I have recently been thinking about the relationship between churches and denomination and was interested to (re-) read some of the writing of Broughton Knox. Definitely worth a read is his article 'Church, Churches and Denominations of the Churches', originally published in The Reformed Theological Review, Vol 48, 1989, pp. 15-25. Reprinted in D. Broughton Knox: Selected Works. Volume II: Church and Ministry. Kirsten Birkett (ed.), Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2003. p85-98. (For a fuller assessment of the 'Knox-Robinson' doctrine of church see Mark Thompson's article: 'Knox-Robinson for Today'.) I thought I would share this extract is from pp.95-98.
These days, structures naturally arise to assist the fellowship within the congregation and to assist the fellowship between congregations. When these structures are more than one in any areas they are normally called denominations. But whether one or many, or whatever their name, these structures are not churches or part of the church. They are 'parachurch' organisations, for they exist alongside the churches to facilitate fellowship within and between churches, each one of which is a full and true visible expression of the one holy catholic heavenly church, the fellowship around Christ of all his saints (Heb 12:22-24), for Christ is present and his people are present. Nothing more is needed for a full expression of the gathering, or church, of Christ.This parachurch organisation must not exercise the duties of the congregation on behalf of the congregation, for this takes away the responsibilities of the congregation, and so weakens instead of strengthening its fellowship. In particular, a denomination must be careful not to exercise jurisdiction within the congregation, for it is outside the congregation and not in personal fellowship with those in dispute, so its jurisdiction may well lead to schism within the congregation, and obscure the visible unity of the church.Instead of elaborate denominational amalgamation, what is needed as a first step is denominational simplification by handing back to the congregations those functions and responsibilities they had in the New Testament and the early centuries. Then it would not be difficult to unite into one these simplified denominational structures.Both Christians and congregations need fellowship to grow in Christ-likeness. The denomination expresses fellowship beyond the congregation. Members and ministers of congregations need to know and consciously remember that they are part of the larger heavenly church of Christ, and to experience that wider fellowship.This is the contribution that denominations make to the spiritual growth and joy of the Christian and the congregation.Centralised control outside the congregation extinguishes the gospel within the congregation in due course. History confirms this truth abundantly. Even the smallest degree of control has this effect in the long run, for experience shows that the centre, when given a control of the congregation, over the decades increases it, aiming at uniformity and obedience. But the gospel rocks the boat of the denomination! The centre finds this uncomfortable and increases its power until it controls the boat, not by the word of God and prayer, but by organisational rules backed by secular sanctions, so that the word of God and the Spirit of God will hardly be found any more in the denomination, for it will not create nor hold the spiritually minded members.Denominations are called 'churches', and this nomenclature misleads many into thinking that they are part of the one holy catholic apostolic church. But the denomination is not a church, inasmuch as the denomination never gathers. Gathering is the only meaning of the word 'church' in the Old and New Testaments. The church building is also called a church. This is the most common use of the word. But no-one confuses the building with the church of Christ. The difference is clear in the English language. 'To go to church' means to go to the local gathering of the church. 'To go to the church' means to go to the church building. The church building is a physical structure to facilitate the fellowship of the church by keeping out the wind and the rain. The denomination is an organisational structure to facilitate the fellowship of the church with Christians in other churches. To call the denomination a church is strictly inaccurate, and in furtherance of clarity of thought ought to be dropped, and the word denomination always substituted.. . .The denominational structure exists to facilitate this wider fellowship beyond the congregation as opportunities arise for it to be expressed. It links congregations with one another. It creates and provides facilities to the congregations in matters concerning fellowship, such as suggested liturgies, finance for buildings, superannuation for its ministers, and opportunity from time to time for fellowship in congregations drawn from a wider area than the locality, and so on. Congregations should be in fellowship with one another. They should not act independently of other congregations. Independency is not a Christian concept. It is contrary to God's nature and to our nature as he has created it. Independency is a contradiction of Christian fellowship. Congregations should not act without respect to other congregations. Denominational structures assist the interdependence of congregation. These links are a natural creation of the fellowship of the Spirit of God. The denomination and its officers have a ministry which is common to all Christians, that is to help, advise, encourage and exhort the congregation and its members. It should not apply sanctions to the congregation or to any of its members, beyond the sanction of severing links of fellowship with that congregation. Coercion destroys fellowship, and a congregation should be free to sever its links with a denomination without penalty, for example, without loss of the property it uses. Coercion is contrary to the character of God and the rule of God, and to fellowship in Christ.
Of course, there is a lot of Biblical and theological background to what he is saying here. . . I hope to give some reflections on what Dr Knox says in a future post.