God’s Garden: The Role of Denominations

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The builder of the church can make beautiful strokes with our crooked sticks.

Some time ago a friend and I were discussing the merits of TULIP (see sidebar). While I appreciated his loyal enthusiasm for the acronym, I jokingly said, “But I’m sure God loves roses too.” That led to a discussion of church relationships, or ecumenicity.

TULIP also suggested to me the analogy of the church as a garden. There’s more in Scripture to confirm this than I had first realized. Genesis 2 speaks of God planting a garden, while Psalms 44 and 80 portray God “planting” Israel in the land. Jesus calls himself the true vine and his followers branches (John 15:1); Paul continues the theme by speaking of believers being “grafted” into Christ (Rom. 11:17ff.).

Thinking of the church as a garden gave me a new perspective on how we should view other denominations and confirmed my fear that we too readily dismiss them. Is it possible that we are so involved in our own “brand” of Christianity that we are ignorant of or indifferent toward other denominations?

Two Extremes
I believe there are at least two extremes we need to avoid. One is being so convinced that “our” church is the one and only true church that we look askance at other denominations. The second is believing that those “other” denominations are the result of sinful motives and thus should be dissolved in order to reorganize as one new church.

Perhaps we need a reminder that Christ, the builder of his church, is also the Creator of all things. The flora and fauna of his created world are an eloquent testimony to the Creator’s love of diversity, which was also evident when Christ began his church by choosing fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, and, belatedly, a scholar—the apostle Paul.

The first extreme, which accepts the validity of only one denomination out of the many, is a kind of monism that fails to capture the kaleidoscopic nature of the Christian faith. If roses could fully portray the beauty of all flowers, why would God make carnations? Christians are called upon to appreciate the beauty and rejoice in the diversity of the “one holy catholic church.”

The second extreme is a monism of another kind: it sees the unity of the church as the result of mechanical forces and administrative actions.

While it may be true that the birth of some denominations involves a sad or sordid story, we must not forget that the builder of the church can make beautiful strokes with our crooked sticks. Millennia ago, Joseph was granted the sanctified vision to see that although his brothers intended him harm, God used their actions to save many people. There’s no hint in Scripture that the brothers were exonerated for their actions, but it was clear that God is great and good. Similarly, the gospels describe the events of “holy week” as a series of ugly human actions. Yet through God’s grace and power we see in Christ’s death and resurrection the salvation of humankind. It is the only ladder to heaven.

The New Testament gives us an example of something close to “schism.” Paul and Barnabas cannot agree on whether John Mark, who had deserted them earlier, is a worthy companion for their next missionary journey (Acts 15:39ff.). Although the author of Acts makes no judgment as to which party is justified, the result is clear: instead of one missionary team, there are two. The builder of the church works in wonderful and mysterious ways.

Instead of bemoaning a “fractured church,” perhaps we should celebrate the richness of a diversified church.

Does this mean that one denomination is as good as another? Probably not. If you ask a florist, “Which is the best flower?” she’s likely to respond by asking, “For which occasion?” Furthermore, there are circumstances in which tough language must be used; denominations that deny the deity of Jesus have certainly gone astray. Maybe for some reason beyond our comprehension God has permitted weeds in his garden—or else “some enemy has done this.”

A Word of Caution
To those who wish to dissolve the present variety of denominations to create one church under one administration, a word of caution is in order. History has demonstrated that when the church was one, and powerful in administration, it was also at its ugliest. Even the mention of the word “inquisition” is enough to make further discussion unnecessary.

To those who are certain that their denomination has a corner on “all the truth and nothing but the truth,” a word of caution is also in order. Do not be counted among the arrogant who think that their little thimble can hold God’s ocean. During Jesus’ time on earth, the Pharisees and the Sadducees held tenaciously to their conflicting dogmas. (The Pharisees were convinced that there was an afterlife; the Sadducees were equally convinced that there was no afterlife.) Both groups were so invested in the “truth” of their own position that, tragically, few seemed to recognize the One who is the truth, the way, and the life.

The make-up of Jesus’ band of disciples may also guide us here. What we know of Jewish history in the first century is that there was sharp tension between publicans and zealots. The former were viewed as traitors, the latter as highly patriotic. Jesus chose one of each to follow him. Yet there is no hint of a spat between Matthew the publican and Simon the zealot. I know of no way to explain that other than recognizing that both were in the presence of him who is the Truth.

So let us not allow our self-generated certitudes to function as “truths” that eclipse him who is the Truth sent from God. It takes the guidance of the Spirit to help us discern and appreciate God’s designed diversity from the weeds sown by the enemy. The Spirit works through the Word. As plants nurtured within God’s lovely garden, we do well to listen to Scripture: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).

We Calvinists are sometimes referred to as adherents to the dourest brand of Christianity. Usually this is because of our emphasis that the alpha and omega of salvation is from God. And yet that very emphasis compels us to say that whatever is lovely in and of the church is from God. That perspective allows Calvinists to speak openly of the beauty of God and his church. It leads us to revel in the works of mercy done by Mother Teresa and her organizations. And it compels us to give thanks when an Amish family forgives the murderer of their daughter.

What is not so lovely is when those outside of the church observe that two denominations subscribing to the same doctrinal standards show little or no cordiality to one another. When that happens, how can people come to any other conclusion than that these doctrinal standards are of little value?

On the other hand, how beautiful it is when denominations encourage one another in matters that are “excellent and praiseworthy”! Such behavior encourages “outsiders” to join the “great crowd no one can number” and to put on the beautiful robes of righteousness Christ has prepared for them.

In the meantime, with joyous anticipation of that great day, we can sing the beautiful words of Király Imre von Pécseli’s 17th-century hymn:

There in God’s garden
stands the Tree of Wisdom,
whose leaves hold forth
the healing of the nations:
Tree of all knowledge,
Tree of all compassion,
Tree of all beauty.

In the Dutch Calvinist tradition, TULIP is an acronym that refers to the five points of doctrine spelled out in more detail in the Canons of Dort: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints.

Related link:
Information about the Christian Reformed Church’s Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations Committee (crcna.org)

About the Author

Rev. Clarence Vos is a retired minister in the Christian Reformed Church and a professor emeritus of religion and Old Testament at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich.

See comments (6)


Well said!  I would add that not only is it a shame when denominations with similar doctrinal standards do not exhibit cordiality towards each other, but it is also a shame when denominations with somewhat different doctrines who still claim Christ as divine Lord and Savior, do not exhibit cordiality towards each other.  Having doctrines on paper is not the same thing as living by them or understanding them.  (For this reason sometimes bigger differences happen within denominations than between denominations.)  Often different doctrines are often not as different as they sometimes appear to be, but simply God's magnificence and grace stated differently. 

Consider me a big fan of other denominations and the Christians in them.  Don't misunderstand, I'm a really big fan of reformed thinking, both theology and worldview thinking, but what is good about reformed thinking has in fact infiltrated a number of other denominations quite a bit in the past five decades.  Christians from other denominations have different styles and perspectives, sometimes because of theological nuances, sometimes because of liturgical and living styles, and sometimes for who-knows-what reasons, and that can be as helpful (to the church as organism) as genetic diversity can be to human biology.

Paul's analogy of the church as being one body but yet many members applies, as I see it, as much to the holy catholic church (the one body) and its various "traditions" (the different denominations, non-denominational churches, RC church etc) as it does to individual members in a local congregation.  Maybe even more.

The more one works with Christians of other stripes for "common causes," the more one appreciates the holy catholic -- the organic -- church.  At least I think so.  And this doesn't have to diminish one's appreciation for one's "original" tradition (in my case that of the CRC, sans perhaps the denomination's current infatuation with all things left-of-center, politically speaking).  It hasn't for me.

Really appreciated your article, Clarence.  It is amazing how much we can learn from each other from the different denominations.  We can piggyback off one other in our walk with our the Lord.  I really liked your quote, "But I'm sure God loves roses too."

Its easy to get swept away with flowery interfaith talk. But a lot of these ecumincal movements like the WCRC are unhealthy. We are bunched together in a fake bouquet of denominations that are apostate and would not even suscribe to TULIP! Have we become a denomination that lacks biblical discernment and willing to comprise truth? 

As to Kevin Hoekman's comment, I don't really regard WCRC as so much of an ecumenical organization as a political organization.  The WCRC is an organization much more bound by the Accra Confession than by what we refer to as the three forms of unity.  I think CRC churches (at the local congregational level) have more in common with their local PCA, Lutheran, Baptist, CMA, etc. churches than they do with other members of WCRC. 

Our denominational level folk may think the opposite, but to the extent they do, I think they are out of sync with the substantial majority of local CRC churches.

Clarence Vos, you said it here better than I was thinking it. Thanks!