Christian Diversity: Is It Good or Bad or Both?
In May (2018) Abingdon Press will publish the fourteenth edition of The Handbook of Denominations in the United States edited by yours truly—building on but radically revising previous editions. This reference book has a long and notable history; it has been published in one form or another since the 1930s. It has gone through many changes; this fourteenth edition will signal a return to earlier editions when the volume focused solely on “Christian” denominations (including networks that claim not to be “denominations”). I have added a lengthy essay about the concept “denomination” arguing that it is not as negative as many contemporary people assume.
The problem the Handbook and other volumes like it (some more expansive, some less so) point up, of course, is Christian diversity—only here in the United States. Were the handbook to include other countries it would simply be too large to handle. It would be multiple volumes. Throughout the world there are literally thousands of groups of Christians.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
The current Handbook includes most, if not all, of the major and many of the minor Christian denominations in the United States that can be studied by an outsider. (There are some immigrant Christian groups that are for all practical purposes closed to outside research and whose headquarters lie in foreign lands.) About 250 distinct Christian denominations (including networks) are described. They are grouped into historical-theological “affinity” categories. Some of them will not appreciate being put in the same category as others, but they are there due to historical roots and theological affinities.
Is it truly a scandal that there are about 250 notable Christian denominations in the United States alone? Many people say so; I do not. It is no more a scandal than there being, say, 250 independent Christian churches in a mid-sized city. (I don’t claim that is actually the case; I’m simply making an analogy.) Somehow the “public mind” has determined that “denomination” (in religion, not money) is a negative thing. It can be, but it is not necessarily so.
Most of the denominations I studied for this handbook make no claim to be the only Christians. One has as one of its mottos “Christians only but not the only Christians.” Most think there is something distinctive about them that is good and missing in most of the others, but they do not claim they are the only Christians. Some do. And most cooperate and have fellowship churches of other denominations. In other words, they are, in the broadest sense, “ecumenical.”
So why do they exist as separate entities, organizations? Many began with immigration. Immigrants to the United States from Europe, for example, brought some version of a church or religious movement from the “home country” to America and wanted to worship in their own language and with their own style. Many eventually merged with other groups; some have remained separate—but not because they believe they are superior but because they have over time developed their own structures, institutions and styles. I see no harm in that so long as they do not reject all other Christian groups as false.
I am a Baptist by choice and there are about twenty-five distinct Baptist denominations (conventions, conferences, associations) included in the Handbook. Most of them are quite similar. Why the differences? Many of the differences are simply regional or have to do with a preferred style of worship or mode of church government, etc., Many of the differences have to do with secondary beliefs about eschatology or the Bible or ministry, etc. The particular Baptist denomination I belonged to had no church within a hundred miles when I moved, so I simply found one like it and joined that. Not a problem for anyone.
Almost all of the denominations in the Handbook affirm the essence of the Apostles Creed—even if they do not state it as such. Almost all of them would not allow someone to be a member or leader who did not affirm that Jesus Christ is God, Lord and only Savior. Most of them would not allow someone to be a leader who did not affirm the Bible as the inspired Word of God written and that God is triune. There are exceptions. We (the publisher and previous editors and I) do not use any litmus test of orthodoxy for inclusion in the volume; we have always included all denominations that make a legitimate (not frivolous) claim to being “Christian.” My point is simply that there is much greater unity than serious diversity among Christians in the United States insofar as “serious diversity” means radical disagreement that causes denial of cooperation and fellowship.
However, there is real diversity and I personally find it interesting and even sometimes delightful. I have learned from and been enriched by most of the branches of the “Christian family tree.” I choose to be Baptist because overall and in general I find myself most in agreement with that branch—historically and theologically. I think it comes closest to embodying the spirit of the New Testament church (with many exceptions, of course). However, I recognize that there are many, many denominations and churches that are not part of the “Baptist branch” that also preserve and embody something of the spirit of the New Testament church and I could comfortably enjoy affiliation with many of them.
Yes, to be sure, there are those “Christian” denominations on the margins of Christianity and some beyond the pale—so far from anything recognizably Christian in its classical, historical and theological sense that I personally cannot recognize them as authentically Christian. They are also in the book insofar as they make some legitimate claim to Christian lineage and identity—whatever I may personally think about that claim.
Do you want to know what I personally think about the authentic meaning of “Christianity?” Well, start by reading my most recent book published last year (2017) Essentials of Christian Thought: Seeing Reality through the Biblical Story (Zondervan). Then read my book The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (InterVarsity Press). But don’t ask me about specific denominations, churches or movements here. Some of them will sue a person for claiming they are not authentically Christian in public!
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