Why I Like Denominations
One of the sea changes taking place in American religious life is a popular turn away from denominations. Some say we are entering, if not already in, a “post-denominational” era. Nearly all traditional denominations are struggling with membership declines and revenue shortfalls. As I put my ear to the ground of popular opinion about religion, I hear rumblings of discontent about denominational labels and behaviors and a preference for what I call “plain label” Christianity.
I, for one, still value denominations.
Before explaining, I need to define “denomination.” Some sociologists of religion use the term for broad religious traditions. For example, in that usage, “Baptist” is a denomination. That’s not how I use the word. For me, “Baptist” is a tradition, a heritage, and a religious type. I think “denomination” should be reserved for religious organizations and networks of churches. (I could add synagogues, but here, for purposes of this post, I’m talking only about Christians.) By my usage “Baptist” could not be a denomination. As the old saying goes “I don’t belong to any organized religion; I’m a Baptist.”
So, for me “denomination” refers to an organization of churches with something like a headquarters or at least some unifying structure, however informal and inchoate it may be. (For example, the Churches of Christ count as a denomination even though they have no headquarters as such. They do have a relatively cohesive structure of mutual recognition.)
By my definition, the Abingdon Handbook of Denominations lists and describes about 300 distinct denominations in the United States. There are more, of course, because the Handbook excludes the smallest ones and many that are restricted to a small region. Some scholars have guessed there are about 1,200 denominations in the U.S. (I suspect they are including groups of two or more churches.)
I know this will shock many people, but my attitude toward denominations is “the more the better.” Let me explain.
It seems to me one of the strengths of American Christianity has been its multiplicity and even diversity of denominations. That blooming, buzzing profusion (to paraphrase William James) has produced both good and bad results, but overall and in general, I judge, it has benefited American Christianity and American society as a whole.
For example, most colleges and universities in the U.S. were founded by denominations. So were most hospitals. Most denominations have charitable agencies that are involved in feeding the hungry, training people for jobs, community development, etc. And, of course, most have mission-sending agencies. Small churches that cannot afford to do these things (e.g., found a college or hospital or even support a missionary family) pool their resources better to do them.
Denominations also provide accountability for pastors and other “church professionals.” And I think that accountability works best when the authority is closer to the churches and their leaders.
Denominations also keep each other sharp. A certain amount of competition serves to raise the bar, so to speak, so that there is motivation constantly to update, refurbish, stay sharp (e.g., with regard to technology, training for ministry, etc.).
I recently interacted with a well-known ecumenical theologian who has been intimately involved with the World Council of Churches for many years. He expressed the hope of someday seeing one worldwide Christian denomination. I don’t share his hope. He portrayed the existence of multiple denominations as evidence of “brokenness” in the body of Christ. I don’t see them that way. At least the plurality of denominations does not have to evidence brokenness in the body of Christ.
As I have stated and explained here recently, my vision is of an ecumenism of the Spirit, not of institutions. I’m not opposed to denominations merging, unless that means the sacrifice of important particularities and a lowering of standards of belief and practice to a “least common denominator” in which robust belief and practice get lost (e.g., “generic Christianity”).
Some people assume (and I think this was the case with the ecumenical theologian) that the very existence of separate denominations equates with hostility and exclusion. I don’t see those as necessary at all. Where they exist, yes, they are to be overcome. Dialogue is the path, not throwing off particularities and distinctives in favor of a bland, generic spirituality and/or social ministry.
There is no reason why denominations cannot worship and work together while maintaining their institutional lives. There is no reason why separate denominations must harbor or express hostility toward each other. They don’t even have to be exclusive. In my opinion, “ecumenism” should aim at mutual understanding and cooperation. Beyond that, I hope, through ecumenical work, that all Christians might someday enjoy intercommunion. But “visible and institutional unity” is not necessary for that. Nor, in my opinion, is it even a good goal.
Imagine a worldwide Christian church (denomination). It would have to have a hierarchical structure of some kind. It would have to somehow blend Christians together in a way that would require the muting of distinctive voices. Inevitably, also, it would leave out some Christians because they don’t fit the worldwide church’s standards for unity.
Here’s an example of that. The ecumenical theologian argued that Baptists, for example, ought to recognize the infant baptisms of other denominations as legitimate Christian baptisms. Okay, that’s not likely to happen, but I understand where he’s coming from. Or I thought I understood. I don’t mind hearing a challenge like that. But, then, he held up for me (and others listening) a model of ecumenicity in which a church body decided to open the Lord’s Supper to all Christians except unbaptized children. Note—for him, baptized children could partake of the Lord’s Supper but not not-yet baptized children. In effect, he was suggesting that Baptists give up their distinctive insofar as it excludes other Christians but other denominations should not accommodate to Baptists’ beliefs! Imagine two families considering joining the church he described. One family has baptized children, but the other family comes from a baptist-like background in which the children have not yet been baptized. The first family’s children can partake of the Lord’s Supper, but the second family’s children cannot. How is that a triumph for ecumenicity?
My point is that, even this great ecumenical theologian seems blind to what would have to happen in order to achieve a world church. Some traditions’ distinctive would have to be slighted. Some tradition’s distinctive would have to “win,” so to speak. In my experience, nearly all these “world church” ecumenical thinkers envision a reformed papacy and magisterium. As one of them once said to me (he was a Lutheran ecumenist) “If the pope would just admit he’s not infallible we could join the Catholic Church.” Fine. Maybe he, as an ELCA minister and theologian, could. But how could Free Church Christians? How could baptists (of all kinds)? How could Pentecostals? In my opinion, this one world church ideal is not ideal at all—except for Catholics and closet Catholics.
My vision of ecumenism is all Christian denominations agreeing to worship together (on occasion), cooperate together (e.g., in charitable endeavors), and even admit one another to the Lord’s Table.
Now, there’s another reason for disdaining denominations that’s popular among younger Christians. It’s what’s generally meant by “post-denominationalism.” Many young Christians consider denominations old fashioned, divisive, top heavy, always embroiled in controversies, etc. They prefer what I call “plain label” churches, often newly founded, meeting in rented spaces, grassroots-oriented, etc. My observation, though, is that these churches tend to be too inclusive and lack proper emphasis on Christianity’s experiential and cognitive aspects. They tend to emphasize community. The motto is sometimes “Belong, believe, behave” or “Belong, behave, believe.” But moving from “belong” to the other “b’s” doesn’t always happen. Many such churches stress community to the exclusion of strong beliefs and moral expectations (out of fear of dogmatism and legalism).
I sympathize with this youth-oriented movement, but I fear their Christianity may, like that of the “big ‘E’ ecumenists,” be bland, with no cutting edge to it. Sometimes, it seems, they are reinventing Christianity which means they are likely to make the same mistakes older Christian churches have made (and perhaps some newer ones).
For years, whenever I traveled (and I still do it), I got out the phone book in the hotel room and looked at the headings under “Churches” in the Yellow Pages. All across the country the list of churches under “Non-denominational” has grown. Now that is one of the longest lists in most places. What’s ironic, however, is that, as an aficionado of denominational histories and identities, I recognize many denominational churches under that heading! How honest is that? To be “non-denominational” or even “post-denominational” and belong to a denomination? To promote your church as non-denominational or to tout post-denominationalism and be denominational? And yet it happens all the time.
Personally, I struggle with “plain label” churches. When I see a church sign or ad that contains no hint of the church’s denominational affiliation or identity I assume one of two things. Either it is genuinely independent, non-denominational, or it is hiding its denominational affiliation to appeal to post-denominational people. Often it’s the latter. (I know because I often look them up on the web and find their denominational affiliation.)
A good example (but only one of too many to name or describe) is a large church in a city to which I travel often. I pass it several times a year. It’s a large, beautiful church in a suburban neighborhood. Its sign says simply “Calvary Church.” I finally remembered to look it up using a search engine. It’s a member church of the Christian Reformed Church of America. Nothing I could see on the building or grounds indicated that. (Many have “CRC” or something on their signs.)
So, what’s wrong with that? Only that the CRC is a truly confessional denomination with distinctive beliefs and practices. One of its doctrinal standards is the Canons of Dort—the anti-Arminian statement of faith. Suppose a Wesleyan family (I mean doctrinally, not denominationally) moved to that suburb, liked the looks of the church, heard it is a good church (family-oriented, many programs for kids, whatever) and decided to visit with an eye toward joining the church. How long would it be before they realized they were visiting and considering joining a Calvinist church? I personally know of such situations and, in some cases, people have attended a long time before realizing the church they want to join holds beliefs contrary to their own. In the end, they have to leave, having wasted a lot of time and emotional investment.
I think every church that belongs to any denomination should say so “up front.” Failing to do so seems somewhat dishonest to me. And truly non-denominational churches should make their beliefs and distinctive practices known to visitors with a brochure in every pew.
I once saw a church that advertised itself as “The Undenominational Church.” (This was back when 7-UP was advertising itself as the “UNCOLA.” I found out the “undenominational” church was really a Church of Christ.
Every church has boundaries; every church should let visitors and their communities know what they are by making them readily available.
What is happening (that I’ve been talking about in the previous few paragraphs) is simply cultural accommodation in a bad way. Church growth experts are telling churches that most American’s don’t like denominations and encouraging them to re-name their churches with generic names (e.g., Faith Family Fellowship) and omit any reference to any denominational affiliation or distinctive beliefs and practices. In most cases, the churches that do it keep their denominational affiliations and/or distinctive practices but hide them. In my opinion that is nothing other than cultural accommodation involving an element of dishonesty. As we have all heard, “lying” is not just telling an untruth; it can also be neglecting to tell the truth.
So, I titled this post “Why I like denominations.” I’ve wandered away from that somewhat, but I’ll conclude by returning to it. Christian churches do have distinctives; there is no such thing as (organized) generic Christianity. They ought to be honest about them. If they’re not proud of them, drop them. But better, be proud of the ones you keep! Distinctives do not have to be divisive. In fact, I like the fact that there are: Wesleyans, Calvinists, Pentecostals, Baptists, Anabaptists, Lutherans, Catholics, etc. I often wish some of them would soften their rough edges, but, for the most part, they are already doing that and sometimes going so far that they are losing all shape. When I see a church that is proud of its denominational affiliation I suspect it is giving money to help found institutions of higher education, mission-sending agencies, charitable organizations, etc. And I know what it is; I’m not left in the dark about it. May their tribe increase.