What’s the problem with denominations, anyway?
Well… There’s a lot wrong with the way Christians sometimes interact with each other over differences of belief & practice–at the personal level and at the denominational level, within churches and between them. We get hung up over small details. We get defensive and prideful. We get “factious”, as some translations of Titus 3:9-10 put it. Individual churches split, whether for good or bad reasons.
And in the past–mostly when the State dipped its hand into the church, or vice-versa–this has led to violence, persecution, and death. The Spanish Inquisition, the burning of John Huss, the execution of Servetus in Geneva, the persecution of Irish Catholics, or of Anabaptists by both Catholics and Lutherans. Issues of orthodoxy being settled by the sword.
On the other hand, differences & potential divisions have also been handled with maturity, peace, love, and reconciliation. Maybe that’s even been the dominant tendency. (It’s hard to say, since scandalous behavior stands out so much.) But doing this well is a personal, individual struggle. It’s something we all must learn, part of our growth in love & maturity. It’s an area that needs careful attention, with a lot to figure out on resolving conflicts & differences, both the personal & organizational levels. (It’s what motivates the ecumenical movement–which has its own merits and flaws.)
And as one small piece of the large discussion, I want to ask: Is the existence of denominations really a scandal, itself?
Denominationalism tends to be a main target any time we critique divisiveness. After all, could anything epitomize division & separation more than denominations?
And yet… A couple questions:
I’m part of Hope Chapel, a non-denominational church in Austin. Just down the street, there’s First Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Does the fact that we’re not the same local church displease God? The fact that they have the word “Presbyterian” on their sign? The fact that they’re affiliated with other churches in a large-scale organization–one that doesn’t include us? (Some will say “yes” to the last–it displeases God.)
Is it a scandal that we don’t do everything the same way? As a Presbyterian church, they hold certain things in common with other Presbyterians. They practice infant baptism, believing that it inducts children into the community of the church. (My church doesn’t, believing that baptism is something consciously chosen.) Their church is led by elders/presbyters, both “teaching elders” and “ruling elders”. (We also have elders, in addition to our senior pastor.) They believe that local churches should be grouped together in synods, providing oversight & mediation of disputes–and synods grouped in the general assembly. (My church is independent.)
They hold to these things out of biblical conviction–they think it’s how God wants church to look. Including the part that involves large-scale organization. So is it really a scandal for them to group together, and have a name for the group? Is it a scandal that we’re not part of that grouping, because we don’t do things the same way–since our understanding of Scripture’s guidance is different?
In the perfect world to come, we won’t have those differences. They’re happening because somewhere, some of us are misunderstanding & making mistakes. And someday, we’ll be with God more directly and won’t have those problems. (The differences of principle will disappear, if perhaps not the differences of style.)
But in the meantime, where does the scandal come in? From the very existence of different denominations? Or is it possible to have a God-honoring unity in spite of our denominational differences? A unity rooted in Christ & the Gospel? A unity reflected in the way we interact with each other, across our denominational lines?
As we seek to treat one another as brothers & sisters in Christ in this world, ridding ourselves of a divisive spirit, will that actually require dismantling denominations?