Denominations are like scaffoldings needed to build the Body of Christ
Picture credit: Internet (SWNS.com / rossparry.co.uk)
With the numerous myopic excesses of even established godly Church denominations, not to talk of unprintable practices in numerous one-branch “international” brands operated by charismatic all-in-all G.O.s, it is understandable that “denominational Christianity” has come under much castigation from diverse quarters in recent times. However, caution needs to be exercised that such legitimate frustration is not carried to unhelpful extremes. With present trends in the country, the “non-denominational” movement stands the risk of becoming another denomination on its own: a bitter anti-denominations denomination that ironically sees nothing good at all in denominations! At the same time, undue demonization can drive godly denominations struggling with unavoidable end-time challenges into further isolation, thus compounding the problem at hand.
Lines of Demarcation, very thin
Perhaps we should start by stating the obvious, that the denominations of today were the independent “non-denominationals” of yesterday. In fact the only difference between denominational and non-denominational congregations is in their sizes, and perhaps ages. But for some notable exceptions, a new upcoming Church-based ministry touts itself as non-denominational, drawing participants from different existing Church denominations. When membership burgeons and stabilizes somewhat, it goes on to define her own set of liturgy, formal structures, and doctrines. And pronto, another denomination has been born!
The root cause of the problem with denominations, especially in these end times, can be gleaned when we put them into two broad categories: the ungodly and the godly.
The first category would comprise of the numerous “churches” established obviously as commercial (“419”) enterprises with very little spirituality at all. Also in the same category, but with heavy spiritual flavour, are the occult or cult centres masquerading as “churches.” Unfortunately, multitudes find these centres irresistible, ensnared by charismatic sweet talks that soothe emotional aches; or raw manifestations of “power” that promise speedy reliefs from various spiritual - cum socio-economic burdens the world is currently inundated with.
In the second category are godly institutions, some with decades of sacrificial and fruitful services, who increasingly feel compelled to take extra-ordinary, even if questionable, measures to protect the flock from the poachers in the first category. Many times, these “desperate” responses only provide fuel for elements in the ungodly category to further thrive, leading to an ever-worsening vicious cycle!
The major end result of this unsavoury situation is increasing incapacitation of the Body of Christ from fulfilling Her primary calling of being Salt and Light in society. In particular, the umbrella body for Christianity in Nigeria, the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), has become practically helpless in defining her role in the polity, or charting any purposeful course of actions anymore - what with the abounding centrifugal forces and inherent divided loyalties! Consequently, the Islamists continue to ride roughshod over the entire nation, with hardly a whimper from the Church. For instance, that young heroine of our faith, Leah Sharibu continues to languish in jihadist captivity, even to the present time, without that being a major point on Christian agenda in Nigeria any more.
God’s Scaffolding for building the Church
One beautiful story frequently rehashed is the tour of heaven and hell reportedly given to John Wesley. Wesley was shocked to find that while several Methodists were in hell, none was found in heaven! And the explanation he was given, as the story goes, was that all the saints in heaven identify simply as members of the Church, and not as members of the denominations they associated with while on earth. However, the “whole truth” in this story is that while there are indeed no needs for denominations in heaven, they are very much needed here on earth! That is precisely why the Lord raised them up and works through them. In a paradigm promoted by many Bible teachers, including Fuchsia Prickett, denominations are God’s scaffolding for building the one glorious Church. After the Building is complete, the scaffolding would have completed its assignment and must be discarded. But not before - that would probably not happen till just before the Rapture!
It is a simple fact of history that specialized uniquely identified Units under a central Command are God’s way of working through the ages. In the “church” in the wilderness, the tribes were instructed to pitch around the one Tabernacle each “by his own standard, with the ensign of their father’s house” (Numbers 2:2). At the promised land, whether in the matter of searching out the land (Numbers 13:2), going out into battles to possess the inheritance (Judges 1:1-3), or in national projects such as the re-building of the walls of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3), the major moves were conducted through clearly identified tribes, clans, and families. Regular services in the Temple also followed the same pattern, in courses, based on families and clearly defined Units (1 Chronicles 23:6, 2 Chronicles 8:14, Luke 1:5,8)
The benefits of such a model are self-evident. It provides the extra motivation to get the job done; and affords sweet celebrations and sense of achievement thereafter. It is the spirit behind such statements from the Apostle Paul as: “inasmuch as I am the apostle of the Gentiles, I magnify my office” (Rom. 11:13), or ”provoking others to love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). It is what gives meaning to the concept of “healthy competition”! Denominations provide ideal opportunities and logistics for training, development, discipline, monitoring, and evaluation of the individual. They are also uniquely invaluable in times of personal challenges and losses.
In a nutshell, it is simply impractical, unrealistic, and unfruitful for one to claim to be engaged in building the universal Church without contributing to the local Church. Even in the cases of the few individuals called to direct ministry to the universal Church (whether in evangelism like recently departed beloved Reinhard Bonke; or in prayer – as in Nigeria Prays; or teaching – as in Bro Gbile Akanni); they are known to actively liaise with the local Church and denominations. And of course, they invariably have their own local church arms for training, financing, and other functions previously highlighted.
The expectation or suggestion that the body of Christ should operate as an undifferentiated homogeneous monolithic entity is not only unrealistic and unhelpful, it is also unscriptural (1 Cor. 12:12-20). Modern management experts can surely write tomes on why specialized diverse organs all working harmoniously under a central command, provides a formidable resilient overall body. Suffice to note here that the Internet arose from the need to have a resilient communication framework (that can keep key infrastructure and communication going in the event of sabotage, war, and natural calamities). And the result is the TCP/IP protocol that allows new paths to be spontaneously available in the event of collapse in one pathway. Simply put, putting all one’s eggs in a single basket is not a very smart idea, and it makes for increased vulnerability. Our diversity, if scripturally harnessed, is a major source of strength and resilience for the Church, not something to lament!
An Illustrative Example: Spiritual Activities at Police Formations
This author can personally recall discussions with several well-meaning and respected Christians who passionately believe that the fundamental (and perhaps the only) problem with the Church in today’s Nigeria is simply denominationalism! The unwholesome fruits resulting from this kind of stop-the-denominations-by-all-means outcry are real, even if sometimes subtle. We think one very appropriate illustration of this has to do with spiritual activities on Police formations in the country.
By way of background, it should be mentioned that the Police Force touts itself as a people-friendly organization. Indeed, its uniqueness and strength as a security outfit is rooted in its ability to win confidence and cooperation of the general public. It is therefore not surprising to find the Force promoting outfits such as the Police Community Relations Committee (PCRC), or overtly reaching out to religious entities. To this end, the Police provides at her major units, physical spaces for the PCRC as well as for Christian and Moslem chapels. It is understood that intelligence, propaganda, and human relations aside, the spiritual values of these chapels are unquantifiable.
By the efforts of some hardworking Christian folks no doubt, Christians actually have two spaces allocated in principle for catholic and protestant ministries. But walk into these formations, while shouts of Allahu Akbar consistently rent the air at least three times a day from mosques operating seemingly seamlessly, only few units can boast of functional Christian prayer altars. The long and short of the story is that while the Police chaplaincy would gladly welcome Church denominations coming to erect befitting chapels within her formations, such are not welcome to operate units of their ministries in those chapels. Now, this could have been perfectly okay if the chaplaincy could muster members of the Police force to spearhead consistent spiritual activities at these facilities. Alas, this is hardly ever the case! Incredibly, the chaplaincy hopes that after putting up the structure, the denominations should also assist in manning them under the authority of the Police Chaplaincy. This idea, justified with an explanation of not wanting to promote denominationalism, is simply unworkable. Indeed, it only shows that the chaplaincy itself is on its way to becoming a formal “denomination” on its own! At the end of the day, the unappreciated “civilian denomination” might simply opt to plant a branch of her own somewhere outside the Police formation (if the neighbourhood is considered strategic and conducive enough) leaving the Islamic altar as the sole and supreme operator within!
Thus, we can see how the gross misunderstanding of the place of “denominations” is crippling the Church and robbing it of its natural advantages over other competing ideologies in this important institution. In reality, encouraging ministries to develop and operate facilities approved by the Police authority into centres of worship, intercession, and discipleship according to their peculiar denominational tradition is the exact equivalence of the Concession culture that is widely practiced in most government institutions in Nigeria – including the Police Force. (Afterall Police Canteens are not all operated by police officers, to cite an obvious trivial example). Of course the Police Fellowship, would have prime access to the chapel facilities, but two or three willing “denominations” could also be registered to maximize the use of the facilities on shared basis. Sad to note that in several formations, the plots allocated for Christian chapels (necessarily located in some rather obscure corners) serve conveniently as the dump yard!
Some Suggested General Solutions
The same ugly story of advantages turning into disadvantages as a result of poor understanding of the roles of denominations can be repeated in other sectors and public institutions in Nigeria – for example on Institutions of Higher Learning in the nation. God forbid the moslems or traditionalists should have our number and resources! There can be no harm even if every dozen Christian students on Campus decide to meet for regular prayers and study of the Word as is convenient for them. The big deal is harnessing such various fellowships via periodic Kingdom-centred meetings hosted on a central platform. They can further be encouraged to share physical facilities to further facilitate stronger bonding. For example, the early Church met as numerous resilient small “koinonia groups”, from house to house; yet they also participated regularly in central meetings held in the Temple. (The Temple by the way, was a massive complex that took 46 years to complete (John 2:20) and various denominations /sects take part in servicing the altar therein.) With such operations, the early Christians succeeded in turning their world right side up!
What is needed is a working model, and a central body committed to implementing it. Invariably, this is the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN). To function effectively and harness the great opportunities present within Church denominations, the CAN urgently needs two key changes: a slight restructuring, and more realistic funding by her components to allow for effective operations.
At the present time, there are several Church groups that have blatantly refused to subscribe to the authorities of the CAN or support her operations. Yet these continue to enjoy larger-than-life status and influence as major Christian organizations in the country. The CAN certainly should device means to redress this and make her endorsement and membership a sought-after commodity by those who would want to be taken as serious Christian stakeholders in Nigeria. On the other hand, several other Christian organizations which are willing to contribute invaluable services and finances for a virile CAN are currently cut off from membership simply because they are not Church-based. In as much as the letter “C” in CAN stands for “Christians” and not “Churches,” organizations like the Full Gospel Business Men’s Fellowship, Intercessors for Nigeria, CAPRO (missionaries), the Preacher (teaching) to mention just a few, ought to be given opportunity to contribute to the operations of a virile CAN as full members. For instance, they could be accommodated in a new Bloc to be incorporated into the CAN structure.
Finally, with or without the CAN, godly inter-denominational activities should be celebrated and endorsed by all Kingdom-minded Christians. In our 2007 article celebrating the annual inter-denominational Holy Ghost Congress hosted by the Redeemed Christian Church of God, we pointed out that traditionalists (think of FESTAC) or Moslems (through the annual Hajj) desperately wished such an event would be to celebrate their own gods and values! Incidentally, the 22nd straight edition of the Holy Ghost Congress is currently ongoing, while a similar interdenominational event with international participation, Shiloh, organized by the Living Faith Church, successfully held a week ago.
The many flaws visible in denominations do not invalidate their scriptural role in building the Church of God and moving forward Kingdom agenda. We should not forget that sometimes, the spirit of unhealthy competition and rivalry within the same denomination is even worse than that between different denominations! Conflicts and separatism are inevitable end time phenomena that should be carefully and prayerfully addressed rather than used as justification to throw away a potent tool.
The strength of the position advocated in this article lies mainly in the central coordinating Body. In the real sense, this is the Holy Spirit, Who is very much alive and well on the planet at this time. And He is well able to deal with malignant cancerous tissues who would not abide under His central control. As bad and as threatening as things look, the Church is not in any mortal danger (Mathew 16:18). The call here is for individual elements in the sleeping Church to arise and respond to whatever strategies the Living LORD will be inspiring them with. This article is our own contribution in that wise, and we humbly put it forward for the consideration of members of the Body of Christ in Nigeria.
Redemption Camp, 13th December, 2019