June 12, 1991
A woman from Toronto tried to put “Canadian” on the census form where it asks for “ethnic origin.” She was told this was not allowed. Ethnic groups must be counted for various reasons, so instead of her citizenship, she must put down German, Pakistani, or whatever. I felt her frustration remembering the time I put “Christian” under “religion” on a hospital form, and found out they wanted my denomination.
The census and hospital people have a point but I, like the Torontonian, was upset at being divided into sub-categories. Just as Canadians should be united under one name, I felt Christians should simply be Christians.
Actually, the struggle with sub-categories is not new to Christianity. In New Testament times, the Corinthian church was in a mess because of factions that divided them into what could be called “earthly groups.” Some said “I am following Paul.” Others claimed to be following Apollos. The “super-saints” claimed to be following Christ (as if Paul and Apollos were not). Paul wrote to tell them they were behaving like ordinary mortals who needed to unite as true citizens of heaven, and get along with each other.
Sad but true, Christians who use labels today can also indicate a division over who follows what. Denominations do quarrel, something like the church at Corinth. The non-Christian looks at 10 churches in one town and has reason to wonder why believers cannot get along. After all, there is only one Elks lodge or one Kingdom Hall.
First, it is important to understand there is a difference between “denominations” and “religions.” Denominations usually refer to various branches of Christianity (although these days even some of those are not truly Christian), while “religion” can refer to any system of worship. For example Hindus, Animists, New Agers and so on, are religious but these are not Christian denominations. The point is, Jesus made it quite clear Christians must claim to be distinct from other religions, however, we should not insist on divisions within Christianity.
Surprisingly, it was normal for the New Testament church to have several congregations in one city. Aside from the scrapping at Corinth, they actually did divided for practical purposes -- meeting in houses, not church buildings as we do now, because each house could only hold so many people. Besides, relationships deepened in these more intimate settings.
The Bible doesn’t say if they put labels on themselves. They may have. One was “the church that meets in Philips house,” another “the church that meets in Amos’ house.” But the entire group of believers in one city was called “the church of Philippi” or “the church of Rome.” The emphasis was on unity, not on their different locations. The letters Paul wrote to one church were circulated throughout all groups of believers. This promoted unity. Their common bond in Christ through the Holy Spirit promoted unity. Wrangling over who had the most authority or who was superior was evidence of pride and immaturity, not unity. It is one thing to have several congregations in one city because there isn’t room in one building for everybody, and quite another to have several congregations as a result of fights and splits.
We could say the church in Fort Saskatchewan meets in several different “houses” too. There are differences, but minor differences are not necessarily unbiblical. As long as the Word of God is believed and followed and the members have committed their lives to Jesus Christ, there is unity.
What is not allowed is a prideful superiority that puts “me and mine” above everyone else. Factions simply demonstrate our “earthly origins.” We need to be united as “Christians” and demonstrate we are all citizens of the kingdom of God and all members of His family.