Why We Need Denominations

How the variations of practice show us the beauty of the Gospel.

The first church I remember attending was an Assemblies of God church in Albuquerque, N.M. After we moved, my family joined the Evangelical Free Church of America in St. Louis, Mo. Now I am on staff at a non-denominational church in the area while I finish up my Master’s at a Presbyterian Church of America seminary. And my favorite writer is C.S. Lewis, an Anglican.

These are the ecclesiastical flavors in which my mind has soaked. And I have loved it. I love denominations. That’s not to say that I would like to be in a denomination, but I appreciate them enough to write about it.

Denominations are beautiful. While some within the Church see them as schismatic and unhelpful, I see them as lovely, imperfect variations on a single, pure theme.

But personal preference aside, are denominations actually biblical? That’s a difficult (and perhaps unfair) question.

Try asking it another way. Are Baptists biblical? Are Methodists biblical? Are Lutherans biblical? Or is it only us “non-denoms” who have gotten things right?

On issues that aren’t the Gospel and don’t pertain to the Gospel, Christians have this wild freedom to lovingly differ with their brothers and sisters.

Paul reminds the Corinthian church that he preached to them the pure, unadulterated Gospel. The Gospel is of first importance to the Church (1 Corinthians 15:3-5).

Opponents of denominations will argue that Paul is calling the Church to unite around the Gospel and forsake all other creeds and confessions. (“I’m not a (insert denominational label), I’m simply a Christian.” After all, denominations focus us on the secondary issues when what we need to focus on is the primary issue: the Gospel of Christ.

But rather than explicitly forbidding ecclesiastical denominations (a concept that didn’t even exist in the early church), Paul is reminding one local congregation in central Greece to focus on one thing as of first importance. He doesn’t say that other issues are not important. But he is reminding them of the overshadowing primacy of the Gospel.

The implied problem is that the Corinthians have forgotten to keep the main thing the main thing. But if the Church (all believers, everywhere) is united on the Gospel of first importance, surely we can be allowed to form fellowship over secondary issues, provided we keep fellowship over the primary issue.

The beautiful fruit of essential truth is that we are free to fly more freely with secondary issues. On issues that aren’t the Gospel and don’t pertain to the Gospel (that which is of first importance), Christians have this wild freedom to lovingly differ with their brothers and sisters. We query the Bible, ponder the implications and form our theology as our conscience allows.

Within the realm of orthodox Christianity, denominations are the result of brothers and sisters disagreeing on secondary issues. Though we all rally around the preeminence of the Gospel (and are thus united), we differ on doctrines that are not of first importance. And so there are multiple expressions of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). There is one theme, many variations. And we can all learn to appreciate the varied tones of different voices. Perhaps an analogy would help.

Magpies are known for “borrowing” shiny objects. They’ll snatch all sorts of baubles or trinkets they can find. They take what is beautiful from another place and bring it back to the nest, to add beauty. The little treasures don’t add to the nest, but they are secondary beauties to the primary beauty of the nest.

Think of the nest as historic, mere Christianity (what all Christians at all places have always believed). The nest is the supporting structure of the Gospel. We love the nest and we don’t stray from it. But the nest is enormous and filled with other magpies.

Each magpie has its own little pile of treasure (secondary issues) that they cherish, but they don’t cherish them more than the nest. The nest is home. And within that home, we have the freedom to admire, borrow, and learn from what the other magpies old dear.

Different traditions have beautiful expressions of faith that we can all learn from.

Different traditions have beautiful expressions of faith that we can all learn from. If one group of Christians cherishes a secondary issue to the point that they will find a different corner of the nest to protect it, that doesn’t give another group the right to try and kick them out of the nest or to accuse them of not caring about the preeminence of the Gospel. Christianity is a large family, and we have much to learn from other brothers and sisters, even the ones who are not like us.

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Within the nest of orthodoxy, denominations don’t have to be divisions. The go-to “anti-denomination” text is 1 Corinthians 1:18-30 (“I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos”). Their argument goes something like this: if we divide into denominations, we will divide the Church and forfeit the unity Christ prayed for (John 17:11-12, 21-23).

However, true division would come only if a Lutheran were to say something like, “I follow Luther” as opposed to following Jesus. Division would erupt if a Presbyterian were to claim that the Westminster divines were crucified for her. Such madness wouldn’t be able to see the nest for the baubles. And the result would be division.

But Paul is not arguing against learning from and leaning into the faith of different teachers who follow Jesus (see 1 Corinthians 11:1 and Hebrews 13:7). We need to imitate the faith and practice of our leaders. Rather, Paul is condemning the elevation of a tradition or a human teacher above person and work of Christ. No one should be baptized into the name of Calvin, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

But if the Gospel is of first importance in a denomination, the Church will not be divided by denominations. The Church is a beautiful bride and she is adorned in many colors. Each color has as its base the blood of Jesus. And if she keeps her eyes on Him, the Church can dance to a hundred expressions of the same truth.

Top Comments

Margo Rose

2

Margo Rose commented…

Except that Jesus prayed that all people would be one just as He and the Father are One. And that there is only one Church that offers the fullness of Christ, even His very Body, Blood, Soul, & Divinity through the Eucharist. God desires that we all be united into His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, not separated into millions of denominations.

T.j. Tomazin

1

T.j. Tomazin commented…

In John 6 when so many disciples returned to their former ways of life because they didn't like Jesus' instruction to eat His Body and drink His Blood, He didn't chase after them and say "hey guys, come back and dance to your own expression of the same truth."He let them go.There is only one truth, and one expression of that truth.Everything else is made-up fantasy.

20 Comments

WICK

29

WICK commented…

"I love denominations. That’s not to say that I would like to be in a denomination, but I appreciate them enough to write about it."

Is that a bit like saying, "I like to visit Epcot World. That's not to say I would like to live in any of the countries represented. But they sure have great foods."?

Mark Brown

1

Mark Brown commented…

While I agree with this in principle, the problem is that different nominations disagree on what constitutes the nest and what constitutes baubles; on which issues are primary and which are secondary; on which doctrines are contained within the fuzzy boundaries of the sacred term 'The Gospel'.

Some consider The Gospel to be the simple fact that Jesus died to save us; others say that without the doctrine of salvation by grace alone and hence a doctrine of predestination, it isn't the whole Gospel. Some say that, by extension, the doctrines of Five Point Calvinism are also non-negotiable, and therefore they must constitute part of The Gospel. Where does one draw the line between The Gospel and secondary truth?

How can we have unity when Group A disagree with Group B about something that Group B think is a minor issue but which Group A regard as sacrosanct Gospel truth; and therefore Group A believe that they have the right to either correct the beliefs of Group B or to label them as 'heretics', 'non-orthodox' or the way of dismissing someone's problematic opinions most prevalent at the moment in the evangelical church: 'liberal'. It's amazing, once someone has been given one of these labels, we magically no longer need to worry about listening to their opinion!

So, while I hope that one day denominations can be the thing of beauty that you describe here and that they have the potential to be, I think that 'keeping the Gospel of first importance to denominations' just won't cut it. We need to be wary of attaching our secondary truths to the Gospel, thereby imbuing them with an infallibility that they don't really deserve.

Reformation of Unity

5

Reformation of Unity replied to Mark Brown's comment

Mark, I could not agree more with your last sentence. I actually think denominations are a sign of division, and division is a sign of disobedience to Jesus' command and prayer for us to be united (John 17:23) and the Apostle's call for us to be of one mind (1 Corinthian 1:10). I think it is a reflection of the individualistic, selfish, and prideful nature of culture today for everyone to be apart of their own individual "identity". Almost every denomination has a branch off sect or some divided faction because of this thinking and argument over "our" interpretation. We have to be careful that we do not accidentally encourage "Consumerism Christianity" with our variety and preferences. Read more about this view at http://reformationofunity.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/have-it-your-way-cons...

T.j. Tomazin

1

T.j. Tomazin commented…

In John 6 when so many disciples returned to their former ways of life because they didn't like Jesus' instruction to eat His Body and drink His Blood, He didn't chase after them and say "hey guys, come back and dance to your own expression of the same truth."He let them go.There is only one truth, and one expression of that truth.Everything else is made-up fantasy.

Don Heller

3

Don Heller commented…

I have heard many people who say, "I am only studying the bible as a Christian.I am not into denominations" but they are more than likely studying the bible as a Baptist or whatever their backgrounds have been.I think that when you say, "Look I am a Lutheran, Baptist, or whatever and this is the background I am bringing into the discussion or the lens through which I am looking at this biblical passage," then people are able to be upfront about their thinking.There is no one right interpretation.In the clamor of the cacophony of voices, the Spirit moves and if love is present then these voices can come together in a harmony or chords which proclaim the gospel message in a fullness which would be missing if all that was sung was melody... was one point of view.

Margo Rose

2

Margo Rose commented…

John 6: "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you." Doesn't get much clearer than that and there is only Church with the Body & Blood of Jesus Christ.

Religion is not meant to suit our individual preferences. We conform to Christ and His Catholic Church. Who are we to disagree with Christ?

Don Heller

3

Don Heller replied to Margo Rose's comment

While that is "clear" to you as a Roman Catholic brother of mine in faith, that may not be so clear to me as a Lutheran because I will have a different take on it though it may not be as far away as my Baptist friend who really does not see it like that. Neither of us will put a lot of stock into the infallibility of an institution made up of fallible people. The church catholic or universal church, is flawed and filled with flawed people but that is with whom God has chosen to work.

I would love to think that as long as everyone agreed with me then we would all be correct and all would be good with God and us... but not everyone does agree with me (tongue in cheek... very big Sarcasm) Sigh... so we find a framework with which we can work. I like denominations because there are many things we can do together better than we can do separately. It does hopefully add some accountablity to pastors, churches and its members so that they have a measure by which they can see where their thought processes and their actions measure up. Of course that will be flawed but on this side of the valley of the shadow of death, that will be the best we can do.

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