Goshen history professor says Christian denominations will not disappear

GOSHEN, Ind. – John D. Roth, a Goshen College professor of history and director of the Mennonite Historical Library, says that Christian denominations continue to have great relevance despite evidence of declining membership and eroding loyalty to traditional institutions. Contrary to claims that nondenominational churches represent the most authentic form of Christianity, Roth argued that Christian faith will always be expressed in specific doctrines and visible institutions.

John D. Roth, Goshen College professor of history and director of the Mennonite Historical Library.

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“Our beliefs are never ‘free floating’ or ‘universal.’ 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,” Roth said.“The pastors of nondenominational churches interpret the Bible according to some theological tradition. Their Sunday schools use curriculum that comes from somewhere. They’re going to have some definition of heresy. There will be some behavior that is unacceptable if you’re going to be part of their fellowship.

“Anyone who claims to be ‘nondenominational’ is simply willfully blind to the historical traditions and biblical interpretation that is shaping their understanding of faithful belief and practice,” Roth said.

“It is precisely those churches who have the sharpest clarity about their beliefs and expectations – Mormons, Pentecostals, some Baptists – 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.”

Roth shared those and other perspectives during a major speech, “Boundaries and Bridges: Do Denominations Matter?,” as part of the Afternoon Sabbatical series at Goshen College on Tuesday, Feb. 12 in the Music Center’s Sauder Concert Hall.

A Mennonite scholar and church member, Roth said he never gave much thought to denominational questions until he and other Mennonites were asked to participate in a series of formal dialogues initiated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Since then, he has participated in conversations with historians and theologians from other Christian traditions, including Catholic, Swiss Reformed, Pentecostal Christians and leaders of the “Emergent” church.

While some may believe denominations are irrelevant, such distinctions can have abrupt importance. “Perhaps your child or grandchild starts dating someone from a different religious tradition, say, a Christian Scientist who believes that sickness is a problem of the mind rather than the body or a Seventh Day Adventist who worships on Saturday rather than Sunday or someone with very clear views about home schooling and ‘male headship,’” Roth said. “Suddenly you ask yourself ‘Why do they believe these things? How is this going to affect my child? What does this mean for our family gatherings?’”

Roth noted that Goshen College has students from at least 38 different Christian denominations and five other religions. The local telephone Yellow Pages lists 69 different denominational options within easy driving distance of campus. There are 15,000 denominations registered with the IRS, and as many as 34,000 discrete groups of Christians scattered around the world.

Despite the increase in the number of denominations, Roth noted that there has been steady decline in U.S. denominational loyalty, especially among Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches. Whether measured by membership, financial contributions, understanding of distinctive beliefs or trust in institutional leadership, all of the indicators suggest that traditional denominational structures are in the midst of a profound change.

“What is emerging is less a culture of ‘disbelief’ than the rise of what can be called ‘generic Christianity’ – that is, Christianity that attempts to float free from a particular denominational tradition,” Roth said. “Young people talk a great deal about spiritual life. Yet allegiance to traditional denominations is almost not on the radar; it’s simply irrelevant.”

In addition, there has been a dramatic rise in “megachurches,” whose leaders deny or downplay a denominational affiliation, and an increase in churches formed because traditional denominations haven’t taken a strong enough stance on abortion, homosexuality or some other hot-button social or political issue, Roth said.

While some may argue that a declining role of denominations is a positive development, Roth said denominations remain important and that the trend toward “generic Christianity” should be resisted.

“Denominations provide a necessary ballast, stability and accountability to individual congregations,” he said. “Even more important than these practical considerations, is the fact that denominations – of one sort or another – are impossible to avoid, which is to say that there is no such thing as a ‘nondenominational’ church. … The idea that we will be united if we ‘just’ believe the Bible or ‘just” love Jesus’ is an illusion.”

Roth said denominations express their identity “in a particular form, with particular beliefs, practices, rituals and traditions.” Given such differences, one approach to avoiding conflict between Christian denominations and other world religions is to respect and understand differences and to promote a vision expressed in Revelation 7 of people from all nations and tribes gathering together to praise God in a way that transcends their particular differences.

“That’s where history is moving and I want to be on the side of history, finding myself on a path that is joining up with all sorts of other people who are also moving in that direction,” Roth said. “Today, when I encounter other Christians, one of the first things that I want to know is whether you are heading in that direction, too, and if you are, I want to walk alongside you in that journey.”

Roth added, “I want to encourage all of you here today, regardless of your background, to not only find the particular voice of your tradition, but to offer that song as a gift to each other as a gift, not a threat or an imposition, but as something precious enough that you want to share it with others. If you are on that journey of bringing your praises to God, then hold your head high and sing out with gusto. If others are singing, then try to harmonize as best you can.”

Some of the ideas presented during Roth’s lecture, resulting from ongoing discussion on the meaning of denominations, will contribute to the book that Roth is working on, “Practices.” It will be part three of his collection on Anabaptist faith. The first two parts were books published by Herald Press, titled “Stories” (2006) and “Beliefs” (2005). Roth also is also the author of “Choosing Against War: A Christian View” (Herald Press, 2002) and editor of “Mennonite Quarterly Review.”

– By Richard R. Aguirre

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or jodihb@goshen.edu.

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Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college’s Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron’s Best Buys in Education, “Colleges of Distinction,” “Making a Difference College Guide” and U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” edition, which named Goshen a “least debt college.” Visit www.goshen.edu.

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