How the Institutional Church Chose to Steer its own Course Through This World's Stormy Waters...

As I write these words it is February, 2008; it should be cold, but we don't seem to have had a real winter this year and the sunshine is sparkling with the spring daffodils already in bloom.

While it is rarely cold here in South Wales, UK, the late autumn/early winter period from November until about February certainly sees a lot of rain and dismal days, this makes one just long for the bright early spring sunshine and - for us - it has recently arrived in full splendour!

This detail from Claude Monet's delightful 'Monet's Garden at Vetheuil' (1880) seems to sum up the lazy, hazy and plentiful days of summer.

As we all know, many creatures actually hibernate in winter and, as I sometimes joke to friends, it often seems to us like they have the right idea!
Biblically too, winter seems to be presented as a season in which no man can work, whilst spring and summer harvests are periods of yield and fruitful abundance.

The winter can quite readily be compared to the spiritual winter which exists upon this earth during the present age. During this period the Church is somewhat similar to that lonely ark which drifted through a watery turmoil and torrent. That ark, containing just eight human souls, was the sole beacon and haven of earthly peace and joy during the Great Flood. Similarly, the Church (I speak not of organisations nor buildings, but of those individuals whose hearts are full of the love of God, indeed, hearts in which the eternal kingdom is already established), is the only place of true hope, solace, peace, freedom and joy during the present age. Of course, the world sees it very differently: they believe that they have all that they need, and, if there is anything they do not have, they believe that people can somehow eventually bring that about too - the great lie which our adversary has so successfully placed in the minds of successive human generations is the intellectual/mental/spiritual self-sufficiency of the human race. Even while spiritually dead, people have truly come to believe that they are enlightened and wise (Genesis 3:4-6) and that - given time - there is nothing that they cannot achieve. The absolute truth is that people are blind, naked and heading for destruction! The politicians of the world have contrived to hide this great truth from people, assuring them that human society itself can fashion its own 'utopia.'

The great ark was alone upon the waters because the people of the world had been destroyed. The Church too is surrounded by the spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1), and it must steer its course through the often choppy and unpredictable waters of a society which - at the very last - will do everything it can to destroy it (Revelation 11:7-13).

“It could strongly be argued that the great creeds made the later denominationalism unecessary, for the yardstick and measure had already been applied.”

I say 'steer' but, of course, Noah knew that he could personally do nothing to steer the ark, it contained no 'on board' steering system, so he simply trusted the Lord to guide it to the designated final resting place among the Armenian mountains; it was a full work of faith - nothing less. In contradistinction, church leaders have believed that they themselves could steer the course of the church by their own efforts. God has probably 'winked at this' and stood off, knowing that Christians would learn many lessons by the inevitable striving and dissent that this path of human self-sufficiency would certainly lead to. Now, there is no doubt that God encourages responsibility, spiritual acumen and decision-making in His human Creation - that is true - and yet, sometimes Christians have wanted to 'call the shots' in a self-sufficient manner which is actually God-denying, and denominationalism has been the result. The example of the New Testament and of the early Church seems to be to quickly recognise and to denounce heresy, but, beyond that, to allow genuine differences of opinion among true believers; but sadly denominationalism chose the path of separation over even minor doctrinal differences. The analogy would be of Noah finding a way to personally steer and direct the great ark because of feeling that he could not entirely trust God - that is exactly what sincere and devout believers have undertaken and strife and division have been the result.

Even within the New Testament we may find differences of opinion in certain areas between Paul, Barnabas and Peter, yet these men would have quickly denounced true heresy. If we then consult the writings of the 'church fathers' of up to around AD500 we may also find differences of opinion in various peripheral areas (sometimes quite strong differences of opinion), yet there remained one, true catholic Church ('catholic' in the sense of being universal), but the heretics were quickly noted and kept firmly on the outside; this is why the great early creeds (such as the Nicean Creed) were drawn up rather quickly, because it was considered of paramount importance to note which points were pivotal to true Christianity and which points did not compromise true Christianity. As an example of this, Arius soon found himself on the outside because of his rejection of the divinity of Jesus - the New Testament does not allow for the rejection of the divinity of Jesus. On the other hand, both Tertullian and Origen - while holding to all the main points of true Christianity - occasionally expressed somewhat strange views and opinions even while remaining within the true Faith.

Denominationalism would erroneously come to believe that true believers should stand in a sort of mental, cultural and spiritual straitjacket. Rather than looking for reasons for unity, it would seek out reasons for division. It is certainly true that Christian men and women came to wear their particular denominational badges with pride, yet the irony is that they would almost all have agreed about the true substance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the Great Commission was and is about preaching that message to all. Their often willing division has frequently made the Christian witness to the world dim, vague and has certainly greatly reduced its overall impact and efficacy. Whereas the Roman Empire of the 4th century saw one, unified Church of Jesus Christ - and its impact was truly substantial - the modern world has witnessed hundreds of groups who have often been seen as preferring to maintain and continue their doctrinal squabbling rather than adhere to the vital principle of John 13:35, and to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:45-49).

So without question the organised church has made many mistakes - mistakes which have greatly reduced its efficiency, and yet the invisible Church - those men and women written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world - are, of course, unhampered by any of this and such people long and 'ache' for the return of our Lord, a return which is sure and certain, even if scoffed at by unbelievers.
So, firstly, we may compare the time of winter, when the quality of light is so weak and poor, to our present world and civilisation. When the parousia comes, a bright light will engulf the entire world causing the bright sunlight of early spring to fade into insignificance! Then, following the Great Judgment, we will have spiritual summer, the time spoken of in Revelation 21 and 22.

Secondly, we may well ponder at how denominationalism - testimony to the bickering and strife of men who should have kept their eyes much more firmly on Christ - has robbed the present age of a more powerful Christian witness. But we perhaps should not overly lament this point because our Lord surely saw its inevitability and those whose names are written in the Book of Life from the foundation of the world are unaffected.
Robin A. Brace, February, 2008.

"All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast - all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." (Revelation 13:8, NIV throughout).
"Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind." (Isaiah 65:17).