What Labour Party divisions can teach church denominations

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that over 50 Labour MPs plan to defy Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on a British military intervention in Syria. The Labour leader has made no secret of his opposition to a bombing campaign. Corbyn’s supporters, such as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, have gone on record backing his stance. They too reject a bombing campaign, with Abbott in particular vociferous in her criticism of those who plan to defy the party leader. What is abundantly clear is that not all those who belong to the Labour Party reside within the same political camp as their current head.

The parallels with the Church are striking. For not all those who associate with the Church belong in the same camp as its head. Both Jesus (cf. Mt 7:21-23) and Peter (cf. 2 Pet 2:1-3) make this clear enough. Jesus tells us that we will recognise those who are his by the fruit expressed in their lives (Mt 7:15-20). Elsewhere, the fruit that Jesus expects is clear enough: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The one who is the head of the church expects those who really belong to the church to actually keep his commands.

Hand wringing by centrist MPs over whether to remain in the Labour Party are reminiscent of various internal denominational battles between theologically conservative and liberal wings. Significant internal differences within the denominations have been dealt with in a variety of ways; from the perennial splits upon splits within Presbyterianism to the staunch refusal to leave the Church of England despite fundamental, insurmountable differences between those who purport to have communion. Other denominations have worked such things through in a plethora of different ways, from complete isolationism to an emphasis on non-denominational gospel partnerships.

Until the Labour Party can form a direction around which the MPs will unite, it will continue to face these same problems over and again. Likewise, though a wholly pure church is the world of fantasy, churches would do well to heed the lessons being played out in Labour Party politics. Denominations, gospel partnerships and associations can only press forward when those seeking to work together are united in purpose and agree on certain core beliefs and values. Without such agreement, partnerships and denominations will forever find themselves unable to move forward. Jesus said something like that (cf. Mark 3:24f).