Reflections and Questions about the Word “Denomination”

Reflections and Questions about the Word “Denomination” May 22, 2016

I realize this is not an entirely new subject here, but I have new readers and I am deeply involved in a research project related to this subject. So I am going to raise the question again: “Why do so many people think so poorly about the word ‘denomination’?”

As editor of the 14th edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States (Abingdon Press) I have the privilege of contacting denominations to ask what might have changed since the 13th edition or to get information from those that are new and were not included in the 13th edition (2010).

Often here is the response: “We’re not a denomination.” Then sometimes they go on to explain “We are a network of churches” or “We are a fellowship” or “We are a movement.”

So what is a “denomination?” Well, at least for purposes of the Handbook (and I think many sociologists of religion would agree) “denomination” is simply a word for any group of congregations that fellowship with each other and have a name for that connectedness–however informal and voluntary it may be.

That’s actually what “denomination” means–etymologically: something named. A twenty dollar bill, for example, (at least in the U.S.) is called a “denomination” of paper money. When I go up to the teller at my bank and ask for cash from my account he or she asks “What denominations do you want?” (I’m tempted to answer “Baptist” but I don’t.)

Many churches in the U.S. claim to be “totally nondenominational.” Some are, but many aren’t. A little digging into the details reveals they do have some connection with a group of similar churches.

For some reason “Denomination” has taken on a very negative connotation in the United States. And yet, ironically, denominations (as I define the term) are proliferating and flourishing.

I recently heard a denominational executive refer to her denomination as a “denominetwork.” That clearly reveals a misunderstanding of the word and concetp “denomination.”

I suspect many people who think poorly of the word assume a “denomination” must be hierarchical and sectarian–in the sense of thinking it is the “only true Christian” group. Neither of those thoughts about the word are true.

For our purposes, the Handbook of Denominations, as for most scholars who study American religion, “denomination” is the proper word to use for any collection of congregations with connections between them–however voluntary and informal those connections may be.

This is another example of a good word that is changing simply because some kind of mysterious shift is happening in the popular connotation–mysterious because based on a misconception.

Some people are using the word “church” where “denomination” would be more proper. For example, I have heard people say “I belong to the Baptist church” when they mean a particular Baptist denomination such as the Southern Baptist Convention.” The SBC is most definitely NOT a “church;” it is a voluntary and cooperative collection of churches (all of them are autonomous). (Some SBC folks vehemently deny the SBC is a denomination and that because it has no hierarchy with authority and power to control churches.)

So, there is tremendous confusion about these words. That confusion is hitting me in the face as I attempt to gain information about especially newer denominations that insist they are “not a denomination” because they don’t understand the true meaning of “denomination.”

This is my call, a voice crying in the wilderness, a Don Quixote-like attempt, to get people, especially denominational leaders (!) to stop denying their connected (even if only by fellowship) congregations constitute a denomination. It’s not a bad word; whatever most people think. It’s a neutral word and there’s realy no alternative to it that covers all the different arrangements that exist.


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