Denominationalism is not the original purpose of Jesus — Peter J. Blackburn states in his new book Jesus at Work. “The term ‘body of Christ’ points to our relationship to Jesus, rather than to the church ‘corporations,’ set up to fulfill our mission.”
After some four decades of active ministry and now another ten years into retirement, I reflect on the course of the church on earth. It seems to me that too often we have displaced Jesus from the life of the church. Of course, we faithfully read the Scriptures. We use His name in songs, prayer, and preaching.
Yet in a way, we have thought of him as the absent Jesus. He’s coming again, but he’s not here right now. Every time the creeds are recited, we affirm our core belief that Jesus is coming again.
Meantime, we have the Holy Spirit—he’s there in the creeds too! And I have heard widely differing groups claim the Spirit’s guidance in support of some matter that isn’t what the Scripture says at all!
Some have suggested that Acts should be called “the acts of the Holy Spirit”. There’s quite a point to that, but what I notice is that it is about what Jesus continued to do and teach through the apostles by the Holy Spirit. On one occasion, after Jesus was being criticised for healing a man on the Sabbath, we hear him saying, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working” (John 5.17). And, after the ascension, he has continued that pattern—just as his Father has, and the Holy Spirit too!
So what we have is that, through his people and in spite of our idiosyncrasies, Jesus is at work building his Church, growing his Body, gathering his Harvest and Coming Again…
It is not my role to diagnose each denominational “church” in detail. What I have written is on a very broad canvas. I trust that each of us will be sufficiently challenged to search our own hearts, to search our own structures, to search the Scriptures in a fresh way and to seek out the Lord as the source of our life, our mission, our energy…—and the only guarantee of our readiness for his return.
What has impressed me most deeply as I have reflected on the Scriptures is the love we are meant to express to one another. It is the very thing that will convince the unbelieving world. We really must get beyond the who-is-the-greatest syndrome…
I have not attempted to provide “solutions”. Yet I have persisted in emphasizing the need for our connectedness to Jesus himself and to one another. That should “drive us to our knees”—or into whatever posture we do “real business” with the Lord. It should lead us into more active prayer with other believers who worship in “different” churches. We should recognize one another up the street, in the supermarket, at the doctor’s or wherever…
Countering Denominationalism: A Call to the People of God
My dear brothers and sisters who came with me the one Name—Jesus Christ, our Saviour and our Lord.
How great has been the Father’s love for us that we should be called the children of the living God! Worthy is the Son of God who, in the face of human hostility and sin, laid down his life for human sinners—including us! Unworthy we are to be the recipients of the divine grace! Yet such we are—saved by his grace through faith and called to live out that faith till we see him face to face.
But we live out that faith in an unsteady and uncertain world. No longer can we assume that our convictions and lifestyle will be respected—or even tolerated. All of us sense this uncertainty. Some—our brothers and sisters—are facing hostility and even imprisonment and death for the sake of the gospel. Their pain is felt throughout the Body. We are called no less to live out our faith, no matter what the consequences. It is Jesus who has called us and who continues to live in us and to work through us in the heat of present circumstances.
My brothers and sisters, as I have been writing, I am aware that these issues have often been a cause of pain. Be assured, what is written is for all of us. In a very real sense, we all need to feel that pain as we reflect on these strong themes—pain where we have failed in direction and pain in our lack of love. This pain is good if it leads us to restoration and healing.
I have not proposed the wholesale dismantling of organizational processes. Some at least of them we need in fulfilling Jesus’ call. We need human leadership, wise structures, and faithful stewardship. But these are not in themselves Jesus’ Church. Such structures can help or hinder the work Jesus is doing. If they are a hindrance and have become a power structure in opposition to Jesus’ call and mission, there is obviously an issue that will require profound changes in thinking and action.
Nevertheless, my counsel to each of us is that we consider what it means to be Jesus’ Church and his Body right in the communities where we live. We need to reach “up” to Jesus the Head, receiving his grace each day, and “out” to one another in genuine love—our connectedness. Only in this way can Jesus’ Body move together with God’s genuinely good news into our needy world.
Above all, my brothers and sisters, never forget to pray and to spend much time immersed in the Scriptures. Find someone who worships in a “different” congregation and prays together regularly. Together seek to understand and respond to the call of Jesus in your community—fishing for people, making disciples…
More than we realize, we all have denominational differences—theological distinctives and idiosyncrasies which we often hold and treasure most tenaciously. As has often been said, in the life of heaven we will not find any who are Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Uniting, Baptist, Wesleyan, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Brethren… The ones we will meet will be, without exception, those who are redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus. Persist in seeking to understand the Scriptures with clarity, but persist even more in acknowledging the imperative of Christian love.
My brothers and sisters, the times are short—perhaps shorter than any of us have realized. When Jesus comes, we want to be found doing what he has given us to do. By his Spirit, he is here with us as he promised—doing his work among us and through us. But the time of fulfillment and completion is coming soon. We have a yearning for the mission he has given us and a yearning for his return.
“Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men and women of courage; be strong. Do everything in love” (1 Corinthians 16.13-14).
“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus is with God’s people. Amen” (Revelation 22.20-21).
The Lord is faithful! May we all know his grace, his presence, his enabling, his work in and through us—till he returns.
Peter J. Blackburn spent over five decades ministering to Christians and studying the Bible. Now it is time, he says, to take a fresh look at the nature of the Church. In “Jesus at Work: A Call to the People of God,” Blackburn challenges Christians and church leaders to stop getting caught up in the division of denominations, but rather come together as one.
Ordained fifty years ago in the Methodist Church, Peter J. Blackburn is a retired Uniting Church minister; married, with five children and eight grandchildren. He has an honor’s degree in New Testament and always seeks to make biblical truth clear to modern hearers. During forty years of active ministry, he served in rural, regional and metropolitan Methodist and Uniting parishes, throughout Queensland. He has exercised a leadership role among conservative evangelicals in the Uniting Church, nationally.