Monday, January 07, 2008

John Woodhouse on Christian Unity, Ecclesiology, and Denominations

I do not know how to recommend strongly enough that you take the time to carefully read through the following three articles by John Woodhouse on Christian unity, ecclesiology, and denominations.

1. When to unite and when to divide
2. The unity of the church
3. Christian unity and denominations

John Woodhouse is Principal of Moore College in Sydney, Australia, and a well-known "Sydney Anglican." According to Wikipedia, "The Diocese of Sydney, in the Anglican Church of Australia, is unusual in Western Anglicanism in that the majority of the diocese is Evangelical and low church in tradition and committed to Reformed and Calvinist theology."

As an Anglican, there are undoubtedly several doctrinal issues on which I, as a Baptist, differ with Woodhouse. However, I believe he has much to say that is very relevant for us as Southern Baptists. As a matter of fact, upon reading these articles, I was surprised by the degree of agreement I found with him on the particular issues discussed therein. I believe a serious consideration of the ideas proposed by Woodhouse in these articles will help to clear up some crucial misunderstandings, as well as open up avenues for fruitful dialogue, on many of the issues currently being discussed on this blog, and in Southern Baptist life in general. Especially important, from the standpoint of context, is what Woodhouse says in the second article on ecclesiology and a biblical definition of "church."

In order to get a true understanding of what he is saying, it is very important that you read all three articles in their entirety and in order. However, in order to whet your appetite so you will want to read more, I include here the following quotes from the third article on Christian unity and denominations. (HT: Justin Taylor, Andy Naselli)

"What is a denomination? Here is a working definition: A denomination is an association of some churches which does not include all churches."

"Denominationalism, in this sense, is a deliberate rejection of sectarianism. Sectarianism is the view that a particular group is the only legitimate expression of the church."

"Denominations can be an expression of the unity of the Spirit. However when the nature of the denomination is misunderstood and inappropriate policies and actions developed, denominations can oppose the unity of the Spirit."

"One of the chief benefits of denominationalism is the freedom of conscience it allows. The unity of the Spirit cannot be coerced against conscience."

"Once a denomination has developed institutional structures that people come to think are ‘the church’, the trouble has begun. Instead of being an expression of the unity of the Spirit, an outworking of the fellowship of those who in different places call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the denomination can then impede the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. History suggests that over time this temptation is close to irresistible."

"With centralism comes control and interference. Whereas in spiritual reality the local gathering of believers is assembled by Christ, ruled by his Spirit through his Word as the members serve one another, the denomination is tempted to rule the congregation from a distance, and according to its own interests."

"There is an urgent, necessary and grave duty to see that the control of the denomination over the life and ministry of the local congregations must be broken."

"A denomination, once it has developed, appears typically to demand the loyalty of the individual churches and their members to the association itself. The denomination very easily loses sight of its proper role of encouraging faithfulness to Christ and to all who belong to him. Instead of being a means to this end, the denomination becomes an end in itself."

"Loyalty is not a Christian virtue. Indeed it can be sinful. The Christian virtue is faithfulness, and faithfulness is exercised towards persons, not institutions. Faithfulness to Christ is our first duty, as he has been faithful to us. Faithfulness to our brothers and sisters into whose company God has drawn us is a second. Faithfulness to brothers and sisters beyond our circles is a third."

"Loyalty to a denomination is often expected in exclusive terms. Relations with believers of the same denomination are seen to take precedence over relations with other believers. It may be regarded as disloyal (or improper in some other way) when a person moves to a different town if he/she joins a church of a different denomination. But this is an improper expression of denominationalism."

"The scandal of denominationalism (which is neither inherent in the concept, nor necessary in practice) is the creation of barriers to fellowship with those who do not belong to that denomination, based on the traditions of men. The denomination exists to foster the Christian fellowship of member churches, not to create barriers to fellowship with other churches!"

"Once the distinctives of your denomination become part of your religion, your denomination has become a sect. Once the distinctives (of dress, liturgy, polity, or other practice) become hindrances to relating to believers who do not share these distinctives, then the distinctives must be challenged."

"There may be circumstances where change is not possible or desirable. But we ought not to be among those who resist changes because of denominational identity. Uniformity of distinctive practices between churches of a denomination is of no spiritual value. It establishes a false unity, which all too easily substitutes for the unity of the Spirit, and has often done so. It is Babylonian unity."

"We will be more concerned for the prospering of believing churches than for the prospering of the denomination. It is in the churches and from the churches (not from the denominational ‘centre’) that we expect the gospel to grow."

"In our denominational activities we must resist the temptation to be people-pleasers. All too frequently evangelicals who get involved in the denominational structures are tempted to dissociate themselves from other evangelicals who are less committed to the denomination. That is unfaithfulness. Our unity with those who agree in the gospel is too important for that game to be played."

"Denominational unity is Babylonian unity, and typically an alternative, a rival, to the unity of the Spirit. If you are for one, you will be against the other."

"We ought to take up opportunities given by our denominational association for believing churches to relate to other faithful churches. However, it is also important that we express our unity with gospel people and churches across recognised denominational boundaries. Evangelicals working together, fellowshipping across denominational limits for the sake of gospel churches and gospel proclamation will, at some point, encounter denominational opposition."

"Evangelicals must repudiate the idea that our Christian identity is associated with our denominational label. The folly of denominational loyalty expresses walking by sight, not by faith. Our agenda with respect to our denomination must be the good of churches and the spread of the gospel. When the denomination loses its usefulness for those ends, it has lost its usefulness for anything."


GuyMuse said...

Thank you for introducing me to John Woodhouse and the convincing arguments for unity. I have flagged this post as a "keeper" on my blog reader and look forward to reading the three articles you link to.

This quote says it all, What is a denomination? Here is a working definition: A denomination is an association of some churches which does not include all churches.

If that is an accurate definition, the question for me becomes, which churches would Jesus NOT include in His Church? If He accepts them, why do we reject them? To reject those churches that He accepts, are we in essence rejecting those churches that Jesus accepts?

David Rogers said...


I am glad you have flagged these articles. As I state in my post, I think it will be well worth your while to read them carefully.

BTW, the answers to your questions are dealt with in article #1 where Woodhouse talks about the gospel itself as the only legitimate basis of unity. Basically, as I understand it, he would say that those who embrace the gospel are to be accepted, and those that do not are to be rejected.

Paul said...

David, thank you for making us aware of Woodhouse's articles.

My main critique is that he doesn't seem to get beyond the situation-at-hand in the Anglican Communion, and therefore doesn't think deeply enough on this issue.

I would say that a denomination is not an association of churches (as Woodhouse assserts), but an association of congregations, each of which is a fragmentary expression of the true, local, autonomous, self-governing church, the City Church. Everything else is (Protestant) tradition, not biblical.

And, no (1000x no), I don't think the RCC is the "True Church."

David Rogers said...


Thank you for reading these articles, and giving me your response. I especially value your perspective, given your thought and work in relation to the City Church.

As I read Woodhouse, I also thought about how what he says relates to the City Church. For me, I like the way Woodhouse's view takes seriously the use of the term "ekklesia" to refer to "house churches", "city churches", "regional churches" (Acts 9:31), and the "Church Universal." They are not all different churches, but rather different expressions of the one Church God is in the process of building down through history.

For me personally, though Woodhouse does address the issues he writes about from the context of local Anglican concerns, what he says is also very applicable to issues being discussed presently among Southern Baptists, and I suspect, to some degree, for all "denominations."

R. Grannemann said...

I thought these were excellent articles.

I didn't find much of anything in them with which I disagreed. Woodhouse articulated well what should be the "baptistic" and congregational position which is that true churches are churches of believers - period; and that hierarchies have no claim to authority and are not the church. Woodhouse also well stated that denominations in themselves do not constitute schism and that ecumenism focusing on a formal unity without a gospel unity is pointless.

One point Woodhouse made, which I think should be more often proclaimed by Baptists and evangelicals and any true Christians, is that Christ not only reconciled man to God but also man to man. This is a reality of the gospel that will touch our world deeply if proclaimed by those whose lives testify of it. Lord, help us to live in a way that the world will see the reconciliation of mankind through Christ, and forgive us when our lives fail to show it.

Paul said...

R. says: "Woodhouse also well stated that denominations in themselves do not constitute schism"

Though I'm willing to live with the denominational wineskin (as a product of the Protestant Reformation) until God replaces it with something more Biblical, I find the statement above pretty hard to accept.

Let me ask R. two things:

(1) How do you square extralocal denominations with 1 Cor 1 and 3? If the Church of Corinth was not to divide into subgroupings of Apollos, Paul, Cephas, how in the world do you think that national and international networks of Apollos, Paul, Cephas, Luther, Wesley, et. al. pass muster?

(2) If you think denominations are inherently good, what would you think if we had 10x as many? Let's say, right now that there are 40 denominations in your city. Would 400 denominations dividing up the same pie be better and more honoring to Christ as the Head of the Church? If so, then let's get to work further splitting the ones we are presently in.

David Rogers said...

R. Grannemann,

Thanks for your evalution of Woodhouse's articles. I agree with you.


Although you addressed your comment to R. Grannemann, I will answer your questions from my perspective.

If we follow Woodhouse's definition of denominations - "an association of some churches which does not include all churches" - I find it hard to find fault with denominations in and of themselves. Undoubtedly, many, if not most, modern-day denominations have gone beyond this in their actual practice. But, from a pragmatic point of view, if we don't go for a Roman Catholic or WCC ecclesiology, or totally independent local churches, I think that denominations are practically unavoidable.

On some projects, we will always find some ministry partners, who, for one reason or another, are more compatible than others. This type of partnership is not a bad thing in and of itself, as long as it does not evolve into a pretext for dividing from the rest of the Body of Christ in respect to our essential spiritual unity, and practice of the NT "one anothers."

R. Grannemann said...


I am coming at this from the congregational position, that assemblies of those who have entered the Kingdom of God by the new birth are (true) churches and that superstructures do not have (valid) ecclesiastical authority - something I sense from your response you may agree. To have unity, do we then create one giant superstructure that includes all? But that would give even more credence to a false idea of church. Do we alternatively destroy denominational authority centers? But that is the congregational position, that denominational structures have no authority over churches nor do they speak for them. They are only tools which aid in cooperative efforts of churches which are free to associate with whomever they wish to advance the cause of Christ. To say a church cannot associate with a group different from yours would be to lord it over another body of Christians who have the right and obligation to hear the Spirit for themselves. This is not schism.

Paul said...

Dear R:

Thank you for your post. I think I agree with everything you said.

Early in my ministerial training I read a book on ecclesiology written by an ABC brother that argued that every extralocal network, even the most congregational, over time tend toward denominationalism/hierarchical thinking/eventual episcopacy. I never forgot his cogent arguments.

While I agree that every congregation should be free to cooperate with whomever they choose, I yet argue that my congregation should have more in common with other "lively stones" seeking to reach State College than it does with another Assembly of God in Southern California, due to a greater degree of theological agreement on secondary and tertiery matters. We state on our bulletin cover that we have both affiliations, but I think we may yet see the day when the Paul/Cephas/Apollos networks deconstruct in favor of a truly NT congregational ecclesiology, which focuses on the Church of the City.

I realize that is radical, but I believe it is biblical.

Cyle said...

These are wonderful things to think about. Thanks for including them here. I wouldn't have seen them otherwise. This is a great deal of food for thought.

foxofbama said...

Would love to have you consider making a few comments on my blog about the Memphis Declaration and how it intersects Huckabee's Presidential bid and Mohler's aspirations to SBC presidency.
Got a great link there to FBC Auburn Pastor Jim Evans on Mohler.
And you will want to see the article in today's Wall Street Journal, here stateside, on church discipline.

Ed said...

A young Australian Man (Sam Clear) is currently walking around the world asking all Christians to pray for Christian Unity. To have a look at his journey so far (from Brazil to Russia in 12 months), have a look at