Defending Denominations in a “Postdenominational Age”

Defending Denominations in a “Postdenominational Age” November 9, 2015

Defending Denominations in a “Postdenominational Age”

The “word on the street” is that we are living in a postdenominational age. Allegedly, denominations are “old school” and dying out. New forms of church life and cooperation are arising; independent, non-denominational churches are flourishing. Many churches are dropping their denominational identities; denominations are morphing into “networks.” People, so it is said, are shying away from churches with denominational labels in favor of churches that have no denominational identity.

This week (November 12-13, 2015) I will be keynote speaker at a conference about denominations. There is no doubt about the anxiety among denominational leaders, employees and pastors about this sociological trend. I will be defending denominations as valid, if not necessary, and suggesting ways in which denominations might adapt to the current seeming antipathy to denominations.

Sociologists of religion seem to claim the field when it comes to attempting to explain this trend. What’s largely missing is any theological reflection on denominations. However, two recent books attempt to fill that gap and I recommend them to anyone concerned about the subject: Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds., Anthony Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013) and Denomination: Assessing an Ecclesiological Category, eds., Paul M. Collins and Barry Ensign-George (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2011). The first one is relatively inexpensive; the second is quite expensive but easily borrowed through any interlibrary loan program.

Why We Belong contains essay by theologians about a theology of denominations as well as essays by adherents of several denominations explaining their histories, distinctives and why they do not represent division among the people of God. (The authors do not deny that denominations can and sometimes do represent such division, but they argue that their existence does not in and of itself constitute a “broken Body of Christ.” The subtitle is “Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity.”)

Denomination is a more scholarly book written primarily for other scholars. Like Why We Belong it contains essays defending the existence of denominations theologically. Some of the essays focus on specific denominations and are written by theologians embedded in them. The “gist” of the book is that denominations can be gifts of God to the people of God—depending on how they function.

The essential message of both books is the same and I agree with it: Contrary to what many people think, the bare existence of denominations is not in and of itself sin and denominations actually can and often do contribute much good to the people of God and to the social world.

This message is contrary to that communicated to the world, especially America (because of its denominational diversity) by H. Richard Niebuhr in his 1929 classic The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Niebuhr decried the existence of denominations as sin and equated it with brokenness in the Body of Christ and called it a religious “caste system.” That was, of course, at or near the beginning of the modern “ecumenical movement” intended to unite all Christians, Protestants at first, into a united church with “visible and institutional unity.”

I doubt that Niebuhr’s book has any direct impact on the alleged decline of denominationalism during the past twenty-to-thirty years. Instead, I think it is the result of several religious and social factors in American society: rising individualism, populism, increasing suspicion of large institutions with hierarchies invisible to outsiders and the “grassroots,” and, perhaps surprisingly, the left-over effects of the Jesus People Movement and the Charismatic Movement—both of which flourished in the 1970s.

There are several ironies in this postdenominational attitude. First, most allegedly independent congregations have some denominational identity—even if it is hard to discover (mention of it is buried somewhere on its web site). That “identity” might not be membership in a denomination, but it is usually some degree of affiliation with a denomination (often under the currently favored moniker “network”).

Second, in this allegedly postdenominational age denominations are proliferating if not flourishing. As consultant to the Handbook of Denominations I keep my “ear to the ground,” so to speak, about new denominations. Many of them claim to not be denominations; they prefer to be called “ministries” or “networks” or something else. Sociologically, however, they are denominations. “Denomination” has never required having a headquarters with authority and power to dominate and control congregations. Many denominations have always been voluntary associations of autonomous congregations. There are more of these now than ever before and new ones are popping up all the time.

Third, finally, “mega-churches” are functioning much like denominations. People do not realize that when they join an “independent” and “non-denominational” mega-church with twenty thousand members they are, in effect, joining a functional denomination even if, because it is a single congregation, sociologists don’t call it a denomination. Soon, in many cases, the mega-church begins “mothering” or “planting” branches where the celebrity pastor appears on a big screen on Sunday mornings. In some of these quasi-denominations members and visitors cannot know in advance at which of the locations he or she will appear in person.

While I do not think denominations were ever God’s intention for the Body of Christ, and while I do not think they will be present in the future Kingdom of God on earth, neither do I think their existence is, in and of itself, sinful or a sign of “brokenness” in the Body of Christ.

Many denominations exist because the denominations they broke from departed from the gospel or became so culturally accommodated that they no longer represented the radical call of Christ to be salt and light. Others exist because their founders simply had a “vision” of how church can and should be more like what Christ intended and/or what the Kingdom of God will look like when it appears in its completeness and perfection. Others exist because immigrants to America (or other countries) felt the need to have churches in their own languages and that reflected their national heritages and cultures. Others exist because their founders were excluded from other denominations. Yet others exist to promote a distinctive doctrine (or set of doctrines) not taught by other denominations.

Some of these are legitimate reasons for separate denominational existence; others are bad reasons—especially for their continuing existence as separate denominations. Once a denomination exists, however, it’s difficult for it to commit institutional suicide. Some dwindle to a point where they cannot sustain themselves and simply disappear. Others merge with another (or more than one) denomination—which almost always leads to the appearance of a new denomination (or more than one) of members dissatisfied with the merger. And on it goes.

My main point is that “denominationalism” in and of itself, separate from sectarianism (belief that it alone is the only true expression of authentic Christianity), is not sin even if it is not the ideal that Christ would want for his people. And, further, sometimes a denomination can be a gift of God—accommodated to our human brokenness. Without denominations we would be bereft of many, perhaps most, charitable organizations, mission agencies, publishing houses, educational institutions, etc.

The goal, given the reality of denominations, should not be “visible and institutional unity” of all churches into one great denomination with a headquarters but “reconciled diversity”—intercommunion, joint worship, pulpit exchanges, cooperation in the work of the Kingdom. Many denominations have those features. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, many, perhaps most, Americans (perhaps others as well) seem to think a denomination is always, by its very nature as a denomination, sectarian (as defined above). That is simply not the case.


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