As we become increasingly conscious of divisions within our own church, the wider divisions between denominations may have much to teach us. Stephen March has experience of them
Although a British, Protestant Evangelical and the son of a Protestant Evangelical pastor, I have been called by God to live and to serve the Kingdom of God within the French Catholic world. In the course of this article I will try to share some of the things that I have discovered and learned over the past eight years, that I believe can help Christians to better relate to each other across denominational divides.
Foundation of humility
When Jesus commissioned his apostles it was to make disciples that he sent them out. As Dallas Willard depressingly points out, the one thing you can truthfully say about every single expression of Christianity down through history is that it has never consistently managed to create large groups of people who actually resemble Jesus Christ.
The reason it is important to recognize this fact at the outset is that it instils a certain humility in our thinking. In our consideration of other branches of the Christian family, we are forced to evaluate them from the stand-point of fellow-failures. Our contentions with each other thus become always a matter of who is ‘less wrong’, rather than about who is wrong and who is right.
An understanding of the origins of our own denomination as well as the one we are encountering will also be vital in fostering understanding. All denominations are shaped by their context of origin. Every aspect of them is influenced by where and when they were formed.
An understanding of these origins will help us to comprehend their sensitivities. Some denominations were formed as a result of theological controversy. Some were a response to a movement of spiritual renewal. Some were birthed as a result of social factors. As in most human institutions, the origins are often a mix of the worthy and of the unworthy. To appreciate correctly a denomination we must understand the circumstances of its origin.
Learning a new vocabulary
If you are going to live cross-denominationally, you will have to learn a new language. Each Christian family speaks its own dialect, and in order to communicate, that dialect will have to be learned.
To give examples from my own Protestant, Evangelical tradition, we used such phrases as ‘personal saviour’, ‘making a commitment’, ‘being washed in the blood’. These phrases of theological short-hand become shibboleths by which we judge other Christians.
If someone from a different denomination does not respond immediately and affirmatively to the question, ‘Have you been washed in the blood, brother?’ then their salvation is immediately in doubt.
Of course this kind of experience also serves to reinforce the natural conceit that our denomination is the truest, healthiest and best expression of Christianity. So that’s double prizes then.
Any attempt to live successfully across denominational boundaries requires us to learn the language our hosts use to speak about their faith. Sometimes we will discover that we use different words to speak of the same thing. Other times we will discover we use the same words to speak of different things!
Creating the encounter
It must also be noted that whilst making disciples is the function of the Church, it is not an end in itself. The goal of everything is that God should be worshipped. The reason that disciples are needed is that God deserves worship. In the famous maxim, ‘Mission exists because worship doesn’t.’
Thus the creation of disciples and even the salvation of man are steps on the way towards the goal of everything – that the universe might proclaim the praises of its Creator.
This brings me to my second criterion for successful cross denominational living – spirituality.
Each denomination has learned how to enable its converts to encounter the living Christ. If it had not done so, it could not have survived. Whilst there will be many different components in a denomination’s spirituality, it will generally give prominence to one or two.
Traditionally, liturgical churches prioritize an encounter with Christ through the Eucharist, Reformed churches through the preaching of the word, Charismatics in worship, Quietists in silence, social activists in service to the poor.
All of these means of encountering Christ have a clear scriptural basis, and no doubt all of them will be present to some degree in a healthy expression of the Christian faith.
As we experience life within a different denomination we will have to learn to encounter Christ in their favoured ways. As a Protestant Evangelical I have had to learn to encounter Christ through the Catholic Eucharistic liturgy. I have had to learn to expect less from the preaching element in weekly worship, since it is not intended to have the central role in a Catholic worship context that it has in Protestant Evangelicalism.
In many ways this last point highlights one of the key ways in which different denominations can bless and enrich each other. I have been greatly blessed as I have learned to encounter Christ in a beautiful, rich, profound liturgical ceremony.
If my Catholic brothers and sisters were to experience an Evangelical testimony service it is likely that many of them would be equally enriched and blessed by the immediacy and the raw reality of people sharing their day to day experience of living with Christ.
Our denominational strengths should not therefore be seen as ‘lofty high places’ from which we look down on our Christian brothers and sisters, but rather seen as gifts that we can offer to each other for the blessing and strengthening of all.
These ideas are further developed in a book:
As Pilgrims Progress –
Learning How Christians Can Walk
Hand in Hand
When They Don’t See Eye to Eye,
co-authored with David Bjork [