September 19, 2020

iMonk 101: Alastair Roberts on “The Denominational Church”

Looking over recent comments and emails, it occured to me that many of you would benefit from the writing of Alastair Roberts- a former IM favorite blogger now semi-retired- who wrote some of the most helpful thoughts about the church I’ve ever read. In fact, I carry around the originals in my brief bag all the time. This past post of mine just surveys the excerpts. Follow the links to his blog, Adverseria and get the entire original post. Those of you looking for the “right church” will be greatly challenged and helped.

logo.gifLet me begin by thanking God for Alastair Roberts, his clarity in writing and his heart for the Church and Gospel of Jesus.

Alastair has a post at Adversaria called “The Denominational Church” that is, in a phrase, magnificently helpful for me where I am right now.

The post is prompted by the passage of a report at the recent Presbyterian Church in America General Assembly critical of the so-called “Federal Vision” and “New Perspective on Paul.” (This post is not, btw, about the FV/NPP controversy, and I won’t publish comments that go in that direction.)

Alastair quotes one voice in agreement with the PCA’s condemnation of the Federal Vision/New Perspective on Paul:

Maybe I am weak in my nerves, but when the corporate body of Christ speaks with such unison, I am humbled. Yes, assemblies and counsels may err, but this is the Visible Church speaking here! Aren’t we to have a high regard for the Visible Church?

To which, Alastair responds:

The problem with all of this is that the PCA and OPC are not — and I know that some of you might find this hard to believe! — the ‘corporate body of Christ’ speaking in ‘unison’. I am not sure that it is appropriate to accord ecclesial status to such bodies, even on the local level. The same can be said of any denominational organization or local denominational church.

One of the problems that we have to face is that, in the age of denominations, we cannot simply take the ecclesiologies of previous generations and apply them directly to the local denominational congregations that we attend.

From this point, Alastair critiques the recent notion that denominations and denominational local churches can be assumed to be the “church” in the New Testament sense.

For starters, he reminds us that Luther, Calvin and the other reformers were never starting “denominations,” but were deeply aware of their connection to the church catholic, and were truly “reforming” their portion of the visible church, not attempting to “start the church over again,” as many denominational Christians seem to believe and behave. In fact, Alastair suggests that we need to question the claims of denominational “churches” to be the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic” church at all.

Our world, in which everyone chooses to belong to some denomination or other (where everyone is, technically speaking, a ‘heretic’), is far removed from the sort of world that the early Reformers thought within. Consequently, we must give serious attention to the disanalogy that exists between their situation and our own when reading their ecclesiologies.

The Church that we now belong to has changed radically since the age of the Reformation and we need to think theologically about the situation that now faces us. In particular, we need to question the ecclesial status of confessional churches. This is something that has been argued by a number of people, from the Orthodox John Zizioulas to the Presbyterian John Frame. The Church — whether local or universal — is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The same cannot be said of the local denominational congregation. There are countless denominations, so it is utterly inappropriate to speak of them as ‘one’.

At this point, Alastair does for me what he always does: he grasps disparate thoughts and ideas filed away in twenty different places in my addled mind and brings them together into a clear vision of what I’ve been trying to think and say.

Alastair suggests that the “church” in the Biblical sense is a much larger, geographic and inclusive matter than any denominational church. Because it must embrace all those who confess the faith, and all types of people who embrace the faith, it really is “the church IN” or “the church AT” various places like Rome or Antioch, and not “Dry Creek Baptist” or “First Presbyterian.”

The local Church that you belong to is not the local denominational congregation that you attend, important though that congregation is. Biblically speaking, the local Church that you belong to is defined more by geographical than denominational or confessional lines. The local denominational congregation that you attend might be more closely analogous to a Gentile Christian group in Antioch in the first century. Such a group is part of the local Church, but it is not the local Church. The local Church includes Jews and Greeks, male and female, slave and free. In our situations, the local Church will probably include Catholics and Protestants, Presbyterians and Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals.

In light of this, we should beware of giving too much loyalty to denominations. The work of God in our areas far exceeds the work that He is doing through our particular denomination. We need to become more concerned about the progress of this larger work than we are about the progress of the cause of our denominations. We need to become more committed to the larger cause of God in our area than we are to preserving our particular denomination’s identity.

I have to tell you that this nails so many things for me.

For one, for the first 18 years of my life I was explicitly taught that my church and my denomination was THE church, and all those other Christians were the enemy or a mission field at best. This deeply went into my mind and emotions, and still resides in some locked closets.

God himself set me free from this. (I’ll write about this later.) It was the “church of Owensboro High School” that became my church, and that church was made up of all kinds of Christians from all kinds of backgrounds. As I said on the last podcast, it was an “ecumenism of the foxhole” in a large public school.

God kept that up in many ways, and eventually brought me to where I am now. Yes, we have local churches, but on the mission God has placed us on at our school, we’re not a local denominational church. We’re the church in a place, sharing the mission of Christ as the people of God in this community.

This is also true of the larger geographic community. Here in Appalachia, there is a lot of “street level” ecumenism among many Christians, particularly on moral issues, public worship events, concern for young people, responding to crisis, etc. What Alastair is talking about is not strange at all here. It resonates completely with what Shane Claiborne said about the same subject: We don’t need more churches. We need the Church. Shane says this out of the context of new monasticism in Philadelphia, but it is precisely what Alastair is saying.

A couple of notes:

1) This particularly prompts me to say the megachurch is a problem. Megachurches can work for or against ecumenism in a region, but in many cases they are self-sufficient, and they do not need or want to come alongside other churches. But if they will, their resources and facilities can accomplish much good.

2) We need “the Church,” but we also need more congregations. We need to start more (whatever you want to call them.) Call them churches or congregations or ministries or fellowships. But let’s think about them rightly.

3) Alastair is saying that denominational congregations are subsets of “The Church,” and for a “local church is the only church” brain-washee like me, this is liberating and confirming of so much of the Holy Spirit’s leadership in my life. The level of denominational church is a level where certain aspects of “The Church” operate and must exist, but it is vital, essential, truly important and Biblically/spiritually critical that denominations and denominational Christians realize they are largely a witness to the division of “The Church,” and adopt a mission and mindset that affirms such.

Alastair then goes on into some practical implications of his observation, using the metaphor of theology as language and dialect. He laments that we have decided to treat dialects as separate languages. This is a major challenge, and one that I am going to make a real prayer priority in my life. I work with Pentecostals, liberals, fundamentalists, Baptists, Calvary Chapel, Calvinists, Lutherans, Methodists and so on. I am surrounded by the churches of the mountains from Roman Catholic to snake-handling Holiness! Dialects indeed! What a challenge, but what a wonderful place to be shaped into the image of Jesus.

The Gospel itself is not as complicated as our various ways of articulating its logic are. The Gospel itself is remarkably simple: the declaration that Jesus is Lord and that God raised Him from the dead. It is this that is central. The central truths of the Christian faith are well summarized in the Nicene Creed. If these central truths are comparable to a language like English, the varying articulations of the Gospel that one encounters among the different denominations are like regional dialects. While there are better and worse ways of articulating the Gospel and some ways of articulating the Gospel that are at risk of becoming a different ‘language’ altogether, we must beware of so identifying our ‘dialect’ with the ‘language’ that we exclude some other ‘dialects’ altogether.

In no way, by the way, is Alastair suggesting that the boundaries of Orthodoxy do not matter. Some dialects approach a different language. Some have adopted much of another grammar and vocabulary, but this is a challenge to all of us to learn how to speak and relate to each other, and Alastair clearly says that at times we must “correct” and “renew” our speech and encourage other dialects to do the same. None of us speak the language perfectly, and it is always changing. Essential to our mutual communication is respect and a willingness to compromise.

Alastair suggests some concrete ways for the church to be “the Church” in more of a regional or “parish” setting.

What are some concrete ways in which we can work towards a greater degree of unitry between denominations. Here are a few brief suggestions:

1. Recognize the discipline of other congregations in your locality.
2. Recognize the ordination of people from other denominations and don’t force them to jump through too many hoops to serve within your denomination.
3. Recognize the baptisms of people from other denominations, including the infant ones.
4. Admit people from other denominations to the Table.
5. Read widely, beyond your own theological tradition. Seek to learn from other theological traditions and encourage cross fertilization of ideas.
6. Become friends with people from other denominations in your area.
7. Pray for the various churches in your locality and ask them to pray for you.
8. Seek to co-ordinate evangelistic efforts with other churches.
9. Try to get involved in other group projects with other congregations in your locality. Doug Wilson helpfully suggests that we rediscover the idea of ‘parish’. If we really started to think and act in terms of the concept of parish we would soon find ourselves enjoying more fellowship with other Christians in our communities.

I really haven’t reprinted the entire article. You need to read this wonderful post and consider all the implications in your own “parish.”

Alastair: pursue this vision in future posts. Here in denominationally divided and burned over America, we need this good word.


  1. great ideas but one question comes to mind

    Who decides which groups are using a different language instead of a dialect?

  2. If you are a Catholic, the pope.
    If you are anything else, some version of you and/or your community.

  3. So it’s an idea in flux then depending on the community.

    Not to get other folks riled up, but in your own community, who would you consider to be “another language?”

    • Outside the Nicene Creed

      • Don’t get me wrong, I love points 1-9. All of them. I think they are doable. But my only concern is that there are groups out there who profess the Nicene Creed who have in my opinion strayed so far in practice from the basics of what salvation is and how it occurs that they are promoting “another gospel.”

        How is that span bridged?

      • Most liberal churches have orthodox confessions and liturgy that are still believed by many in the pew, if not the pulpit. What “group” do we toss out of Christianity in that scenario? If they are confessionally orthodox you have to honor the profession of those who take that seriously, even if the clergy don’t. The church isn’t the clergy, at least not in Protestantism.

        • That was the point I was trying to delicately make without getting anything started. I’m pretty comfortable with anyone in the Protestant tradition. Not so much with those not in it.

    • I happily include my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters in the family, and thank God they they have held on to so much that Protestantism needlessly throws out even today.

      • Amen! I agree wholeheartedly.

        I have written recently about the godly examples of mothering I have discovered in the blogs of Catholic women. Although I am a Protestant, I am very willing to learn from my Catholic sisters. And that’s how it should be across Christendom, IMHO.

        • i’m not saying Roman Catholics can’t be our brothers and sisters, but that system that is Rome is another language, I know it is very unpopular here and is not the direction that Imonk wants this post to go, but I unashamedly fall into what many folks consider the “Roman Catholics will be savdd despite being Roman Catholic crowd”

          I’m just being upfront about my views


          • Austin I’m amongst the crowd who thinks people can be saved despite saying really insulting things. That’s fantastic your not ashamed I wonder if the a Lord is. I’m just being upfront about my views.

      • Amen to that comment. The AMiA is planting churches like crazy in the south Texas area and it is exciting to see. As a member of an Independent Bible Church I am trying to live out points 5-7 and focus more on our confessional similarity rather than our nit-picky differences.

  4. I agree with this whole-heartedly. While my wife and I consider ourselves Baptist in theology, as a sailor I have met with and ministered with Catholic, Churches of Christ, non-denominational, Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian believers. Our group, which is not a church since we’re sailors, is made up of all sorts of people.

    I also agree with the analysis of churches being defined more by geography than by denomination. It does seem to be the example of the New Testament.

    But do you think there is a viable way for us to actually apply the things that are discussed in this post? It seems to rely on the individual pastors. I don’t have a great deal of faith in that proposal, no offense intended.

    • I think we won’t see Aliastair’s idea implented because most pastors aren’t willing to be that Kingdom minded.

    • As a pastor I would have no problem with going with points 1-9 with any Reformed group. And by Reformed I don’t mean Calvinistic. Basically, and I hate to even take the post in this direction, to list the one’s I feel who’s doctrine is either very close to another laguage or is another language altogether I would have to draw the line at Roman Catholics on one end, and Oneness Jesus Only Holiness on the other.

      A brief list of who I could work with but not inclusive is:
      Methodis and their Weslyen branches
      Pentecostals that believe in the Trinity and baptize in such
      Disciples of Christ
      Christian churches

      I hate to even give “MY” list, it seems pompous but I really didn’t know any other way to say it

  5. yes! That post is one of my all time favorites…i even keep a copy on my jump drive 🙂
    So why is Mr. Roberts semi-retired? just wondering

  6. …..this article isnt breaking any new ground and will in fact only create more divisiveness within the multitude of religious communities….which is a good thing…in that as more and more clicks and groups and fellowships are founded this leaves tiny spaces or voids if you will for God to manuever through and do His will…in other words denominations serve a vital purpose in distracting religious people..thus allowing The Soveriegn to do His real work in the hearts of men UNINTERRUPTED.

    • Anyone want to know what a post look like that barely slips past my moderation standards? This one is about as close to the line as I get. Basically calls all denominational Christians worthless without using any offensive words.

  7. …..UNINTERUPPTED by “do gooders” ..that is

  8. I actually linked this post on my blog a while back. Great to hear your thoughts on it.

  9. I would argue that Alistair’s Point #4 is the major hold up. All the other point would fall into place if open communion was practiced.

    I’m not holding my breath.

    • I think I’m probably agreeing with you here, Justin.

      I could get behind all the others, but no. 4 is the sticking point for me as a Catholic.

      Of course, there are Catholics who think this should be done.

      So, am I and those of my mind standing in the way of God? I feel like St. Peter, who had to be sent the dream of the unclean foods.

      • Martha,
        I understand the hesitation. I grew up in a Campbellite tradition that held to a closed communion, insomuch as they could enforce it. There are reasonable arguments for a closed communion, and I used to hold some of them, but I won’t be someone to tell you to go against your conscience, nor would I say your are standing in the way of God.

        I’m not holding my breath because this is not a matter of whim or trendiness, but one of deeply held belief and conscience. For good or ill, these things are not so easily tossed aside for the “sake of unity”.

        • Jeremiah Lawson says

          The Eastern Orthodox solution to that issue is to offer fellowship bread. Communion is still closed but the parish I visited had bread offered to those who visit and aren’t Eastern Orthodox. Honestly I think that half-way gesture is good enough for me. I am hardly Eastern Orthodox but I prefer to discuss the things shared in common as much as possible and I wouldn’t want a church that practices closed communion to bend on that just for me.

          • I’m reasonably sure that this sub-topic is not one Michael wants to pursue, but it interests me enough that I want to comment on it.

            My wife is from an English “exclusive Brethren” background, and whenever we are around her parents’ circles we are expected to attend the “meeting” but not to partake of communion. It offends me deeply, because I can see no doctrinal reason for it.

            On the other hand, here in Vienna where I live there is a lot of respect between major leaders of the Evangelical churches and the R.C. archbishop, and the archbishop is on record with the statement that anyone is welcome to communion who can pray the eucharistic prayer without reservation; yet, because there are some real differences between Catholics and Evangelicals in how we understand what happens (or doesn’t) in the Eucharist, I am not at all offended by the Catholic rule that non-Catholics should not commune in a Catholic Eucharist.

            So I think that for me at least, “closed communion” for legitimate reasons which do not (in effect) deny that others are “real Christians” is o.k. by me.

  10. Thanks for posting this. My affairs with fellowship groups outside of my local “dialect group” have been wonderful and challenging.

    Here are my fellowship groups — possible ideas for other folks to consider:

    > Christians in Commerce; a national group (the president lives in West Virginia) ,that enjoys regular local fellowship (we sing, pray, eat,share ideas…) and can sprout new fellowship groups, service activities etc. Google will find their web pages .

    > Local weekly bible study (moderated by a layman) where everyone is invited. Six or eight “dialects” are represented and yes we have “lively” discussions. We also get together monthly for a potluck. This bible study group also does some community service as well as helping each other. Yes we sometimes bicker and irritate each other but we manage to love in spite of our family atmosphere.

  11. dubbahdee says

    It has been said that when the student is ready, the teacher will come. It’s beautiful to note how often topics addressed here seem to mesh with questions that have been floating in my mind.

    A related question that comes up for me…what do you see as the role of parachurch minstries. I’m not talking necessarily about publications or broadcasters. Rather places where people get together and act kind of like church, but without sacraments or baptism (such as Campus Crusade, Youth with a Mission, etc). More specifically, those NOT associated with a denomination. Clearly, the people involved are part of the universal church, but do they lack certain parts of the gospel vocabulary? If so, what are the implications for all aspects of the church.

    I don’t intend this to criticize. Many of these groups to much good work. How do they fit into the kingdom and it’s work?

  12. It’s an interesting Protestant theory, one with which I’m familiar, and a perspective I tried on for a number of years to see if it was capable of withstanding deconstruction. It is certainly better than the schismatic and divisive nature of Protestantism. Citing a creed as the marker, though, shares the same Protestant problem as citing scripture. People can “agree” with the text, even wholeheartedly, and yet mean entirely different and even contradictory things in their “agreement”.

    However, the real problem is much deeper and, it seems to me, unresolvable through this approach. Denominationalism is inherently a Protestant issue. Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism are not denominations. They are very much predenominational. While they certainly have significant issues with each other in their schism (and having explored both sides at length, I tend more toward the Orthodox perspective), they are not and have never been “denominations”. Both assert they are the legitimate successor to the pre-schismatic Church. While they may or may not be able to eventually heal their schism, neither of them will ever assume a “denominational” role in Christendom.

    That means that, even if every Protestant Church cooperated in this approach, it would still only encompass a minority of the Christians in the world. And frankly, the prospect that all Protestants will participate is a pretty slim one. At best, an effort like this will engage a minority of a minority tradition. I’m not even sure it will ultimately even slow the rate of schism within Protestantism or visibly improve relations.

    With that said, many people are still confused by the Medieval Roman Catholic error that asserted in absolute terms that if you were not in communion with the Church, you were completely outside the bounds of the Church and any hope of salvation. Now, there was a lot going in the West following the fall of Rome (as opposed to the Roman Empire which continued in the East until the 13th century) that led to such a view of the world. History is rarely simple.

    But that is not what the ancient Church held, not what Orthodoxy has ever held, and not what Roman Catholicism again holds today. Their teaching is that it is revealed where the Church is in its fullness. And that is visibly within one or the other. But it is not revealed where the Church is not. That is, it is not revealed where it does or does not extend beyond the visible boundaries of communion. (Heretic is technically one who was formally in communion within the visible church who has set themselves apart with full will and knowledge. A person may hold incorrect beliefs without having taken such an intentional action.) Ultimately God judges mankind.

    So in the end, I found this particular perspective … unsatisfying. That’s especially true when so much of Protestantism reasserts ancient heresies and has developed other completely novel innovations in the faith. I still have no idea what the answer to the dilemma might be. But, at best, this approach does not seem like it can accomplish more than perhaps somewhat slow Protestant fragmentation and disintegration. Better? Sure. But that’s about it.

    • …. …..we desperately need God to raise up someone like YOU to lead the wayward American flock of God back to sanity……Are you him..or should we look for another…?

    • Scott: I think you need to be a bit forthcoming about your own views of Protestantism when you post this sort of thing. Your blog makes it clear that you do not consider Protestantism to be a legitimate and viable expression of Christianity, but your comments here rarely give the entire story.

      I’m sure you realize this, but you could write most of the above comment about everything I address on this site. I’m an evangelical. Not a Catholic. Not Orthodox. Not seeking to conform evangelicalism to the church Fathers, whom I do not consider to be of canonical authority.

      I feel your frustration and I am not upset at you, but you are at a place on your journey where the things that I post are all going to be found of no use to you.

      Please consider that you are,talking to those leaving evangelicalism for Rome, etc, and I am talking to those who are staying and want to make a contribution to a broader, deeper kind of evangelicalism. Protestantism is not the enemy here at IM.



      • Hey Michael, If the idea I conveyed was that I found the idea of no use, then I clearly failed to communicate what I had in mind. Of course the idea is useful. I’ve lived through that lens. I’ve acted in cooperation. And to the extent that I’m able or have the opportunity, I always will. I was just trying to point out that I don’t see any way for the nine points he outlines to do any more than slow the tide of division. Slowing the tide is a good thing. Very much so. But I came to realize that as a simple matter of number, it won’t gain ground leading back to the catholic or “whole” church of a geographic place. Roman Catholics and Orthodox will never agree to the nine points. That’s a given. And even within Protestantism, the restorationist groups pretty much won’t. From my experience and observation, a lot of the time the Reformed denominations won’t. And it’s pretty hit and miss with the rest of Protestantism. By all means any group willing to implement the nine points (or even more) absolutely should. I just don’t see the numbers out there to truly form a church of place. That’s all I was trying to say.

        I’m also not sure what views you believe I have about Protestantism, much less what you believe I should be forthcoming about. I’ve only ever been Protestant. I’m not going to convert to Roman Catholicism. It’s pretty unlikely I’ll ever convert to Orthodoxy. Different reasons in each case, but that’s pretty much where I am. So the only two likely directions for my journey are to somehow find a place in Protestantism somewhere or cease to be an active part of any organized Christian community. The jury’s still out where I’ll wind up. If you thought my journey was heading anywhere else, you misread it.

        I’m not entirely sure what you got from my blog to lead to that conclusion. Yes, there are significant problems with the Protestant narrative. There are also problems with the Roman Catholic narrative, but I’m not Catholic so I don’t see any point reflecting on those. I’ve only been really aware of Orthodoxy as a distinct modern tradition for a few years, but I’m sure they have problems with their narrative as well. But again, I’m not Orthodox so I don’t spend my time looking for them.

        I do find your site helpful or useful or I wouldn’t spend any time reading it, much less posting thoughts. Thanks, Scott.

  13. I didn’t finish reading the post, but me and my supervising pastor have had a similar discussion. What if we stopped viewing other local congregations as competition, and started viewing them as partners? I know, what a novel idea. Then we stop asking questions like, “Why is X group of people leaving our church and going to that other church that’s better able to equip them and allow them to minister?” We run into this question a lot in the ethnic churches, and I think it’s the wrong mentality to try make sure no one leaves OUR church to join other congregations, because they have to be at OUR church.

  14. I actually like the idea that my local church is the church, without denominational lines, the problem is choice. Within 1/4 mile I have two CofE, one RC, One Methodist, One Baptist and a Free Christian Community as well as a Charasmatic Church occupying a Cinema.

    Would it not be wonderful if all of these were uniited in mission and worship!

    I in fact travel 50 miles to my Parish, which I regard as my church, and will be moving to be closer to it when I retire. As it is in a vilage, than the choice is simpler.

    • Everyone has his own way of relating to God in worship, and once you get too far out of that comfort zone … charismatics in a Catholic Mass, for example, or an Anglican who finds himself surrounded by Penetecostals … that unfamiliar worship style just gets too distracting. So frankly it would not be so wonderful for all to unite in worship. Either the service would go in the direction of one strong group, or dissolve completely. Though as far as mission, why not? In some communities, different denominations, in fact different faiths entirely, do combine in mission work.

  15. For me, this issue keeps cropping when I consider high-profile “churches” in my area. Does church “W” proclaim the Gospel, or not? How about church “F” or church “L”?

    In the end, I come back to: it just doesn’t exist anymore. There’s no voice of the “the” Church anymore. Only many voices, often in contradiction. 🙁

  16. When one ‘denomination’ considers another on the verge of heresy, if not already there – I’m thinking of the Calvinist’s low regard for Wesley and Methodism – is there anything on earth that will persuade them to join hands and work together?

    • ..yes!…but sadely it would have to be a devastating and prolonged tradegy of monumental proportions that would at least have the potential to destroy mankind in some fashion or another…….not out of the realm of possibility i guess..

      • other words…Nothing short of the FEAR OF GOD….because if im scared enough i’ll even grab a Buddist hand….

  17. I too learned in high school that I pretty much had all things in common with my best friends from to other denominations. From that point on I have never looked back although I still prefer the denomination I was raised in for mainly one reason and that is communion on a weekly basis.

    My best friend was a Baptist and I was C of C. I will say my friend now attends this mega C of C with me. However, it has changed so much that I would hardly call it the typical C of C. Our Pastor shares the pulpit with pastors of other denominations now. We also have musical intruments in worship service now.

    I have discovered I have more in common with true Christ followers than differences now.

  18. I have been a daily reader of this blog for two years now, but this is my first time to write. Thirty years ago I pastored a Baptist church in a town of about 5000. In a number of ways the 10 or so churches in that town functioned as a “geographic church”. There were friendships between members of the individual churches and a number of shared ministries and the monthly pastor’s fellowships were real encouragements. Now that I am a pastor of a church in a city of 1 million, I find that we function more as our own little ship on the sea. Even though there are several churches with the same denominational tag as ours, there is little shared life and ministry.

    I am intrigued by the concept of “geographical church” but puzzled about how it can function in larger population centers which operate in a very different relational grid.

    On a related note, when I consider the “one another” commands of the New Testament, my inclincation is to say that real churches are of necessity rather small. For example how does one realistically “bear one another’s burdens” if the only household you recognize has 100,000 members? The larger fellowship does make good sense when it comes to our mission to our cities.

    • Hi Lee,

      I can speak best to my city’s situation. We have just over 500,000 people. A city of any size will have some natural delineations. Is the case of mine, Hamilton, Ontario, we can be largely be divided into regions of Lower Hamilton, Hamilton Mountain, Flamborough, Dundas, Ancaster, Glanbrook, and Stoney Creek. There would be a few smaller ones as well. While I can’t speak for all areas of the city I do know the following:

      A number of churches in Lower Hamilton work together for the good of the city through an organization called They are churches that are committed to:

      * authentic involvement in our own neighbourhoods and in the City as a whole and
      * real cooperation with other churches on specific projects which express our shared calling to be a blessing to this City.

      Together we are exploring ways to facilitate shared learning, resource discovery, and collaborative projects so that our churches participate more fully and effectively in their neighbourhoods and in Hamilton as a whole

      TrueCity aims to encourage and share tangible church-based models of involvement in specific areas of need in neighbourhoods and the City as a whole.

      One pastor writes:

      TrueCity… has emerged as a movement of churches, from various denominations and backgrounds, that are learning to care for each other, learn from each other, bringing good to the city and accomplishing together what could never be accomplished alone. This is better than I’d hoped for. Being able to relate to a group of churches that are on the same trajectory is a blessing. Together we care for our city, eliminate competition between each other and truly understand that we are all God’s children. TrueCity is better than I’d ever imagined it could be. We can face the issues our city and churches battle with together with each other instead of in our isolated islands…

      In Ancaster, churches rent a local university auditorium to have a community church service once a year. The Ancaster Ministerial also organizes a community wide annual food drive, most of which goes to needy organizations in other parts of Hamilton.

      In Dundas, where I live, at the conclusion of the Dundas community festival, a combined service of the churches is held in a large local park. At Easter a large advent walk happens where the participants walk from church to church to church, with different parts of the service happening at each church. The churches work together to sponsor a youth drop in centre and youth chaplain.

      The churches in Flamborough have a wonderful community service once a year, and have worked together on a number of projects in the past.

      Youth from West Hamilton churches got together earlier this year for a time of service and worship. My son spent the day cleaning out the storeroom of a men’s shelter.

      I am sure there are many more things going on in our city with churches working together. This is but a few of them. I think the key is, when you get too big, thing regions or neighborhoods within a city.

  19. Where I live in the suburbs of LA, the “language” divide is not a metaphor. We have Christian churches in my neighborhood that literally speak different languages: English, Mandarin, Spanish, Korean, Indonesian, Tagalong, and yes, even Aramaic.

    There is little coordination among these churches because each language group has its own network. Yet geographically, we are all somehow still the “local church”. So, unless we get Pentecost II around here, we’ve got our work cut out for us, especially as the 2nd generation grows up.

    About the only common cultural denominator amongst the churches is – wait for it – praise and worship choruses! And, for some reason, the Korean student ministries have a special fondness for David Crowder and have sponsored his concerts.

  20. Chad Rushing says

    There is a long-standing tradition in my small home town where all of the local Christian congregations of various denominations or creeds (Protestant and Catholic) have a joint service together at the largest church’s facilities (which happens to be an SBC church). All of them contribute to a fund which is then used to help the poor and needy who stop through town with each minister/priest being the contact person for the program for different months of the year. This seems to be the kind of cooperation to which you are referring.

    A couple of thoughts … I imagine that Christians of various denominations would be more likely to “close ranks” if they were located within a locale or nation which did not have Christianity as its primary religion or one in which there was tremendous persecution of Christians. In other words, when Christianity is the only game in town or it is not very risky, it is much easier to consider other Christians as adversaries rather than partners, even if the differences are with practices and not doctrines. And if everyone in an entire area was somehow the same denomination, they would certainly figure out a way to split up into distinct groups even further; that is just human nature (us vs. them), I’m afraid.

    Furthermore, the very terminology used today seems to work against Christian unity in that “The Church at [Location]” by biblical definition is supposed to include all believers in a certain geographical area as stated in the quoted essay. However, rather than recognizing the broad meaning of the term “church,” we incorrectly apply the term “church” to our particular congregation (ex., Prestonwood Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church, etc.). It would be more accurate if the word “church” was replaced with the word “congregation” in those organizational names (ex., Prestonwood Baptist Congregation). The only groups that might take issue with such a renaming are those who believe that they are the one and only branch of “The Church” in an area.

    Lastly, the misleading yet ubiquitious phrase “going to church” would need to somehow be updated, too. It would more accurate to say that someone is “going to be with the church” on Sunday rather than having “church” mean the builiding or the service itself somehow. If we did alter the usage of the term “church” to its proper meaning, then I suppose we would have to come up with a new term for referring to the building(s) owned by a congregation and used exclusively for their religious purposes.

    • “It would be more accurate if the word “church” was replaced with the word “congregation” in those organizational names (ex., Prestonwood Baptist Congregation). ”

      “Lastly, the misleading yet ubiquitious phrase “going to church” would need to somehow be updated, too. It would more accurate to say that someone is “going to be with the church” ”

      Wow, that’s a great observation!!!

  21. Chad Rushing says

    My apologies for the rather verbose response above. The fragmentation of the Church into a zillion subgroups and the debilitating effect that has caused to its mission is an issue I often ponder. Perhaps, only severe persecution from forces outside the Church can bring true unity to it.

    • Hi Chad,

      To see what that looks like in action, check out this article on The Eclectic Church

      • Chad Rushing says

        Wow, thanks for the link!. That is exactly the sort of thing I had in mind. That report really made my day and gave me cause for some real optimism regarding unity within the Church!

      • Just awesome…, there really IS a kingdom of god…..woo-hooo. Thanks for the link.

        Greg R

    • The reason they have a unified church in abu Dhabi and in most muslim nations is because they don’t allow Christians to have denominations. They allow Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. All Protestant churches get to be one church regardless of language, denomination, etc..My friend is a missionary in Indonesia. He was pastor of a similar church in Borneo. He is now in Java. He said there are definite pluses but also minuses. Especially when a pastor has elders and deacons who disagree on many things. Unity is hard.

  22. Michael,

    It seems like you never closed the loop in this post back to the PCA’s critique of the “Federal Vision/New Perspective on Paul.”

    One of the core functions of the church is to protect the flock from false doctrine. Since new ideas are constantly popping up, someone needs to be able to critique these ideas and speak authoritatively to the church. Apparently the PCA, acting as a church body, has deliberated and found the FV/NPP ideas contrary to scripture. Even though I am Lutheran, it is useful when other Christian church bodies engage in this kind of discernment, as it can inform the judgments that we Lutehrans make.

    My point is that under the ecumenical vision that Alistair outlines, I don’t see any way for the church to speak authoritatively against false doctrine. Therefore, I don’t see how it can protect the flock from false teachers, as Christ so clearly commanded it to do.

    Closed communion is a way of maintaining purity of doctrine, where we will not commune with those we are not in agreement with, though they may truly be Christian and a true part of the Church universal. This forces us to resolve our conflict with our brother before we come to the table together.

    Sadly, in this sinful world, we are stuck in an intolerable conundrum: Christ prays for the unity of His Church and insists that His teachings be taught in their purity (true doctrine). Even we who fervently love Christ are unable to come together on what the true doctrine is, and the church remains divided.

    I, for one, repent of my role in this horrible division and pray for the unity of the Church, but I think no effort of humanity will resolve this conflict. We must rely entirely on Christ.

    • you wrote:

      Closed communion is a way of maintaining purity of doctrine, where we will not commune with those we are not in agreement with, though they may truly be Christian and a true part of the Church universal.

      What ?? Why deny the communion table to those who are truly christian ?? How deep the disagreement before we are to play the “no communion for you ” card ? I’m not understanding something here……

      Greg R

    • MatJam: But closed communion doesn’t solve the problem. In any church with more than a handful of people there are disagreements about doctrine. I daresay that there are Catholics that have more doctrinally in common with me, a bible church guy but Baptist raised, than the Catholic in the seats 10 feet away.

      I agree that it is difficult to get wide agreement on what is false doctrine, but almost all denominations can agree on the divinity of Jesus and His status as “the only way to the Father.” I really wish we would go all Mark 3:34-35 on fellow Christians instead of having foodfights in christendom’s cafeteria.

    • If Christians cannot take communion together until they agree on doctrine, does not this imply that the denomination that closes communion inherently believes that its doctrine is the only correct one?

      Or would that denomination be willing to change its doctrine in order to open its communion?

      • Greg: How much false doctrine is too much? Any. That is like asking how much arsenic is acceptable in one’s drinking water.

        Jesse: I agree that it doesn’t solve the problem. Closed communion recognizes division in the Body of Christ, the Church for whos unity Jesus prayed. This is bad. Open communion robs the church of its authority to identify false doctrine and exclude those who hold to it from the fellowship. This is also bad.

        jJoe: I belong to a church body that insists on a high level of doctrinal agreement for communion fellowship. Other Christians (including iMonk) strongly object to our position and set the bar lower. I do believe that my church body confesses the authentic apostolic faith, on paper, anyway. In reality, people in my church body are just as capable of messing up and offering false doctrine as any other Christians, they (we) do it every day.

        As for Mark 3:34, don’t forget the condition “whoever does the will of God.” Do any of us? It is only by grace alone that any of us can be called brothers and sisters in Christ.

        Sorry to “go there.” I know this topic has been debated ad nauseum in this forum and I know closed communion is a sore point for many, including Michael. I bring this up to show that the ecumenism proposed by Alistair is not satisfying, though I think his desire to unite the church is entirely praiseworthy and I share his greif over the state of disunion in the visible church.

        • Not much to say here except that your brand of church, from what I can discern from a blog site post, is “not that satisfying” to me; I guess we all decide what looks like Jesus to each of us. My observation is that christians are generally faced with two choices here:1) find some kind of ecumenism that makes biblical sense or 2) find the ‘one true church’. Looks like you opted for #2. Good luck with that.

  23. Another Lutheran here.
    If he is against division where there is really unity in doctrine, great, I agree. Where congregations agree on doctrine they are in fellowship, and it makes little sense to set up separate bodies.

    But if what is being argued for is a doctrine of ignoring doctrinal division for the sake of unity, I would disagree because the argument isn’t supported by Scripture. Nowhere does scripture tell us to accept division or ignore true teaching for the sake of unity. Paul is constantly worried about correcting and protecting the beliefs of his congregations from false teachers.

    In my view, Baptists refusing to recognize infant baptisms are more faithful to scriptures teaching on fellowship than those that would ignore their doctrinal beliefs solely for unity.

    • Neither does scripture say it is OK for Christians to divide into denominations and reject each other over points of law, points that will never be settled this side of eternity.

      For example, suppose that closed communion is a false teaching. What then? Is there a person or organization on this earth with the power and will to correct it?

      If one is to err, it is best to err on the side of love for neighbor, IMHO, and that would surely include breaking bread and drinking from the cup together, in remembrance of Christ.

    • boaz I would remind you that Lutherans, Catholics, Reformed, and Orthodox arrested, jailed, and put to death Baptists who would not baptize their own children. It was still illegal in most European nations as late as 1880 to not baptize your infant. I attend a Southern Baptist church. My wife was raised in a Lutheran church (Missouri). She has only had infant baptism. I believe in a believers baptism, but not in order to go to heaven. Our church used to share a building with a Lutheran congregation. I attended a Good Friday service there. I knew in advance they had closed communion and it did not offend me nor did it diminish my ability to worship God with them.
      When someone tells me I have to speak in tongues to prove my salvation…then I get a little riled. lol

    • Boaz:

      Ephesians 4: 1-5

      1As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

      Our calling is a heavenly calling. We are going to be united there. We need to try a lot harder here to put aside our differences.

  24. Michael, Rich Bledsoe has been working at this for some time. You might want to give him a listen:

  25. imonk I am glad you brought up the Nicene Creed. When I am witnessing to mormons, jw’s and other cults I always point out that even though Christianity seems to be divided into many camps called denominations, the majority of us affirm the Nicene Creed. Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed all believe in One God manifested in three persons:Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; i.e. we agree on the nature of who God is. So many Christians know so little about church history and how various denominations came to be formed. Luther never started a Lutheran church, and John Wesley was Anglican and never attended a methodist church. I think we need to affirm the Creed now more than ever. While I enjoyed the little satire on emerging and reformed churches it is disturbing that the leadership of the emerging church movement denounces the Creed, questions the authenticity of Scripture, and has at best a grade school knowledge of church history. There are religions like Islam, Hinduism, etc… and then there are cults. I define a cult of Christianity as a group that says they are “christians” but deny the Nicene Creed….same as Athanasius did over 1500 years ago.

  26. The long and this discussion seems to come down to some very simple observations beginning with the fact that God did not create denominations, people did. It was not His design nor intention for His Church to be fractionalized rather we are to be united in one Spirit. Denominations, in and of themselves, exist because Christians have come to divisiveness over the interpretation of scripture. These divisions happen when one or both parties involved in the dispute are not in sync with God on a daily basis because, if we were, then the Spirit, which is One, would unite us all in our understanding. Personally, I grew up and still attend Souther Baptist affiliated churches. First and foremost, I do not consider myself baptist but rather a Christian. Christianity is not a denomination rather it is a faith and is available to all that repent of their sins and choose to follow Christ. As the bible clearly states, it is a gift and cannot be earned only received. Furthermore, there is only one foundational truth one must believe to be saved and that is that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and if we confess our sins and choose to believe in him we will have eternal life. Any teaching otherwise is to be fully rejected and any person or denomination doing so must also be rejected. For this is what I find to be true, that though I was raised in the faith(Christianity) from birth, most people have little to no knowledge of scripture when they come to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Thus, while there may be valid reason for why we have a multitude of denominations in some cases, for the most part, I think God is very disappointed that we cannot, through the Spirit, find common ground among all genuine Christians. I look forward to that day. Don’t you? Your brother in Christ.

  27. Some days I wonder whether we ought to just announce that “The Emperor has no clothes!” and be done with it.

    The players:
    a) We have a whole bunch of individuals who are born again and who are both infilled by and led by a living God who calls Himself the head of the church.

    b) We have those individuals in groups: the Bible acknowledges regional groups (“the church at Ephesus”) and it’s not too hard to stretch that to ethnic groups (“preach to ‘all nations’ ” is to all ethnos, ethnic groups). So we have whatever cultural groups that the individuals associate with. Since the Son of God writes letters to these groups in the book of Revelation, I think we can call them divinely sanctioned.

    c) We have denominations – and denominational leaders – who have come in after the previous two were in place, declaring, “We are now your leaders. Submit to us.”

    This third group seems to be pretty much self-appointed, self-replicating, self-governing, and arguably, self-serving. Why do the other two groups submit to them?

    I’ve heard people claim that without denominational structure, we can’t have unity! I see two problems here:

    1) having denominational structure has taken us further from the unity for which Jesus prayed.

    2) the unity they aspire to is based on our submission to the doctrine they teach, not on our relationship with each other and with our Head. I’m not sure that this is the unity for which we aspire.