Are denominational differences a blot on the church?

I was part of an interesting discussion on baptism yesterday. I don’t intend to use this post to go into the biblical case for credobaptism here. You can find that elsewhere. I was interested by a comment that essentially argued baptism is just not an issue to divide over. Here is the specific comment:

Jon, who I like very much, seemed to be arguing that it is a failure of the church not to be able to unite in one denomination because of different views of polity and baptism. These, he suggested, were secondary matters that shouldn’t lead to separate churches.

I disagree with Jon here. I don’t view it as a failure of Christian unity that there are different denominations because of these issues. I view it as a triumph of faithfulness for those who believe they are being faithful to what they understand Christ to be saying through the scriptures.

If Baptists truly believe – as we say we do – that failure to be baptised when one could be is sinful and the only mode of baptism that Jesus recognises is that which comes after professed faith, by immersion, then we have no business deciding that it is okay to allow people to disregard what we understand to be the clear command of Christ. Likewise, if paedobaptists of whatever stripe really believe that the Bible mandates the children of believers ought to be baptised and failure to do so is a matter of disobedience – much like if Abraham turned round and refused to circumcise his household – they have no business admitting into their churches those who deny what (they believe) the Bible says and Jesus demands.

I am not remotely offended by the Presbyterian Church that will not admit me to membership because I won’t sprinkle my children before they can so much as speak. I think they are acting properly in line with their understanding of the scriptures. I would much rather go to a church that follows through on the implications of what they believe – that is, they really do believe what they say and push in the direction that they think the Bible teaches – than I would go to one that would welcome me without concern despite believing I am being disobedient to Christ and the scriptures. It is those who insist my position is not biblical, but who essentially say it doesn’t matter and I can join with them without any questions, who both baffle me and, frankly, concern me far more. They are, in effect, suggesting faithfulness to the scriptures just doesn’t matter that much. They hold to a position that they insist is right, but happily let people disregard. That doesn’t strike me as a safe place to put anybody!

It is for this reason that I don’t see different denominations as any sort of challenge to Christian unity. If a convinced Anglican really believes the biblical model for church is episcopal, it makes perfect sense that they would want to specifically go to a church where they can work within what they consider to be the faithful model of church polity. The same goes for those convinced of Congregational or Presbyterian polities too. You may – as many do – consider various polities to be legitimate out workings of what we see in scripture. Such people are, clearly, free to go wherever they like as they don’t believe the Bible teaches one particular form of governance. But for those who are convinced Independents, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists – who think the scriptures do teach a form of governance – it is perfectly reasonable, in fact it is a matter of faithfulness, for them to worship within churches that align with what they believe the scriptures teach.

We could argue that there should be room under one roof for all these things. But, of course, you can’t both organise congregationally and like an Episcopalian. You can’t both submit to a Synod or Presbytry and simultaneously be Independent. These things are mutually exclusive. Eventually, you have to choose what you are going to do. At the end of the day, that choice has to be governed by what you sincerely believe the scriptures teach. And once you have worked that out, you can’t faithfully go and do what is contrary to what you believe the Bible says.

The same is true for questions of baptism. You can’t simultaneously believe in credobaptism, and all that entails, and yet perform paedobaptisms in your church. It might seem magnanimous and welcoming, but it is hard not to see that choice as an unfaithful one. It is actively doing what you believe the scriptures tell you not to do. And that can never be right.

The point that will come back is that this is a secondary matter. Which, of course, it is. It is secondary in the sense that baptism and polity will not determine your salvation and we can recognise people with different views on these things as genuine believers. But just because something is secondary doesn’t mean it is unimportant. Nor does it mean we can disregard it, despite what we believe Jesus says, and consider ourselves faithful and not sinning. Sin is, simply defined, going against God’s commands whether by commission or omission. That doesn’t mean we cannot work with people in different denominations who think differently on these things to us. But it does make it hard to go into a church that is aligned to things, and doing things, that we believe the scriptures tell us ought not to be done.

So, what is to be done? Is the existence of different denominations and churches because of these things are failure of unity then? I don’t think so. I think it is a triumph of faithfulness, each being convinced of the particular polity and practice to which they have aligned. Unity can be shown across denominational lines in a host of different ways. If we believe the same gospel, we can work together without forcing our brethren to sear their consciences and submit to practices that they believe the scriptures do not support.