Q&A: Denominationalism

Denominationalism

Question

Is denominationalism a sound christian structure for the religious world? Or is it built on shifting sand, doomed to collapse and failure that leads to condemnation?

Answer

For a full treatment of this subject, see John M. Frame's book on denominationalism Evangelical Reunion in IIIM Magazine Online in the subsection Practical Theology (as we republish it in installments).

My short answer to your question depends to some degree on how we define denominationalism, but let me take a stab at it with the working definition that denominationalism is simply "the stance justifying the existence of various denominations."

First, we should recognize that not all denominations exist for all the same reasons. For example, some divisions exist along language lines, some along geograpical lines, some along doctrinal lines, etc. Moreover, some denominations maintain a form of centralized church governement that unites them, while others leave complete or nearly complete autonomy to the individual churches. Some denominations function as a single body, while others are simply a conglomeration of like-minded churches who unite for purposes of identity and accountability.

There are many good things that churches accomplish by participating in denominations. For example, they increase their accountability to other churches. They also maintain a check on doctrine both in their own church and in those with which they affiliate, and they increase communication between Christians in various localities. In many cases, they also present financial opportunities with trusted partners that result in increased missions work and beneficience.

Admittedly, there is little good that a denomination can do that could not be done if there were only one denomination, provided that the one denomination were biblically sound. In fact, a single, biblically sound denomination would be entirely preferable. To have no denominations whatsoever, though, would be disasterous. To have not even one denomination would be to have nothing but unrelated, independent churches. Throughout the Old Testament God established the pattern of having one united people. There was one tabernacle, and after that one temple. In the New Testament, the various churches all submitted to the leadership of the apostles, and all gathered in counsel to settle doctrinal matters (Acts 15). We also hope for final unity in Christ. In these ways and others, the Bible establishes the pattern that local churches ought to be corporately united with the rest of the local churches.

Some problems arise in accomplishing this end, however, when doctrinal differences are so great that they prevent those within the church from affirming one another in their understanding of the gospel, in their understanding of significant matters like the sacraments, in their understanding of fundatmental theology, in their understanding of the application of the Bible to life, in their practices, etc. For example, if one church believes that homosexuality is a gift from God, while another rejects it as a heinous sin worthy of excommunication if the sinner is unrepentant, these churches cannot, practically speaking, govern cooperatively. One church will be excommunicating the very people that the other affirms. Or, we might look at some churches which affirm that Jesus is the only way of salvation, and at others who deny this truth. These are not reconcilable issues, short of doctrinal shifts back to biblical truth.

Perhaps the greatest example of this in the Bible is the break between the official Jewish religion and Christianity. These were initially different sects within Judaism. As these sects developed their own meeting places and meetings, with their own leadership, they became what we might consider two different denominations. Certainly, the Jews were wrong in their doctrine for rejecting Jesus as the Christ. Nevertheless, the two groups became, in effect, two denominations. Eventually, the differences between the two groups became so noticeably pronounced that a split occurred that identified them as two different religions. Still, this recognition was of the same kind as the earlier recognition that they were separate sects. It differed only in degree.

While the Bible condemns the rejection of Christ and of the Christians by the Jews, it does not condemn the Christians for failing to submit to the Jewish majority, as if somehow unity were so much more important than doctrine that it obscured the significant doctrinal differences. Rather, the Bible affirms the division between the two groups on doctrinal bases, while at the same time hoping for and working toward the reuniting of the two groups on the basis of doctrinal unity.

Modern denominational divisions are often of the same kind as this division, and of varying degrees. The question as to whether or not a particular denominational division is legitimate is a judgment call that must weigh the evil of the disunity against the evil of submitting to doctrinal error. The more extreme the division, the more significant the doctrinal difference must be to justify the division. In any case, multiple denominations are not the goal. Rather, they are a bandage worn by fallen people while they await final redemption in Christ.

Other denominational splits exist along different lines, such as language or geography, or even of liturgy or tradition. These divisions are primarily organizational -- the people do not resent or reject those in like-minded denominations. This makes these denominations much more like dispersed family members, each with its own head of household, much like the church in the New Testament which. In the New Testament, some local "churches" probably consisted of various smaller bodies or house churches which united under a common name and province, much like a modern geographic denomination. Such denominations do not represent division in the body of Christ, but rather represent great unity. Their difference in name more properly reflects their particularly close affiliations and relationships with certain churches -- such as would be impossible to maintain with all churches -- much like the relationships individuals have with their friends in contrast with those they have with all believers worldwide. One cannot be friends with everyone, and one's friendship with some does not denegrate his more casual relationships with others, or even his lack of relationships with those he does not know.

In conclusion, I would say that some denominationalism is justified, but that some is not. Some positive denominational lines represent positive moves toward greater unity, while others represent division from heretical error. On the other hand, some splits wrongly occur minor issues and/or move toward disunity among those who are doctrinally like-minded. In all events, the structures of denominationalism, good or bad, are all temporary edifices which will disappear at Christ's return. Denominations are not the goal, even though they may be the best alternative in some situations.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.