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How Institutionalism Breeds Division

February 25, 2013
S. Michael Craven
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Every organization requires rules in support of order, discipline, and efficiency—and the church is no different. We, too, have rules that aid in the organization and operation of the church. (There is always some measure of institutionalization required in the church.) In addition, we have established other rules that aid in the understanding and practice of the faith such as creeds, confessions, statements of faith, doctrinal statements, and so on. These are helpful guides to what we believe. What they don’t say is what we don’t believe. These conclusions we may draw by implication.

For example, your local church, tradition, or denomination may subscribe to adult baptism or “believer’s baptism” and this belief may be included in your doctrinal statements. Then you encounter another Christian who subscribes to infant baptism (paedobaptism) and you may assume by implication that their belief is wrong (because it differs from your institutional convictions) and thereby conclude it must be a false interpretation of biblical faith.

Christians have throughout the centuries—and most especially following the Protestant Reformation—arrived at very different understandings about a multitude of issues related to the teaching and practice of the Christian faith. Unfortunately, we tend to form enclaves around these doctrinal understandings, which are eventually institutionalized into denominations, thereby distinguishing us from other Christians. The result is sectarianism, which can create divisions within the body.

No longer is there such a thing as “mere Christianity” to borrow C. S. Lewis’s phrase, but Catholic-Christianity, Protestant-Christianity, Orthodox-Christianity—not to mention the countless Protestant denominations and nondenominational representations of Christianity. Universal fellowship centered on the person and work of Jesus Christ is exchanged for tribal commitments to traditions and various nonessential views.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t have deeply held doctrinal and theological convictions, merely that we should recognize that the Scriptures often leave room for the many varied interpretations of Christian practice. As the late Dr. Francis Schaeffer pointed out, the Bible is true truth—sufficient for salvation—but not exhaustive truth. It’s completely true about everything to which it speaks, but it doesn't speak about everything there is to know (see 1 Corinthians 13:12). Given this condition, which the Lord has determined, it becomes dangerous to speculate through implication on those things that are not essential to salvation and elevate them to essential beliefs that divide.

If we take seriously the Lord’s request of the Father that we “may be brought to complete unity” (John 17:23) then we would be wise to listen to and fellowship with one another in a spirit of love and charity; for according to Christ, this is how the world will believe that the Father has sent the Son (see John 17:21).

© 2013 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Michael Morison  

February 25, 2013 12:32 PM

How Institutionalism Breeds Division:
Interesting article, and the truth. As I travel to some destinations in Africa - presently in Malawi, and this subject has come into my mind a lot as they always tend to ask you - "what church do you belong to" and obviously I tell them that I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ. This gives me opportunity to evangelize and also to help them to think of Christianity in the correct context!
I am fortunate that my company send and pay for me to travel on business and it affords me so many opportunities to spread the Good News - starting with my own employees and gradually the Lord has helped me to move further affield and I am now called Pastor wherever I go. I must admit that these 'opportunities' have come about as a result of my prayer "the Jabez prayer" that I prayed many years ago and the Lord has gradually prepared me for the work and now I can be His instrument. I am still learning a lot and must admit that it is very humbling and a great blessing, and to do this to the Glory of God is all I ask! Admittedly the people here and everywhere I go need much prayer and assistance, both spiritually and financially and poverty is a great problem. Changing attitudes helps a lot and they are very open to listening about the Lord and what He wants to do for them. We need to really bring every country before the Lord in prayer so that they can start with spiritual awakening and can start reaching out to the many lost souls. Thank you for the messages that provide so much insight and blessings. Every Word of God helps to keep my mind on track so that I am able to not only drink it in but also speak about it with more authority! Keep the blessings rolling in!

Response from : Celie Dean  

February 25, 2013 3:12 PM

I agree so much on this article. If we are going to "be known by our love" for one another, we have such a long way to go to overcome the divisions!
Thank you for your faithfulness to His word.

Response from : Geoffrey Bullock  

February 25, 2013 5:15 PM

Amazing things can be done in the name of Christ if we work with all those with whom we hold the essentials of the faith in common. In Toowoomba Queensland, Australia - a city of about 100,000 - the Christian Leaders Network consists of about 40 pastors and Christian workers who have united under the banner of the Apostles Creed. They work on the essentials of the faith, and as a result, transformation of the culture occurs through the unity displayed. Always imperfectly, but you can see the joy of the Lord in their midst.

Response from : Jim Lange  

February 25, 2013 6:27 PM

Very well said Michael!

Response from : Bob Stier  

February 25, 2013 9:44 PM

Agree with everything you said, Michael. However, what you said is used by my denomination of ordination [PCUSA] to justify ordination of homosexuals. We must "tolerate" one another when we differ on issues not essential for salvation. So perhaps some qualification is necessary.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

February 25, 2013 10:02 PM

Of course you are correct, some do attempt to justify any doctrinal position including heresy. However, therein lies the test; to deny that which IS essential to salvation, i.e., repentance, is by definition heresy. Unity is not to be pursued at the expense of Truth.

Response from : Common Christian  

March 3, 2013 2:15 PM

It is encouraging to see others who see the problems of institutionalism and other 'isms that are damaging to the Body of Christ. We encourage all to continue to seek the Lord for practical ways that encourage more positive movement toward practical unity without including contradictory truth claims and practice. We invite all to for practical recommendations and thoughtful discussion. Let us always remember we are all one in our Triune God!

Response from : Patrick Jam  

March 6, 2013 7:48 AM

Thanks for the article. when you say that the Bible itself gives room for varied interpretations and subsequently varied practices,do you by this want to say that we should embrace others with their different beliefs even when they are not Biblically sound so that we can be united as John 17 says?

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

March 6, 2013 7:53 AM

The variation to which I refer pertains to non-essential matters. Of course, there is no "unity" with those who preach heresy. I should think this is obvious.


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