Denominations are so often written off as being an ‘unbiblical’ human invention. That is about as simplistic as suggesting we should have no ministry to kids or youth, no men’s breakfasts, no conferences, and no Bible Colleges, just because they aren’t explicitly mentioned in the Scriptures, either. We don’t live in the first century, and the Bible therefore has to be applied carefully so that we uphold its values and norms without ridiculing or negating helpful contemporary contexts.
Some suggest, along the same lines, that church membership has no biblical warrant. Really? Why then did Jesus (Matthew 18:17) and Paul (1 Corinthians 5:13) endorse excommunication for wilful sin and why did the early church add people to their number (Acts 2:47, 16:5)? Granted, membership was not a sophisticated system, but the first century church maintained conditions for belonging. It is too easy to then fashion what we do find in the Bible into a personally-preferred irreducible minimum that casts off (some say “casts out” of these “demon-ations”!) aspects merely introduced for healthy shared ownership. Much of this anti-membership talk is convenient and emotive, without necessarily thinking through the issues.
Constitutions, forms, handbooks or policies are understandably seldom liked by anyone, pastors included. However, we live in the twenty-first century. Some externally imposed requirements have even become necessary because churches have been irresponsible in the past or maintain ignorance about best practice that can actually help them.
Some internally imposed conditions are then about giving definition to what participation in the contemporary context looks like, albeit with necessary adherence to guiding biblical standards. Policies, for example, give impartial, unemotional and well-considered reference points to protect people, yet these should be biblically consistent. Those who spurn administration, then, are often effectively saying that they don’t want to share the burden of responsibility for helping a church to run with optimum effectiveness. For some people, the standards adopted are even less well-appreciated when they are not directly involved in shaping them.
Denominations may seem to impose unhealthy boundaries, too. However, whilst some of these may be controlling or restrictive in a few cases, most offer mature and protective accountability for congregations. They also provide practical administrative support for vital functions by using resources and people that local churches may be unable to supply, at least with the same level of effectiveness.
Rather than pursue other emphases at the expense of administration, we need balance for our own good. We certainly don’t want an overcorrection that primarily sees denominations protecting institutions and assets, but we surely don’t want a free-for-all that allows people to spurn governance they don’t like or understand so as to do church on their own terms, either.
Biblical values of love and unity demand otherwise.