Review: The Fractured Church
The Fractured Church by Bill Sizemore
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Sizemore argues passionately for unity in the church. The presence of denominations violates God’s command to be of one mind and think the same thing” (Phil. 2:2). I was a little slow to realize it, but this is the case for the non-denominational church. The author calls at the end for the dissolution of denominations. Pray for unity, for specific churches you go past. Don’t describe yourself as anything but mere Christian. Pray and worship together locally, not as competitors. Repent of divisions caused by the presence of denominations.
Fractured Church has many strengths. His description of what can be accomplished through unity, using the tower of Babel, is compelling. He gets across the “not how it’s supposed to be” of denominations. That there is no recognized authority in the broader church; there is a denomination for every opinion (pg. 117). He gives a good summary overview of basic divisions since the Reformation (pg. 137-40).
He passes on to us Francis Schaeffer’s challenge: Unity must be visible, not only spiritual. He points out the hindrance disunity is to evangelism on pg. 260: “we fail in our outreach to our city to the extent to which we are not connected to all of the other believers in our city.” The chapter on Rome was very good. The ideal of having elders appointed for every city, one leadership group for a local area, is a good one. His optimism that the church will mature into unity before Christ returns is attractive.
But there are many questions.
Sizemore says the whole church has to decide together controversial issues. This is his basic solution – conciliarism. Get a church council together. I agree, but how? Who will call the meeting to which every Christian group will come? Would the author himself come to a meeting summoned by a leader who is part of a denomination? By the pope? It seems doubtful, based on other comments he makes. He asserts that decision by majority at ecumenical council was adequate, for the first 500 years of the church. This is partly true, although the Arians kept disputing and dividing the church throughout those councils. A church council is no guarantee of real unity. Such a claim finds Rome or Eastern Orthodoxy attractive for its organizational unity through the magisterium.
Sizemore asserts that the mere existence of denominations is sin. “Divisions other than on a city basis were unheard of” in the early church (pg. 306). “A denomination is a division…. if a doctrine or name separates one group of believers from other Christians in the same area, it is a prohibited division” (253). Not just having a sectarian spirit, but their mere presence violates Scripture, he claims. It seems to me that denominations are a stop gap measure to deal with our differing interpretations of Scripture. Are they really dividing Christ? Many issues are deal-breakers: the ordination of women to ruling office, the acceptance of homosexual behavior. Shall we shrug and say that whatever our leaders decide is fine, on such things? We need a way to operate as the church with differing views. It is naïve to simply expect people to change their convictions to conform to the consensus. He confuses accepting our historical inability to unite, with willful rejection of /trying/ to unite. He confuses personal offense a la Matthew 18 with denominational differences (pg. 178). He assumes that denominations create divisive doctrine, but they simply summarize their interpretation of Scripture.
Naiveté is the downfall of Sizemore’s thesis. He says that since the early church got through disagreements without dividing (Acts 6 and 15), we could hold a council today to decide issues dividing us. We would have to choose humble, not proud men, but they could bring unity. I also find it naïve to consider one city church deeply connected. We cannot be complete without being connected” (pg. 309). How much of a connection must we have to satisfy Sizemore? There are limits to how many people we can meet with and know. It seems insufficient for pastors to meet with other pastors regularly, but it is naïve to dissolve all denominations and have one church in the city.
There is much inconsistency at play. He admits that the division at the Reformation was necessary (pg. 110). But following his thesis, Luther would have submitted to Rome, not continued a church apart from Rome! He says we must stop arguing about secondary issues, but also gives hinted arguments for things like the continuing office of apostle or believer’s baptism. He claims we should stay neutral until the whole church can decide, but can’t resist implying that adult rebaptism by the Anabaptist reformers was a continued reformation (many like me would see it as a novel departure from the church’s practice). Can we say nothing if all do not agree? He contradicts this by arguing positions others disagree with. He questions Augustine’s adage “in non-essentials liberty.” Only the whole church can say what the non-essentials are! But the whole church has, in the creeds. Also, we must speak on election and baptism, and other things found in Scripture; must we remain agnostic and silent if all do not agree about them? We have to DO things about which we disagree. What if the city church will not baptize my baby? Who decides what the communion service will look like, and what will be said about Communion? Do we take turns doing it the Baptist way one week and the Catholic way the next? Sizemore makes a clear distinction between essentials and non-essentials, which is good. But many non-essentials must be decided and resolved if we are to proceed to worship, send missionaries, translate a Bible, serve the poor, etc. Why not let differing groups with differing opinions proceed, instead of forcing an artificial unanimity?
Other weaknesses of the book:
- the author falls for the “Dark Ages” view of history. That the strength of the church faded from Ascension to 600 AD. Development of church government was corrupt. Constantine was a bad development, leading to nominalism and syncretism. The church was corrupt and ignorant until the Reformation.
- Sizemore is fundamentally anti-institutional: we should follow the Spirit, and not set up camp (institutions) that will resist the Spirit’s next move. But the Spirit organizes and plans, too, He doesn’t just send down fire for initial revival. The abuse of a thing (institutions corrupted) does not argue against their use or existence.
- Everyone goes to the church they agree with most. Is this inherent pride and sin? NO.
- Is it each individual’s fault that the whole church is not unified? NO
- An undiscerning view that all revivals are good, though he realizes that emotion is insufficient.
Sizemore exhorts us to not ask if it’s possible, but ask if it’s biblical. If it’s biblical it’s inevitable. In one sense I agree with him that denominations are not the way the church is supposed to be. But maturity cannot be forced through immediate and drastic action. Let us befriend and forge deep fellowship with Christians of a variety of persuasions, rather than condemn denominations. Let us practice speaking civilly to those with whom we disagree. The church IS fractured. Let us take baby steps to address it in our own backyard, before shooting for the moon.
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