Do Denominations Still Matter?

Taking another look at structured faith community.

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.

Accountability

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.

Theological diversity

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.

Heritage/diversity

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?

Financial transparency

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?

Missions

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.

Clergy education

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. 

We’re needed

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.

Top Comments

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Brett Satkowiak commented…

Jason, I certainly appreciate the fervor. And you'll find me right alongside you with regard to the importance of baptism in the daily life of every Christian. However, I need to correct you on one point in particular. I'm looking at a copy of the Greek in Matthew (28:19 to be exact), which specifically reads "baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

With regards to immersion/sprinkling, I'd argue that that is what is called adiophora ... neither explicitly commanded nor forbidden, and therefore up to the church to decide in each time and place. I've never read anything that insists that the Greek for baptize carries with it the requirement for immersion. The word simply represents a ritual bathing.

IMO, when you get into those types of discussions, you turn baptism into a work ... you turn a message of grace into law. Because if we insist upon one form, the question inevitably leads to "how much water is enough?" Does it need to be a river, or does a bathtub do the trick? What if a few strands of hair float on the surface and don't get completely immersed, do we have to baptize again? I mean the big question should be who is the one who baptizes?

The things I was referring to were more critical issues surrounding baptism ... like whether to baptize infants and such.

But THIS is what I'm talking about. You offer a challenge to something you've seen. I offer a response and another challenge. Maybe one of us will win the other brother over. Maybe not. But in the end, BOTH parties should be able to benefit from the discourse and see it as a part of the life of the church.

59 Comments

85,381

Rhonda commented…

This will likely rub many people the wrong way, but it must be clarified because its the #1 stumbling block facing the Church today. Until we all, regardless of denomination, stop confusing doctrine with new life and the gospel message of Christ, well always be divided. Simple as that.

For example, some confuse justification with salvation. Others confuse atonement with salvation. Still others confuse baptism or some other sacrament with salvation. On and on, this is the underlying source of denominations and the resulting lack of unity among Christians.

The gospel message that Jesus proclaimed and manifested to lost, blind crowds living under the experts mistaken leadership, is: You can repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Love God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul; and love you neighbor as yourself. There is nothing more important than these. But unless you exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, youll never enter the kingdom.

I know thats not what most Christians (including me) have been taught, but thats the Good News nevertheless. Whats the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees? None other than the traditions, doctrines, rules, and rituals that they, not God, imposed on people and vehemently argued amongst themselves.

A few examples off the top of my head: Is it right to get divorced for any reason? What do you do with a woman caught red-handed in adultery? Why dont you wash your hands before eating? Why do your disciples pick heads of grain on the Sabbath? Does your Master not pay the temple tax? Etc, etc, etc.

This is why Jesus said that they strain out gnats and swallow the camel. And its why they constantly tested Jesus orthodoxy, doctrine, and theology, and found him so lacking and contrary that he deserved death.

For 1800+/- years now, most of us have been taught that its 100% about the doctrines, commonly called essentials of Christian faith. Im not saying they arent importantthey are. But theyre secondary to Christs gospel message and shouldnt be confused with it.

When everyone stands before God one Day, He wont merely check our minds for creeds/belief in doctrines, or merely look at how well we followed behavior rules. Hes going to look for transformed people, inside and out, who lived new lives in Gods kingdom the way Jesus lived hisstrong, smart, gracious, and worthy (ready).

Until we face this intelligently, and honestly take Jesus message seriously instead of treating IT as secondary to salvation, were in the same boat the Pharisees were intesting each others theology, arguing, and looking down on any group that doesnt fall in line with our own. We can be diverse (different gifts of the Holy Spirit) yet unified when were on the same page as Jesus Good News.

Blessings to all,
RGHernandezPen.com

85,381

Jenny J commented…

I read somewhere that "Denomination" means "Dividing Nations" and I must say , it's certainly has done that in some horrific ways, and I'm talking modern times...Jesus never came to start a Denomination, He came and did what He did to have relationship with us His Church, One Body, 24/7...wherever we are ...Man made religion has produced 38000 denominations all with differing beliefs...how confusing.... I spent 20 odd years serving in the institutional "church" and the last 8 years living Free from it all....I'll choose Life in Him any day, over "man made religion"... :))

85,381

RGHernandezPen commented…

Denomination means to name something, particularly a class or group. It's related to the words 'nominate' and 'nomenclature.'

I agree that religious denominations have splintered people throughout history. Unfortunately, each one seems to believe that it's the authority on God's behalf, when in reality, none of them are. Fortunately, Jesus is the only authority over all things in heaven and on Earth; and he treats the world better than religion does.

Adam

12

Adam commented…

this sums up this article's question:

"When everyone stands before God one Day, He wont merely check our minds for creeds/belief in doctrines, or merely look at how well we followed behavior rules. Hes going to look for transformed people, inside and out, who lived new lives in Gods kingdom the way Jesus lived hisstrong, smart, gracious, and worthy (ready)."

"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."

Adam

12

Adam commented…

so the answer to this question of "do denominations still matter?" is NO and i feel religion for the most part gets in the way of really getting to know God, religion is like a "middleman" between you and God. sure, it can help at the beginning of your relationship to him but i believe if you keep practicing religion year after year, you don't ever really "grow" or "progress" as a christian, as you are only filling the role or obligation for your religion that was created by man. .eventually, you need to get rid of the middleman because it's only going to slow you down. .it's only when you step outside your "religion box", is when you really find God and can grow to be who he wants you to be

another great analogy is a sailboat and the wind, you know you want to be a christian so you already know what direction you want the sailboat to go, you have the bible, your prayers and wise counsel of others to get you there (the wind that'll take you there). .and religion being the sail, sure it can definitely help you get to where you want to go but you can't rely on it the whole way to get to your destination, it's a good starting point and can help steer you, but you have to do the rest of the work yourself (navigating, instincts)

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