“I am the Vine. You are the branches,” said the Lord Jesus Christ. John 15:5.
So why are people trying to join different branches of Christ’s church into one branch? Whoever thought that a vine or a tree should have only one branch?
Yet this has been the unwieldy vision of the ecumenical movement, which floundered towards the end of the 20th century when Christianity took a nosedive through the unfaithful compromises of the ecumenical movement influencing national churches – national churches which have failed their nation.
With mainline churches now declining in numbers in the UK, there are still Christians who think the way forward is to repeat the failed ecumenical experiment and to join together various branches of the Christian tree. Whoever saw a horticulturist doing so? Grafting, pruning, purging and splitting, yes, but joining? How does this produce more fruit? Behind such thinking is the idea that there is safety and strength in numbers. One wonders which Bible such people are reading.
Many Christians think that Christian denominations and the multiplicity of churches are a bad thing. As if we can have too many Christians? Some even think that their own denominational branch is the only true Christian church in their locality. Rather, some branches are more fruitful than others.
Christ told His apostles that He was the Vine and they were the branches. As apostles, they would bring forth fruit through their preaching the Gospel, and some would be more fruitful than others. One of the apostles, Judas Iscariot, would bring forth no fruit and his branch was taken away Jn 15:2.
Thus it would continue through the Christian era. Insofar as apostolic doctrine was understood, believed, taught and disseminated, so the various branches of the visible Church would flourish.
‘Herein is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; so shall you be My disciples’ Jn 15:8.
Denominations are necessary to bring forth much fruit Php 1:15-18, Mk 9:38-39 and Lk 9:49-50.
Unity among the brethren
So what did Jesus mean by unity among the brethren? The Lord Jesus Christ is the focus of their unity, not the church. He is the Vine; the visible church comprises the branches. He is the Head in heaven; the visible church is His body on Earth.
First, their unity begins with love and faithfulness to Him, each branch drawing its grace, strength and fruitfulness from the Christ, the Vine. Out of His fulness have all we received, by the grace of His Holy Spirit Jn 1:16.
Their love to Christ leads to their love towards each other, encouraging each other’s fruitfulness, not the ‘us and them’ attitude disguised under the cloak of denominational loyalty.
There is enough disunity manifest in the New Testament to teach us how Christians should behave towards each other. Paul gives the solution to various conscientious problems in Rom 14 and he deals with practical congregational problems in his two epistles to the Corinthians.
The apostle John dealt with Diotrephes who loved to have the preeminence 3Jn 1:9 and revealed that were many antichrists even in his day, forerunners of ‘the’ Antichrist 1Jn 2:18, whom the apostle Paul called ‘the man of sin’ who would exalt himself in the church of God 2Th 2:4.
The unity of the Christian church resides in the fact that Christ is in the midst, as shown by His presence amidst the Seven Churches of Asia Rev 1:13. As such He warns them about their failure to live up to their calling, Ephesus having left its first love Rev 2:4, and some of them tolerating false doctrine and teachers. Laodicea was in danger of being rejected by Him Rev 3:16. All this within one generation of Christ’s ascension to glory.
The unity in the Spirit already exists between the godly, and our business is to maintain that unity in the bond of peace Eph 4:3, through personal Christian behaviour Eph 4:2 forbearing other Christians. When did you last endeavour to reach out in Christian unity and peace to a Christian with whom you profoundly disagree? Do you realise that you need them as part of the body of Christ 1Cor 12:21?
This unity is intimately associated with the conjoint exercise of Christian grace Eph 4:4-13 through apostolic doctrine and practice taught in Scripture. The driver of Christian unity is not prayer meetings, worship and ecclesiastical structures, which have been vehicles to disguise declension and compromise, tools used by control freaks to lead the church of Christ astray. The driver of Christian unity is the teaching, application and practice of Christian doctrine through the grace of the Holy Spirit leading the church into all truth. Ecclesiastical structures are not instruments for control freaks 2Cor 1:24 but they are meant to help the godly fulfil their God-given purpose in life in order to produce fruit on their branch, and if they do not, then they are in danger of being removed Jn 15:2, like salt with no savour is only fit for being thrown away Mat 5:13.
Worship is where Christians divide, and rightly so. Ultimately, denominations exist because of the God-given right to worship Him according to His will, and Christians must have the freedom to worship God according to their conscientious understanding of His Word. Their conscience cannot be coerced in so important a matter, because of the right of private judgment and of conscientious worship of God.
There are different ideas about the worship of God and false worship has always been the devil’s way of denying the blessing of heaven by encouraging God-dishonouring worship and idolatry. Purity of worship was analysed in detail in the 16th-century European Reformation but it was abandoned in the 19th century, ignored and forgotten in the 20th century and almost unheard of in the 21st century. Anything goes in many quarters nowadays. They will discover eventually that God does not think so.
So, if interdenominationalism and the ecumenical movement have not worked, what is the biblical attitude to denominations? One meets with those who boast in being non-denominational. In practice, this usually means that they have become weary with denominational strife, but it also means that they have lost interest in the issues that resulted in that strife. They are in danger of becoming single-issue Christians, like a single-issue political party such as the SNP and UKIP who exist for independence, or the Greens, or the self-avowedly single-issue Scottish Family Party. Some Christians concentrate on the gospel of salvation while overlooking the gospel of the kingdom.
This unbiblical thinking led churches worldwide to abandon the Establishment Principle in the 19th century and to adopt the Voluntary Principle with its narrowing agenda. Such churches abandoned their social and spiritual responsibilities at the national level, with detrimental effects upon their nation and narrowing their vision of Christ’s kingdom, which was reduced to a voluntary society – the legal category of most churches in the United Kingdom.
Rather, the application of zugology to this long-standing problem brings a judicious balance to the inevitable reality of different branches of Christ’s visible church.
We need a term for this, and I call it supradenominationalism. ‘Christians should be above these things.’ This acknowledges the biblical role of denominations but avoids the sectarian aspects of denominationalism. Zugology teaches us to rise above partisanship, acknowledge differences of opinion, and to use this positively to the betterment and growth of the visible Church on Earth. It is actually presbyterianism described by its proper spirit and outlook, because 20th-century and 21st-century presbyterianism has lost its way and has become sclerotic and institutionalised by forgetting the spirit of presbyterianism when legalism took over its governance in the 19th-century.
Working as a body
Denominations should not prevent Christians working together for the advancement of Christ’s kingdom in civil society. There is the Gospel of salvation Rom 1:16 and Eph 1:13 and there is the Gospel of the kingdom Mat 4:23, Mat 9:35 and Mat 24:14.
While denominations may worship God separately there is no reason why Christians cannot work together to promote Christianity in public life. It is similar to a Christian school being supported by different denominations, but worked out nationally across national life.
‘The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of thee’ 1Cor 12:21.
Yet some Christians think that they have no need of other Christians. Some denominations think that they have no need of other denominations. The church of Laodicea did not even need Jesus Christ Rev 3:17 Who was outside its door Rev 3:20. ‘My brethren, these things ought not so to be’ Jam 3:10.
Do you know how you need your fellow Christians? How will you ever find out if you never speak to them? Large denominations think that they do not need small ones and can ignore them. Small denominations think that they do not need large compromising ones. They need each other in different ways, but they will never find out how this is so, and to what extent, if they do not talk to each other.
The Christian church is to work as one body, each member growing and developing in the unity of the Spirit Eph 4:11-16. In doing so, Christian behaviour should develop between Christian and Christian, denominaion and denomination Eph 4:22-32. As long as they think that they do not need each other, so long will it take for the church to function properly as the body of Christ on Earth. There is still much to learn. The Christian church will have these principles in place during the Millennium; meanwhile we must work towards the Millennium.
Jesus prayed with His apostles: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on Me through their word, that they all may be one. As Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me” Jn 17:20-21.
It is time to manifest and keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace Eph 4:3.
‘Herein is My Father glorified, that you bear much fruit; so shall you be My disciples’ Jn 15:8. Let each branch attend to bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit.
‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance’ Gal 5:22-23. It is time to get to work.
‘Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away: and every branch that bears fruit, He cleanses it in order that it may bring forth more fruit. Now you are clean through the Word which I have spoken to you’ Jn 15:2-3.
20 Oct 2018: disunity is not confined to the Christian church. Indeed, disunity is ungodly and sin is a separating force separating man from God and man from man. One secular manifestation of the refusal to dialogue meaningfully is no platforming, one feature of secular puritanism. It is a form of boycott practised for a long time by the BDS movement. It is becoming commoner on university campuses around the world. Institutions of learning where students are meant to learn to interact with contrary views are becoming places where minds are being closed to contrary views. It is practised by those who think that they are so important that they must not give credence to opponents by appearing on the same platform with them. Richard Dawkins has advocated and practised it, and he has now become a victim of it himself. Nicola Sturgeon has no platformed Steve Bannon. It seems that we need some Christian input to teach these secular puritans how to tolerate and to debate with those whom they do not like, as well as with whom they do not agree. An echo chamber is the modern term for listening to and debating only with those with whom one agrees, reinforcing one’s prejudices, and ‘to troll’ is the modern term for being argumentative and seeking out those with whom one disagrees in order to verbally attack them. Both of these have arisen in the social media era now that people can interact, even anonymously, with multitudes of people worldwide. The rules of civility have still to be learned by millions, far less Christian forbearance.
23 Jan 2019 STV: Nigel Farage is creating a new Brexit Party, which on 15 Feb 2019 was described as a single-issue Party for exiting the European Union. Single issues have their time and place, but the Christian church is global with Christ’s global agenda.
1 Jun 2019: the leading article in May 2019 issue of The Free Presbyterian Magazine is entitled ‘The Gospel of the Kingdom’.