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.

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

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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

Connor

2

Connor commented…

A very interesting article. As an assembly of God layperson (aspiring minister) this article really spoke to me. Jesus Christ is tantamount to our faith as Christians- a non negotiable. And there are so many things we can learn from one another, for instance I was just listening to a sermon by a non denom pastor on the book of common prayer. He had come from a conservative church and had become more charismatic in his views, but he carried with him the idea of reading prayers. Now the book of common prayer is completely foreign to me- I have held it once. But he described it similar to singing a hymn (which what are all our songs but sung prayers, written by someone else). I thought wow! I really took something away here from someone who came from somewhere entirely different than me, but who loves the Lord dearly. And I continue to look outward and seek knowledge and wisdom from the Lords church. BUT while we are not ultimate judges on this earth, and some may feel free to eat the food of Idols- while others do not, we do also have a responsibility of reproof and correction and teaching. I think this lends to the Idea that there is an ultimate standard for some things (or how then could we reprove our brothers and sisters?). The Gospel surely is the foundation of that standard- but would we not also say love? and peace among men? and Justice? and our call to tell the nations? etc. I think a logical discussion that follows the trail to the end would show a general deviation from the centrality of the Gospel in many areas, but also deviation from accountability of the saints and so on. And how I wish this could all be solved by commenting about it on a magazine website. The working active truth is that there are multiple Churches across the world who claim the name of Jesus Christ but have varying secondary beliefs- some of which probably place them on a fringe or outside of the circle of Christianity (which is to say learning from them might not be such a good idea for the nest). But our God still walks among us and uses his people. Both of these facts are simultaneously true. And so it is my belief that for our very health we should listen to Jesus and live this: Mat 6:33-34 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

A bit of a rabbit trail, but isn't that how conversation goes?

Regis S

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Regis S commented…

I couldn't disagree more with this article. The author presents a fantastical view of denominations that doesn't exist in reality. That saids, I loved the magpie illustration, and consider myself one as I am a non-denom who flutters between RCC and Protestantism, and desire a sprinkling of Orthodox. Nevertheless, I think Paul would have a fit if he saw us today, and being a magpie is a concerted effort to break down the walls of division.

I see denominations as a cancer to the Church and counter to Christ's intention for unity. I think the exegesis of Paul's words are not accurate to his intent. In fact, he says, "where you baptized into Apollos, into Paul or into Christ?". It's not a question of who died for us, clearly that was Christ, but into whom we were baptized. Not all denominations recognize the baptism of others; in fact we argue over what is true baptism, the first outwards sign of a Christian disciple.

Denominations, ultimately are about control, pride and division. It's about control over what people believe, how they express their faith (or don't), who they interact with and so on. Pride over who has the right interpretation of Jesus, who's baptism is valid, and who's better at following Jesus. Honestly, I think it's the work of the adversary to divide us and call it blessed.

What we need is not to glory in our divided state, nor it is to have the negative peace ecumenism. Rather we need reconciliation leading toward unity... true unity that reflects what Jesus prayed, "Lord I pray that they are ONE as we are ONE."

Sean

1

Sean replied to Regis S's comment

Friend, as I read your last sentence, I am compelled to dig deeper into what constitutes true unity. Allow me to draw an example from our Lord Himself. Though He was one with God the Father and the Holy Spirit, yet He was distinctly Jesus, Son of God. Three and yet one. You see, the principle here - and if i dare say the author would agree on this as well - is that there can be diversity in unity. Unanimity is possible even in differences. For when we agree to disagree, not on the primacy of the Gospel but on secondary issues, do we begin to emulate our triune God who models perfect unity. A unity that accepts trivial differences in order to become a greater whole. In doing so, we grow in deeper appreciation and dependence on one another and more importantly, on God.
Another reason I can think of as to why God allows denominations, is so that none of us ever think that we know and have it all and so let our heads and hearts swell with pride.

Ben

8

Ben commented…

My heritage is derived from the American Restoration Movement and we said this (naively, I'm afraid) about 200 years ago. But, we ran into a few problems, namely those areas of "first importance" were poorly defined. I caution against naiveté, as boiling Christianity down to its lowest common denominator(s) is problematic. People will fight to the death, and all parties will claim they're fighting for something of "first importance." Perhaps we can agree that the concept of God's grace is of "first importance." However, the way grace is received or even extended will be differently formulated, and I suspect will be held to (with veracity) as areas of "first importance"—through the Eucharist? through mere belief? through baptism? I suspect we will continue to quibble over matters of "first importance."

My solution: I hereby call a council of all the world's Christians. We shall meet at Mt. Sinai, and have a debate royale. We're settling this...

Grant Story

38

Grant Story commented…

Maybe it's been hinted at already, but the practical reality of American denominations is that they enable the average congregant to subcontract their spirituality.

In their mind, it's not really necessary for them to pursue God, but rather get their talking points from the home office in Souix City, Iowa, or wherever.

Does their have to be such immaturity and ignorance? Of course not, but it is nevertheless a (dis)functional reality.

To me at least, there is certain appeal to try and redeem the position of each person within the context of those affiliations... but from my observation, when a person truly gets humble and real with God's Word, human doctrinal associations are often the first thing to go.

I think this often occurs because they start learning more and more... their understanding deepens and stretches to fit the Truth. A denominational framework doesn't really allow for change, so genuine seekers kind of shed it like an old skin.

True Unity is so much better! I wish it could happen within the traditional formats, but I've yet to see it.

Steven Hinson

9

Steven Hinson commented…

I was thinking about the letters in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 the other day and thought how today they might be addressed 'to the church that calls itself Baptist', etc. They were separated by geography - us, doctrine. Still I'm inclined to disagree. I remember a pastor I had as a teen (in a denomination that I'll leave unnamed) who had spent time as a missionary in Italy with the explicit intent to convert Catholics. I guess there was a shortage of non-believers. Anyway, God bless your work Jason and greetings from eFree.

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