“In Defense of Denominationalism”

“In Defense of Denominationalism” November 5, 2016

In Defense of Denominations

Roger E. Olson

Study Conference, November, 2015

The Sider Institute for Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies

Messiah College

First Published: “The Future of Denominations in the Twenty-First Century,” Brethren in Christ History and Life (April, 2016). Republished here with permission.

The “word on the street” among sociologists of religion is that “denominationalism” is dead in America; we are allegedly deep into a “post-denominationalism age.” Precisely when this process began and why, its exact causes and nature, and its consequences for American religion and culture are much discussed and disputed. Some critics of denominationalism celebrate its alleged demise; others, especially denominational leaders, agonize over it.

Researchers have been telling us for decades that many Americans care little or nothing about denominational identity and that includes self-identified committed Christians. Several nearly indisputable facts come to mind.

First, the number of churches, congregations, that identify themselves as “non-denominational” or “independent” has grown substantially during the past half century and the trend continues. The fact that many of these allegedly non-denominational, independent churches actually do have some affiliation with some denomination, however, non-traditional they may be, seems to elude many researchers and reporters. More about that later.

Second, most American religious denominations are struggling with membership and finances; many are downsizing. Those of us who teach in denominational institutes know all too well one feature of this trend. Many denominationally-related schools have lost much, if not most or all, of their denominational subsidies.

Third, many Americans who consider themselves committed Christians “float” from one denomination to another without any apparent regard for denominational loyalty. There was a time, by most accounts, when most American Christians privileged the denomination they grew up in or were converted to; that is, when they moved from one locale to another, they sought out and joined, if possible, a congregation of their “mother denomination” or one close to it in doctrine, worship style, etc. This sense of denominational loyalty has declined dramatically in the past half century.

 

*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.*

When I was growing up loyalty to our denomination was very strong in my extended family. My parents and many of my aunts and uncles were ministers and missionaries of this very small, seemingly insignificant Pentecostal denomination (which we preferred to call a “fellowship” or “movement”). It was an offshoot of another denomination and most of my relatives who belonged to it had converted, become “born again Christians,” in it. When my family traveled on family vacations and Sunday rolled around, my parents always sought out and attended a church of that denomination or, if none was available, we visited a church of a similar denomination. When that happened my parents made a point of telling the pastor they/we were members of our denomination. When I went off to our denomination’s college I began attending a church of a similar denomination which led to great consternation in my family—even though there were no significant differences of doctrine or worship style between the two denominations. When my parents visited me at college they would not darken the door of my new home church only because it was of a different denomination and one of theirs/ours was nearby. I begged them to visit my new church and see “what God was doing” there; it was in the midst of a revival. They refused out of denominational loyalty.

Perhaps my family was a bit extreme about this, but there was a time when most American Christians at least approximated that kind of loyalty to their denomination. Interestingly, when my uncle, who served as president of our denomination for twenty-five years, retired and moved away from its headquarters city, he and his wife, fanatical devotees of both our denomination and Pentecostalism in general, joined a church of a different tradition entirely—even though there were plenty of Pentecostal churches in their area.

There can be little doubt that denominational loyalty has declined in America. Most of us know people who were once firmly embedded in a particular denomination, or at least a tradition that included more than one distinct denomination, but in the last years have shed that loyalty and joined churches entirely different in doctrine, worship style and polity from that of their home denomination or tradition. They have become peripatetic in their spiritual lives.

This nomadic tendency on the part of many American Christians has become so notable that it is almost taken for granted; it comes as little or no surprise anymore when, for example, someone who grew up in and for years belonged to a Baptist church moves and joins a Methodist church. Those of us who have lived long enough, and paid attention to trends in American religion, can well remember a time when this nomadic tendency was rare and, when it appeared, caused real consternation within families. Now it mainly causes consternation among denominational leaders. And, in my experience of teaching religion and theology to twenty-somethings for thirty-four years, I find that most of them find denominational loyalty confusing and even off-putting—or at least “old school.”

My own interest in denominations goes back to youth—at least to my teen years. My extended family was large and religiously fissiparous if not quarrelsome. I had three parents because my mother died when I was a child and my father, a pastor, remarried when I was still a child. So we had three family reunions to attend. And all three were large families. (When they were all alive I had sixty-five first cousins!) They contained many people passionately committed to their religious traditions. Family reunions often devolved into civil arguments about doctrines and practices. One branch of my stepmother’s family was Christian Reformed; my cousins belonged to a youth group called “Young Calvinists.” We and many others in my stepmother’s family were Pentecostal. All were raised Methodist. My birth mother’s family contained members of the Evangelical Free Church and the Evangelical Covenant Church, but she and her sister became Pentecostal. One of my mother’s cousins was Bahai. My father’s very large family were mostly Church of God, Anderson, Indiana but some had become Pentecostal. One of my father’s brothers, however, belonged to a little-known sect (we called it a “cult”) that everyone else called the Two-By-Twos. They only call themselves “Christians.” At family reunions my Two-By-Two uncle would get up from the table and walk away when prayer was said over the meal. He did not believe in praying with non-Two-By-Twos.

This fissiparous extended family somewhat mirrored American Christianity—divided into numerous denominations, sects and cults. We were, for the most part, “evangelicals,” however, probably in much greater proportion than the American public. Over the years I saw my aunts, uncles and cousins wander away from their denominational homes into others or into independent churches.

That religiously variegated, even motley, extended family context provoked deep curiosity in me. So, being an avid reader, even in junior high school, I began searching for books that would help me understand not only my family but American Christianity in general. I was intensely curious about all those churches around us—nearly all of them with denominational labels. Were they also Christians? During my teen years I participated actively in Youth for Christ which also piqued my curiosity. I discovered there that even Presbyterians could be saved—a revelation to me. I even began to suspect that some of Baptists and other non-Pentecostals might be Spirit-filled even though they didn’t speak in tongues.

I liked to hang out at the local used bookstore in our town—mostly looking for cheap, which meant used, copies of “Hardy Boys” and “Nancy Drew” mystery books. There, among the dusty old tomes in the “Religion” section I found a book I still own: Christian Truth and Religious Delusions by Lutheran pastor Casper Nervig. It was my first introduction to semi-scholarly description of diverse American denominations, sects and cults. From it I learned that the Evangelical Lutheran Church is the “church of truth” while my own tradition, Pentecostalism, is a cult. When I asked some of my Lutheran school friends about this they confirmed it saying my church consisted of “holy rollers.”

Next I began reading books by religion scholar Marcus Bach, founder of the University of Iowa’s School of Religion. I found his books also in the used bookstore. Many of his books described American religious groups most people know little or nothing about—including my own Pentecostal tradition. Bach described them all fairly and sympathetically. I also devoured every new edition, and some old ones, of the Handbook of Denominations published by Abingdon Press. Eventually I became a consultant to its editor and am named in the prefaces of the 12th and 13th editions as such. I am slated to become the general editor of the 14th edition.  In the intervening years—since my youth–I have kept up a very lively interest in American religion—so-called “mainline” but especially minority groups.

For years I had the habit of immediately picking up the phone book in any hotel or motel I stayed in when traveled around the U.S. I perused the section of the Yellow Pages headed “Churches.” I was always interested in seeing what denominations, sects and perhaps even cults were represented in the region I was visiting. Over the years, until phone books disappeared from most hotel rooms, I noticed a definite trend—one sociologists of religion were commenting on. Forty years ago the list of churches in any city under the heading “Independent” or “Non-denominational” was relatively short. Throughout the 1990s, however, it grew longer and longer until it was often the longest list in many city Yellow Pages under “Churches.” One thing I noticed, however, was that such lists included many churches I knew to be denominationally affiliated! They simply were choosing to list themselves in the phone book as non-denominational or independent.

My home church, pastored by my father, was one of those. I was a member there from age eleven to age twenty-seven. I served as its associate pastor for four years while I attended a Baptist seminary nearby. My father had ministerial credentials with our small Pentecostal (which we preferred to called “Full Gospel” and later “Charismatic”) denomination, but the church was independent but enjoyed “cooperating status” with the denomination. My uncle, the denomination’s president, often joked that that was better than many of the chartered churches. I remember vividly how our church was on the cusp of officially joining the denomination when the “Jesus People Movement” hit our town. Our church was situated between the town’s too colleges—one Baptist and the other Lutheran. The two college’s “Jesus freaks” began attended our church and we discovered that our independent status was one thing that attracted them. I lived through the Jesus People Movement and I credit it with partially contributing to the movement of American society toward post-denominationalism. Many Jesus People heaped scorn and abuse on “denominations” which they considered hindrances to revival and a return to New Testament Christianity. As the literally hundreds of new Christian “hippies” flooded into our church we dropped the whole idea of officially affiliating with any denomination even as we remained a “cooperating” church with my uncle’s denomination.

Another, nearly simultaneous, religious movement that, in my estimation, contributed to post-denominationalism was the Charismatic Movement. Our church was also caught up in that and our status as non-denominational was, I am certain, a major reason the new charismatic Christians in our area flocked to our church. Many of them retained their memberships in denominational churches, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Baptist, but attended our church on Sunday evenings and special events. Our church gained the reputation of being a melting pot of denominations.

A third movement that has contributed to post-denominationalism is the ecumenical movement which was at the height of its strength in the 1950s and 1960s. The ecumenical movement began as a desire for cooperation in mission among mostly mainline Protestant denominations but in the 1950s and 1960s evolved into a concerted effort to unite Protestants visibly and institutionally. At the same time the so-called mainline Protestant denominations began to lose members by the thousands and even millions. Although it is only conjecture, hopefully educated conjecture, I think the ecumenical movement convinced many Americans that mainline Protestantism had little to offer as denominations gave up their particularities for a kind of lowest-common-denominator theology that seemed generic and insipid.

Ironically, even as many Americans have turned their backs on traditional denominations in the past decades, the number of denominations, broadly defined, has grown. The first Abingdon Handbook of Denominations I read, sometime in the 1960s, listed and described about two hundred distinct denominations. The thirteenth edition, published in 2010, lists and describes about three hundred. I know of many more that are not, for one reason or another, included in the Handbook. My colleague J. Gordon Melton has written a three volume Encyclopedia of American Religions that names and describes about twelve hundred distinct religious bodies with more than three congregations in the U.S. One of the smallest is the Schwenkfelder Church which has about six congregations—mostly in Pennsylvania. The largest is the Roman Catholic Church with the Southern Baptist Convention, which denies it is a denomination, second in size.

Today the trend is away from ecumenical union of denominations toward what some experts call the Balkanization of Protestantism in America. There are now approximately fifty distinct Baptist groups including my own two groups, the Cooperation Baptist Fellowship, which vehemently denies it is a denomination, to the Baptist General Convention of Texas which reluctantly admits it is a distinct denomination and, if so, is the sixth largest Protestant body in America with nearly six thousand churches in several states. Lutherans are among the most fissiparous with new alliances and networks spinning off every year. Every Protestant tradition has experienced this centrifugal trend. There are now more Anglican groups in America, some led by African bishops, than one can count on both hands.

Many, perhaps most, of these new groups of congregations deny they are “denominations.” The very term “denomination” has become problematic, to say the least. To some it is downright sinister. Every semester I have each of my students fill out a “Student Information Sheet.” I ask them to state their denominational affiliation. The most common answer is “I grew up Baptist but now consider myself non-denominational.” And that from students who receive a tuition reduction for belonging to and being recommended to us by a Baptist church.

Is there a root of this negative attitude toward denominations that is so pervasive today? In 1929 Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, Reinhold’s brother, published a landmark book entitled The Social Sources of Denominationalism in which he condemned the denominational system in America as a religious “caste system.” He called it a scandal and harshly criticized it as contrary to the spirit of Jesus and the early churches. One can hardly overstate the overall negativity Niebuhr expressed toward denominationalism. On the other hand, in true realist fashion, he reluctantly admitted it is probably a result of America’s separation of church and state as well as American individualism and that it is here to stay. He gave several suggestions, to which I will return in my second talk, for softening the damage done to Christian unity by American denominationalism.

Here is a typical example of Niebuhr’s ironic and sardonic description of American Christianity in the denominational system: “The accord of Pentecost has resolved into a Babel of confused sounds; while devout men and women continue devoutly to confess Sunday by Sunday ‘I believe in one, holy, catholic church’.”[1] He denounced denominationalism as an ethical and spiritual evil and a result of “the secularization of Christianity.”[2] He called it an inevitable compromise with the fallen nature of humanity but said “The fact that compromise is inevitable does not make it less an evil.”[3] Niebuhr expressed greatest sympathy with what he labeled, borrowing from Ernst Troeltsch, the “sects”—denominations founded by, he wrote, the “disinherited of the earth.” There he was speaking of the denomination of my childhood and youth among hundreds of others—all the so-called non-mainline Christian groups. He brought down his harshest criticism on the heads of the so-called “mainline” Protestant denominations for their favoritism toward the upper and middle classes of society. “Even sectarianism,” he wrote, “is preferable to the absence of vital Christian conviction and expression among those whose hunger and thirst after righteousness is not any less necessary to the world because it has natural roots.”[4] By “natural roots” he meant economic and social disadvantage which, he argued, led to the founding of most sects of Christianity.

Niebuhr borrowed the distinction between “denomination” and “sect” from Troeltsch, the great German theologian, philosopher and religious sociologist of the generation immediately before him. According to Troeltsch, all Protestant bodies are either sects or denominations. A denomination or “church,” according to Troeltsch, has either formal or informal ties with government and is culture-shaping. A “sect” is a religious group on society’s margins with no links to government and little or no social influence. According to Troeltsch most sects are “otherworldly” and “enthusiastic,” which, in his time, was a pejorative term virtually synonymous with “fanatical.”

Niebuhr knew Troeltsch’s taxonomy was far too simplistic to fit the American situation with separation of church and state. In a sense, Niebuhr admitted, all American religious bodies are sects because none have government sanction or support since at least 1819. However, Niebuhr couldn’t bring himself to discard the distinction entirely. At least for his purposes in 1929 the Yale theologian used “denomination” for the larger Protestant bodies that exercised influence over culture and public policy and that were composed mainly of relatively educated and affluent people. His typical example of a denomination was the Episcopal Church. He used “sect” for religious bodies composed mainly of who he called the “disinherited of the earth,” the lower economic classes and mostly uneducated people. Typically, according to Niebuhr, a sect has little interest in influencing culture or directing public social policy.

This taxonomy held among American sociologists of religion for a very long time and led to the common use of “mainline” to designate the bodies Niebuhr called “denominations” and “non-mainline” for those he called “sects.” Many then added “cult” to the categories to describe heretical or heterodox religious groups and especially those exhibiting high tension with their cultural surroundings.

These terms are extremely fluid, of course, and are much debatable as to their appropriateness. The categorization itself seems to contain a bias, so many sociologists of religion resist them, or at least the ways they have been used, and are in the process of redefining them and substituting other terms for especially “cult.” “Sect” has virtually dropped away.

And yet I find the three terms and their categories still somewhat helpful if at the same time simplistic and requiring nuances missing in Troeltsch’s descriptions and Niebuhr’s re-contextualizing in America’s culture of separation of church and state.

According to Niebuhr, there is a natural tendency for denominations, as he used the term and category, to lose their spiritual fervor and to become little more than clubs for the socially privileged. Also, he argued, there is a natural tendency for sects to become denominations as their members become upwardly mobile and join the middle class. The “drift” is always toward cultural accommodation and loss of spiritual intensity which always gives rise to new groups determined to revive that lost spiritual intensity. These, then, become the new sects. Niebuhr specifically referred to Methodism as a case study in this—once a sect, then a denomination. No doubt he would point to the Church of the Nazarene and the Free Methodist Church as examples of sectarian spin-offs of Methodism-become-denomination.

Overall and in general, Niebuhr’s analysis and evaluation of denominations was extremely negative; one gets the impression that he despised denominationalism if not denominations. I believe his book contributed to a growing negative attitude toward denominations among many American scholars which eventually filtered down to the masses with other influences such as the Jesus People Movement and the Charismatic Movement adding to their anti-denominational disposition.

I would like to express a dissenting voice to this conversation. It almost seems too late; the worms are out of the can and can’t be put back into it. Everyone seems to have only negative things to say about denominations except those who make their living from them. Especially so-called “Millennials” seem disgusted with denominational squabbles and divisions and even particularities. And yet, ironically, those who seek to escape denominations, insofar as they retain their Christian and church-related identities at all, seem simply to create new denominations under different names, the main one being “network.” One scholar of denominations insightfully commented recently that “The nuts and bolts of a denomination are present even if a denominational name is absent.”[5]

I am glad to say I am not alone in speaking up for denominations—not the term but the reality under whatever label. In 2011 several denominationally-affiliated Christians, Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox and none of the above, published a book entitled Denomination: Assessing an Ecclesiological Category (London and New York: T&T Clark). Unfortunately, it’s an expensive and scholarly tome unlikely to fall into the hands of very many readers. It constitutes, however, a very powerful defense of denominations if not of denominationalism—whatever that is.

I agree with the book’s general editor, Barry Ensign-George, who posits that “Though much maligned, denomination is potentially one of God’s good gifts to the church.”[6] I also agree that “Denomination can be a legitimate intermediary structure in the world,”[7] “Denomination provides a form in which multiple faithful possibilities for Christian life can be lived,”[8] “Denomination is a way in which room can be held open for…diversities”[9] and, “Denomination provides a form in which Christians can live their affirmations that the church is more than their local congregation.”[10]

Ironically, in an age and generation that highly values diversity, denominations should be, but often are not, valued as an expression of diversity. Ensign-George speaks for most of the book’s contributors when he says that “Denomination as a category embodies an affirmation that the church may be pluriform without undoing its unity.”[11] Especially the Presbyterian and Baptist contributors argue strongly that their traditions, at least for the most part, do not think they are the only or even the “best” Christians and are willing to work with other Christians across denominational lines. There are exceptions, of course, but, for the most part, today’s Christian denominations in America are not highly sectarian, in the sense of thinking they are the only or best Christians, even though they value their traditions and particularities. According to these several authors, and I agree with them, there is nothing unchristian about Christian “pluriformity,” which has always existed (denominations are not really new to America as Niebuhr seemed to think) so long as it does not mean breaking intercommunion, cooperation and fellowship. When it does, they and I believe, it is contrary to the prayer of Jesus that his disciples be “one.”

Some years ago I participated by invitation in a series of ecumenical dialogues led by two Lutheran theologians who called themselves “catholic” with a small “c” and who expressed the hope that someday, somehow Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox could reunite into one undivided church. Participants included Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists. I was there to represent “evangelical Protestants” in general. When I was asked to speak I told them that, in the particular religious form of life I belong to, any or all of them would be welcome to preach from a pulpit and partake of the Lord’s Supper. I did not see any particular need for “visible and institutional unity of the churches” and shooting for that while missing intercommunion seemed to me putting the cart before the horse.

I think many Americans falsely assume that all denominations are sectarian in the sense of thinking they are the only authentic Christians or at least superior to other Christians. This is, of course, not the case. Yes, most denominations have their particularities, some would call them eccentricities. But their separate existence does not necessarily mean brokenness within the Body of Christ.

As I begin to wind down, let me first dispel some of the negative myths about denominations. Then, second and finally, I will mention a few positive contributions of denominations that make preserving and defending them worthwhile.

One popular myth about denominations is that they are a modern innovation. Niebuhr and other critics have promoted this myth even going so far as to claim that America invented denominations. It’s true that America is a breeding ground for denominations and that because of separation of church and state. No denomination is officially privileged by American society even if some have had privileges due to wealth and influence. But America has been an entrepreneurial society all along and that has certainly given impetus to the proliferation of denominations. However, I argue denominations have always existed and that it was only persecution that kept them from proliferating before modernity and the rise of religious freedom and toleration. One of the earliest denominations was, of course, the New Prophecy churches founded and led by followers of the prophet Montanus in the second century. Only a very narrow definition of “denomination” would make it impossible to label the New Prophecy churches that. Between then and today numerous groups labeled by scholars “sects of Christianity” arose and flourished in places—many well before the rise of modernity. An example is the Waldensian Church founded by followers of Peter Waldo in Italy in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. It still exists and validly lays claim to being the oldest Protestant church, denomination, in the world. A century before Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg the Bohemian-based Unitas Fratrum, followers of John Hus, became another pre-Reformation Protestant sect or denomination—also still existing and claiming to be the oldest Protestant church.

Another popular myth is that denominations hinder Christian unity, fellowship and cooperation. Some do, but many don’t. Many denominations have their origin in ethnicity, language and culture rather than in doctrinal differences. Many denominations reach out to and have fellowship, intercommunion, cooperation with others without feeling any particular need to dissolve or unite organizationally. For example, the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. and the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ have long had unofficial and informal fellowship, pulpit exchange, etc., without seeing any need to unite organizationally. Their separation is not a divide within the Body of Christ; it is simply a desire to preserve their heritages and distinctives. Tribalism is bad, a detriment to the unity of Christ’s Body and a hindrance to the advance of the Kingdom of God on earth. But not all denominations are tribalistic; many express no sentiments of superiority over others.

Amy Plantinga Pauw, the Presbyterian contributor to the previously mentioned book Denominations, claims that “One of the hallmarks of denomination [is] recognizing the legitimacy of confessional heritages other than one’s own.”[12] She spoke not for every denomination, but certainly for many including her own.

A third popular myth is that united churches can accomplish more for the Kingdom of God than can separate denominations. There’s simply no proof of that. In fact, it seems that smaller denominations are prone to greater giving and sending per capita than larger ones. Many small, separate denominations have founded and supported more educational and mission organizations per capita than larger, ecumenically-united ones.

Finally, Niebuhr’s main objection to denominations is what he regarded as their natural tendency to promote a religious caste system. While there’s some truth to that and it should be a concern to assure that Christian groups not exclude people based on perceived inferiority, not all denominations are guilty. The Church of God, Anderson, Indiana, which originally thought of itself as not a denomination at all but “the church of God on earth to which all real Christians belong” is today one of the most diverse denominations in America. Caste system, like tribalism, is not endemic to denominations even though we need to be vigilant that both are avoided.

Now to some positive characteristics of denominations. The most obvious one is, in my opinion, the freedom of choice in belief and worship they offer. The second is accountability. The third is combined resources for establishing and maintaining educational institutions, mission agencies and publishing houses. What would be the alternatives to denominations? I can think of two that are realistic, short of the perfect, visible unity of the Kingdom of God to come. One is every congregation totally independent of every other congregation which would seem to just be denominationalism universalized. Where, then, would be accountability? How could single, independent congregations, however large, afford to establish and maintain strong educational institutions, mission agencies, and publishing houses? Plantinga Pauw rightly argues that “Non-denominational [independent] churches are living off the theological capital of more established Christian traditions.”[13]

The second is enforced union of all congregations into one big denomination. Where, then, would be freedom to reform if the leadership went off the rails? This was the situation, of course, in 1517 when Luther nailed his famous “Ninety-five Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg. His only choice, once he was excommunicated by the only legal church in his geographical area, was to found a separate one. Then, later, when Lutheran churches in Germany became spiritually cold and formalistic and the Pietists who tried to reform it were excommunicated, what choice did they have but to found separate bodies?

The alternatives to denominationalism are, to me, too frightening to contemplate or pursue. That is not to say the present condition of denominationalism cannot be improved; nor is it to say that every denomination is already all that it could be in terms of contributing to the health of the Body of Christ and the advance of God’s Kingdom. It is only to say that the realistic alternatives to denominationalism are worse that denominationalism at its best.

Is denominationalism what God intended for God’s people? Is it what Jesus intended for his Body? The answer seems clearly no. But is it so clearly a sinful deviation from that divine intention for his disciples and their heirs expressed in Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” “Father, make them one even as you and I are one” many assume and argue? The answer seems clear to me: no. The unity God intended and desires for his people and that the Body of Christ should have does not have to be visible and institutional. That is, the church of Jesus Christ does not have to have one world headquarters in order to be spiritually united. There can be such a thing as “reconciled diversity.” This is illustrated in another recently published book about denominations entitled Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity edited by Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson. The chapters’ authors include an Anglican, a Baptist, a Lutheran, a Methodist, a Pentecostal (Assemblies of God), and a Presbyterian. All affirm their traditions, their particularities, while also affirming spiritual unity with each other as equally Christians.

In concert with many other ecumenically-minded Christians going back at least to Niebuhr, Plantinga Pauw affirms that “It is obvious that denomination has an extremely precarious place in [the] larger understanding [of church].”[14] That’s true beyond debate. The key word is “precarious.” Denominational Christians can no longer take denominationalism for granted; it must be defended. However, I demur when Plantinga Pauw goes on to refer to “the sin of the denominational church” and say that “Denominational churches are evidence that the body of Christ on earth is a broken and diseased body.”[15] The situation is not necessarily so dire. Denominations are not themselves either wholly righteous or wholly sinful. Like most things in this fallen world, before the Kingdom comes, they are most often a mixture of both. They are, as Luther said of the ordinary Christian between the fall and the resurrection, “simul justus et peccator”—at once righteous and sinful. Their existence may be sinful insofar as it falls short of God’s ideal, but it may also be righteous insofar as they embody, however imperfectly, the communion of the saints in a broken world. The result of this analysis, if it is correct, is that denominations should repent of their participation in the church’s brokenness, strive to minimize that brokenness through fellowship and cooperation with other denominations without compromise of essentials of the faith, and celebrate the fact that, by God’s grace, they are reflecting in microcosm the diversity-in-unity of the Body of Christ before the eschaton.

In my second talk I will set forth some suggestions for denominations’ survival in this post-denominational age. But be warned! By “survival” I do not mean preservation of the status quo; in some cases “survival” may look kind a kind of death. In some cases denominations need to die in order to be reborn. In my opinion, there are far too many denominations in America—many of them duplicating each others’ efforts and simply existing to perpetuate their perceived distinctives which are not really all that distinctive. Many exist only because they have existed; they have no other reason for existing than history. If they do not change, many will die out and be forgotten. Their best hope for survival is in dying out institutionally and by their death planting a seed for something new to grow. No denomination is God’s Kingdom on earth; no denomination is sacred. All are human organizations; we must avoid making idols of them. Others still have much to offer but need to change in order to contribute positively to the mission of God. If they refuse to change, and especially if they are a drag on the progress of the Kingdom in the world, they should die for the sake of the progress of the Kingdom. I will offer suggestions for both kinds of survival—institutional death and strength through change.

 

[1] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), 11.

[2] Ibid., 25

[3] Ibid., 5

[4] Ibid., 76

[5] Anthony Chute, “One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions: Denominations and Their Stories,” Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, eds., Anthony Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, Robert A. Peterson (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 64.

[6] Barry, Ensign-George, “Denomination as Ecclesiological Category: Sketching an Assessment,” Denomination: Assessing an Ecclesiological Category, eds., Paul M. Collins and Barry Ensign-George (London and New York: T&T Clark, 2011), 3.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 6.

[9] Ibid., 12.

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid., 16.

[12] Ibid., 136.

[13] Ibid., 144.

[14] Ibid., 145.

[15] Ibid., 139.

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