Sectarianism

J. H. Large

Part 10 of 13 of the series When Thy Son Asketh Thee

SCATTERED OVER THE WORLD are hundreds of thousands of Christian communities affiliated with one or other of the great denominations. No doubt the majority of Christians regard this as a most natural state of affairs, and not a few rejoice in the organizational strength of their particular denomination, mistaking man-made uniformity for divine unity. Our generation has seen this mistaken idea reflected in determined efforts to bring the various denominations into one universal Council of Churches. It is easy to understand the enthusiasm of those who, convinced by the arguments in favour of it, indulge in optimistic visions of the beneficial effects of such an amalgamation. We believe that the alleged advantages are more than dubious, and to those who heed the scriptural picture of age-end conditions, the proposal has an ominous sound.
Local Autonomy
Strange as it will sound to folk who think that federation is the only logical way to secure unity, we believe that the scriptural way is for each local church to be free from such shackles and to be directly responsible to the Lord. Space forbids a full treatment of this point but the reader will have no difficulty in visualizing the New Testament picture of numerous churches, each responsible for its own life and witness. The way in which this principle clearly emerges in Rev. 2 and 3 is all the more striking seeing that the seven churches there addressed by the Lord were all in one district. Conditions differed from church to church and in some cases the Lord had to rebuke evils very seriously, but the rebuke was addressed only to the responsible church and the other churches were not called upon to take any action in the matter. They were each responsible to attend to the conditions in their own midst.
Advantages of Independence
If a principle can be shown to be scriptural it is incumbent upon us to put it into effect, irrespective of whether we can see the advantages of it. Nevertheless, it is to be expected that the scriptural method will have its advantages, and one is that a genuine sense of a local assembly's solemn responsibility directly to the Lord will deepen spiritual exercise. This, in turn, will encourage the development of local gift able to grapple realistically with local conditions and local need, unhampered by the absurdity of remote human control. Moreover, the absence of a closely knit organization prevents local troubles from involving other areas. Although the next consideration does not (as yet) affect us, experience has shown that where local companies of believers are not part of a wider organization, unsympathetic authorities either have no desire, or find it too bothersome, to suppress them. In this connection it is deeply interesting to note that hard experience has elicited remarkable confessions from unexpected quarters, that New Testament simplicity has proved superior to conventional missionary organization.
Fellowship without Federation
We are very far from wishing to infer that there should be no fellowship between Christian assemblies. In apostolic times when denominationalism was unknown, a deeper unity than any system can achieve, found expression in constant free intercourse between assemblies. A believer would be commended to Christians in the place to which he was travelling, whether on business or in the service of Christ. Churches joined in aid for their poorer brethren in other parts. Paul could expect that letters would be circulated among assemblies in a district or a province, and brethren in adjacent towns would join in commending a young man for service further afield. To the natural mind the links between those assemblies might have seemed vague and tenuous but the underlying informal unity of spirit was able to endure stresses and strains as no formal system could do.
A Subtle Danger
There is a natural tendency in most of us to want to have things neatly systematized; but life cannot be systematized, it must express itself spontaneously according to its true nature. One of the evils of denominationalism is that companies harnessed to the denominational machine have been dragged into much that is contrary to the Word of God and so destructive of true fellowship. Instead of all local communities having this great thing in common, that they are each and every one directly responsible to the same Lord (to yield to His control and carry out His will) being known simply as Christians, they are gathered into closely organized groups, each group taking some distinctive title and emphasizing some denominational feature. Realism forces upon us the unhappy necessity of facing the fact, however much we deplore the situation, and so long as we sincerely grieve over the dishonour done to the Name of the Lord the blame can hardly be laid at our door if unscriptural teachings and practices which we cannot remedy, make impossible the fellowship we would love to enjoy, and leave us no alternative but to cultivate fellowship with such companies as repudiate such systems and seek to put New Testament principles into effect. Arising out of the necessity to make ourselves intelligible in a situation forced upon us, there has grown up the use of such phrases as 'our assemblies' or, worse still, 'the assemblies', the one lending colour to the conception of a well-defined group which belongs to us, and the other countenancing the idea that this group contains the only assemblies. What is this but denominationalism disguised? We are happy to think that most people who use these expressions mean no such thing, but simply employ these terms as a convenient way of referring to those companies who are likeminded in their desire to carry out the Word of God. It is difficult to see how this can be avoided, but care should be taken to ensure that a faulty expression, used for want of a better, does not give shelter to false ideas. It is particularly important that young believers should be helped to see the situation in the right light and avoid a sectarian outlook.
Our only Sufficiency
When will men learn that the Spirit of God can do His work without the contrivances of human wisdom? Again and again history has taught us that God's way is best. The difficulty is that scriptural methods will operate only under right spiritual conditions. It is so much easier to the flesh to have a set of rules and regulations but such props are a poor substitute for constant exercise of spirit to discern the mind of God, in the light of His Word, in the constantly changing conditions of life and service. We acknowledge that believers in a wrong position have often manifested that spirit of Christ which God has been able to bless, and on the other hand, that a right position can be held in a spirit which has hindered blessing. Neither is a justification of the other; our desire should be to do the will of God in genuine submission to, and in reliance upon the power of, the Spirit of God.