John Knox on why denominations have their uses but are not essential


It’s argued that Samuel Rutherford started the ball rolling toward modern democracy and that it all began in the Church of Scotland. In the opening chapter of his biography of Samuel Rutherford, however, Kingsley G. Rendell gives a really helpful overview of the religio-political context of Rutherford’s life and ministry which shows how God used a complex situation comprising many individuals to bring about democratic government.  In summary, James VI of Scotland wanted to control the kirk but the emerging Presbyterian government of the church was pushing for internal democratic government, in the form of Presbyterianism.  The governance of the church by the monarch depended on the existence of a denomination with hierarchical governance, and so James favoured an episcopal structure.  And whilst this political manoeuvering rolled on, John Knox pointed out that a denomination is not the church:

Knox did not deny that national and ecumenical organisation has its uses, but he insisted that the esse of the church was to be found in the local congregation, where there is the true preaching of the Word of God, right administration of the sacraments of Jesus Christ – and ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered as God’s word prescribes.

This little paragraph reminds me of what the late Mark Ashton said about the local church and denominations. In his paper “Reforming the local church” he writes:

As we individually are committed to that process [reformation of character], so must our churches be. They must be regularly asking how they can bring their corporate life more into line with the will of God. It is not my task to address the denominational dimension of this matter. I assume that it is a task for the denomination too. But our churches do not have any right to campaign for the reform of the denomination, if they are not themselves actively involved in reforming their own church life. So it is on that level that I am going to focus in this paper.

As the Church of England and British government struggle to work out their respective roles in the life of the nation, there are lessons to be learned from history.  Just as James VI could not control the church from the top down, because the church is not the denomination, so the congregations cannot hope to shape the denomination or the nation from the bottom up, unless enough local churches are engaged in the process of biblical reformation. And local churches cannot be reforming unless the individuals within each congregation seek to be transformed by the grace and revealed will of God. Then, at the highest level, a democratic nation can’t be reformed, becoming a confessional Christian state, unless the church is reformed and individuals vote for Christian MPs or parties. All this is beyond the wit of man to organise, as it was in the days of the last reformation. It will take a movement of God to bring revival, individual reformation, congregational transformation, denominational change and a change of heart and mind in government so that God gets the glory and not man.  Samuel Rutherford did not set the ball rolling toward democracy, God did.

Denominational reformation will be important if the nation is to be won for Christ, but I must always remember that reformation begins with me, the individual, within the local congregation.

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