Moving Past Sectarianism

I always grew up going to nondenominational churches. When I was about 14, I remember reflecting on some of the things that made my church’s worship different from other churches. We occasionally waved flags and shook tambourines, we raised our hands to the Lord, we anointed people with oil, we had contemporary-sounding music, we prayed “with authority,” etc. I didn’t know of any denominations that had really codified our theology and expression of worship, so I thought I had a novel idea… “God, should I start a new denomination to encapsulate all of this and pass it on to the next generation?”

I then sat down to open my Bible and accidentally opened it right up to 1st Corinthians 1. Immediately my eyes fell on the title of the passage, “Sectarianism is Sin.” It read,

10 Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. 11 For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. 12 Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I walked away from that moment with a conviction that God was very opposed to the idea of me forming a new denomination. In fact, in my youthful zeal-without-knowledge, I went on to write a booklet arguing against denominationalism altogether (which I of course then used to “inform” my Baptist and Pentecostal friends of their error that I had just discovered). Over the years though, I came to realize that even my hardcore devotion to non-denominationalism could be a form of prideful sectarianism!

Looking back, I do see that God was teaching me early in my growth process that He wanted me to avoid any divisiveness that would keep me from loving His whole Church. He taught me more humility years later going to an inter-denominational university and then working in ecumenical parachurch ministries. I learned to not only work with and learn from various organized church movements, but also from various theological camps. I continually found that His Spirit was moving and speaking far outside of the circles I was most familiar with.

Earlier this year I was having conversations with a couple of different friends who were sorting through their convictions and beliefs as they decided if they wanted to join a particular denomination. At some points in our conversations I was trying to help them discern if one denomination or another would be where God was calling them to serve Him. At the same time, I always felt unsure they needed to pledge allegiance to a specific group at all. Then I saw this Tweet that really resonated with me:

As an Enneagram 4, this Tweet was very relatable to my personality. I also thought it pointed out an important truth. Whether we do feel called to a specific church network, whether we do find home in a particular denomination, or whether we find that a certain theological label fits us better than others — we all need to avoid finding our core identity in anything other than Christ and His universal family. None of us has a corner on Truth. Truth is a Person, and if history teaches us anything it is that Truth has plenty of correction to bring to all of us no matter where we’ve landed theologically or organizationally.

None of us has a corner on Truth. Truth is a Person, and if history teaches us anything it is that Truth has plenty of correction to bring to ALL of us no matter where we’ve landed theologically or organizationally.

We can pretend that we have more certainty, more clarity, and more security than all the other “heretics” out there… The reality though is that God is using us all to sharpen each other constantly. And when we are training disciples in today’s information age, we are wasting our time if we think our viewpoint is the only one they will ever be convinced of in the face of endless podcasts, videos, and blogs from every corner of Christendom online. Surely John Piper, Joel Osteen, Rob Bell, Bill Johnson or the Pope will offer them a different (or better!) take on something we’ve said. We might as well lose our dogmatism and just recognize how much we all need the full counsel of the Body of Christ.

We need the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Mainline Protestants… We need the Pentecostals and Charismatics, the Reformed evangelicals, the SBC, and the historically black churches… We need the megachurches and the house churches. I’d further suggest we need the progressive/emergent/post-evangelical mystics. Firmly challenge and resist toxic doctrines and practices, sure… But be humble in acknowledging the limitations of our own perspectives, and recognize the active presence of the Spirit within Jesus’ whole global community. Our narrow-minded sense of tribal superiority is only “protecting” us from the growth we can call one another into!