Why I like denominations

Why I like denominations October 11, 2012

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.

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  • I fully agree with your post. I have had an almost life-long interest in ecumenism. I am truly interested in other faith practices and as you have expressed here, I think it is possible to celebrate whatever we can find in common without sacrificing the beliefs and practices that we hold personally. There is a wonderful book, “How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook,” which is a great resource for anyone interested in visiting other peoples sacred spaces.

    As for thinking that there would have to be one physical/organizational structure in order for there to be unity, has that theologian ever participated on a planning committee for a single congregation? If he has he should know first of all that you can’t get everyone to agree on a small scale, how on earth would you expect to get all Christians in the world to agree on one common denomination? Another point is that in my opinion, although God uses every avenue where committed Christians come together, every church/denomination is a visible, man-made organization. As such, there is no particular virtue in having one unified organizational structure – it would still be a man-made structure and as Malcom Muggeridge stated in “The End of Christendom” (speaking of Christendom vs Christianity), every structure that is manmade will eventually come to an end (I am paraphrasing from distant memory having read that essay over 30 years ago). So placing hope in a physical organization, however holy that organization is, is misguided. Hope for dialogue and understanding across denomination boundaries is more realistic (though some would still say, “good luck with that!”)

    There has to be a place for everyone, but the problem is that no one place can be that place for everyone so we gather in all kinds of places so that each may find some place to call home. I say celebrate the place of worship you have found that seems like home, and then celebrate that others have found such a sacred space where they can also feel at home, but don’t try to force us all into the same house.

    • rogereolson

      Well said. You express my view well. The ecumenical theologian I mentioned (without naming him) finally said that he believes it would be a good thing if all Christians could eventually come under Rome. I have heard other ecumenical theologians say “If only the pope would admit he’s not infallible we’d become Catholics tomorrow.” These were friends of Richard John Neuhaus who had a tremendous impact on Protestants moving toward Rome. Many didn’t make it all the way there ONLY because they were stopped by the claims of papal infallibility. I don’t share that vision of one world church, especially under the bishop of Rome. I have trouble even understanding the appeal of that vision.

  • Donald Fisher

    I really agree with you; so many of the evangelical churches in my area have modified their names . . . to me it’s like the old crimes shows on television where I was told the names of the people had been changed to protect their identities. I have also noticed that denominations and their mission boards are doing the same kind of thing — have you noticed that? I wouldn’t mind so much if the new name at least kept a tie to the original denomination, but they tend to become rather bland and generic names. Ugh!

    • rogereolson

      Classic example: a denomination I used to belong to (the Baptist General Conference) changed its name to “WorldConverge.” Huh?

      • Radu

        Hi Roger. I spent 3 years at a New Frontiers church before it suddenly became apparent that the underlying theology was TULIP – to be fair they were more of the “Evangelical Calvinist” type so most of the time practically it hadn’t mattered. However, once I began to grapple with the issues, conversed with the pastor, and decided (in no small part due to your Arminian Theology book) that I was an Arminian, it really felt that our time at the church was up. Not that anything was openly said, but for a variety of reasons it certainly felt that any aspiration for a ministry-type position would now be futile (I may be wrong of course but I doubt it). Also, a non-Christian friend who had been “seeking” at the church (for longer than the 3 years I had attended) was most unhappy when he found out about TULIP (which he found distasteful). He strongly felt it should have been openly presented throughout his time there and that many people would no longer be attending if they honestly knew what TULIP meant. So I think you are totally correct in saying that churches should – in a friendly way – be more honest and upfront about what and why they believe. Otherwise it really does seem as though there is something to hide and it’s not a good witness.
        By the way I am now doing a diploma at Carey Bible College and have really enjoyed reading your post on “Evangelical Calvinism” with Myk Habets and Bobby Grow. It’s great to hear/read such fruitful dialogue for a change. Blessings

        • rogereolson

          Thanks for that illustration of one of my main points. I think especially Calvinist churches tend to hide their theological orientation from visitors and newcomers. I hear of it all the time. Of course, not all do that. There are many exceptions. Recently I talked with a gentleman who moved from one church to another one (nearby) to help it grow and really take off. He had no idea Calvinism was an implicit (not explicit) expectation for all leaders and teachers. After working hard for the church for a year or more he found out the pastor and elders would not let him teach any adult Sunday School class or Bible study because he is not a Calvinist. This is an independent church in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard similar stories from people who committed themselves to ministry with a church only to find out, when it came to becoming an elder or deacon or teacher, that only Calvinists could hold leadership positions. In every case they have told me that was never written anywhere or told to them until they were nominated for or asked to hold a leadership position or teach.

  • Tony Springer

    Thanks Roger. You presented many good reasons for denominations, especially addressing theological and doctrinal diversity. Yet we need to remember that many denominations started and some still sustained by social reasons, such as race and class. We have seen reunion of those Protestant denomination that split due to slavery/Civil War. Could we hope for a “post-denominational” denomination where race and class are now longer reasons of separation?

    • rogereolson

      Yes, of course, we can hope for it. But not to the loss of particularities of belief and practice, that is, not to the diminishing of doctrinal distinctives to the point of disappearance. There are many (for example) Baptist denominations that have virtually no distinctives from other ones (other than history and ethnicity). I would have no problem with them merging. But I don’t see it as necessary, either. They can have spiritual unity through mutual acceptance, occasional (even frequent) common worship, intercommunion, pulpit exchange, etc., and have what I call true ecumenism. The mostly Caucasian church I attend worships together with a mostly African-American church at least once annually. Our different styles of worship will probably keep us from every completely merging, but there’s no barrier between us in terms of suspicion or doctrinal difference or lack of communion.

  • Dan

    Hidden denominationalism is common practice where I live. Just miles from me, there are not only truly nondenominational churches, but there are denominational churches (CRC, Wesleyan, ELCA at a minimum) with generic names. I agree, I think it’s completely dishonest. There are few packaged foods these days that I would purchase without ingredients lists and nutrition facts, yet the trend of churches seems to be in the opposite direction!

    • rogereolson

      Yes. I remember a time when some grocery stores stocked “plain label foods” (usually in cans and boxes). These labels were non-informative about the source of the food, it’s nutritional value, etc. The only reason people bought them was they were cheap. My experience of them was that, generally speaking, they were bland.

    • Calvin Chen (@calvindeecee)

      I love denominations, I agree that overly-hidden denominationalism is deceptive.However, as a CRC guy and also someone in inter-denominational parachurch ministry, I need to defend some hidden or subdued denominationalism to the extent that it’s extremely helpful in evangelism, especially with the nominally or unchurched. Furthermore, with the Wesleyan-leaning family in your illustration, isn’t it really their own fault or the fault of their prior churches that they didn’t even bother to ask about a particular church’s affiliations or doctrinal stances before attending for a while? If a church states on its website and bulletins that it is “a congregation of the Christian Reformed Church” or “a member of the Southern Baptist Convention,” why should it bother us if they choose to make their church name “Bubbling Brook Community Church”? This makes it far more welcoming to the unchurched and nominally churched.

      FYI Dr Olson, I use “Mosaic” in student discipleship and “Who Needs Theology” which you co-write with Stan Grenz was influential in my early ministry days. To use your terms, in American “folk religion,” there is a strange popular conception of “non-denominational” or “generic evangelical” somehow mean inclusive of people from all (white, middle class) backgrounds… and in American folk evangelicalism, many church-hunters immediately cross any church that has words like “Lutheran,” “Baptist,” “Reformed,” or “Methodist” in their name off their list because they think “well, that’s not me.” I’d much rather see these nominal and unchurched Christians come to meaningful faith in Jesus Christ than correct their misconceptions of denominations. Churches that choose to rename themselves without the “Baptist” or “CRC” or “Methodist” are making an appropriate, strategic accommodation to this type of folk theology without actually compromising their beliefs, convictions, or affiliations. Again… we can try to correct this folk theology all we want… or we could preach the gospel. I know of several churches that have become significantly more evangelistic after dropping “Baptist” and “CRC” from their names, respectively. And they don’t intentionally hide their denominational affiliations.

      If I’m searching for a church in a new city, I generally first try to compile a list of evangelical churches and mainline churches with evangelical leanings. I try to teach the students I disciple to do the same. Reformed and “postconservative evangelical” are probably next on my wish-list — and likewise I encourage my students to figure out their preferences on doctrine and opinion — but at this point the spiritual health of the congregation, quality of teaching, worship style and quality, and practical considerations like transportation and children’s programs are important, too.

      • rogereolson

        Well, I stand by my decree (as if it had any teeth which it doesn’t) that every church should put some indicator of its denominational affiliation on its church sign, list itself under its denominational affiliation in the Yellow Pages (and certainly not under “Non-denominational!”) and reveal its denominational identity at its web site. I have found that many churches do none of that. I could go on and on with examples, but anyone who has done this kind of work (trying to help friends or family find a home church in a new city) knows all about it.

      • Adin

        I don’t think I’ve ever seen a United Methodist or Lutheran Church without a denominational specification somewhere on the sign.

        • Roger Olson

          I have. But it’s much less common than among Baptists and other “autonomous” churches. In Minnesota, Iowa and other upper Midwest states many Lutheran churches are advertising themselves without the word “Lutheran.” It’s a new thing, but it’s catching on. I think in the United Methodist Church most bishops would reign that in.

  • Joe Schafer

    Roger, thanks for another great article. Have you seen the book Your Church is Too Small by John Armstrong (2010 Zondervan)? The book is a call to a kind of unity which John calls “missional ecumenism” — not organizational unity or theological uniformity, but a relational unity in Christ and his mission. Just wondering if you’ve seen the book, because many of the points you’re making here are similar.

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t seen it. Great minds think alike! 🙂

  • Bob

    I too, like looking in the yellow pages for a church in the various cities that I visit. It seems like the non-denominational churches are low-church in worship and evangelical in theology. If you look below the surface most theses churches are planted by folks from denominational seminaries or like our church dropped the Baptist name to Calvary Church to attract more folks. The Roman Catholic church understands itself as the church that has the truth in fullness. I pray often that I believe and will join them, but that hasn’t happened yet in 20 years. Their truth claim is so audacious that it might be true. It’s like the lunatic, liar thing.

    • rogereolson

      Just to head off a barrage of criticism, let me finish your analogy. I think you mean it’s like C. S. Lewis’ “lunatic, liar, or Son of God” argument. So, what you are saying is, either the Church of Rome is crazy (because of its audacious claims) or dishonest or the one true church led by an infallible human being. Right? I think Catholics will like the argument put that way.

  • Steve Rogers

    Roger, I could almost agree with your denominational idealism. But the sad truth is, as you noted in your mentioning of the “undenominational” church marketing itself like an “uncola”, denominations invariably organize themselves to capture market share. They call it evangelism or growth, but it is mostly competing for a bigger share of the already christianized demographic. Once pulled in the new members must be groomed for brand loyalty. Thus the need for ever evolving strategies to consolidate and increase “nickels and noses” and strengthen bureaucracies and hierarchies. At some point along the way the preservation of the institution takes priority over establishing the commonwealth of God. I’ve seen it and participated in it from the inside.

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t experienced all denominations like that. For example, my own “home denomination” is the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. I have never experienced an ABCUSA congregation or the denomination as whole behaving that way. I’ve known and know many other denominations that reach out to the truly lost, the unchurched, the disadvantaged, without attempting to “steal sheep” from any other churches. I think you’ve been associating with the wrong denominations/churches. I thought I made clear that I’m not in favor of that kind of denominational behavior.

  • I believe denominations are a good thing. Just like fences, denominational boundaries make for good neighbors. For example, I wouldn’t attend a CRC because I would be at odds with their distinctives. I believe it would be wrong for me to go to a CRC and try to change them into a non-Calvinist church. So, while I worship with them in community gatherings and join with them in spreading the gospel in our community, I would not want to disrupt their unity by challenging their beliefs.

    You have written before on your blog and briefly mention it here, but being clandestine about one’s theology be it an individual, church or denomination is, IMHO, wrong. As Christians, I believe our lives should be transparent in ALL areas of our lives.

    However, I believe that “denominationalism” is a bad thing. I define that as believing that one’s denomination has the corner on the market with God and the Bible and that all other denominations and churches are inferior. I am impressed when I see pastors from several churches and/or several denominations work together and pray together to advance God’s kingdom. I am impressed when they see a fellow pastor as team member rather than competition.

  • Tom

    Okay, I know everyone is going to pile on me but I just want to throw it out there for the sake of conversation. While I wholeheartedly agree with the second half of your post about churches hiding their denominational affiliation I feel like in the first half of your post you are conceding oneness for particularity. In the end I guess it depends on what a person’s interpretation of oneness is in the Bible. I just don’t know if settling on our differences is the answer. There is something to be said for striving after the ideal even if we never reach it. If we settle on our particularities we agree to disagree and I think that all really meaningful efforts to achieve oneness disappears. That would seem to me to be a kind of disembodied oneness save for the few times there is something ecumenical in which we participate with other believers. I’m not saying it’s easy but we have to keep trying. After all what’s demonstrated in the book of Acts is a kind of working oneness among the believers. I would also argue that God in this age seems to do almost everything in the principle of incarnation. So I would argue that oneness should be visible, demonstrable, and tangible. There should be a visible oneness among Christians. But again that goes back to what your definition of oneness is in the Bible. I am not arguing for a return to the Catholic Church for sure but regardless of how hard and impossible it might seem I don’t think we can stop striving to achieve it. I think historically, in addition to doctrinal distinctives, things like race, class, envy, jealousy, dissension, ambition, and self-glory have also been real factors in dividing Christians into different camps. Even the split between the Eastern and Western Church (Catholic and Eastern Orthodox) was ostensibly over the filioque in the Nicene Creed but was it really over that.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see any conflict (in your message) with what I was aiming for. I just don’t want our striving for unity to be at the expense of particularity. The only way I see that working is for our unity to be spiritually visible but not institutionally established. And I don’t see why two denominations that are institutionally separate have to be divided by anything other than separate headquarters (for example). Let’s imagine two denominations that agree on everything except different cultural heritages that have given rise to different ways of worshiping and governing themselves. They may merge; I have no objection to it. But if they don’t (because they don’t want to lose their cultural distinctives and the practices that grew out of them), they can still recognize each other as equally Christian and cooperate and worship together and have intercommunion. I don’t see their having separate headquarters and names as evidence of “brokenness” in the Body of Christ.

  • Drew Dabbs

    Dr. Olson, I’ve been following your blog for several months now. I particularly like this post. So many in my generation are denomination averse, but I find myself standing up for denominationalism. I can’t see any other way. Birds of a feather will, inevitably, flock together (pardon the folksy colloquialism). If two persons or groups of persons aren’t in agreement about core principles and values, it’s going to be awful hard for them to live and work peaceably and effectively with one another.

    There’s no way in a hundred million lifetimes that I could believe in, for instance, infant baptism or hierarchical church governance. My Baptist distinctives are too deeply ingrained, both educationally and experientially (and I should hope biblically, as well). Of course, this does not mean I couldn’t worship, fellowship, and be on mission with those who don’t hold the same convictions as I do, which is where your presentation of ecuminism becomes most helpful. I should think any and every believer who’s serious about promoting the Gospel of Jesus Christ ought to be able to buy into the kind of ecuminism you describe.

    Thank you for a wonderful defense of denominationalism, as well as an excellent portrayal of a very palatable form of ecuminism.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Drew. It’s good to see you here.

  • Dr. Olson,

    This issue is a very live one for me in a number of ways, in particular in regards to baptism. When I was at Truett, we had two children and decided for reasons that I don’t have to get into to baptize our children as infants. We couldn’t ask our Baptist church to do this. So, we had the baptism at our house with friends and family (including some friends from the Baptist church). My daughter’s baptism was the case study for my mentoring semester, because of all the interesting issues it raised. You mentioned the way that the majority of people tend to choose churches today (good youth program, like the worship, etc.) which has less and less to do with denominational affiliation or doctrinal distinctives.

    The question in my case study and that I continue to wrestle with then is “What is the role of doctrine in a post-denominational context?” By post-denominational I don’t mean the bland non-denominational churches you’re referring to. I mean the very real practice of the average Christian choosing churches based primarily on things other than denomination or doctrine.

    What this means is that churches are more of a mixed bag of religious traditions these days and I don’t think we know or are ready to deal with the impact of that. My wife, as a life long Lutheran didn’t feel the need to get re-baptized in our Baptist church, but practically that meant she was excluded from having a voice in the church. I think these issues are only going to become more and more prevalent. I don’t like the one world church idea and agree with you that diversity is better, but I don’t think denominations are as distinct and pure these days as you may have painted them.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Lucas Land

    • rogereolson

      Hi, Lucas. I hope you’re doing well. Of course, you’re right. Denominations are losing their particularities. That was one of the thinks about post-denominationalism I criticized. I like denominations to stick gently and generously to their distinctives. I think it’s a shame, for example, that most Wesleyan churches (I mean churches rooted in that tradition, not just “The Wesleyan Church” denomination) are gradually dropping their distinctive witness about holiness. While I never agreed with the doctrine of entire sanctification (“Christian perfection”) I did and do think there’s a place in the mosaic of American Christian life for denominations and ministries that uphold that idea. That tends to speak to the importance of holiness in life more clearly than, say, the Baptist doctrine of gradual, progressive (but never arriving at completion) Christian maturation. But I also like it when denominations/churches with proud distinctives find ways to include people who don’t entirely agree with them. For example, many Baptist churches now have “associate membership” for those without believer baptism. I also recently heard of a well-known moderate Baptist pastor who tells applicants for membership who have only infant baptism that believer baptism doesn’t cancel out their infant baptism as if it were nothing. For him and his congregation, it’s a public witness, not a denial of whatever the person experienced before. Then there are those denominations and churches that allow practice both infant baptism and believer baptism (e.g., the Evangelical Covenant Church of America and the Evangelical Free Church of America). My thought is that if you search hard enough, you can always find a church whose doctrinal and practical distinctives fit you or at least allow you to participate. In other words, I’m advocating that denominations keep their distinctives, voicing them enthusiastically, but softening the angles and rough edges that have traditionally evidenced brokenness in the Body of Christ. What are the alternatives? It seems to me the one most churches are opting for is bland, generic, “plain label” Christianity that has no distinctives to it–no flavor.

  • Craig Wright

    One of your colleagues at Baylor, Rodney Stark, in his book “The Triumph of Christianity” says that denominations (rather than having a state church) create a competition that strengthens the whole church. That is why America is still so religious.
    My church (formerly Baptist General conference) changed their name to Converge for the pragmatic reason of sending groups into foreign countries that would not allow a religious affiliated group to enter.
    One summer, when I didn’t have any duties at my own church, I visited 13 different churches in my neighborhood, that I often drive by. I was able to visit 2-3 services on one Sunday. I joke that I visited the Christian Church, the Church of Christ, and the Church of God, and they are are not the same church. I noticed that there are two types of services–liturgical and non. The liturgical churches had the best quality of music as far as traditional goes (pipe organs and hymns). The non-liturgical were dependent on someone in front being dramatic (personality oriented). (We hosted two USC students from China at our church, and driving them back to school, one of the students asked, “So, in your church, you have the show first and then the lecture?” Interesting and humorous observation.) From a sociological viewpoint, the liturgical, mainline churches were are all elderly congregations that are dwindling. The non-liturgical churches can be very corny, and have low quality music.
    I would like to attend a church that does allow for some diversity in doctrinal positions. Ours does that.
    One other point is that it seems that you are viewing some of this denominational phenomena as a sophisticated theology professor. Most people are attracted to church because of the quality of programs.

  • gently reformed

    A few weeks ago I took my family on a short overnight trip to the Lima Ohio area. Sunday morning we arose to attend a downtown church we though was a part of a prevalent Ohio denomination due to its historic name. Suffice it to say that we were mistaken! Only later after my interest was sparked as to why I couldn’t find a church listed under this denominational affiliation in such a large town I was informed that the local congregation was federated with two denominations but neither were mentioned in the “X Christian Church” name. So much for denominational identification.

    • rogereolson

      I have known many “federated” churches over the years. I long had acquaintance with a church called “First Federated.” What I observed in all these federated/united churches (two or more denominations in one congregation) is that they tended to gravitate over time toward one of the denominations. The “First Federated” I visited numerous times (a close friend was on its staff so we attended there when visiting) was, for all practical purposes, Baptist. The Presbyterian (and, I think, Methodist) traditions in its background had died out. None of those particularities remained.

      • gently reformed

        This congregation was much more homogenous (PCUSA – UCC) than your example of “First Federated”. The only congregation I have ever seen with “Federated” on its name sign was while traveling a few years ago in Burlingame, KS. When I asked a local about the unusual name she said it was Baptist in all but name.

  • Ben

    I think that the vision that underwrites a lot of ecumenism is the belief that the early church was some kind of monolithic entity until the last apostle died or Constantine messed with a good thing. What we see, Scripturally and historically, that almost from its inception, the Church was never a monolithic entity, but differing communities centered around the traditions of the various apostles, etc. Paul references this: I am with Paul, I am with Apollos, I am with Cephas.” Such fragmentation at an early state suggests that our modern attempts to “get back to the unity of the first century” is misguided and naive.
    On the other hand, Jesus Himself prays for our unity. Such a prayer surely didn’t mean institutionally as you suggest. I’m not sure I know what He’s praying for because to spiritualize it seems foreign to the communal life Jesus cultivated with His disciples, but the visible church seems anything but unified at any point.
    For me, ecumenism should at least begin by admitting that the other various groups of Christians around the world aren’t anathema for belonging to a different tradition.

    • rogereolson

      I agree. Let me illustrate my fear about “one world church” dreams and visions. TO THE EXTENT it is ever achieved in a particular geo-political religion, it will have to be like the Church of England once was–established by government and denying to other Christian traditions the right to call themselves “churches.” Until recently, Baptist, Methodist and other non-Anglican churches in England were forbidden by law to call themselves “churches.” Only Anglican churches could call themselves churches. The others had to call themselves “chapels.” (That may still be the case, but I don’t think it has the force of law anymore.) IF “visible and institutional unity” of all Christians were to be achieved (short of the coming Kingdom of God), that’s the only way I can see it happening. So, as a Baptist, I fear that vision.

  • Lindsay

    Having grown up Church of Christ I completely understand the use of the term undenominational. The CoC, at least in Australia, has always considered itself non-denominational. However the problem is in the definition of the term. I completely agree with your definition “religious organizations and networks of churches”, but the Church of Christ accepts only the organisation aspect.
    On a separate note, In Australia we have “The Uniting Church” formed by the joining of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational Churches. But in reality we now have four denominations where previously three existed. In both Presbyterian and Congregational each congregation, individually made the decision. Some chose to unite, others did not. In the case of the Methodists, the decision was made on a national basis. A substantial number of individual members, however opted out, and became Wesleyan Methodists.
    The combination of the Calvinism of the Presbyterian and the Arminian theology of the Methodist made for a Uniting theology unrecognisable to either.

  • Matthew B

    You’ve given good food for thought, though John Frame’s excellent little book “Evangelical Reunion” still has me convinced that denominations are essentially signs of disunity, and that denominations should be merged when possible. The book is free on line, btw.

    • rogereolson

      Sure, “merged when possible.” But not at the cost of losing all distinctives and settling for bland, generic Christianity.

  • Mark H

    Roger, you are brilliant. Thanks for this very helpful post!

    • rogereolson

      You’re welcome. Thanks for the affirmation and for visiting here.

  • Steve

    I don’t have a denomination but I read the Bible and fellowship. I agree on the one hand that the more the merrier because at the end of the day who cares? It probably is a ‘bad look’ to the world because it is taken as in-fighting but again, who cares? I think people who desire to investigate the spiritual life will do it regardless of what is going on around them. I don’t take cues from anyone although I am interested to read various views and I am definitely interested in ecumenicalism and inter-faith dialogue. Denominations are a fact of life. By the way I am reading your book ‘Against Calvinism’ and also ‘For -Calvinism’. Bought them both last week to get the balance of the discussion. Really good stuff. Still gotta come down on the side of Arminiasm though.

  • I see denominationalism as an abrogation of God’s creative purpose and decree for the structure and governance of the church. I use the term denomination, however, to signify a highly centralized form of church organization with a headquarters and a form of church government that goes beyond the local church eldership. I have no problem with Christian faith traditions or identities, but I think they must express themselves within the frame-work of a biblical ecclesiology.

  • Val

    Thanks for this, I am late to the party in doctrinal differences. I was Canadian Vineyard for years, and the differences between us/them was usually around the Holy Spirit, Spiritual Gifts side of things. I naively thought all evangelicals believed the Bible at face value – whatever that is – and just thought they were being obtuse about the writings of the Holy Spirit (denial, or renaming natural-born gifts – like musical talent- as Spiritual Gifts).

    We moved and needed a new church, the Vineyard in our area fell apart, and we went to a local Evangelical Free Church. It was great at first, I missed the charismatic expressions, but met many great people. Then, and it was a slow change, the church had a new statement of faith and everyone needed to sign it or they couldn’t volunteer. Then, all the new staff was young and all really liked a guy named Mark Driscoll. Things just weren’t lining up for me. People in leadership would say strange things about salvation, etc. The wives of these leaders were miserable, judgmental types, so opposite to other pastor’s wives I had met. In a bible study the answers and conclusions just felt off. So, and for other reasons, I began to read, and read, and read. I realized I leaned much more anabaptist, more wesleyan, more anything than TGC/YRR. But, by then, every non-Sunday morning thing the church did, followed either TGC or Driscoll. Pastor quotes heavily from TGC/YRR. Now, we are having to rethink what to do as a family. The denomination says it is neither Calvinist or Anabaptist – both views are OK, but our church is almost all TGC (The Gospel Coalition). From Sunday School to Theology nights only one point of view is taught. Very sad.

    • rogereolson

      I grew up with grandparents (and I mean I stayed with them a lot) who were EvFree. I have known many EvFree folks throughout my life. When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s the EvFree was most definitely not fundamentalist or Calvinist. There may have been fundamentalists and Calvinists in the denomination, but the grassroots (pastors and lay people) were by-and-large “big tent” evangelicals with a strong pietist ethos. So what happened that so many EvFree churches are now led by five point Calvinists who sound like fundamentalists to me? I think the shift began with non-EvFree, non-Pietist theologians and pastors flooding into the denomination. The same has not happened in the EvFree’s sister denomination (Scandinavian pietist) the Evangelical Covenant Church of America. And that’s because (I believe) the Covenant Church requires pastors to study for at least one year at their seminary. At least that was the case last I heard. That was so they get the feel of the pietist ethos. That keeps independent and Baptist fundamentalists from flooding in unchecked.

  • Jeff

    Dr. Olson,

    We have talked about this before, but your love of denominations is puzzling for sure. On a side note churches do not “hide” their denomination as much as they do not put it on there to avoid a pre-judgement with someone who had a bad experience before. These pastors have no issue saying their church is a certain denomination as is clear by the many denominational literature inside in the lobby.

    I can’t believe you say that having an “associate membership” is a good thing! Again, your view of membership is a business model definition. Also if member is part of a body, then a member is vital to the functioning of the body. All churches should strive to define membership this way. Your way of defining it completely neuters the concept of Romans 12 and I Corinthians 12 about members.

    Also, there is one if not two denominations out there I know for sure that are practicing a wide membership like the Evangelical Covenant church – For Covenant people, our essential beliefs are summed up in what we call Covenant Affirmations:

    We affirm the centrality of the word of God.
    We affirm the necessity of the new birth.
    We affirm a commitment to the whole mission of the church.
    We affirm the church as a fellowship of believers.
    We affirm a conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.
    We affirm the reality of freedom in Christ.

    The way it works is is that you tend to have some EC churches more Calvinistic or Arminian than others, others that prefer to focus on believer’s baptism and others more or less liturgical, yet they are still a part of the same denomination. Fancy that! I know it is whacky! But yes it can be done with enough humility

    • rogereolson

      I mentioned the Evangelical Covenant Church in at least two responses to others’ comments.

      • Jeff Martin

        Dr. Olson,
        I see that you did mention the EC Church, and in a positive way. You also mentioned it is good to “merge when possible”, but not in a way that leads to bland Christianity.

        Certainly that one year at a seminary is a good idea to combat this. But also I don’t know how one can have a bland Christianity worse than a particular denomination where one has combined many into one. If the first things are acknowledged by all parties, then what would happen I believe, and I believe Scripture backs me up on this, is that God will honor this unity and actually move MORE in that church than in others – John 17:21-23 – “that they may be one. As you Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, SO THAT the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

        My experience has also borne this out, working as a Chaplain and a while ago working as a camp counselor, as a Pentecostal in a Mennonite run camp. During a prayer time I heard what was the most poignant word of knowledge I have ever heard, and that being outside of the Pentecostal church, where in fact, many of the other counselors were not familiar with the gifts of the Spirit at all, treating me like the odd man out, theologically speaking

        • rogereolson

          I’m not sure how to interpret your comment. I may be misinterpreting your intention here. So please forgive me if that’s the case. My hope is that individual denominations with strong particularities can hold on to them without implying (let alone stating) that those who disagree are necessarily half way to hell just for that reason. When I was maturing spiritually, as a teen, my church had strong distinctives that caused us to look somewhat askance at other Christians. However, we did not say they were not Christian or even less Christian. We just thought they could be more “complete,” more “fulfilled” in their spiritual lives by adopting our distinctives. Our church was heavily involved in Youth for Christ–a parachurch organization. There we set aside our distinctives for the sake of unity of purpose and fellowship and mission (to the youth of our city). As I look back on it now, I think YFC was then somewhat bland in its generic evangelicalism. It couldn’t be a church, in other words. But as a parachurch organization that brought together Christians of many different denominations for cooperation, fellowship and mission it was great. Even though I strongly believed in our church’s distinctives, YFC taught me that people with other distinctives and even some who strongly disagreed with ours were equally Christian (God-fearing, Jesus-loving, Bible-believing). I think there is a place still for such transdenomninational parachurch organizations. The National Association of Evangelicals was that; I’m not sure how strong it still is in this paradoxical age of post-denominationalism and anti-ecumenicalism.

          • Jeff

            Dr. Olson,

            You said, “We just thought they could be more “complete,” more “fulfilled” in their spiritual lives by adopting our distinctives.”

            I hope that was a thought and not a spoken sentiment. Usually Christians have a horrible way of expressing this to others. It usually comes out making the other person feel “less Christian” especially if one has multiple levels of membership like the Wesleyan Church. The Assemblies of God has it to but more subtlely when they talk about Baptism in the Holy Spirit and Speaking in Tongues.

            I do not know why you would say YFC could not be a denomination when the Covenant church is one, and I believe they would be about the same in areas of belief and secondary issues. What I am saying is that if a particular Pastor of a church within the Covenant church, let’s say, for sake of my argument, had convictions about believer’s baptism and the church only did believer’s baptism then that is fine. Of course when it comes to fellowshipping with other Covenant churches and pastors those issues would be put to the side in the General Council meetings and such things like it.

            In fact, that is the way the Covenant church is now and operates. By you saying that certain para-church organizations could not do it, flies in the face of churches that actually do it!

          • rogereolson

            Now my head is swimming. Take me back. What did I say parachurch organizations cannot do? I don’t recall saying YFC, for example, can’t do something.

  • rvs

    The abuse of distinctives is rampant in evangelical culture, in my experience. Nonetheless, I too like distinctives, but I want pastors and professors to explain the difference between taste/style and orthodoxy/authenticity more often and with more gusto. Too often I hear pastors discuss distinctives as if they are little locks on the gates of heaven–to be opened by those who have all of the little keys. Christianity is not a technical endeavor. Easy believism. Easy believism.

  • the flip side to this is a church i used to attend and still love: they are a large denomination with a name that carries certain theological connotations, but the problem is that their name simply doesn’t reflect their doctrine.

    the denomination is CESA (Church of England in South Africa)

    the thing is this: they’re not anglicans as the name suggests. they’re reformed (there’s a lot of history behind the name, hence why they can’t let go… *sigh*). so the issue for them was one of losing potential memberships of people who would otherwise agree with them theologically, but are put off by the mere mention of anglicanism or “the church of england”.

    changing a name for a church like this is no easy task though, since they are denominationally still affiliated with the larger group called CESA.

  • Mick Lee

    Mr. Olson: I have found that whatever their intentions, even truly non-denominational churches in fact have theologies which are distinctively Baptist, Calvinist, or what have you. Many of the present day pride themselves as “just a Christian”–thinking themselves as having risen above the theological disputes of the past. Even the casual listener knows this isn’t so after five minutes of conversation. The truth is that every “just a Christian” winds up speaks the words of some dead theologian whose name he may have never heard of before but is the dominent influence in how “just a Christian” thinks what being a Christian means.

    You can’t erase 2000 years of history and disputes. Given the mistakes the Church has made in those 2000 years, you wouldn’t want to.

  • Lucretia

    I find it fascinating that non-denominational is being marketed as something that would appeal to people. Maybe it’s true, but personally I would never join a church that isn’t upfront about where it stands and where it is coming from. It would like buying shoes without checking what size they are! Sure it’s a church, but is it the right church for me? It just strikes me as incredibly bland somehow. The history, culture, and legacy of the church is so important and it seems strange to want to join a church that has intentionally removed itself from that.

  • Mary

    ” In my opinion, this one world church ideal is not ideal at all”

    Take it up with Jesus, who prayed that His followers be one. Nor can this mean a mystical union in the Body of Christ, because the prayer would then be meaningless: does anyone pray that two and two will make four?

    • rogereolson

      Now, if you take that very literally you’ll have to believe that Jesus’ ideal of “oneness” for Christians means our being “one” in exactly the same way he and the Father are one–ontological unity of being. Surely the “oneness” ideal of Jesus (for Christians) is that they be of one mind and spirit in fellowship and mission.

      • Steve

        Oneness is the essence of the discussion but it is also one that is simultaneously resolved and never resolved. This for me, makes it worthwhile. Things don’t have to be resolved for them to be active and worth pursuing. The one world ‘church’ is a matter of how you define ‘church’. There may a one world institution but this is meaningless in terms of my ongoing spirituality. What makes me ‘connected’ to fellow believers is not some membership thing but a state of being. I think we just came full circle.

        • rogereolson

          So it seems.

  • Jeff

    Dr. Olson,

    You said, “I think YFC was then somewhat bland in its generic evangelicalism. It couldn’t be a church, in other words.”

    • rogereolson

      I meant in my categorization (prescriptively).

  • Gradon Schaub

    Excellent post Dr. Olson! I have had many of these same thoughts and have been particularly troubled of the development of these, as you call them, “plain label” churches within my own denomination (SBC).

  • Bill Sizemore

    I could not disagree more with the first half of this article. I released a book earlier this year titled, “The Fractured Church,” which makes a powerful case for the end of denominationalism. To perpetuate the notion that it is okay for churches to have different doctrinal beliefs is to ignore the scriptural admonition that we all speak the same thing and be of the same mind and judgment. It ignores the command that there be no divisions among us. It ignores the prayer for unity that Jesus prayed in John 17, which must be answered, and it ignores the “big picture” that Paul lays out in Ephesians 4, that the body of Christ would one day come to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ and not longer be children tossed and blown about by every wind of doctrine.

    This column seeks to defend the indefensible. It defends a church blown about by every wind of doctrine, a clear sign of spiritual immaturity. What God announced at the Tower of Babel was the unlimited power of unity. There was nothing those men could not do because they were all one. So, to ensure that their rebellion would not be successful, He confounded their languages. The Lord Jesus and the apostles preached the exact opposite for the church: Oneness, unity, no divisions, no divided minds. By remaining divided, we deny ourselves the most powerful force on earth, Christian unity.

    Jesus said that we were to be one so the world would know that He was indeed sent by the Father. We ignore that statement. We go out and preach the gospel, but then divide ourselves into thousands of denominations, effectively neutralizing what we say, so much so that the Christian church us known to the world by our divisions far more than our unity. And then we wonder why so many do not accept the message we preach and refuse to see Jesus for who He really is!

    If any readers of this post want to order my book, I will guarantee that it is the most powerful book you have read to the date on the subject of denominationalism and church unity. If you don’t agree, send it back and we will refund your money. To take advantage of that offer, buy the book at http://www.fracturedchurch.com. I can’t refund your money if you buy from Amazon or Barnes and Noble, etc.

    Departing from denominationalism is not a fad. It is the beginnings of a move of God. Institutionalized division is a grievous sin. Independent churches that exist as denominations of one are no less guilty. The problem is division, not denominationalism. Denominations are merely official manifestations of that sin. The prayer of Jesus will be answered and the labels will come down. They may be instructive labels and may make it easier for us to stay in the camps we want to belong to, but the fact that the separate camps exist is the problem that must come to an end. Denominations are not expressions of different flavors and personalities as Armstrong suggests in “Your Church is Too Small.” They are not like the various tribes of ancient Israel. They are evidence of our refusal to see division as the sin it is. May the Lord grant us the grace to see our shortcomings for what they are. Bill Sizemore

    • rogereolson

      So what about the second half of my article? 🙂

      • Bill Sizemore

        In “The Fractured Church,” I address the damage all of those different sign and church names do to the body of Christ. Somtimes there are three or four churches on the same block. People driving by cannot help but think, consciously or otherwise, that Christians don’t like each other very much. In fact, they will build churches across the street from one another because they won’t worship their same God under the same roof. I agree with your position that signs ought to be honest, if you are going to have them and that churches should not hide their denominational affiliations. They should not pretend they are something they are not, though it’s worth nothing that churches desiring to break from their denominations do not always find it easy to do so. Often, the denomination takes them to court and seizes their building andeven the money they have in the bank.

        Signs that hide denominational affiliations are deceptive, but the larger problem is the denominational affiliation itself. But it doesn’t stop there. The denominational affiliation is a sign of the even larger problem of division. If all Christians are members of the body of Christ, then they must be connected to one another – at least at the city level – or else the body cannot function as one. What we have in our cities today is a body of Christ that is divided into body parts that are scattered all over our cities and not connected to one another. A body so divided and disjointed cannot function as a body with each part fulfilling its purpose.

        So, Brother Olson, agreeing with you about the deceptive signs should not be taken as an admission that having more accurate signs fixes anything. The fact that a born again Arminian cannot fully serve in a Calivinist church is a far larger problem than the accuracy of the sign out front. That’s like saying that we should accept our doctrinal differences and then have the class to separate from one another and go worship with those who agree with us so as to not cause division. In othe words, we should divide so as to avoid division. It is the division and our failure to be of the same mind and judgment that must be addressed, not the accuracy of our signs.

        • rogereolson

          I don’t see the scandal you see. A few weeks ago I was walking around a small Upper Midwestern city and happened upon the old town square (a few blocks removed now from Main Street). Four churches stand at its corners–all facing into the town square (where I assume a County Courthouse once stood). Three of them are Lutheran and one is Methodist. I am willing to bet that those churches do a lot together; there is necessary acrimony or even exclusion based solely on denominational labels. But, they do have different polities and emphases (e.g., two of the Lutheran churches are of one denomination and the third is of a different one). So what? That doesn’t mean they aren’t one in the Spirit. It would be good for them to combine into one denomination IF that could be done without obliterating all particularities by reducing doctrine to a lowest common denominator that amounts to bland, generic Christianity that is practical deism.

  • Hi,

    I was searching for a post on baptism. Maybe you discussed it here before but i couldn’t find such a post. I am doing some research on paedobaptism vs credobaptism and am looking for books that cover the positive case for both. I was hoping you could mention one or two that covers both sides of the debate?

    much appreciated. 🙂

    • rogereolson

      The Waters that Divide edited by Phypers and Bridges (?) published by IVP.

  • Roger

    Thank you for this Dr. Olson. I wholeheartedly agree. Although they don’t advertise the fact, I just found out that the traditional, liturgical church we are now attending believes they are the only legitimate church. That’s ridiculous and the thought sickens me. Denominations serve different needed functions
    and together comprise the body of Christ. In essentials unity, in
    non-essentials liberty, in all thing charity.

  • Tommy

    I agree and think this is a very well done article. I believe that Christians should be united in deed because Jesus (in all versions of the Bible) gave us the same basic instructions, i.e. evangelize and help the poor. I also believe that it is okay (at least for now) to be diverse in practice and belief because there was nothing of the sort prescribed in the Good Book. If during the week all Christians could work on the basic teachings of Christ and then worry about the details in their own churches on Sunday, i think the state of the country (eventually the world) would greatly improve