By Chris Abel, at Relevant Magazine:

Do you see value in denominations?

C.S. Lewis wrote in the preface to Mere Christianity that we should be careful with the word “Christian.” Lewis believed the term should be used strictly in the definitive sense, to describe those that follow “the teaching of the apostles” and not as a term of value or morality. After all, there are good and bad people who are Christians, and there are good and bad people who are not Christians.

It’s perfectly fine for our label to simply be a word that describes our commitment to following Jesus’ teachings, and not a term describing our worth.

The same is true of the word “denomination” and the labels associated with them. To many of us, these structures can seem divisive, separating some Christians from other Christians. Ever since the Reformation in the 1500s, denominations have incited violence and conflict between Christians and non-Christians alike. But denominations have also given structure, purpose, support and a voice to billions of people throughout history.

Denominations are, at their core, structures that help support and enable a diversity of Christians. They are not Christianity; they merely make space for different varieties of faith to flourish. If we can understand denominational labels as descriptors, rather than terms of value—who is right and who is wrong—perhaps we can see beyond the walls that separate us, and begin to see the beautiful diversity there is among Christians. This may not be easy, but here are some reasons it’s worth trying:


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  • Paul

    If we use the definition of denominations as structures that help support and enable Christians (from quote above), then maybe we could say that some denominations have more “value” than others based on how well they support.

    Even non-denominational churches often find themselves in groupings with other like minded churches (networks, consortiums, etc). Other non-denominational groups get so large that they found other churches under similar leadership structures (multi-sight type churches, etc). So it would seem that denominations defined as above can be helpful and something communities are often drawn towards.

  • Paul

    That being said, I would be curious how Lewis reconiciles his definition above with denominations that believe in apostolic succession through the Biships (RCC, Anglican, etc)…these groups may have a slightly different view on what a denomination is…

  • At a recent gathering of Mennonite leaders here, the following was said (I paraphrase because I may not have the quote right)

    Mennonite is a great adjective but a horrible noun.

    I am a Christian who holds Mennonite views and understanding, a Mennonite Christian if you would. But if I just started calling myself Mennonite, I’ve now drawn a hard line. A Mennonite Christian and a Catholic Christian can get along because they are both Christians. But a Mennonite and a Catholic cannot because they have no common ground.

  • Jon

    I appreciate the author’s description of denominations. I think this view can be quite helpful for my context as a teacher in a multi-denominational classical school.

    I do always smack my head when the notion that denominations (splits within the church) are seen as having their roots in the reformation. No doubt the reformation led to an explosion and ease of these types of splits, but they were far from absent before the 16th century.

  • Pat Pope

    “If we can understand denominational labels as descriptors, rather than terms of value—who is right and who is wrong—perhaps we can see beyond the walls that separate us, and begin to see the beautiful diversity there is among Christians.”

    Very true.

  • Jon

    Denominations at their best are structures that have been set up in order to provide stability, process, and accountability to the body of Christ in the world. Denominations at their worst are these same things in the hands of broken and sinful people. Sin distorts everything and denominations are no exception. When processes that were originally developed for the protection and accountability of the church are used as means of playing “power games,” they fall far short of the original intent for which they were created. The question that I see is, is it possible for denominations to function in a way that allows for freedom and yet provides the structure and other means necessary to protect.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    It seems to me that possibly rather than being a defense for denominations, it may be a move away from a denominational mindset to a post-denominational one?

  • I left a large denomination to plant a non-denominational church last year. Although I would not disagree that denominations can provide benefits, I think the benefts come with baggage that Lewis did not foresee in his context in another country in another time. I had to decide if the baggage was worth the benefit, and decided it was not (at least at this point, perhaps I will join a denomination down the road, should I find it worthwhile).

    One of the main reasons I have heard denominationalism recommended is for doctrinal accountability. This always reminds me of a place in the Dr. Suess book, “Did I ever tell you how lucky you are?”. The Bee needs watched by a watcher who needs watched by a watcher, and so on. Who holds accountable those who are responsible to hold others accountable?

    For those who can “play the game” it can be advantagous to get financial support for one’s ministry though, and this can be a good thing, I suppose.

  • What seems interesting is that in my anecdotal experience, denominational churches are the ones who seems to be taking the most effort to work together as a local church and that ecumenicalism funnels through denominations not a non-denominational stance. Moreover, non-denominationalism feels like a bit of cultural denial. Many non-denominational churches (I am thinking particularly those connected with the ACTS 29 movement, but there are others) have a strong theological/tradition-based paradigm, yet what often happens is those churches or groups suggest that they represent “Christianity” at its fullest. All of this brings up the fact that many organizations like ACTS 29 operate as quasi-denominations. I believe the same thing could be said for some larger multi-site churches.

    To me it is a question of how we deal with diversity, do we (1) assimilate everyone into some Christian monolith, (2) allow differences to produce division and stress, (3) cultivate a multi-cultural, multi-expressive faith that remains within the walls of a broader Christian orthodoxy (another sticky issue) and that offers room for the diversity of humanity and a robust God that no one tradition or structure can fully emulate. I don’t believe it is impossible to find unity in difference, but I think the human tendency is to assume that harmony means “sameness” rather than “togetherness.”

    I also believe that the structure of many denominations are what provides accountability and allows for a variety of church type to exist. Again, just from observation and my own reading it seems that the mega-church/large church model goes hand and hand with a non-denomination ethic -there are of course mega churches that are denominational. Denominations, which can share money and resources, can distribute those resources to a variety local church bodies, regardless of weather they are large or not. I am thinking particularly about churches made up of primarily low-income individuals and families.

    *FYI, I do believe we have gone a little haywire with how many denominations there are and what is significant enough to give cause for a different iteration, but that is a different conversation.

  • I really dislike denominations. I understand that in our human minds, we have this need to differentiate everything into categories. Oftentimes when I go to research what a denomination is all about, I find that it was birthed out of some disagreement with the larger organization. But on the other hand, we want to be with like-minded people so there is some unity.

  • Alan K

    There is no such thing as an institutionless reality. Denominations are a response to the task of being the church in a world where the forces of social coercion are different than they were in antiquity and the middle ages. If we see denominations as phenomena then our passions that either for them or against them can be checked in a healthy manner and instead ask how God might be using them.

  • Rick


    “All of this brings up the fact that many organizations like ACTS 29 operate as quasi-denominations. ”

    Keep in mind that ACTS 29 has both non-denominational AND denominational churches.

  • JoeyS

    This is interesting. As denominations are systems that help support the diversity of the Church they are also the systems that stop the Church from living within diversity. Instead of learning to love the ‘other’ we just separate from them. Instead of finding solidarity we create homogeny.

    I think there is beauty in the myriad of denominations and traditions but it has also created a dependency. We no longer have to go through the hard task of loving people who differ from us in concrete and tangible ways.

  • Firstly I observe the difference between Lewis’s definition of Christianity as those who follow the teachings of the apostles and the author’s definition as those following Jesus’ teachings. Most people would probably assume, like the author, that these are equivalent. I do not. As someone struggling to get back to basics I would further observe that Jesus did not call people to follow his teachings, but to follow him. And if we want to shelter under the label of “Christian”, we should by definition add that we are following Jesus as Messiah.

    This leads to my second point which is that denominations have from the beginning been about differences in doctrine, or to use the plainer word, teachings. You can see the beginnings of it in our New Testament documents. All of our divisions stem from the belief that belief in correct doctrine is the way to salvation, both personal and as a people. Jesus said, “I AM the Way.”

    But I observe that most people go along with these beliefs concerning matters which I would call secondary and of relative unimportance. That’s just how it is. My two favorite churches of all time were denominational but I do not remember denominational doctrine being taught in either. I do remember love being taught and demonstrated. I guess it will all come out in the warsh.

  • Jeremy

    I’ve been a part of both non-denominational and denominational churches. While denominations can lead to sectarian mentalities that are extremely destructive, I’m learning to appreciate the accountability that comes with a denomination. A pastor that answers to no one except his carefully selected board (if there even is one) is really playing the same control game we complain about within the denominations at the local level and with less checks.

  • Kyle

    Lewis had some interesting comments on denomination in his preface to “On the Incarnation” by St. Athanasius.:

    [quote]The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think–as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries–that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measure against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible.[/quote]


    [quote][Divisions] are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, whats is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity.[/quote]

  • Whether or not I see any “value” in denominations, I see them as necessary. We’re certainly never going to return to a single style of Christian worship (nor should we!), and there will always be a need to group Christians of similar worship-styles or governmental-structures together for any number of reasons.

    Denominations may well change, but they’re not going away.

  • …that believe in apostolic succession…

    I can say that at first glance Abel’s proposal sounds typically Protestant—a way of looking at the current predicament and softening the sinful fragmentation that exists. It’s one thing to champion diversity in the church, and even to see denominations as manifestations of that diversity, but it’s quite another to see them as valid kingdom structures in themselves (as ends in themselves).

    I’ll also warrant that Prots holding to apostolic succession as well as RCs (not sure about the EOs), at least since Vatican II, see those denominations not in apostolic succession to be much like the candle/emanation metaphor: the closer to the light (succession), the more robust is that particular expression of the faith.

  • Jeremy, I’ve met pastors exactly such as the one you described within denominations. A polity structure is no guarantor of accountability if the people populating the structure aren’t following Christ. (To understand Christian in its original sense of Christ-follower would be an agreement w/ Lewis’ descriptive understanding of “Christian”).

  • JRS

    Since so many people are questioning the value of denominations, I’m surprised at how little effort my denomination makes to demonstrate its value. It’s as though the local church exists to serve the denomination. My church wants to be supportive and we value our denominational connection. Even so it usually seems like upward loyalty is expected with little real effort to support local churches. We hear from them when they want money!

  • Mike M

    Where does Lewis’ definition leave Mormons & Jehovah’s Witnesses?

  • Rick, thanks for that reminder. I do acknowledge that there are denominations working with ACTS 29, but even within that, they way they seems to work seems very denominational. I don’t know the nitty-gritty of the organizational structure, but from the observer standpoint there seems to be a lot that functions much like parts of a denomination – epsecially having a unified Reformed (it seems Neo-reformed) perspective. I am not arguing this is bad, I just wonder how different it is from how “formal” denominations work (especially considering the various styles of polity). Are we throwing out the word denomination because it doesn’t feel like it “fits”, just to give it a more illusive name? I don’t mean to pick on the ACTS 29 Network, I can say the same thing for the Vineyard Movement and the Church of God – Anderson. Both groups I respect and have friends within, and the latter has some connection with my own Free Methodist denomination.

  • “Do you see value in denominations?”


    I see 30,000+ sub-denominations created in large part to pay religious salaries. If there is a Jesus community, it is probably not defined by endless tribal sub-identities, but by a common humanity. Not defined by doctrinal purity (of which each denomination, by definition, has a somewhat different spin), but by dying to religious identity. There is no diversity in love. There is one love, all else is fragmented.

  • My problem is with those who make an “ism” out of the ir anti-denominational views and naively assune that they are the simple, pure ecclessia ubntainted by “Christendom” structures. Give me a break!