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  • Mark Bocanegra

Don't denominations hinder unity?


"What is the biblical basis or wisdom in forming denominations?" This was one of 370 questions I had to answer for my written ordination exam. This was one of the many questions that helped me hone my own convictions about my faith, my view of the church, and my view of missions. My gut feeling was "There is no biblical basis!" Then, I thought, "Why am I then in the PCA/MTW?" Most likely, many of you may felt the same way. Often, many reject the concept of denominations because of the biblical call for a unified church in John 17 or 1 Cor 12. Paul actually rebukes the Corinthian church in 1 Cor 3 for creating factions within the Church. The unity of the Church is one of the most effective tool for missions, but the Church is often critiqued for its divisions. Clearly, unity is an ideal that the church must pursue. However, there is also a clear call to disassociate with those who deny the clear teachings of Christ (e.g. 1 John 2:19-25, 2 John 7-11, 1 Tim 4:1-10, 1 Cor 5, 2 Cor 6:14-16). When I started to think through this issue, I found it most helpful to talk specifically of the kinds of denominations and differences before talking about unity. Is there a biblical basis to separate from certain mainline denominations that deny fundamental tenets of the Christian faith (e.g. Trinity, two natures of Christ etc)? Yes! There is a biblical basis for this in 1 John. There is also a historical precedent for this. The PCA emerged out of the PCUS (now the PC(USA)) because they denied fundamental tenets of the Christian faith. In my view, the PCA may have "split" from the PCUS, but actually "united" under Christian fundamentals. Unity is not for the sake of unity, but for the sake of the Gospel and all of the Scriptures. Is there a biblical basis for someone to disassociate himself because of differences in salvation? Yes. It is clear from Galatians that Paul was more than willing to "split" or excommunicate the Galatian church if they did not repent, if they were unrepentant. The denominational boundaries between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church are an example of this. Again, when Martin Luther and all our Protestant fathers "split" from the RCC, they actually unified under the Gospel of salvation by grace alone. Unity is not for the sake of unity, but for the sake of the Gospel and all of the Scriptures. Some have argued that if it is not a “Gospel issue” then one should unite, while secondary or tertiary issues should not deter someone from unity. Is there a biblical basis to separate from a church that denies a clear "secondary" teaching of Scripture? Should denominations be created over inerrancy? Male-only ordination? Gender and marriage issues? Covenant theology (or do you believe that Israel and the Church should be treated differently)? Infant Baptism (or do you believe children are part of the Church)? Ecclesiology (or do you believe in the Pope)? In every single Christian raised, there are denominations that spur out of these important theological questions. Unity is not for the sake of unity, but for the sake of the Gospel and all of the Scriptures. I think this third category is more difficult. I must admit that I thought dividing on non-Gospels issues was a stupid thing. However, now that I look back, the reason why I thought that way is because I didn't have an opinion on the above things. If I don't know why people infant baptize or don't see it directly in Scripture, then it's obviously not important. Then also my 21st century, millenial, Asian value system kicked in and said, "Mark, whatever you do, don't rock the boat and don't make things awkward between Christians. Keep the peace." Therefore, I left these "divisive doctrinal issues" aside for the sake of unity. But as you all know, this didn't make any sense. It meant the less I knew about Scripture, the more willing I was to unite. But Jesus calls us to be obedient and united inall of his teaching and not just “Gospel issues” (Matt 28:20). We must have convictions on all aspects of the Scripture. Not just the "core." Another issue in this third category is who decides what is a secondary or tertiary issue? Obviously, there needs to be proper discernment to what constitutes a need for a split or excommunication. In a Presbyterian view, the proper church courts of the denomination must decide/vote what is an acceptable degree of error by judging it by their own Confessional standard; it is not for an individual to decide. But do you even see how even my answer presupposes a theological claim about church government that some may disagree with? In a "non-denominational" viewpoint, perhaps the solution is to not make any theological claims by not associating with any other denomination in order to encourage unity. However, the great irony is that 1) it's making a theological claim that churches need to be independent from other churches, 2) a non-denominational church is against unity because it has no formal ties or legal accountability to any other church (like in Acts 15), and 3) it essentially creates a 'mini-denomination' by making its theological decisions apart from everyone else. Some of you may think, "Mark, are you saying you're not working with people outside of the PCA?" Of course not :) Some of you may know I work with many people across denominational lines in various ways (that's a whole other blurb). However, the more I understand the issues, the more I am discerning and realistic about unity.Can I unite with traditional Roman Catholics in fighting against abortion? Yes! Can I eat the Lord's Supper and listen to a homily at a Roman Catholic Mass? No! Because we believe in fundamentally different 'Gospels.' Can I listen to a Reformed Baptist sermon with much edification? Yes! Can I unite with a Reformed Baptist in church planting? No, because we see the Church in different ways! But what I'm encouraging is this: we should not impose our idealistic and 21st century views of unity onto the church. 'Unity in diversity is good, no matter what." However, that's a theological claim worthy of a 'denomination' in itself. No matter what church you choose, you are in a "denomination" whether you like it or not. And each church has made a decision on a wide range of theological issues. Let us be good Bereans and investigate them. Test them against Scripture. Why? So that we may not unite for the sake of uniting, but unite under the Gospel and all of the Scriptures.

#Unity #Missions

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About the Family

Mark is a Filipino-American who grew up in Manila and Tokyo. Graduating from Stanford and Westminster Seminary California, he is an ordained PCA (Presbyterian Church of America) pastor serving in Kaihin Makuhari Grace Church. Megumi is a Japanese Christian who...

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