One of the most important aspects of church testimony before the world is the matter of how different groups relate to one another. Some would hold that as long as individuals “love one another,” it doesn’t matter what the relationship among the churches themselves might be. Other insist that if we really love one another as Christ taught, that sort of love would be discernable in the result of the public relationships of those individuals.
Scripture is clear that all believers are part of the one body, the church (I Cor. 12:13), and are free to assemble locally in various “churches,” but knows nothing of an intermediate grouping of churches. Thus, sectarianism is a circle of fellowship that is greater than the local church but smaller than the universal church.
A Notable Passage of Scripture
Before the apostle John was taken into heaven to view the “things which must shortly come to pass,” (Rev. 1: ), and even before his glimpse of the Throne of God, and of the Lion/Lamb on which all eyes were fixed, he recorded his very first sight: “the voice that spoke” with him. Without question, it was the voice of Jesus, the risen, glorified Lord.
So fearful was the sight that John fell before Him as a dead man, but not before he saw enough to describe. The description he provided has elements of two great chapters in the Old Testament, Exodus 28, which speaks of the High Priest, and Daniel 7 which speaks of one like the Son of Man coming before the Ancient of Days. The former speaks of the “girdle” or sash of needlework which the High Priest wore as he carried out his duties in the temple such a trimming and refilling the lamps upon the golden lampstand.
Since the glorious Person John saw was wearing the same article worn by the High Priest, it would not be unusual for the scene to also include the golden lampstand, so familiar to any student of the Scriptures like John surely must have been. What was unusual however, was now there was not one, but seven golden lampstand each with a burning lamp, standing individually on its own base before the Lord. Immediately, the Lord interprets the vision; “The seven lampstands . . . are the seven churches.” (Rev. 1:20).
Lessons from the Lampstands
Local churches that desire to understand God’s thoughts about the church ought to include a careful study of this part of Scripture. Four lessons can be noted. First, the position which the Lord takes among the churches; He is “in the midst.” If it was a question of authority, we might have read that He was “at the front.” But apparently the desire was to emphasize the centrality, the preeminence of Christ, Who over and over appears to His people “in the midst.”
Second, we note the relationship of the lamps. As in the Old Testament, they are oil lamps closely related to one another. But they are not branching out of a common stand with a single base; rather they each stand before the Lord on their own individual bases. More about this in a moment.
Third, we note that they are filled with oil and burning brightly which speaks of their testimony. Those that sin and fail to repent may be removed.
Fourth, they are able to receive communication from the Lord, the Head of the churches. Surely this must be a picture of the ministry that edifies the church, both commending and convicting.
An Important Deduction
While all of these lessons are valuable and could be profitably studied in greater detail, it is with the second item noted above that we must be occupied. Can anyone familiar with the Old Testament descriptions of the tabernacle and temple with its furnishings fail to see the significance of the change here? The lampstands stand before the Lord as complete entities, supported by a stand or foundation that does not depend on any other lampstand for its stability!
When we read the letters sent by the Lord, we find good points and weak points; praise and rebuke, and even the possiblity of the Lord removing the lampstand, but we do not read of one lampstand bringing discipline upon or disfellowshipping another. The churches are autonomous! And the fact that they might have looked similar did not, as some suppose, indicate that they formed a denomination. Rather, they were similar in appearance because they were all the product of the same Designer, and made according to one divine pattern.
Moving Away from Simplicity
Paul, in writing to the church at Corinth expressed concern that through the work of the Devil, the church might be moving away from the “simplicity” of its position in Christ (I Cor. 11:1-2), into a position that God could not bless. How is such a condition identified? Earlier, in his first epistle, he had already addressed the early stages of the problem, by saying:
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. . . For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?” (I Cor. 3:1,4)
Many attempts have been made to rationalize this sad condition. The explanation “Christian denominations are like the many branches of the same military, all fighting for the same cause,” or “denominations are merely useful tools; it is a sectarian spirit that is forbidden” will not stand the test either of reason or of Scripture.
Dr. Jack Fish III in evaluating the origin of denominations asks whther they arose as Christians “amicably discuss[ed] their differences and cheerfully agree[d] to disagree in a spirit of mutual toleration and respect?” To show that this was not the case, he cites 1) heresy, 2) church discipline, 3) power struggles and politics, 4) the inability to resolve differences, and 5) traditions and ethnic backgrounds as primary factors, concluding “The history of the church shows that denominations inevitably have arisen in disobedience to the New Testament teaching of I Corinthians 1:10-13 and gives us a view of church history through rose-colored glasses.”
He adds “Not only have denominations arisen out of the sinful attitudes and actions of men, but they have also had evil consequences.,” and mentions the barriers to fellowship and a denial of the practical expression of unity for which our Lord prayed. His conclusion is fully waranted: “The point is that a system which has arisen out of the sinfulness of man and which is based on the difference and divisions among Christians cannot be the basis for affirming the unity of the church.” (Emmaus Journal Vo. 2; No. 2 pp. 118-119)
In the great prayer of our Lord in John 17, His followers received for all time the key to evangelizing the world, the unity of believers. In that prayer He repeatedly asked that “they might be one.” This was not a plea for an essential or spiritual unity, as that would be a work of God which did not depend in any way upon man, and once completed, would be indissoluble.
Rather, He was praying for a visible unity; something that “the world may know” (vs. 23). He made a clear connection between the visible unity of His people and the world believing (vs. 21) and knowing (vs. 23) the truth about God’s love and coming.
Ask any skeptic about the church as representing God, and you will never hear some of the fanciful ideas about denominations as useful tools etc. Invariably the answer will be the fractured condition of the church; “If those who profess to represent God cannot agree on what is the truth, how shall we who are watching from a distance ever know it?” How reasonable this is, and what a reinforcement of the words of the Lord: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).
The second characteristic of the New Testament church then, is its autonomous stand before the Lord in all matters of faith and practice, being accountable to Him and not to any other groups or federation. This is the governmental side. But the complimentary side of fellowship and brotherly love is expressed by a mutual, voluntary interdependence that demonstrates the love of Christ by – wherever possible, working together and sharing together in cooperative efforts of fellowship and compassion.
Once again we must pause and consider the challenge of I Cor. 14:37. Paul, whose writings are to the prophet and the spiritual man “the commandments of the Lord” has written strong words about the link between divisions and carnality. This is reinforced by the inclusion of divisions in the list of the works of the flesh in Gal. 5. If we seek to walk in the Spirit as to our understanding of the relationship of the churches, we cannot evade the conclusion that the New Testament church would have no part in the walls between them which man erects for his own purposes.