Here is a snapshot of a unique meeting Whitefield had during his life:
“Whitefield met with the Associate Presbytery as planned. He spoke of them as “A set of grave venerable men”. They immediately began to present their doctrine of church government and the Solemn League and Covenant, but he told them they might save themselves the trouble, for he had no scruples on the subject. He asked them what they would have him do, and the answer was that he was to preach only for them till he had further light. He asked why only for them. To which Ralph Erskine replied that “they were the Lord’s people.” He stated that he was “determined to go out into the highways and hedges; and that if the Pope himself would lend him his pulpit, he would gladly “proclaim the righteousness of Christ therein”. (p. 105)
Some context is probably needed to understand what is going on. Whitefield journeyed to Scotland to evangelize and observe the work being done there. The Erskine brothers (Ralph and Ebenezer) were influential pastors and ardent Presbyterians. They believed strongly that their method of church government was correct and apparently believed that Presbyterians (and only Presbyterians) were “the Lord’s people”. In the above paragraph, we see clearly Whitefield’s indifference towards “denominationalism”.
Yet in reading about Whitefield, we must remember that he himself never left the Church of England. Even more surprising was his unwaveringly loyalty to the mother church, since they themselves were the first (of many) to try to limit his preaching ministry.
A couple questions should be asked at this point: What did Whitefield think about denominations? How should we think about denominations?
Whitefield did not view denominationalism as a test of Christian fellowship.
Some would call Whitefield an iterant preacher and that classification is probably appropriate. He understood that his calling was to preach the gospel to everyone, without partiality, which included Baptists, Presbyterians, independents, etc. Furthermore, the blessing of God on his ministry mandated that he preach in the open air (since very few churches could accommodate the crowds). Obviously, this meant that people from all denominations were coming to listen to this increasingly popular preacher.
I think the issue was very basic for Whitefield. He believed that Christians are here to proclaim the gospel and live under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Denominations are wonderful instruments that can promote better accountability, effectiveness and clarity in the areas of doctrine, discipleship, training and global missions. Yet Whitefield also experienced the glaring weakness of denominationalism, which is the temptation to elevate what is secondary to a place of primacy.
People today have a growing distrust of church denominations. The reasons are many, but I would venture to say that their distrust stems from the focus (of many churches) on petty issues or their disdain for a “black sheep” church that gets more notoriety (i.e. Westboro Baptist Church). This does not mean that denominations are not helpful or even valuable. The pages of church history are filled with stories of what they have done for the name of Christ. Yet it seems that when denominations begin to care more about their distinctives, policies, or by-laws rather than the gospel and the core doctrines of the Christian faith, then the effectiveness of their denomination begins to wane.
I grew up in a GARB church (General Association of Regular Baptists) and came to appreciate their focus on believer’s baptism, the separation of church and state and their view on eschatology (Pre-tribulational and pre-millennial). Yet their position on church government (i.e. deacon-led and congregational rule) does not reflect (in my opinion) the biblical data, which clearly teaches that local churches should be led by a plurality of elders.
Yet, in my assessment, the subject of church government is a secondary issue and therefore, should not be a test of fellowship with my brothers in Christ, who happen to attend a Baptist church. Christians that separate because of these “secondary” issues are immature in the faith and are unknowingly servants of Satan (Mark 8:33). We should be ashamed that many people are turned off by Christians, not because of our persistent presentation of the gospel, but because they don’t see a people committed to reconciliation, peace and love.