THE PARABLE OF THE TENANTS AND DENOMINATIONAL DIVISION
Jesus's parable of the tenants in Matthew 21:33-46 is an important text for establishing how Christians should view the idea of denominational divisions within Christianity.
“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.” Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
The owner of the vineyard is obviously God. The vineyard is the people of God itself. Who are the tenants? They are the leaders of the Jewish people, appointed by God (Matthew 23:2, Acts 23:5, etc.) to lead his people. The messenger servants sent by the owner of the vineyard are the prophets of old who brought God's messages to his people. The son is, of course, the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Who are the "other tenants" to whom the vineyard will from now on be leased to? They are the leaders of the Christian Church. So here is the gist of the story, taking into account its real-world referents: God formed a people for himself in this world. He appointed the Jewish leaders to watch and rule over it and care for it (by administering its laws, teaching the people, etc.). But the Jewish leaders did not perform this function well. They rebelled against God and refused to fulfill their purpose. God sent the prophets to warn them that they needed to do what God had appointed them to do, but they refused to listen and even opposed and murdered the prophets. Finally, God sent his Son into the world as the final messenger, but the Jewish leaders rejected him and killed him as well. This was the final straw. God is now rejecting the Jewish leaders and punishing them, and is putting another group of leaders, the bishops of the Christian church, in charge of his people to lead, teach, and discipline them.
I want to focus on what this parable has to say regarding denominational division among the people of God. Notice, first, that the people of God are described as a visible body with visible leaders. They are also described as a single body. They are an organized group with common leaders. In effect, they are a denomination, since a "denomination" is simply a religious group with a common set of laws and rules and beliefs under a common government. There are not multiple denominations here, since there is only one set of leaders. There is one organization.
Notice next that up to the current time (when Jesus was speaking), there had only been one denomination from the beginning. Never before had there been a situation in which a new denomination had been formed. The tenants originally granted leadership over the vineyard continued to exercise that leadership until after they had rejected the Son. There was never a previous time when that group of leaders had been rejected as a group and replaced by a new, discontinuous group of leaders.
Observe then that now, in Jesus's time, there will be for the first time a replacement of the leadership. The old body of leaders will be ejected, and a new body will be established in its place. The old organization, or denomination, is being rejected, and a new one formed in its place. The new body is continuous with the old in that it is fulfilling the same basic role--to shepherd the people of God. But the new body is discontinuous in that it is a new visible governing body. It has been established as a new body in the place of a rejected body, as opposed to being simply a continuation of the old body.
Lastly, observe that there will never again be the establishment of a new organized body of leaders in place of the old. Unlike with the old body, which constantly failed and was finally rejected as a failure, it is promised of the new body that it will succeed where the old one failed and therefore never need to be replaced.
DENOMINATIONAL DIVISION IN THE HISTORY OF GOD'S PEOPLE
As we look at the history of the people of God in the Bible, we see the pattern outlined in this parable played out. God called his people at the beginning and gave them leaders--Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, the priests and elders appointed by Moses, etc. These leaders in fact governed the people of God all the way up to the time of Christ, when the chief priests and the elders among the Pharisees were still ruling the people. When Jesus walked the earth, he attended the mainstream synagogues of the Jewish people, not some break-away synagogue. The path of the people of God in the Old Testament was very rocky (to put it mildly!). The people were constantly rebelling against God and constantly being disciplined, restored, disciplined, restored, disciplined, restored, etc., etc., etc. But throughout all that time, no matter how bad the people got, no matter how idolatrous they became, no matter how much they apostatized from the truth and the law of God, never did God authorize a rejection of the body of leaders as a whole or the organization of the Jewish people to form a new visible body. The prophets were sent to the people to warn them century after century, but they never advocated forming a new organized body of the people of God--a new denomination. There was never a time when they called for the people to leave the current organization to form a new one which would then exist separately from the old, rejected one.
The idea of forming a new denomination was actually brought up rather early, in the time of Moses. After the people had committed the sin with the golden calf, God said this to Moses (Exodus 32:7-10):
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
God himself proposes the making of a new organized, visible body of his people out of Moses's descendants to replace the old one. The new people would have continuity with the old one. They would still be descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So wouldn't that fulfill the requirements of the covenant with Abraham? Moses didn't think so (32:11-13):
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”
It turns out the whole thing was a test for Moses, and Moses has passed. God agrees with Moses (v. 14): "And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people." Of course, God was not about to forget his covenant and break his promises, but he wanted Moses to stand up for what was right himself. (See something similar going on in Genesis 18:16-33.)
We see from this that the replacing of the old visible body with a new one is a big deal in God's view. Even if there is a lot of continuity, it is unacceptable. God has not just chosen for himself a vague, nebulous, semi-visible body, but one that comes with a unified, visible, governmental identity, and to destroy that organizational body and replace it with another is equivalent to forsaking God's people and trying to form an entirely new people of God.
The parable of the tenants is very reminiscent of what happened here with Moses. But according to Jesus, what was unthinkable in Moses's day will now become a reality. God will indeed cast off his old visible organized body and replace it with a new one, a new nation that will produce the proper fruits. Is this incompatible with God's previous promises to Abraham? Did the establishment of the Christian Church involve God breaking his earlier covenant promises? It's a reasonable question to ask. The Apostle Paul addresses the question in Romans 9-11 quite explicitly. If you go back and read the passage, you will see that his answer has three parts to it. The first part of his answer (9:14-33) is that the rejection of the Jews does not mean God has abandoned his promises because never has it been the case that all the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have been considered children of the promise. God has always maintained an elect group within the visible body to whom the promises ultimately apply. But this doesn't entirely solve the problem, for Moses could have used that argument to agree to God's hypothetical plan to start all over again with him. So Paul goes on in the second part of his answer (11:1-10) to point out that God is continuing to preserve a remnant of Jews in the Church. It has never been and never will be only Gentile. But even this doesn't solve the problem, for if God had started all over with Moses it could still have been said that a remnant of Abraham's descendants had been preserved. So in the last part of his answer (11:11-32) he affirms that the falling away of the Jews is only temporary. They will eventually be grafted back into their own olive tree. So "all Israel will be saved" (v. 26). This satisfies the requirement. The visible body of the Jews cannot be rejected, because "the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (v. 29). They have been rejected, but only temporarily. Things will be different from now on. They will have to share the body of God's people with the Gentiles (as was always a part of the promise), but they themselves will not be permanently rejected.
So we see how seriously the Bible takes denominational division. There is only one time in the entire history of God's people where it was right for the old organizational, governmental body to be rejected and a new one put in its place, and that was at the most central, pivotal time in all of human history--and even then, the rejection was only temporary! And if denominational division was considered unthinkable and abominable in Old Testament times, when "failure" was the dominant characteristic of the people in terms of their ability to be the holy people God had called them to be and to keep the covenants he made with them, how much more will this be the case in New Testament times in the Christian Church! Unlike the Old Testament community, the New Testament people are promised specifically that they will succeed where the old people failed.
"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
The gates of hell prevailed against the Old Testament people of God and their governing body. That is one of the main points of the parable of the tenants. But an equally main point is that the gates of hell will not prevail against the New Testament people and their governing body. We will never need to do in the Christian Church what had to happen with the Jewish Synagogue--we will never need to break away from the visible, governing institution of the Church in order to found a new one. We will never need to reject an earlier Christian denomination in order to form a new one. The Church has the New Covenant, whereas the Old Testament people had the Old Covenant. The promises of the New Covenant are infinitely greater than those of the Old. Whereas the Old had types and shadows, the New Covenant has the fulfillment and the substance. Whereas the Old Covenant had the law and the promises, the New Covenant has the Spirit and the fulfillment of the promises. The promise of the New Covenant is that the sins of the people will be forgiven and they will be caused to be truly righteous and holy through the redemption of Christ and the Spirit of God. This does not mean that there is complete discontinuity. Redemption and the Spirit of God were operative in Old Testament times, and sin is still present in New Testament times (at least until everything is brought to completion). But there is also a radical discontinuity. The Old Testament had righteous saints, but overall the people failed. The New Testament has sinners, but overall the people will succeed. The reason for this disparity is to highlight that it is only with the New Covenant that the promises of the Old Covenant can be truly realized. The Old Covenant was never meant to be the substance and the fulfillment, but was always meant to point to and be completed by the New.
PROTESTANTISM AND THE FAILURE OF GOD'S PROMISES
In light of all of this, I think the Protestant position on denominational division is untenable. The Protestant position implies that the same thing that happened to the Jewish Synagogue has also happened to the Christian Church. It went apostate to the point that the people of God needed to come out of it and abandon it and form a new organizational body (the Protestant Church). All Protestants must hold this in order to be Protestant, for all Protestant churches have come into being by forming a new body upon the rejection of an old body previously adhered to. The Protestant position ignores Christ's promises to his Church regarding how it would be different from the Old Testament Synagogue.
Protestants will object at this point (of course :-) ). One objection they may raise is that the Protestant Church did not make a complete break with the Catholic Church. They will say that the Protestant Church is actually in continuity with the older Catholic Church and is indeed its true successor. Because of their apostasy, it is the Romanists who have truly broken off from the Catholic Church and formed a new denomination. Now, it is true that upon a Protestant reading of things there would be true continuity between the Protestant Church and the earlier Catholic Church. In their view, they have the same faith as the early Church. They are still the same people of God. All they have done is refuse to submit to the overall governing body of the Catholic Church to whom they were previously in submission and to form a new governing body to fulfill the same functions and be the true successor of the old one. Even some of the leaders in the new body were leaders in the old one before, and so there is continuity that way as well.
But this will not save the argument, for the Christians could have said the same things upon their break from Judaism. The Christian Church saw itself as the true successor and continuation of Old Testament Israel. St. Paul (Romans 11) describes the people of God as an olive tree, and says that the Jews have been broken off from it and the Gentiles have been grafted on. The Old Testament and the New Testament peoples are the same people of God, but under different dispensations of God's salvation history. The Christian Church claimed that they were continuing the same fundamental faith of Old Testament Israel, and it was the Jews who had betrayed that faith by rejecting the Messiah. There was even continuity in terms of individual leaders. Some of those who were leaders among the Jews became leaders in the Church. Think of the Apostle Paul, who was a Pharisee before he became an apostle. Also "a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith" (Acts 6:7). So there was lots of continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament people, but this is not enough to stop Jesus from saying in the parable of the tenants that the old governing body had been rejected for a new one. He even calls the new body a new "people" or "nation" (v. 43). And he says that this will never happen with the new people. The kind of break that divided the Church from the Synagogue will never happen in the Church. There will never be a situation where a part of the older body goes out from the visible body, rejecting the decisions of its governing body, to form a new body with new overall leadership. And yet that is exactly what happened in the Protestant Reformation. The Protestants left the existing institution, rejected the decisions of its overall leadership, and formed a new organized body with a new overall leadership. It doesn't matter that there was some continuity; there was not enough continuity to preserve Jesus's promises to his Church. Protestants cannot escape the conclusion that according to their scheme it has to be said that the gates of hell prevailed against the established Christian Church, requiring them to form Church 2.0. The gates of hell prevailed precisely in the ways that Christ promised they would not prevail.
Some more history and tradition-oriented Protestants like Anglicans will try to argue that the above arguments don't apply to them. The Anglicans, for example, will say that the Anglican Church never broke off from the Catholic Church to form a new body. They will say that the Anglican Church was already established before Henry VIII and so a new church was not formed. But this is inaccurate. Sure, there was an English church before Henry VIII, of course. But what was it like? It was Catholic. More specifically, it was Roman Catholic. Its bishops were in conscious and avowed submission to the Church of Rome. It was not a church on its own, but was a province of a larger Church. Its leaders were not supreme in an independent sphere, but were a part of a larger body of leaders over all the other provinces of the Church, under the supreme headship on earth of the Bishop of Rome. And that is not merely my description of what they were; it is how they would have described themselves. When they broke off from Rome, then, they were breaking off from the larger body they had previously been a part of to form their own new and separate organization which would now no longer be a province of the Roman Catholic Church but a distinct and independent body--indeed, a body in opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, with contrary claims. Its leaders abandoned their previously avowed foundation for their authority and made up a new basis that before they would have rejected. Imagine that in ancient Israel some province within Israel had broken off from the rest of Israel, refused to submit to the common leaders of Israel, and set themselves up as a new independent body out of communion with the rest of Israel. Would this not have been seen as schismatic, as the rejecting of the people of God for a new people of God? Of course it would have (Joshua 11). Even in less divinely-inspired human organizations we can see the same thing. If a local branch of Wal-Mart suddenly decided that it was going to refuse to submit to headquarters, break off from the rest of the body and set itself up an an independent store in direct opposition to Wal-Mart rules, it would be silly of them to claim to be the "true" Wal-Mart. Obviously, they are not Wal-Mart anymore, but something new, for the old body continues and this new body is, well, new, even if there is a good deal of continuity in various ways.
I have been talking above as if there is such a thing as "the Protestant Church." But, of course, that is granting more than reality will permit. For the Protestant Reformation was really like the starting of an avalanche on the top of a mountain. The Protestant leaders (Luther, Calvin, etc.) were originally hoping they wouldn't have to break with the Catholic Church. When the Catholic Church refused to do what they wanted and to change according to their desires, they had to break from it to form a new church. They hoped this would be a one-time sort of thing, but the reality proved far different from their hopes. Of course, what we have seen ever since is that Protestantism has exploded into a myriad of competing traditions, beliefs, and denominations. Having started down the path of feeling it is OK to have denominational divisions, they have not been able to stop themselves from doing it again and again and again. (It's like eating potato chips--"Once you start, you can't stop!") It seems that just about every generation or maybe century or so (and often much more rapidly than this among some), the various Protestant churches feel it is time once again to shed their own denominations for new ones, like a snake shedding its skin from time to time. Even Anglicans, once having broken from Rome, cannot stop themselves from shattering into little Anglican break-away groups. Of course, it is always said that there are good reasons for any particular break. It would seem that once breaking away is considered acceptable, there are just about always good reasons to keep doing it again and again. But according to Christ's promise, there should never be a good reason for this. The whole idea is based on a fundamentally flawed foundation, and I presume that the disintegration will never stop until this is recognized and Protestants go back to the point they started from and take a different direction.
Of course, Protestants may wish to argue with me on my biblical interpretation regarding these matters. Of course they will, for that is what Protestants do, and that is precisely why they can never find unity. Their fundamentally incorrect attitude towards denominational division is rooted in a deeper fundamental problem--the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. But this is not the place to pursue that discussion any further. (See here, here, and here.)
I would like to end with a couple of quotations from St. Francis de Sales, who really has written one of the definitive books on this subject (and one I would highly recommend all Protestants read--you can find it here at Amazon.com or here or here online). The quotations are taken from The Catholic Controversy (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers, 1989), but the text is copied from here with some minor corrections). de Sales is speaking to Protestants (back in the sixteenth century).
FIRST, then, your ministers had not the conditions required for the position which they sought to maintain, and the enterprise which they undertook. Wherefore they are inexcusable; and you yourselves also, who knew and still know or ought to know, this defect in them, have done very wrong in receiving them under such colours. The office they claimed was that of ambassadors of Jesus Christ Our Lord; the affair they undertook was to declare a formal divorce between Our Lord and the ancient Church His Spouse; to arrange and conclude by words of present consent, as lawful procurators, a second and new marriage with this young madam, of better grace, said they, and more seemly than the other. For in effect, to stand up as preacher of God’s Word and pastor of souls, - what is it but to call oneself ambassador and legate of Our Lord, according to that of the Apostle (2 Cor. v. 20): We are therefore ambassadors for Christ? And to say that the whole of Christendom has failed, that the whole Church has erred, and all truth disappeared,-what is this but to say that Our Lord has abandoned his Church, has broken the sacred tie of marriage he had contracted with her? And to put forward a new Church, - is it not to attempt to thrust upon this sacred and holy Husband a second wife? This is what the ministers of the pretended church have undertaken; this is what they boast of having done; this has been the aim of their discourses, their designs, their writings. But what an injustice have you not committed in believing them? How did you come to take their word so simply? How did you so lightly give them credit? (P. 11-12)
But the word of Our Lord frees us from all these difficulties, who has built his Church on so good a foundation and in such wise proportions that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it. And if they have never prevailed nor shall prevail, then the extraordinary vocation is not necessary to abolish it, for God hateth nothing of those things which he has made (Wis. xi. 25). How then did they abolish the ordinary Church to make an extraordinary one, since it is he who has built the ordinary one, and cemented it with his own blood? (P. 26)