Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

Following on from my thoughts in the previous post, I have decided to write a few follow-up posts on the subject of denominations, Church union and reunion.

When Christ founded His Church, He founded it to be a growing and maturing, rather than a static and unchanging entity. Primitivist ecclesiologies are suspect for this reason. The NT pattern of the Church is normative in certain respects, but is designed to be outgrown in others. Christ wants His Church to become more glorious with age and a reversion to the more simple worship and structures of a past age can be a step in the wrong direction.

In the OT we see God directing the flow of history for the purpose of maturing His covenant people. He moulds and transforms His people through a number of powerful events and experiences. He builds up His people and then breaks them down, in order that they might be refashioned into something newer and more mature.

In the OT God takes a family group of nomadic shepherds and brings them into Egypt. In Egypt He breaks them down. In the Exodus He reforms the people under the leadership of Moses and elders and then later forms them into a priestly nation around the worship of the tabernacle. He settles them in the land as a group of tribes under the leadership of judges. Later He breaks apart this order in various ways. The tabernacle order is gradually dismantled and a united kingdom is formed under Saul and David. God later causes the kingdom to be split and begins to form new communities around the prophets. He then deconstructs the old order even further when Israel and then Judah are overcome and exiled. The reformed people that we see in Ezra and Nehemiah are no longer split into two groups as the old kingdom was, but have become one whole people.

Through this process the people of God changed radically and became something quite different from what they were at first. While the historical process by which the people were transformed may at first appear to be without specific direction or purpose, closer examination will reveal that God’s hand is within it all. In all of the fine details we can see the hand of a master Potter at work, shaping His creation into something fit for His glory.

When we think about God’s formation of His people we are in danger of focusing too much on the agency of direct revelation, particularly in the form of ideas, God moulding His people by revealing new doctrines and truths about Himself to them. However, if we truly believe that God governs the course of history we need to take seriously the fact that God forms, takes apart and reforms His people through His general governance of the flow of history. Our minds and characters are formed just as powerfully — probably far more powerfully — by the experiences and events that we undergo than they are by new ideas that we come in contact with. Certain experiences can attune us and make us receptive to ways of thinking that we would not otherwise have appreciated.

God raises up enemies for His people. God causes old orders to shatter and raises up leaders and visionaries who can bring in new ones. In 1 Kings 12:15 & 24, we see that God’s purpose and agency was behind the split of the kingdom of Israel. The split of the kingdom profoundly shaped the consciousness of the people of God in the years that followed. After this event they had to learn to think of themselves in a very different way. During the time of the united kingdom their identity may have been strongly rooted in having a Davidic king over a union of the twelve tribes. After the split of the kingdom they had to learn to think differently in a situation for which there was no obvious precedent. Such historical events reshape a people far more than mere ideas often can.

Within the new order formed by the split of the nation there would probably have been those who would have taken the old order as normative, insisting that only those under the Davidic king were the true people of God, and claiming that the nation would only know true unity when the northern kingdom ceased its rebellion and returned to its God-appointed ruler. The problem with such claims is that they fail to factor in the manner in which God’s agency was at work in the split. God took the kingdom away from the Davidic king because of the rebellion of his house (1 Kings 11:11). The primary rebellion was not the rebellion of the ten northern tribes, but of the Davidic king.

Furthermore, God continued to deal with both the northern and southern kingdoms as His people. In the way that He dealt with the two kingdoms He did not underwrite either of their claims to being His one true people.

God’s guidance of history in order to form His people did not cease in the first century AD. The Church has changed considerably since it was first founded and continues to do so. God continues to mature His people and the process is far from complete yet. We will continually face the temptation of regarding one era of history as normative and, in so doing, refuse to mature into the sort of people that God would have us be. Old wineskins that we have become quite attached to will have to be permitted to burst, in order that new wineskins might be given.

For instance, the maturation of the Church did not cease at Westminster in the 1640s. There will come a time (indeed, it may already have come) when we are called to allow the order of the Westminster Standards to break apart, so that something more glorious can come. Like old shoes, such orders in the Church serve well for a time, before they develop holes and start to hinder rather than encourage further growth, causing the Church to hobble in pain, when they should be enabling her to run with ease.

The sort of biblical analogies that I have briefly sketched above can help us in thinking about such events in Church history such as the Reformation. If we truly believe that God’s guidance of history hasn’t ceased and that He is still moulding and forming, breaking down and reforming, His people through historical events we will have new perspectives with which to view these sorts of events.

Through the Reformation God created a very new order within the Church. Whatever our convictions regarding the biblical character of the claims made by the Reformers, if we truly believe that God continues to form His people through His providential guidance of the course of history, we must wrestle with the question of why God saw fit to split His Church at the Reformation.

While many Protestants will claim that the split at the Reformation was purely a matter of God separating His true people from a false church and delivering them from a Babylonian captivity, I am not so sure that it is that simple. On the Roman Catholic side there are those who will insist that there has to be only one Church and that Protestants have left this Church by rejecting the authority of the pope over them. Once again, I think that the reality is more complex than this.

As in the case of the split of Israel, I don’t think that God straightforwardly supports either side’s ecclesial claims against the other. The subsequent history of Israel and Judah shows that splits in the government of the people of God do not necessarily destroy the oneness of the people of God in other respects. The people of God remain one by virtue of their covenant relationship with Him, even if they are scattered among many different church structures. Against Roman Catholic claims, the unity of the people of God is not ultimately dependent upon being under the Pope. The unity of the Church is found in its relationship to Christ.

None of this is to deny the desideratum of visible and even institutional unity. My point is rather that such institutional and governmental unity is not absolutely essential to the unity of the Church. Just as in the case of Israel and Judah, the essential unity of the people of God is found in their relationship to Him. The two nations continued to be related to each other by virtue of this fact.


Then John answered and said, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow with us.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not forbid him, for he who is not against us is for us.” — Luke 9:49-50

As Peter Leithart has observed, the root cause of the split in the Church at the time of the Reformation was the Church’s tolerance of idolatrous practices and ways of thinking about salvation. This was also that which led to the split of Israel. God’s judgment upon the Davidic dynasty was not, however, a rejection of the Davidic dynasty from the purpose that God had mapped out for it. In the case of the Reformation, I believe that we can recognize the necessity of the split, without denying that God may have a future planned in which the Bishop of Rome has an important role to play. The Reformation was a judgment of God upon unfaithful Church leaders, but God did not leave the Roman Catholic churches entirely desolate, just as He left two tribes with Rehoboam.

The division between Roman Catholics and Protestants is not merely a judgment of God upon unfaithfulness, but also serves the purpose of quarantine. As long as idolatry in its various forms persists, reunion is forbidden as it is dangerous. Righteous kings of the southern kingdom of Judah were forbidden from close alliances with unrighteous kings from the northern kingdom for this reason. However, even though Judah could not reunite with Israel, God’s Spirit was quite active in the land of Israel, breaking apart and reforming a people for God.

Even in our own day and age, God is at work in places where He has forbidden us to go for our own safety. God is working in and with people in heretical churches, in compromised churches, in liberal churches. These are spiritual ‘hard-hat’ areas, which is why God forbids us to go there. However, we ought to recognize and be thankful for what God is doing in such places and pray for its increase.

God forms us personally through periods of illness. I grew more as Christian through long-term illness than I did through anything else. Many years of developing theological understanding has affected my faith less than a prolonged period of illness did. God uses such things to cause us to mature and I believe that He does the same in the life of His Church. The Church needs to develop a more robust theological immune system over time. God permits parts of His Church to succumb to the disease of error for a time. Bringing His people through the disease and through the lengthy subsequent convalescence is one of the ways in which God humbles and matures His people.

Not every illness is unto death. There are many of us who are thankful in many respects for having experienced prolonged illness. It alerts us to the value of the health that we had previously taken for granted, it occasions a reassessment of priorities, causes us to be more careful about preserving our health in the future and matures us as persons.

In the pride of our assumed orthodoxy we can rush to the task of writing ungracious obituaries in advance as soon as we see serious error in a church. I suggest that we need to be more cautious. In God’s providence He may choose to permit the errors of liberalism to ravage a denomination, before gradually restoring it to a new health. The disease may be the consequence of sin, but we should not presume that God desires the death of the sufferer.

We can often take a posture similar to that of Jonah in relation to Nineveh. We see the liberal church and delight to pronounce divine judgment upon it, not thinking that God may have a purpose of surprising grace in the situation. The story seldom ends in quite the same way as we think that it will do. Our God is a god who adds the twist to every tale.

It has been almost five hundred years since the Reformation began and yet, despite numerous predictions of its imminent demise over the last centuries, the Roman Catholic church is still with us. In fact there are exciting signs of new life in many quarters. There has been a resurgence of biblical scholarship. Among the laity in many areas there has been an increased reading of the Bible. As Mark Noll has observed, with the new Catholic lectionary more Scripture is read in Catholic worship than is read in many Protestant congregations. Some of the finest theology of the last century has come from Roman Catholics. Undoubtedly many of the errors are still widespread. However, the story is far from over. I would not be surprised if God still has wonderful purposes for the Roman Catholic church.

As liberals and Roman Catholics return from the far country, our Father, who has wept over them and long desired their restoration, runs out to meet them with open arms and showers them with His gifts. What will we do? Will we rejoice in their restoration, or will we be more concerned that God acknowledge our superiority over them? Will we find ourselves left outside, while God uses the prodigals to accomplish His great works in the world? Will we be prepared to submit to God’s wisdom if it is through the work of Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals and Baptists that He chooses to deepen the Church’s understanding of His Word over the next century and accomplish a new great reformation? For all of our trumpeting about the gospel of grace, are we at risk of forgetting that it has the uncanny habit of bringing unexpected endings to the stories that we find ourselves in?

I say then, have the Roman Catholics stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, God’s blessing has come to the Protestants. Now if the fall of the Catholics brings riches for us, and their failure blessings for the Protestants, how much more their fullness!

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 1

  1. Dave Shedden says:

    You write: ‘In the case of the Reformation, I believe that we can recognize the necessity of the split, without denying that God may have a future planned in which the Bishop of Rome has an important role to play.’

    Protestants, especially Westminster Protestants, have tended not to deny the Bishop of Rome’s important role in future history… 🙂 It’s only in the last few decades that they’ve dismissed or ignored the RC church as either an irrelevance or as just another ecumenical partner.

  2. Al says:

    You are quite right! 🙂 Admittedly, that wasn’t quite what I was thinking of…

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  4. Dave Shedden says:

    Al, thanks for the article, and your comment. I guess I found it interesting to read your thoughts in the context of recent reading I’ve been doing on eschatology, etc. Few Protestants subscribe to their historic confessional positions on the Roman Catholic church these days. So, if you are premill and/or pessimistic about the future, there is little or no hope for the RC church. But if you are postmill and/or optimistic… slightly different story – almost everyone is going to be at the ultimate wedding banquet! It would be interesting to know the eschatological views of people most heavily involved in ecumenical work between Protestant churhces and the Roman Catholic church.

  5. The Scylding says:

    Alastair, your posts have come timeously for me, as I have wrestled (again) with some of these things of late.

    We should be praying daily for the “return from the far country” – for all of us.

  6. Pingback: alastair.adversaria » Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

  7. Amen and Amen!

    While researching Church History for my own classes, I was surprised to see Martin Luther’s positive treatment of the Roman Church. In a letter to an “enthusiastic” christian, he noted that it was the very “temple of God” in which the (papist) Antichrist would set himself up.

    He then spoke about his desire to remain united with the Catholic church, as it must be the true church of God. If it were not, his proclamation of the Pope as the Antichrist would not have been valid.

    I do not say this as an Anti-Catholic…quite the opposite, it forced me to re-think my previous anathematization of the Roman Church. It has also pushed me towards more ecumenical efforts in my studies.

    May we all wake up from our respective slop and run towards the running Father.

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  9. Josh S says:

    Regardless of recent development, one must not forget that Rome still enjoins prayers to the dead, exchanging cash or petty canonical obediences for salvation, seeking grace from a Jewish girl who is not God, sanctioning many unbiblical divorces, and absolute submission to a fellow in Rome. To this it has recently added a near-guarantee of salvation to those who deny Christ and follow either the Koran or the Talmud instead, and pronouncing a general salvation without absolution to all who basically try their best.

    If any of the confessional or conservative Protestant traditions were to do the same, we would lament their apostasy. Now the past four centuries have finally brought to Rome some movement in the right direction, but the fact is they still have a long way to go.

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  11. Al says:

    Yes Josh, you are right. There are many things that must happen before reunion could really be an option. The root problems of idolatry still persist in many ways. However, I am encouraged by what I see as positive signs of movement in the right direction.

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  13. As Peter Leithart has observed, the root cause of the split in the Church at the time of the Reformation was the Church’s tolerance of idolatrous practices and ways of thinking about salvation.

    I’m curious what exactly he is referring to here? Is it the Mass? If so, then that is still alive and well, thank you, and the Catholic Church is not (from this critical perspective) one whit less “idolatrous” than it was in 1517.

    The problem then becomes: “how does one accept as brothers and sisters in Christ a communion that (so the criticism goes) enshrines rank, gross idolatry at the very center of its worship?” It makes no sense to take a middle position of “sure, Catholics are Christians” but then hold that they commit idolatry every Sunday.

    The other thing about the sacrifice of the Mass is that it has considerable patristic support.

    I’m assuming that the idolatry referred to is the Mass, but say it was the Catholic doctrine of Mary instead. If so, then again, our Mariology is considerably more robust now than it was then, with the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption now ex cathedra binding doctrines.

    So you would have to say (from a Reformed perspective) that Catholics are far worse on both scores now than they were then. Even papal infallibility is far more defined now than then (even conciliar infallibility — in the fully Catholic, papal sense — saw significant development in Vatican II).

    As you can see, I’m trying to trap the ecumenical Reformed position on the horns of a dilemma. I would contend that anti-Catholic Protestantism (much as I loathe and detest it) is actually more consistent than an ecumenical Protestant position that continues to regard the Mass as idolatry and blasphemy (I’ve pressed Lutherans on this, too, and they seem to have no ready reply). The anti-Catholics call a spade a spade. That’s how they view Catholics and so, consistently, they read them out of Christianity altogether.

    To do ecumenism with Catholics, and to be halfway consistent, you will have to find a way to “tolerate” the Mass as the Mass, and to not have the schizoid view described above. The Mass would have to be, it seems to me, regarded as not essentially different in kind of degree of error than other Protestant forms of worship that differ from reformed (say, Penetecostal or Mennonite).

    On a more positive note: I agree wholeheartedly with your remarks about the definition of “gospel”. Indeed, I have been making virtually an identical argument for many years now, both as a Protestant and as a Catholic. It’s refreshing to see some Reformed Christians agreeing and refusing to redefine the gospel as TULIP.

  14. Dozie says:

    “Against Roman Catholic claims, the unity of the people of God is not ultimately dependent upon being under the Pope. The unity of the Church is found in its relationship to Christ”

    Is your assertion more authoritative than that made by Catholics? The silliness of the entire post is that some Protestants spend a lot of time dreaming that the unity of the Church depends on their little opinion or how they feel about it. When the Christian Church finally unites, it is very possible no one will invite your denomination to the discussion or even recognize that it exist. However, no meaningful discussion about unification will ever take place without the Catholic Church driving it.

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  16. Jason Loh says:

    How ironic that there is no call for a reformation in the unreformed Roman Communion so that the catholicity of the Church may be equalised within the whole of western Christendom? The reality is that Rome will never return from the far country without a reformation.

    All the talk about eventual reunion, ecumenical prospects, ever-deepening mutual understanding, etc. is just that: TALK.

    True catholicity does not consists in yearning for unity with Rome as long as the Gospel of Justification by Faith is glossed over. True catholicity consists in unity in the Truth, something which over-eager Protestants never seem to understand, thus betraying the cause of the Protestant Reformation over and over again.

  17. Al says:


    You are right to observe that the Church won’t achieve true unity before Rome reforms. However, little progress will be made if all we do is complain about the other parties’ faults. Unity will never be achieved without movement by all parties. My concern is that we do what we ought to do. I leave the situation in the Roman Catholic church in God’s hands. If He desires to bring about unity He will reform the Roman Catholic church. In the meantime we ought to do what we can to pray and work towards a truthful unity from our side.

    I desire a visible unity for the Church. I also believe that God desires such unity for His Church. However, a compromised unity is not something to be desired. I do not desire full unity with Rome as she is now. As things now stand in that communion, we do well to keep a degree of distance. Nevertheless, the desire for a future, truthful, unity is a biblical one.

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  21. Chaarliew says:

    Dear Alistair,

    Thanks for these helpful posts. In the previous post you say “Try to get involved in other group projects with other congregations in your locality.” My local CofE does very good and long-established work in food distribution, but the rector takes a liberal position on same-sex marriage and universalism. Would you draw a line at partnering with congregations such as these?

    Many thanks,


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