Random Rants

The Denominational Theory of the Church

Here is an excerpt from an e-mail I sent to a friend that I thought would make a good blog entry.

I read an interesting chapter in Church History in Plain Language about the denominational theory of the church. It kind of threw everything I thought on its head. Denomination comes from a root meaning ‘to give a name to’. Basically, the theory says that we are all one body in Christ, who agree on the fundamentals of the faith, even though we are a bunch of groups with different names. Unlike sectarianism, none of these groups—’denominations’—considers itself to be the sole possessors of the whole truth. So, denominations are actually a good thing, and much less divisive than I grew up thinking. It’s possible that to call oneself ‘non-denominational’ (according to the old definition) would have actually been a negative term, meaning that rather than recognizing the truth that other denominations might hold, we’re going to be our own exclusive group. If you go by the old definition of denominationalism, than to call yourself non-denominational means you’re sectarian, exclusive, and divisive, whereas to be a denomination you are recognizing the worldwide unity of the brethren, and the fact that the church is made up of believers, not registered members. Unfortunately, the definition has changed, so that people who grow up in ‘denominational’ churches today wonder why they have to be part of that denomination. “Why don’t we just call ourselves Christian?” they ask. And so they go and start non-denominational churches, and you can miss the whole point of denominational theory if you grow up thinking Presbyterians and Baptists and Methodists are sectarian, like saying “I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos”. Scripturally, that’s the closest parallel we have, and so if we look only at the Biblical truth without considering the context of church history, we can be missing something important. We who preach such things today do so only because we’re not aware of the history of the wars that ravaged Europe for 100 years while they tried to settle religious differences along political boundary lines. Originally, denominations arose out of the idea that it’s okay to let your neighbor have a different stance on a certain non-fundamental
doctrine than you carry, as long as they agree on the main points. Now, in America, it’s evolved into pluralism, but it used to be about unity in the fundamentals.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong for us to be non-denominational, or that it’s wrong to be denominational (which I used to think). I just think it’s important to get a context of our current church situation from Church History. Denominations were the way that the church avoided continuing massive bloodshed after the age of the Reformation. As Bruce Shelley says, “The denominational form of the church has marked the recent centuries of Christian history, not because it is ideal, but because it is better than any alternative the years have offered.” No longer do we kill those we disagree with, so perhaps a greater unity in the church, outside the labels of denominations or ‘non-denominations’, is a greater possibility in the church today.

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