Thoughts on denominationalism

I recently completed a paper on my “Ecclesiological Identity” that afforded an interesting opportunity for thinking through my opinions on a variety of topics. The following is a modified and expanded excerpt on denominationalism.

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren writes, “After protesting Catholic excesses, Protestants started protesting each other. Whenever a Protestant group manifested a problem – complacency, confusion, weak leadership, whatever – a subgroup would arise from within and protest these failures. Then they would break away, often damning the group which they left, proclaiming themselves the truly reformed, truly protestant, truly pure, truly right, truly true, and so on… This competitive Protestant religious market eventually spawned a kind of infomercial mentality, where each group advertised its unique features, seeking loyal customers for their religious products and services.” The list of things upon which I disagree with McLaren is a long one, but on this topic, as on many others, he is an insightful commentator.

As a member of any Christian denomination, it is possible to divide one’s beliefs into two categories: Those shared with all other Christians, and those distinct to one’s own denomination. There can be only one reason for a denomination to exist, and it rests squarely on the latter set of beliefs; those its adherents hold in opposition to other Christians. Any apologetic for the denomination qua denomination must focus on those beliefs, and only on those beliefs. The more important and central a theological belief is, the less likely that it is crucial to one’s denominational identity, and vice versa. If I am asked why I am a Christian, I point to Jesus. If I am asked why I am a Baptist, pointing to Jesus is irrelevant, for any other Christian can do the same. So I point not to Jesus, but to baptism by immersion. If I am asked why I am a Presbyterian, I point not to Jesus, but to government by elected elders.

Does this mean Jesus is unimportant to Baptists, Presbyterians, or any other denomination? Or that one could not start from Jesus to explain one’s Christian faith, and then work back to more specific denominational distinctives? Of course not. However, by setting up a system in which disagreements with other Christians on matters of secondary importance form the basis for group identity within the Church, we are unavoidably disordering our priorities in a way that sets the stage for the “fleshly… jealousy and strife” that Paul criticizes among those in Corinth whose first allegiance was to Paul or Apollos, rather than Christ (I Cor. 3:3-4).

This is not to suggest that our potentials to be a good Christian and a good Baptist (or Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, etc.), are necessarily inversely related. It is certainly possible to hold one’s theological beliefs in a proper hierarchy of importance while using a denominational label as a shorthand description of certain of those beliefs. However, denominational identity so strongly pulls towards a disordering of theological priorities and a fracturing of Christian unity that it may not be worth the risk for a people who are called to remember that there is “one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph. 4:4-6a).

I will close by attempting to respond to one possible objection: “Disagreement is inevitable among Christians who are forced to squint ‘through a mirror darkly’ in this life. If I disagree with your belief about baptism, church government, or worship, why shouldn’t I join with other Christians who share my beliefs?”

I recently heard a Baptist professor talking about how much he valued the fact that Southern Baptists are able to amicably discuss issues such as the extent of the atonement, the proper place for church discipline, and proper modes of worship. Had I asked him why he didn’t mind disagreement among his brethern on such topics, he doubtless would have responded, “Why not? After all, we are all Southern Baptists.”

And we are all Christians. There is certainly a place for disagreement and discussion, with divine revelation as the final arbiter between varying opinions, but I have to wonder what the Church would look like if we were willing to extend to all those who have been purchased by the blood of Christ the same grace we extend those who share our denominational label. What if we were simply members of the Church seeking the truth together (and it must be the truth we are seeking, unless we want to end in jelly-spined ecumenism), rather than Baptists, Presbyterians, or Methodists defending our religious identity from those on the outside?