“Denominations are divisive by their very nature.”
“Denominations are good because they indicate that someone, somewhere, believes something.”
“Jesus prayed that we would all be one.”
“We ought to retain our denominational distinctives, while at the same time being in dialogue with those who don’t share our views.”
Statements like these often get said when the topic of Christian denominations arises. They are all legitimate points to make. However, two people can say the same phrase and have two totally different lines of thought in mind. Most Christians can agree that Jesus prayed for his disciples to “be one” in John 17, but rarely can you get ten Christians in a room who all interpret the passage in the same way. So we may as well all give up. Just kidding.
The current time is an interesting one when it comes to thinking about this topic. There are disaffected evangelicals becoming Catholics, churches identifying as non-denominational, churches that don’t make their denominational distinctives clear to congregants, and churches making non-essential elements far too central.
I don’t have too much to say about this topic. Like most people, I have a lot to learn, and my thoughts are always shifting and (hopefully!) maturing on subjects like this. As of right now, however, I do happen to identify a lot with the second quotation at the start of this post. I believe it’s very important for Christians to actively examine what they believe to be true about God and the Bible. Humble (but serious) conviction is important. And conviction requires a yes to some things, and a no to others.
The way I see it, formal unity often acts as a facade for the actual disunity that is taking place beneath the surface (I’m thinking, for example, of Roman Catholics who have complete theological uniformity in theory, yet of course hold very different convictions from person to person and context to context).
At the same time, I don’t think denominations ought to function as an “a la carte” service, allowing people to hop around from one to another until they find the perfect menu…at least for a year until their tastes change. The idea of submitting to a wider body is of course important.
Roger Olson recently posted a piece on his blog entitled Why I like denominations. It’s really interesting and you should read it. Check it out here. I don’t agree with everything he says, and as an American his context is of course different from mine. Yet a lot of what he says is (in my opinion) helpful. A couple of off-the-cuff responses:
1. I agree that among those seeking some sort of ideal ecumenicity, it is often forgotten that one tradition has to necessarily “win” over against another. One group’s distinctive is going to be necessarily slighted in one situation or another. If different traditions could agree on what was adiaphora, this wouldn’t be as great of a problem. But such agreement is not easy to come by.
2. I agree with – and chuckled at – Olson’s opinion that “this one world church ideal is not ideal at all—except for Catholics and closet Catholics.” I didn’t chuckle because there’s anything inherently funny about it, but rather because this has been exactly what I’ve witnessed.
3. I agree that churches with legitimate denominational affiliations ought not to pose as being non-denominational. Olson’s right about the dishonesty of this.
4. Olson’s illustration about a Wesleyan family joining a Calvinist church is pretty weak in terms of developing his case (make sure you read it so you know I’m talking about). If a family has to go through the pain of leaving a church because they “attended a long time before realizing the church they want to join holds beliefs contrary to their own,” the conclusion shouldn’t be that the church has a nefarious, sneak-attack attitude. Rather, a family that is considering joining a church is entirely free to take the initiative to discover what that church believes. In fact, I would think that most responsible folks considering joining a church would want to take that initiative, especially if they know themselves to be devout enough Wesleyans that they would have a problem with a Calvinist church. Moreover, how Calvinist, really, is a church that takes a “long time” to finally give signs of its theology? If it’s that reticent about its beliefs, is it a large enough issue to go through a painful split? Perhaps, I guess. Anyway, not a big deal – but kind of a lame scenario to give in order to make an otherwise solid point.
There’s plenty more to agree and disagree with, but the point is that Olson’s piece is interesting and you should read it. The question of what “the essentials” are in a given community/church/denomination is very important and ought to be given serious thought.
By the way, the idea of “formal unity” is of course not limited to Catholicism. There are plenty of evangelical churches that have congregants who seem to get along and maintain a general sort of fellowship with one another, all the while masking serious disagreement on very serious topics. As painful as it is to upset a steady-rolling apple cart, I’m convinced that this is not okay. It leads to either a weakening of conviction on important theological topics (what I’ve often witnessed), or a deferring of an inevitable blow-up somewhere later down the line (what Olson was getting at in his illustration).
And yes, I did Google-image the word “denominations” to get the terrific image above.