I liked the pastor, I really did. He was friendly, smart, and easy to talk with. But he let slip a remark that stuck in my craw. “Our denomination,” he said, “is the only one that never left the path of the early church.” He said it good-naturedly and soon went on to another topic, but he meant it. His group, in other words, is the most authentic representation of a New Testament church. So what does that make my denomination? A second-class imitation? It rankled me even more because I’ve long been a bit uncomfortable with his group. I realized more clearly, in that moment, that I thought that they were the ones who had strayed from the simplicity of Christ’s early church and gotten way too formal and fancy. We, on the other hand, had kept things simpler, more “carpenter-from-Galilee” like. Or had we? I could sense my own provincialism smacking me in the face. What seemed best to me was what I had grown up with.
Welcome to denominationalism; the process by which a small number of early Christian churches has splintered into endless separate groups and denominations. In our small Midwestern town alone there are over 30 churches. This feels as though it’s in stark contrast to Paul’s statement in Ephesians 4:4,5:
4 There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
What are we to make of this? The Church’s critics have a field day with it. We say that Jesus is the only way and they reply “Which Jesus? The Roman Catholic one? The Baptist one? The Pentecostal one?” Even Christians wrestle with denominationalism. Some argue that it’s a travesty, that it’s not biblical. Others see it more positively. Today I’d like to share a few, limited observations on this subject.
The case for allowing denominations
1. The New Testament does not address denominationalism
Denominationalism did not exist in New Testament times. They had local churches, like the church in Ephesus, or the church in Philippi, but there’s no evidence of the Nazarene church or the Baptist church in Philippi. There weren’t that many people yet and the church hadn’t refined its doctrine that distinctly. Verses quoted against denominationalism, like 1 Corinthians 1:10, “so that there may be no divisions among you” are not dealing with denominations, but with divisions within a local church. Verses like the one I quoted earlier out of Ephesians 4, do speak of the unity of the universal church in Christ, but do not address denominationalism.
2. We are not limited in Christian practice to only what’s specifically mentioned in the Bible
This is part of a larger theological discussion: is the Bible intended to provide an exhaustive list of how we, as believers and churches, are supposed to live or do we have creative freedom to add new practices and customs as needed in future situations? I would argue for the latter. The church, from early on, has grown and adapted its practices to the needs of each new generation. Even the church in the second century was somewhat different from the early church. The main issue is not whether or not we replicate all the early church practices, but that whatever modifications we make stay true to basic biblical principles.
3. Diversity has always existed in Christ’s church
Individual Christians have always varied somewhat from one another. Look around your local church – is everyone just like you? Denominations take this individual variety to the next level. They occur when people with like beliefs cluster together.
4. Christian unity and diversity can co-exist
We can have different denominations and still see ourselves as one united church of Christ. This doesn’t always happen, of course, but many Baptists are still able to accept and fellowship with Presbyterians and Nazarenes with Pentecostals. This requires a certain maturity and the ability to sort through major differences from minor ones. In Heaven, obviously, this unity will be experienced on a universal scale.
5. Denominations can create a comfortable place for those with similarities to work together
Although, even within a denomination and local church some adjustments and accommodations are necessary, denominations limit the number of adjustments required and allow each church to spend less time debating non-essentials and more time focusing on worship, fellowship and ministry. This can be done without disparaging other denominations or refusing at least some association and cooperation with them.
The problems with denominationalism
1. Denominations often foster an “inner circle” mentality
As I mentioned in my opening illustration, denominations, often unconsciously, can create a “we’re more biblical than the rest” mentality This is usually done without malice or conscious pride, it’s just what happens when folks with a common set of beliefs and practices spend a lot of time together celebrating their commonality. “Aren’t we great!” easily turns into “Aren’t we greater!
2. Denominations insulate us from the larger Christian community
Just keeping up with our own local church and its denomination can be daunting. We can completely lose touch with other Christians and their traditions. The “church” shrinks to us and ours and we have no idea of the rich variety of the Spirit’s work throughout our world. Which leads to the next point:
3. Denominationalism can cut off a lot of fruitful dialogue with other believers
It’s hard for me to say this, but maybe Episcopalians have something to teach me; or Pentecostals; or Methodists. Maybe they can deepen my understanding of Scripture, or of Christ and His service. Denominationalism can be a form of intellectual or relational laziness. If I just hang with those who are like me, life is a lot simpler; but not always better.
4. Denominationalism often diminishes the sense of the universal church
There is, in reality, only one church. We’re either in Christ or we’re not. Furthermore, Christ is working in every believer; in every church; in every denomination (does that statement bother you?). Though some may have strayed from Him, He still loves them all and works to bring them close to Him. Our deepest connection is not with our denomination. It’s with other believers, regardless of their denominational affiliation. We’ll be spending eternity with them long after denominations will have dropped away. If we’re not careful, denominationalism can take away that sense of connection with believers everywhere
5. Denominationalism can hurt our testimony to unbelievers
Outsiders may look at our endless groups and sub-groups and see that as a negative; especially when individuals and denominations are critical of one another or refuse to work together. Jesus said: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Love would seem to include caring interaction, but denominationalism often hinders that, either deliberately or unconsciously on a practical level.
Let me sum up what I’m saying. On the one hand, it seems to me that denominationalism, in itself, is okay. To some degree, given human diversity, it’s unavoidable.
On the other hand, denominationalism is a tool easily misused. Let’s pray for humility and for a deep love for all believers to guide us as we use this tool. In the end, Christ’s church is what matters most.