and drinking without waiting for their brothers and sisters that "have nothing".  Paul dislikes this enough to say that when they come together and eat it is not the Lord's supper that they are eating.  So then, how does the above verse fit into Paul's argument?

I read something today that got me thinking about it.  It comes from The Institute for Nouthetic Studies blog.  Here is the main snip that got my wheels turning:
... And, even when there’s a better reason, some of that sort of thing can get mixed in and confuse people. But there is one fundamental reason for the problem. Paul explained in 1 Corinthians 11:19:
. . . there must be factions among you so that it may appear who is approved among you.
In that passage, he was dealing with factions within a congregation, but the principle applies to broader factions as well.... He wasn’t commending the Corinthians for their factious spirit—rather he condemned it. But, at the same time, he made it clear that, sometimes, something wrong can be necessary to produce something right.
I started thinking about it.  Big surprise there since I am such a big fan of denominations and I jump at every opportunity to quote a well respected teacher/author/church leader who gives a biblical case in defense of them.  Okay, that was sarcasm, I dislike division in the church with fervent zeal but I highly respect Jay Adams and I take in what he says with a high level of humility.  That is why his post today made me do a double-take.

I don't think Paul was at all saying that "something wrong can be necessary to produce something right".  In fact, if I understand this passage correctly, the very divisions among them reveal the ones who aren't genuine.  In contrast, Dr. Adams seems to imply that Paul gives us a principle that lays the groundwork for denominations thereby making denominations a bad thing with a good reason to exist.  As if Paul meant that the heretics and the sexually immoral and the greedy and the swindlers could go and form their own faction of the body of Christ and the righteous, obedient believers who walk in the Spirit and have correct doctrine can have their own faction of the body of Christ.  That way it would be evident to everyone who the true believers are.

Christ said he did not come to bring peace, but a sword but he was not bringing this sword to sever the limbs from his bride.  Through Christ's death and resurrection, all the ways of the old man are put away.  Division, rivalries, dissension and all the other works of the flesh were crucified with Christ.  Now Jew and Gentile are one body.  There is no place for division in the body of Christ.  The only distinction granted is that which distinguishes between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit.  In this way, factions are necessary, and discipline is to follow with the hope of repentance and reconciliation with the unity of the body as the desired result.

Denominations are not good, not biblical, and I will boldly say that in my opinion dividing into denominations is one of those "acceptable sins" that is an evident work of the flesh.  I'm disappointed to read this from Dr. Adams.  I praise God for discernment.  I welcome any corrections.

Have I completely gone bonkers????  Or am I one of the few voices blessed enough to believe that humpty dumpty can be put back together again?


  1. It is late and I really want to take time to sit and read your post more thoroughly, as well as reread Dr. Adam's post, and do some more Biblical study.....but I do have a few first thoughts.

    First, based on everything I have ever read or heard from Jay Adams, he wouldn't say that demoninations are an acceptable sin.

    As a matter of fact, I don't think I could say that "denominations" are a sin. What is at the heart of some denominational splits could be sin..i.e. unresolved conflict, pride, power struggles, etc, etc. Like I said before, I think that some would now classify "home church" as a new denomination(if they haven't yet, I see that one coming), but that doesn't mean home churching is a sin. I think some denominations formed as answers to problems.
    Don't stick on the surface appearance, start identifying and addressing the heart issues. Bobby, really..I know you can do that, it is what makes you a great dad!

    Second, looking at the New Testament as a whole, I can see what Paul is saying, because I can measure it up to passages like...

    And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.
    (Romans 8:28 ESV)


    It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
    Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
    (Hebrews 12:1-17 ESV)

    Unfortunately sins do still exist in the body, and God can and often does use them to discipline us.

    Third, I believe that Humpty Dumpty will be put back together again. It will come with a New Heaven and a New Earth. We have a future hope of glorified sinless bodies. But until then, we must constantly be putting our sin to death, because that is what Christ did for us. We must not forget the Gospel and the grace we have been given.

  2. Oops...that wasn't anonymous, it is me, Tamara.

    Blogger wouldn't let me put in my name before it posted. :P

  3. Bobby,

    I've also heard those two verses used to justify forms of division in the church.

    In light of all the exhortations to unity (for example John 17, Ephesians 4, I Cor. 1), for anyone to use these two verses as justification for division is simply incorrect. I don't know enough about Jay Adams to say anything about him in particular. I simply believe that for anyone to use these two verses in favor of any form of division is wrong.

    I think what Paul is getting at is this: if there is a problem in the church of some type, then factions will appear. Some of the Corinthians may have understood the Lord's Supper correctly, while others did not. Clearly some were abusing it.

    However, if a local body of believers is functioning as it should, then there will be no factions. Certainly there will be disagreements, but not divisiveness.

    John 17 makes it abundantly clear that Jesus wants a united church. He does not qualify this in any way. Our Lord never suggests that anything related to denominations is even remotely acceptable.

  4. Bobby

    I read a similar article a few years ago which was really one of the first things that got me questioning the traditional ideas about church. The article I read said something about how denominations help promote unity by grouping you with people you agree with or some nonsense like that. Anyway, to use this passage as a support for denominationalism to me would imply that you believe your denomination is the group of "real" Christians with all the right answers, and everyone else is ... well not those things. That seems pretty arrogant. Anyway great post, thanks!

  5. Bobby,

    I see the big (and common) problem of interpreting a passage of Scripture out of the context of the letter as a whole. Reading 1 Corinthians as a whole, it is clear that Paul is not condoning division of any kind.


  6. Tamara,

    Thank you for commenting. Since you have been so instrumental in what God is doing in my life regarding this topic, I'm thankful that you shared your thoughts here.

    Sin is certainly at the root of denominational splits. I cannot think of any situation in which a seperation like denominations would occur apart from some issue of sin. If that is the case then denominations are always the result of sin. Should we embrace that?
    I also don't think that Paul was making a case for God's providence in all things when he penned these words. He was clearly dealing with division in the body and speaking against it. Differences are necessary, division is condemned.
    I'm quick to speak great things that will likely only come to pass in glory, but I like that. I like thinking that God answers our prayers of faith as we pray as Jesus taught "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven".

  7. Eric, Dan, and Alan,

    I'm glad you guys see the problems with division under the guise of acceptable denominations. I'm just beginning to see these things now and so it is good to be challenged and encouraged as I share these thoughts.

    Thanks for adding to the conversation.


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