In Favor of Denominations

I wish denominationalism would spread and be embraced outside of Christendom. I like denominationalism. I find it helpful and fruitful, both for the Christian and the unbeliever alike. I suppose the ultimate ideal and goal is to have no denominations and arrive at perfect agreement on everything, but we must use a little nuance when describing that goal.  If our aim is mutual understanding, that is noble, but we must realize the goal of ending denominationalism is an entirely different aim than mutual understanding. The end of denominations would be the positive fruit of achieving mutual understanding.  However many (see this link) believe that ending denominationalism is the path to achieving mutual understanding. In other words they view mutual understanding as the fruit. I contend that is a destructive misunderstanding.

Some of the desire to do away with denominations comes from pressure exerted by skeptics who would argue; “if Christians can’t agree on this God then why should I agree with them?”  Unfortunately without much thought Christians have accepted that as a powerful argument and have responded with a push for unity which includes the end of denominations.  Now listen, we should push for unity, I preach unity, and I am not against all forms of ecumenism and such, but abolishing denominations does nothing to create unity. If you are a Lutheran and I am a Catholic at the very least we can establish what we agree on and what we disagree on. We can have healthy conversations within the framework of our various theologies. We can agree and disagree and do so vehemently. Open discord in the body is treatable and discussable, yet if we ended denominational distinctions and simply hashed these things out internally then there would be rift that truly tore us apart, even with the guise of concord.

So what of the skeptic’s argument? “If they can’t agree with each other, why should I agree with them?”  Hell, doctors don’t agree on the proper use of antibiotics so screw medicine, right Mr. Skeptic? Historians don’t agree on the formation of Egypt, therefore Egypt doesn’t exist.  Science disagrees on the nature and function of sub atomic particles therefore screw science.  It’s absurd. The skeptic places the onus of unity upon Christians which they would never place on anyone else who is making truth claims. 

So here I come from the other side. While the skeptic demands unity of my tribe, I am calling for him to make his tribe more sectarian. Why? If my doctors were part of a denomination I could look up their statement of beliefs and I could know when and why they use x-rays, how they medicate, what their views on food were, and so on.  We all laugh at how doctors and nutritionists change their minds every week about what is healthy and what isn’t, but that sense of constant change is largely a fabrication.  Because they are all under the one denomination of ‘medicine’ and they all speak from the pulpit of the same ‘church’ it appears that they are constantly changing their mind.  In truth individuals are not changing their minds much at all, it is just different individuals speaking about different beliefs regarding the same topic from the same ‘pulpit’.  The change is largely perceived.  Just because Dr. John refuted Dr. Sue’s stance on eating eggs does not mean that medicine as a whole has changed its doctrine or that Sue has somehow changed her view.  The fact that we perceive them as united makes them as much of a laughing stock as a denominationalized Christendom.  Can you imagine Christianity without denominations, the perception would be that one day the church believes in infant baptism, the next day they don’t, one day they believe in sinners prayer, the next day they don’t and on and on it goes.  It would appear like an endless litany of changes which God was undergoing.  With denominations we just appear disagreeable, without them we appear delusional. Sectarian disagreement is better than unified disagreement.

Following the same line of thought, I contend that we’d all feel a little more comfortable if the doctors would just schism a little more instead of holding up a false sense of unity that just confuses us all. 

Of course we can move beyond medicine and religion to many other disciplines as well. Business , science, engineering, etc.  Of course politics have denominations and we don’t always like it, but imagine what government would be like if all the individual politicians retained their same views, but within a one party structure which claimed to be unified. It would be a nightmare dressed in dreamy utopian garb.

I do believe that as denominations we ought to be able speak clearly about what makes us distinct, at the same time I will concede that we ought to do a better job of articulating what we agree on.  We don’t need to beat ourselves up or shame ourselves over the fact that we have denominations. Instead we should learn to clearly articulate what we believe, why we believe it, what makes our beliefs the same, and what makes them different.  Sectarianism is not the opposite of unity, in fact it could be closer to real unity than anti-sectarianism.

With all that said, pray for the unity of the church. Pray that we would all come together to the right understanding of doctrine. Pray that we would be truly united. Also pray that we would not accept substitutes for true unity in the form of a church that is superficially homogenous. Also realize this, the Church actually IS united in Christ ontologically, we just have not yet embodied the actual state of reality.

Enough for now.


2 thoughts on “In Favor of Denominations

  1. Well said, I agree with most if not all of this.

    If you asked a baptist and a lutheran what the differences were between their churches, most people would simply start talking about the different types of songs they sing, and the style of the buildings, electric vs. acoustic guitar, etc. with no mention of actual doctrine.

    When I was a protestant I tried to attend non-denominational churches until i realized that all “non-denom” meant was “whatever the pastor for that day happens to believe.”

    Now I speak as a former Protestant now-Catholic, so in my case there certainly are large differences. However, I can tell you that the sheer volume of misunderstanding and misinformation of what the Catholic Church teaches is staggering. This is largely due to lack of dialogue you mention.

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