Do Denominations Matter? (5 fo 6)

Denominations do matter

Many people regard the declining role of denominations as a positive development – “Good riddance to bad rubbish.” After all, one might argue, isn’t a divided church a scandal for the Christian witness to the world? Didn’t Jesus pray that the church would be One, just as his Father in Heaven was one?

Yet the brokenness of Christ’s body is indeed a matter of serious concern. And precisely because the body of Christ is always incarnated in specific times, cultures and places, I would like to suggest that denominations do matter and that the trend toward “generic Christianity” should be resisted.

Congregations that have no denominational connections often place themselves under the authority of charismatic, individual leaders who are accountable to no one. These groups may flourish for a time, but they quickly fade when the leader passes from the scene or they go down in a fiery crash when the leader begins to use the church as a means to personal wealth or power.

Denominations provide a necessary ballast, stability and accountability to individual congregations. They help like-minded congregations organize for missions and relief work; they represent your congregation to the broader Christian church.

Even more important is the fact that denominations – of one sort or another – are impossible to avoid, because there is no such thing as a “nondenominational” church. There is no such thing as “generic Christianity.” The idea that we will be united if we “just” believe the Bible or “just” love Jesus is an illusion.

Pastors of nondenominational churches interpret the Bible according to some theological tradition. Their Sunday schools use curriculum that comes from somewhere. Their worship practices inevitably borrow from some particular stream in larger Christian tradition. In point of fact, those who claim to be “nondenominational” are almost always willfully blind to the historical traditions and biblical interpretations that are actively shaping their understanding of faithful belief and practice.

This is true because our beliefs are never “free floating” or “universal.” Our understandings of faith will always be expressed in the particularity of language and culture and form. If anyone tells you that they are part of a nondenominational church, that they have no human-made doctrine, that they just preach the Bible and are simply “Christian,” don’t believe them; it’s simply not true!

Incidentally, it is precisely those churches with the sharpest clarity about their beliefs and expectations – Mormons and Pentecostals, for example – that are growing the fastest. And the independent churches that are attracting members around sharply focused issues are, in the end, not “nondenominational.” They are simply creating new denominational identities of their own.