Do Denominations Still Matter?
April 18, 2012
C.S. Lewis wrote in the preface to Mere Christianity that we should be careful with the word “Christian.” Lewis believed the term should be used strictly in the definitive sense, to describe those that follow “the teaching of the apostles” and not as a term of value or morality. After all, there are good and bad people who are Christians, and there are good and bad people who are not Christians.
It’s perfectly fine for our label to simply be a word that describes our commitment to following Jesus’ teachings and not a term describing our worth.
The same is true of the word “denomination” and the labels associated with them. To many of us, these structures can seem divisive, separating some Christians from other Christians. Ever since the Reformation in the 1500s, denominations have incited violence and conflict between Christians and non-Christians alike. But denominations have also given structure, purpose, support and a voice to billions of people throughout history.
Denominations are, at their core, structures that help support and enable a diversity of Christians. They are not Christianity; they merely make space for different varieties of faith to flourish. If we can understand denominational labels as descriptors rather than terms of value—who is right and who is wrong—perhaps we can see beyond the walls that separate us and begin to see the beautiful diversity there is among Christians. This may not be easy, but here are some reasons it's worth trying.
Our culture is more narcissistic than ever, and we should be very wary of how this affects our churches. While we all appreciate independence and creative freedom, we should also realize our churches need accountability, just like people do. Depending on the denomination, pastors and churches are held to certain standards. Yes, that can sometimes be stifling. But we’ve all heard of pastors who lose their bearings and fall. Accountability goes both ways. Denominations offer support to churches—while having some expectations too.
Denominations are a natural expression of the differences people have when dealing with something as complex as a 2000-year-old religion from a different language and culture. We all wish there was one church that met everyone’s needs. But there isn’t.
Realistically, we need flexibility when it comes to following Jesus in the 21st century. No one knows exactly what the first Christian communities believed or how it acted. But if denominations give you choices on how to follow Jesus in a way that resonates with you, without being completely shunned, diversity is a good thing.
There are a lot of church denominations out there that have played a huge role in remembering the culture and heritage of the past. There are African-American denominations that have been active for hundreds of years in civil rights—and gave slaves places to speak freely. There are churches that remember teachings and songs from people who died hundreds of years ago. There is something beautiful and holy about how these denominations honor the past. This can sometimes keep churches from adapting to modern culture. And it can sometimes lose its meaning along the way; we’ve all encountered churches that are completely out of touch. But if we discard the past too easily, so will future generations. If we don’t remember the past, who is going to remember us?
A few years ago, my class was asked to get budget information from our home churches. The professor predicted that less than 10 percent of us would be able to get financial statements. He was right.
People have always donated money to churches—shouldn’t they know exactly where their offerings go? This is why denominations sometimes require churches to share their financial information. But really, should they even have to ask?
While we live in the age of nonprofits, there are still an amazing number of religious organizations that respond to world tragedies. During a trip to Joplin, Mo., for tornado relief work, my church and I were fed and housed by a United Methodist Church, worked with a Catholic disaster response team and toured Convoy of Hope’s (which has an affiliation with the Assemblies of God) massive supply warehouse. Denominational missions have connections, funds and accountability that make a very real difference in the world.
I don’t think it’s necessary to have an advanced degree to follow Jesus or even to lead in a church. But Christianity is an ancient Eastern religion, and while there are many fantastic but uneducated pastors, it does no justice to Jesus to have other uneducated pastors speak ignorantly about Scripture or our religion. We need to face the reality that the Bible has been misunderstood and used to oppress and hurt people for thousands of years. It’s important that there be leaders who know how to think critically about this Book. Denominational seminaries aren’t perfect, but they help train leaders for the complexities of mixing the 1st and 21st centuries.
In my former nondenominational church, I was surrounded by passionate, creative young Christians. But there were little to no opportunities to do ministry besides setting up some chairs. I went exploring and discovered that, in response to a shrinking presence of young people, many denominations have responded with open arms and eager embraces. Many denominations want you, not as another seat filled, but as the very future of their church. This isn’t hype. You would be amazed by how ready and willing many of these churches are to include you in the very heart of their church structures.
I would love for these reasons to be unnecessary. I would love to see a unified church that didn’t need systems set in place to encourage accountability, financial transparency, cultural and theological diversity, clergy education, missional aid and an openness to young people. But I take comfort that even when we flip to the very end of the Bible, we still see diversity and structure. In the book of Revelation, God doesn’t return to reign over the Garden of Eden. God reigns from a city. We even read that the fruit from the Tree of Life is used to “heal the nations.” Nations. Plural. In the end, God will reign, but there will still be structure and diversity.
Chris Abel is a seminary student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington D.C. and occasionally blogs at www.foldingthoughts.com.