October 28, 2020

Riffs: 06:16:07: Alastair Roberts on “The Denominational Church”

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. Wow, another great post!

    I embrace wholeheartedly the central insight here.

    I’m reminded of what Soloviev in his “Tale of the Antichrist” describes as the cry of all truly Christian ecumenism: “You give us everything, except what interests us, Jesus Christ.”

    I was with your foxhole ecumenism in high school, not literally, but yes, I do remember a certain lived unity in Christ with Baptists and others.

    It is realistic to note that Christians not only have different discourses, but also different experiences, different ontologies. As a Catholic, I don’t want to set myself in judgment above the people whom I experience as the Word-made-flesh, but I do embrace as true brothers and sisters all those who cry, “you give us everything, except what interests us, Jesus Christ.”

  2. I think that a key question is “What did ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic’ mean to the Fathers of the Church, for example: Augustine?” Did it mean “that denominational congregations are subsets of ‘The Church'”?

    I think it’s fair to go back to the sources and ask whether when we speak of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” if we mean the same thing as those who composed and arranged those modifiers together.

  3. William Geoffrey Smith says

    All I can say is that I get your drift. This kind of thinking is one of the reasons I really respect Bethlehem Batpist church in St. Paul, Minn, for their conscientious objectors clause concerning baptism.

  4. That clause was withdrawn by Dr. Piper and never voted on by the elders. I agree with you that it was a good idea.

  5. I think this is a good point. I admit myself that I most probably have lost the rootedness of feeling connected to the ‘true catholic church’. Without that it is hard to be a reformer as we can’t see what we are reforming back to. Cheers

  6. Nicholas Anton says


    I appreciate much that you have written over the years, though I have not always agreed with you. Regarding denominationalism and the church, may I suggest the following.

    Rethink the following from a Gospel perspective rather than from a post Epistle perspective.
    1) Jesus Who is called The Christ.
    2) The Church.
    3) Church government. (Matt. 20 + 23)
    4) Praise and Worship.
    5) The Lord’s Supper and Baptism.
    6) Saving faith.
    7) Christian fellowship.
    8) The law and the image of God in humankind.
    9) etc.
    It seems to me that the average believer (?) has forgotten the essence of all of the above, resulting in a church that Worships a God Whom they do not know, in ways not prescribed in Scripture, with fellowships/churches that do not conform to the teachings of Jesus Christ. To fully explain would take hundreds of pages.

  7. William Geoffrey Smith says

    Hmmm, it would have been cool. I am totally lame for not knowing that….or not because I do not go to church there.

  8. This analysis by Alastair Roberts is excellent. It comes closer to framing the problem and articulating a path toward a solution than anything I’ve yet encountered on this subject.

    It is deeply troubling to me that one of Jesus last prayers on earth was for the oneness of his church. As such, I would think it to carry added weight and significance. And yet I’ve never heard a sermon, nor even read anything dedicated to fleshing out the meaning of this prayer. On the other hand, there is no end to all the sermons and arguments I’ve come across defending the holiness of all our divisions from and against one another. How can God not weep at our arrogance and hardness of heart?

    If all of us here were to believe that in Christ we are one, what would this mean for the way we think, speak, and act? If we are truly, no matter our tradition, together the body of Christ, and we were actually to see ourselves in this way, would anything in creation be more wondrous and magnificent? Imagine Christ moving through the world with a body that is one not only in a spiritual and ethereal sense, but men and women of all creeds and cultures that see Christ in each other and so live toward one another accordingly.

    As “unrealistic” and improbable as this vision is, can any of you argue that it is not what we are called to live for?

  9. I agree with much that is here, but I also appreciate the aknowledgment that some dialects are close to becoming different languages. I think that a Christian should be open to fellowship and support all who proclaim a salvation by faith alone.

    For that reason I would have no objections to fellowshiping or even sharing a pulpit with at any of the Reformed and Protestant denominations out there, and after reading their orginal Articles I feel the same about Anglicans that still hold to those articles.

    I’ve had Salvation Army, Methodist, Southern Methodist, and Pentecostal all preach at my church.