The fact that the church is divided into a multitude of denominations does not bother me.

There is a core of Christian teaching that provides a basic unity across denominations.

There is unity, but there is also diversity. Denominations seek to bear witness to the fuller teaching of Scripture and think through the details of the organization and government of the church.

That diversity is not necessarily bad. What is the alternative? In my view, only two: indifference to doctrinal precision or coerced unity for doctrinal uniformity.

The first option would be to say that doctrinal and organizational precision does not matter, but that would be to give up any united witness to the whole counsel of God.

The second option is to try to enforce unity by demanding that every church or individual agree to all the particulars of doctrine. This seems to me to be a recipe for hypocrisy.

A variety of denominations is the only option left. The church can have different organizations all seeking to do their best to explain the faith in its broader implications. The advantages of this arrangement is freedom of thought and conscience, a measure of unity, and a basis for common ministry.

But what about choosing a denomination or evaluate the denomination we are in? In light of the principles stated above, I believe that there are two wrong approaches we can take to our own denomination or tradition.

The first is to absolutize our own tradition. This means that we take a relative expression of the faith and make it ultimate and timeless. Generally, this also involves looking down at other denominations and zealously seeking to “convert” others to our own denominational tradition.

Now some may object that the fuller expression of the truth of Scripture is about the timeless truths of God’s Word and not a relative expression of them. To some extent, I agree.

But there are additional considerations. Let’s take the Anglican/Episcopal tradition and their 39 Articles of Religion as an example. Let’s further assume that every single statement that these confessions make is 100% infallibly correct. Does that mean that they have emphasized every truth that is needed for every time correctly? Beyond that, does not the Book of Common Prayer and the whole organization of the Anglican Church have something time-bound and cultural about it? I’m sure that most Anglicans would say no to the first and yes to the second.

So, I would commend that we take a humble stance regarding our own denominations and its traditions. Denominations are a mixture of the eternal truths of God’s Word and specific cultures, historical controversies, and time-bound priorities.

The second mistake is to consider our own denominational traditions irrelevant. I have heard many people say, “All that matters is that you believe in Jesus, so I don’t care much about denominations.” I agree with them that all that you need is faith in Jesus to receive forgiveness of sins and eternal life, but that is not all that is needed for the Christian life and the organization and witness of the Church.

Put another way, faith in Christ may constitute the being of the church or a believer, but many other things are necessary for the well-being of the church or believer.

And here is where most people make a mistake. They miss how many good resources are available in their own denomination or tradition.

I was talking to a young lady not too long ago who told me that she attended a Methodist Church. Then she said that she didn’t care that much about being Methodist or Baptist.

I responded, “I appreciate that sentiment. However, I’ve studied a bit of the Methodist tradition, and there are a lot of great things to learn from it. I would encourage you to delve into it and learn as much as you can from it.”

One reason I say that is because I was once a part of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. Heck, my name is John Wesley White. I left the Wesleyan Church in part because I was looking for something more than just the “simple” evangelicalism I found there. I ended up finding what I was looking for in the Presbyterian tradition. However, after studying further, I realized that there were a lot more resources in the Methodist tradition than I could ever have believed at the time, such as lay involvement in the church, social involvement in the world, strong emphasis on the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, and a tradition of small groups before small groups were popular. These are all things that I appreciate much more now than I did then.

This is not to say that we should not supplement our own tradition with studies of other traditions. We should. It’s just to say that there is generally more to our own tradition than we tend to think.

Someone may object here, “I don’t have to worry about this because I’m part of a non-denominational church.” I would reply: first, many “non-denominational” churches are not non-denominational. In the town of my last pastorate, the large “non-denom” church that everyone thought was non-denom part of the Wesleyan denomination.

Second, non-denominational churches still make decisions about the fuller teaching of Scripture and church practice, just like larger groupings of churches do.

Third, the “non-denominational” movement is a broad tradition in the United States that is in part a reaction to the liberalism of the mainline denominations. There are many forms and ways of doing things in the non-denominational churches that are rooted in our specific epoch and situation in American history. Positively, recognizing this can alert you that there is much more to “non-denominational” churches than you might think.

This is all similar to what we find in families. Most people have more relatives than they think they have, and there is almost always more to our families than we perceived growing up or heard from our parents. In the same way, there is always more to the story of our denominations than we would suspect.

This is not just about learning to love our own denominations. It is about learning to love the whole church. After all, how do we learn to love the human race? We learn to love others by loving the family God gave us. Those who do not love well the actual people in their lives will probably not love real people anywhere well. So it is with the church. The way to learn to love the universal church is not by rejecting the individual churches in it or trying to find the ideal church. It’s learning to love the churches of which God has made us a part.


9 Replies to “Denominations”

  1. Very nice, thoughtful piece, Wes! If we believe in Christian freedom, rather than a state-enforced conformity, we almost have to have denominations. Ideally, as few as possible, only divided along the main lines of disagreement (e.g. polity, sacraments), but they do not, as our own BCO put it, demolish true catholicity. FWIW, I try to tackle this whole question in chapter 12 of my book, using as a guideline a PhD thesis by EPC pastor David Bowen (former PCA), on “John Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Adiaphorism.”

  2. I have often thought that in Yahweh’s presence, work, and mission among the Twelve Tribes lies an analogue to denominations from which we can learn much.

  3. Thanks for your reply, Charles. I’d like you to flesh that out a bit, or have you already done so in an article? Feel free to copy the link?

  4. I was also raised in Wesleyan Circles . I would call myself a Baptist with an interest in the Reformed Confessions. I appreciate how Reformed and Presbyterians see the importance of being more connected to the historical church, creeds, confessions, and catechisms. I believe there is value in not just interpreting the Bible for myself, but realizing there is a rich history of interpretation and theology that has been handed down. I think it is a bit arrogant to ignore that.

  5. Thanks Wes. I appreciate your approach to issues that many seem to find complicated or divisive. I remember attending seminary with you and the grace and openness you had to the full expression of the body of Christ.
    I also appreciate how you allow for the importance of our own traditions as that fits well with the description of the Church as the body of Christ.

  6. Hey Matt, thanks for the comment.

    I think it is good that R&P’s emphasize the creeds. However, I think there is also a heritage in other groups. The Baptist Faith and Message, for example, has a lot of good things in it, and the London Baptist Confession is quite similar to the Westminster. If I were Baptist, I would explore how the Baptists have confessed their faith and sought to explain it.

    Most traditions have more creeds, confessions, catechisms, and good tradition than people might think.

Leave a Reply