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Writing on the holy catholic church got me thinking about denominations. What are they, exactly, and how to they relate the the one holy catholic church?
I recently read an article on denominations that suggested that the Holy Trinity provides an analogy, if not a model, for how we think about the church.
Through the church, it is God’s purpose to draw people in Jesus Christ into the fellowship of the Trinity. Just think of what Jesus says in John 17:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
The doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the one God exists in three persons (hypostases in Greek). Each person of the Holy Trinity is so deeply woven in love with the others that they share a common will and purpose. The early church called it perichoresis, a dance of divine love.
When Jesus prays “that they may be one just as you are in me and I am in you,”he is praying that the unity of the triune God will be the lived experience of the church. In other words, the fellowship of trinitarian love is the model, the template, for life in the church of Jesus Christ.
This is a way of thinking of churches and denominations. God dwells in his church through the Son and Holy Spirit. It is the household of God (Eph. 2:19). Just as the one God is known in three persons (hypostases in Greek), so each part of the church, congregations, denominations, is a hypostasis, a personal expression of of the one God.
That means that the church, in all its places and forms, is one as God is one. It means that the most important calling of the church is to be an expression of that trinitarian unity of will, purpose, and love—“that the world will know that you sent me and love them even as you have loved me.”
If that’s true, then the unity of the church is no “side matter,” something to think about after we have taken care to mark our our own territory. It is essential to the church’s life and identity. Breaking that unity is deeply sinful—not just because it represents a sad parting of the ways, but because it is a form of denial of the very being of God.