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."