From the Editor—Friday Reflections

July 26, 2019

A Church's One Foundation

On Denominations & Personalities

I lived in the Motor City when the Big Three automakers significantly changed their models every year. They couldn't just reissue the perfectly-fine model from the previous year. I knew how old every car on my street was. And each brand had a personality--a Thunderbird or the new Mustang or the Corvette Stingray. And not just cars. Each brand of toothpaste and cigarettes offered "sex appeal" or "coolness" or what have you.

The church has been tempted by branding, from early on: "I am of Cephas, I am of Paul, I am of Apollos...."

It was evident in the church of Corinth that some believers wanted to identify with a particular preacher or interpreter of Jesus. While they had various levels of experience of Christ given to them through their experience of the Holy Spirit, the preaching of the Word, and the Lord's Supper, a particular preacher or teacher became their badge of Christian identity.

It is natural to jump from this first-century Corinth to today. "I am a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Roman Catholic, an Anglican, an Eastern Orthodox Christian"--all labels that are tied in varying degrees to specific teachers/-ings and/or interpretations of Christ.

It is commonly said that Paul in First Corinthians is responding to early signs of what we call  denominationalism. But we should be careful not to conflate two factors: identification based on doctrinal disagreement and identification based on loyalty to a particular teacher. Of course, sometime those two things come together: a doctrinal division over the teachings of one Nestorius, for example. But Cephas, Paul, and Apollos did not differ, as far as we know, in what they taught. So, was it perhaps more about their personalities?

The identification with personalities continues today--a "personality cult" in both mild and severe forms can result. In the milder form, a congregation becomes identified as "Pastor Smith's Church." After the Pastor leaves, the church may decline because no one can fill his shoes. The church members did not mature into a strong community of disciples, including those able to teach and inspire others--exhorting and building one another up in the Faith. This is the corporate health that Paul presents in his epistles. He was "in travail until Christ is formed in you," urging that every member of the Body grow up into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

In the apostolic church, a Crystal Cathedral of Corinth would have attracted negative comment, and an Apollos Club of Corinth would have run against the grain of what Paul was teaching the Corinthians: Christ crucified is the fount of our identity.

The goal of a denomination, a bishop, patriarch, pope, pastor, and a congregation should be the lifting up of Christ always and ever before the audience of believers for their edification--their building up as the Body of Christ on earth.

John Chrysostom was popular for his golden-mouthed sermons, but his sermons reveal little about him personally--they were not about him but focused on Jesus Christ and his gospel in the Scriptures. As Patriarch of Constantinople he did not erect "John's Golden Cathedral." He put himself under submission to the Gospel and its application to daily life, enduring imperial wrath for his faithful teaching which allowed no partiality. He died in exile but is revered as a saint--reflecting Christ's glory in his teachings, life, and witness. He was not like the spiritual rock star, who like its secular counterpart, expresses himself through his own brand of music rather than point listeners away from himself and upward to the transcendent beauty and grace of Christ, who would draw all men to himself. A church not constantly pointing to Jesus and obeying him risks becoming just another brand of religion.

Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,

James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James


James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.