Archives For Denominations

It’s easy to be grumpy about all of the denominations in the church. If we’re supposed to be united as the body of Christ, then why do we have Baptists and Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans and Episcopalians and Evangelical Free Churches and Assemblies of God a host of others? I recently saw a report estimating that we have over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world.[1]

I can think of a lot that is unhealthy with the reality of denominationalism. But when we look at church history, the introduction of denominations was actually very healthy, and we should all be thankful for this development.

In the wake of the Reformation (roughly 500 years ago), each church saw itself as the one true church. Catholics, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans: each of these groups (and more) held different beliefs and followed different practices, and each was convinced that their church was right—to the point that they would banish and even kill those who saw things differently. These churches, which took root in specific areas, began to war against each other. The Huguenots (followers of John Calvin) were rounded up by Mary Queen of Scots, tried before Catholic judges, and then tortured and/or burned. The Thirty Years’ War started as actual warfare between Protestants and Catholics.

Eventually, everyone got tired of the fighting. It was clear that no one church would arise and dominate the religious landscape. Christianity seemed hopelessly divided, and war seemed an increasingly useless way to try to unite the church.[2]

Into this mess came the theory of denominationalism, introduced by the Dissenting Brethren of Westminster. Rather than each branch of the church considering itself the one true church, denominationalism sees each church as simply one expression of the whole of Christianity. Each church is referred to (or “denominated”) by a specific name, but it is still part of the larger whole.

The Dissenting Brethren built their theory of denominationalism on four points:

  1. Human beings do not understand God’s truth perfectly, so differences of opinion are inevitable.
  2. These differences of opinion are important, and each church must follow its convictions on what the Bible teaches. Nonetheless, many differences of opinion do not violate the heart of the Christian faith.
  3. No church has a full grasp of God’s truth, so no one church by itself can adequately represent the true, capital C Church. We are the true Church together, not in our individual expressions.
  4. Separation does not mean schism. In other words, we can disagree about many points of doctrine and practice, but still be united in Christ.

Thus denominationalism allowed the church to move forward. We no longer had to kill or banish one another over every doctrinal disagreement. (Can you imagine elder meetings if this were still the case? That would make a great reality show.) This mentality provides the basis for a Baptist church disagreeing with a Presbyterian church on many issues, but still viewing one another as Christians.

Denominations

So while the denominational landscape can be discouraging—if we are all one in Christ, then why have we splintered off into these innumerable groups?—we should actually be thankful for denominations. The diversity in the church is a reminder that Christians still differ from one another significantly. We’re not brothers and sisters in Christ because we happen to think exactly alike. Far from it! No, we are brothers and sisters in Christ despite our very real differences in interpretation and practice. But we are brothers and sisters nonetheless. The Baptist church sitting next to the Presbyterian church are reminders that though we have differing convictions, we still choose to stand side by side as representatives of the larger Body of Christ.

But of course, everything I’ve just said is meaningless if we choose to demonize other denominations. My guess is that as you read over the Dissenting Brethren’s four points, you had mixed feelings. Yes, this is a good perspective, but no, I tend to view my own church as the only right one. We believe the way we do because we’re right. My “Christian” neighbor attends that other church because she doesn’t understand the Bible. Etc.

With the Dissenting Brethren, I affirm that our differences are important. How we interpret the sovereignty of God, the way we practice baptism, and our views on divorce and remarriage are very important, and we need to continue seeking truth in all of these areas. But the authority is the Bible, not the leaders or doctrinal statement of my specific church. And as long as the church next door is committed to God and his word (not superficially, but really and truly), then we stand together as representatives of the full (and diverse) Body of Christ. May we all be variously denominated, but essentially united.

If you want more on this topic, consider Tim Keller’s perspective.


 

[1] The estimate of 33,000 denominations is almost impossible to believe, until you consider that (1) each major denominations is made up of subsets (e.g., not just Baptist, but American Baptist, Southern Baptist, etc.), (2) each denomination can look much different from country to country, and (3) nondenominational churches are very popular, and being nondenominational does not mean that they are united in doctrine and practice—it basically means that each individual church is almost a denomination unto itself.

[2] It should sound crazy to us that warfare amongst Christians was ever considered an option, but this was the result of hundreds of years of the church being tied to the state.

churchMany of our towns are overflowing with churches. If you’ve ever tried to find a new church, you know how many options are typically available.

You can choose based on denomination: Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Free, Assembly of God, Foursquare, Brethren, Methodist…you name it. And many of these broad categories actually refer to several denominations (e.g., there are multiple Baptist and Presbyterian denominations). And don’t forget the large number of nondenominational churches out there that don’t align with any denomination.

You can also choose based on the style of worship music. Do you prefer hymns or modern praise songs? If modern praise songs, do you lean more towards Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, or Maranatha?

You can also categorize churches based on their approach to preaching. Do you prefer expository, verse by verse preaching? Or do you like the topical approach with relevant sermon series?

How do you like to take communion? Weekly, monthly, or at a special communion service? Which is more “biblical,” juice or wine? Should communion be taken all at once or on an individual basis?

What’s your take on baptism? Full immersion? Sprinkling? Adult or infant? On the spot or after a lengthy baptism class?

The point is, church comes in many varieties. But should it? Aren’t we all worshipping the same God and reading from the same Bible? If that’s true, then why do we have so many denominations?

The simplest answer I have come across (from Tim Keller) is that denominations will always exist as long as Christians are concerned about both unity and purity.

If we were only concerned about unity, it wouldn’t matter what differences we encounter in doctrine or practice. One church per town would be enough. On the flipside, if we were only concerned about purity in our doctrine and practice, we wouldn’t be able meet together at all, because we all disagree with each other on some level.

Church2So every group of Christians is trying to walk that line between unity and purity. To love one another, even in the midst of significant differences, while still upholding the truth of Scripture. And that’s tough. Not only do we disagree about specific doctrines, we also disagree about which ones are “hills to die on.” Should you leave a church and/or start a new one because your church is/isn’t elder ruled? Because there is too much/little liturgy in the services? Because the doctrinal statement affirms/denies a premillenial, pretribulational rapture? These are all issues that have produced new denominations.

Throughout church history Christians have been navigating this tension between unity and purity.

We all have to wrestle with this question: How do we balance unity and purity? I can’t imagine the fragmented state of the church today makes Jesus happy. And yet, I’m sure that he is pleased when someone takes a courageous and gracious stand for the truth of Scripture. I’m also sure he is pleased when someone chooses to love and serve together with people who disagree.

Maybe the point of it all is that simply getting all of the churches together under the banner of unity isn’t the obvious choice. Doctrinal purity matters too. Nor is splitting churches over minor doctrinal issues the right approach. Unity is important. Perhaps it’s more about the way we view and interact with the other denominations in town. Even if you’re not sitting in a pew with the Baptists or Presbyterians or whomever, do you still consider them fellow workers for the sake of the gospel? Brothers and sisters in Christ? Co-recipients of the command to make disciples of all nations (including your own town)?

Here in Simi Valley, most of the pastors in town meet regularly to pray together. These are pastors of churches that belong to a variety of denominations and hold significantly different views over many doctrines. They are each trying to be faithful to what Scripture teaches about baptism, the return of Christ, communion, and so on. But they see themselves as part of the same team, so they pray together. I love that picture of godly people working to preserve both purity and unity.

It won’t surprise you when I say I don’t have a solution for the “problem” (if it is indeed a problem) of denominationalism. But I will say that unity and purity are both important. The way we relate to one another matters. So be sure to wrestle with that question: How do we balance unity and purity?

(By the way, if you’re trying to choose a church or denomination, here are some wise words from C. S. Lewis.)

When C. S. Lewis put pen to paper (that was more than a metaphor back then), you could typically expect something profound. As one of his most influential books, Mere Christianity has a lot of profound things to say about many important subjects. I would guess that most of the people who read Mere Christianity are already committed Christians, but Lewis actually wrote it to orient people to the faith.

Mere Christianity was designed to explain “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” In this particular book, Lewis intentionally avoided subjects that were debated between denominations. Those beliefs that more or less form the undisputed core of Christianity Lewis referred to as “mere” Christianity (though we must acknowledge that even deciding which elements make up this core is a huge topic of debate).

So what does this have to do with picking a church? In the Preface, Lewis uses a great illustration about a hall that opens into several rooms. The hall itself is this “mere” Christianity, the core of Christian beliefs that all denominations hold in common. So Mere Christianity is meant to bring people into the hall. As essential as it is to enter the hall, Lewis urged his readers not to stop in there.

The hall is lined with several doors, each of which opens onto a room. The rooms each represent a different denomination. For our purposes, I think it’s appropriate to think of the rooms as individual churches. Every church has its own unique feel, style, and emphases. And let’s make it a touch more personal: the hall opens onto several rooms, each of which represents a local church in your area.

Lewis urges you to pick a church, any church:

“It is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable.”

In our individualistic society, we may be tempted to stick with an individualized form of Christianity. No church in my area has everything exactly right, so I’ll just go it alone. I’ll believe what I want and not be constricted by the beliefs of any one church.

The hallway is important, but we can’t stop there. Enter a room and learn how that particular group of people is fleshing out the core elements of the historic Christian faith. Each has its own feel; each is attempting to faithfully live out “mere” Christianity in its unique context.

Lewis adds a few more gems to his illustration. You may need to wait a bit before you are convinced of which room is the best one for you to enter, but he insists that you must think of it as waiting, not as camping. Then he adds, “even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house.” So don’t put your Christian life on hold until you find the perfect church.

And here is Lewis’ strongest exhortation:

“Above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular door-keeper?’”

It’s not about which church best fits your tastes, it’s about which church is the right church. Lewis is acknowledging that we will come to differing conclusions on which one that is, but he encourages us to make that decision based on convictions, not preferences.

Finally, Lewis adds an important warning for those who have picked a church:

“When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.”

 

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