We sit down with Peter J. Blackburn, author of Jesus at Work, and discuss his thoughts on the current state of Christian denominations and what it means for the church organization to become a “church organism”.
Where do you think the attitude of “denominationalism” came from?
Every human activity, even when it is God-ordained, needs structure – we see the beginnings of this in Ephesians 4.11 and ff. The issue raised in Jesus at Work is that the corporations – the structures – established in support of the mission of Jesus are incorrectly identified as “the Church” – individually or together. What we now call “denominations” arose because of a number of historical events and competing for doctrinal differences. The problem with denominationalism is that we make the human structures “the Church” and get right out of touch with Jesus himself. The issue raised in chapter 2 is very much part of present-day “denominationalism” – “The simple issue I raise here is that I hear the clamour of the many denominational churches of today claiming to be the ‘one true’, the ‘original’, in true ‘apostolic succession’, the ‘authentic’, the ‘Spirit-driven’, the largest, the best, the greatest… Yes, it does somehow come back to that early contention between the disciples. Our ‘denominations’ aren’t ‘the Church’—individually or taken en masse. They may serve the Church Jesus is building—or be a hindrance to it.” (Jesus at Work p 29)
What is the difference between the church organization and the “church organism”?
We are not “saved” by our connections with church structure or liturgy or any other guarantees of “correctness” – but only by the completed work of Jesus Christ. Our “life” comes from our relationship with him. To view the church as an “organism” is an attempt, not only to receive what Christ has done for us historically but to live in daily connection to him. It also leads us into our relationship with other believers – even beyond “denominational” boundaries.
What can church leaders and pastors do to combat denominationalism?
The issue is often embedded in church doctrine, liturgy, and procedures. Younger leaders and pastors often feel obliged to “toe the line” – it isn’t easy to “break the mold”! The book Jesus at Work challenges leaders – young and old – to study carefully the nature of “the church” from a Biblical (non-denominational) perspective, and to begin to express “love” (non-denominationally) towards believers of a different theological and/or liturgical perspective from our own. The results could be revolutionary! The issue that came as a surprise to me was the question of “Who is the greatest?” Oh yes, I knew it was there in the text, but – “In the upper room during the Last Supper, Luke records that the question arose again. Curiously, it is after they have received the bread and the cup. Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him. ‘They began to question among themselves which of them it might be who would do this. Also, a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest’ (Luke 22.24). A strange combination of issues to be on their minds at the same time!” (pp 27-28) Another assumed solution was what I call the “ecumenical dream” – “Sometimes it is inferred that all of the present denominational churches and their congregations put together are the Bodies of Christ. In a sense that has been at the heart of the ecumenical dream. What did Jesus mean when he prayed “that they may be one as we are one” (John 17.11c,22b)? Did he envisage that all believers should come under the one huge worldwide ecclesiastical structure? I think that is a serious misunderstanding of what Jesus prayed. It would be the ultimate expression of “who is the greatest?” (p 58).
Is there a role for the congregation/laypeople fit your vision?
The congregation and lay people are right at the heart of what I am talking about. However, we have often limited the congregation to its place within the “corporation”, rather than allowing it to be the instrument of the “organism” – and of life and growth in the local community, fulfilling Jesus’ vision of building his Church, growing his Body and gathering his Harvest – our connection to Jesus, our connection to one another as the people of God, our connection to the world community. “And right there [Ephesians 4.11] is the beginning of a framework for an organization. The Church began without buildings of any kind, but in the time needed buildings too. Yet the Church is essentially not buildings or organizations. It is the people of God—gathered for worship and scattered for witness and service” (p 23).
What should megachurches do? Is there a place for them in your vision?
Most congregations aren’t “megachurches” and we sometimes envy megachurches because of the wide range of activities that are possible in them – and not possible for us! The major issue facing the leaders of megachurches is the need for intimacy and small groups. Their leadership knows that, if they cannot succeed in forming small groups, they will fail. The key issue isn’t “Who is the greatest?” Nor, by the way, should small congregations react that somehow their smallness makes them a “purer” form of the faith! But – “Are we, as congregations and as individual Christians, expressing the reality, truth, and grace of Jesus Christ each day in our own communities?” Let this be the vision and passion both of megachurches and of the smallest gatherings of believers!
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. “Denominationalism is not the original purpose of Jesus,” Blackburn said. “The term ‘body of Christ’ points to our relationship to Jesus, rather than to the church ‘corporations,’ set up to fulfill our mission.”
Blackburn is a retired minister, with a Bachelor of Divinity with Honours in New Testament from the University of Queensland. He also wrote “Between the Lines: Dialogues for Worship,” as well as numerous small dramas, sermons, and poems, freely available at his website.