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Posted: June 28, 2012 8:16 p.m.

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Where the church divides

Over the past few weeks we have been having an important conversation on when and how churches from different theological view points should and should not join together. I have labeled three levels of theological importance. The first level of importance are those things that people must agree on in order to be labeled a Christian at all. These included a correct understanding of God, a belief in the authority of the Bible, and a conviction that salvation is found in Christ alone. Now, you may be thinking, "if those are the level one areas of importance, and so many people agree on those things, then why are there so many denominations and churches?"

While there are certain issues of most importance, there are other convictions that Christians have that do matter. It is wrong to say that a person's convictions at any level, "don't really matter." For example, I do not hold my understanding of baptism by immersion at the same level of importance as my belief in the resurrection, but my conviction of baptism is very important to me and it is a central part of my own spirituality and my corporate worship. So what are these "denominationally" dividing, or level two issues? It is to this question that we now turn.

Level two issues can be categorized under two subheadings: Polity and Practice.

Polity is a fancy word for church government and describes where the authority comes from in a particular church. This is a major cause for denominational division. The Roman Catholic church for example, recognizes the apostolic authority of the Pope believing that Benedict XVI (the current Pope) has authority that has been passed to him throughout the centuries from the "first Pope," Peter, the disciple of Christ. Thus, Catholic polity has a "top town" authority with the final authority resting on the pope.

As a Baptist, I am a congregationalist believing in the priesthood of the believer, thus while the final authority for the Catholic church lies with the Pope, the final authority of a Baptist church lies with the particular congregation. There are many other structures of government; Presbyterian churches recognize the authority of a presbytery over a particular congregation, Episcopalian's recognize and Episcopacy and so forth. Ultimately all churches recognize the authority that Christ holds over the church, but how that authority is given to and manifested in a particular church has led to great denominational division.

The second major area of denominational division is Practice. I mentioned the mode of Baptism earlier. While all churches baptize, (this is a clear command of Christ in the Great Commission) the meaning and mode of baptism varies between denominations. For example, a Catholic understands baptism as the means to wash away original sin; a Presbyterian understands baptism as a sign of entering the covenant family; and Baptists understand baptism as a proclamation and experience of faith in the work of Christ.
Other areas or differences in practice are the mode and meaning of the Lord's Supper, the order of a worship service, and the use or liturgy (such as Thomas Cranmer's Common Book of Prayer.) I have my biblical reasons for believing the things I believe about church practice, just like a Catholic, a Methodist, or an Episcopalian have their biblical reasons for believing very different things.

Churches are not wrong to divide over Polity and Practice. My conviction on how a church ought to be governed is important to me, my convictions on particular practices in the church are equally as important. While these are not at the same level of importance as my belief that the Bible is the word of God they are still very important and are convictions. The puritan author and pastor John Owen said that while everything in the Bible is inspired and authoritative, not everything in the Bible is clear. When the Bible speaks clearly, we must listen and be united, but where the Bible leaves room for interpretation there will be differences, and as we discussed today some of these differences will be such that denominations and churches must divide.

Next week we will talk about the final level of theological differences, or level three theological issues. These are issues that people can disagree on but can still unite and join together in the same church. So be sure to look for the final article in this four part series on Theological Triage next Friday in The Covington News.

Jason Dees is a grateful follower of Jesus Christ, the husband of Paige and the father of Emery Anna. He is also the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Covington and a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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