In June I was at the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) Synod where, with the Reformed Church of America (RCA), they declared that the two denominations would “act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel to act separately.” It will be challenging to work this out and discover the “deep differences of conviction.” There are different views on Christian or public day schools. What else? What difference will this resolution make?
In June 2010 I attended the opening worship for the formation of the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). When I mentioned this new partnership, many responded, “So what?” They did not see it making any difference. Unfortunately, in the four years since then I have not heard enough about the WCRC. It has not affected the psyche of church members.
In John 17 Jesus prays that all believers may be one, as he and the Father are one. I believe in one church and pray for it, but what does this mean for acting together?
I have mentioned that seeing multiple church buildings right next to each other raises questions for me. In Pella, Iowa, I saw the Second RCA right across the street from the First RCA, originally one with English and one with Dutch services.
We are better at dividing than uniting. The Presbyterian Church USA is dividing in at least two directions. Presbyterians in Pennsylvania have divided so many times that they are known as the “Split P’s.” Wikipedia lists over 60 denominations in North America that have come out of the Reformed and Presbyterian traditions. The United Methodists are no longer united.
Many believers have given up on denominations, seeing them as relics of the past and expressions of division. Are the independent churches expressions of North American individualism that divides or attempts at unity that overcomes?
These issues are not new; the Apostle Paul addressed them. He writes in 1 Corinthians 1:12, “One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’; another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’” The Book of Romans is, in part, addressing the problems between the Gentile and Jewish Christians. This issue reoccurs in Ephesians where Paul writes, “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility” (2:14-16).
Denominations express difference and variety, but this can too easily become division and hostility. Denominations reflect part of the variety of God’s creation and work in the world. There are different ethnic communities with different histories and habits. The mission of God through his people has enculturated itself in different ways. Out of that vast variety are great opportunities for different ministries to reach different people. Different groups have different gifts, just as different individuals do, but each part is to work together and be held together in Christ.
A good expression of acting together is in Byron Center, Michigan, where I served as a pastor for eight years. That small community had about 20 churches. We started the Byron Community Ministries to work together. Twenty years later it is still “an outreach of 19 sponsoring and supporting churches . . . committed to serving the needs of disadvantaged, lower economic, in-need, at-risk and senior persons in the wider Byron area, without preference, in the name of Christ.”
There is one church and one mission in many expressions. This is good. Let us concretely and specifically find ways to “act together in all matters.” Could the church be seen and act as one church with different brands? It requires cooperation, not competition; discussion, not debate and maybe even a community church council to coordinate ministries.
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Eph 4:2–6 NIV).