Denominations

Some time ago I a was a guest at a non-denominational church service, and I was so distracted by this modifier – “non-denominational” – that I could barely pay attention to the service itself. As the expertly-styled praise band sang medleys of Christmas carols over a synth beat and the youth pastor performed an earnest spoken word, I took notes on the bulletin, attempting to figure out their secret allegiance from hints at their theology. Emphasis on personal enrichment, I scrawled. Pentecostals? No communion. Not Evangelical Lutherans. When the service was over, it took a lot to prevent me from interrogating the pastor about their beliefs on salvation and eschatology. “I just want to ask if they’re pre- or post-millenialists,” I whined. After some Googling, I finally uncovered the truth: they were Baptists.

As someone from an Adventist background, I grew up with a lot of emphasis on denominations. In Bible class we learned not only the familiar stories and basic message of the gospel, but also specific beliefs about the state of the dead, the nature of judgment, and the Second Coming. These doctrinal differences are what distinguish groups of Christians from each other: their answers to questions such as the ones we’ve asked throughout this series concerning Biblical inspiration, baptism, and communion.

With a text as complex, multi-layered, and often confusing as the Bible, however, it should come as no surprise that Christians are further from a consensus than ever. Today there are more than 300 major church traditions, and as many as 33,000 distinct Christian denominations and sects.

(Don't let those numbers scare you too much. Those 300-some major traditions represented the most differences in beliefs. When people talk about thousands upon thousands of denominations, that number includes regional variance - such a the same group in two different countries.)

When approaching the many denominations that exist today, I see three possible lines of reasoning. The first is to attempt and discover which group has the most Biblically-faithful doctrine and structure of authority, and then join that group. The danger of this, of course, is a close-minded dogmatism that refuses to acknowledge the validity and witness of other Christians. Discussing fundamentalist Christian sects, Flavil R. Yeakley Jr. writes, “One of the characterists of sects is that they judge all other believers to be lost. What they claim, in effect, is, “unless you agree with me on all issues that I define as essential, you cannot be saved.’” To further complicate manners, even within a denomination, believers often hold slightly differing beliefs about their specific doctrines.

On the other end of the spectrum is the ecumenical movement: one that moves to bring denominations together and unite churches under the simple banner of “Christian.” Some ecumenical campaigns are focused on unity of action, not doctrine, encouraging diverse religious groups to pray together or work for a particular charity while maintaining their theological distinctiveness. Others – notably many Catholics – would like to see church restored to one organizational and theological body. For members in the first group, ecumenism is deeply threatening, even evil. With current denominations splintering further and further, however – the Anglican church recently suspended Episcopalians from communion, and the Methodist church is rapidly approaching schism – the return of Christianity to one world church seems unlikely in the near future.

Finally, there is the view held by such notable figures as Abraham Lincoln: “The more sects we have, the better,” he declared. “They are all getting somebody in (to the Church) that the others could not: and even with the numerous divisions we are all doing tolerably well.” Such a view argues the common beliefs, or “mere Christianity” as C. S. Lewis terms it, at the heart of most denominations is what matters most.

Lewis maintains, however – as I did with my incredulity at the non-denominational church – that the most vibrant and complete Christian life requires eventually choosing a group. In Mere Christianity, he compares the core Christian religion to a great house, inside of which there are open doors to many different rooms, or denominations. “If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted,” he writes. “But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.”

Where do you see yourself? Comfortably settled in one of the rooms? Trying to knock down the walls between them? Camped out in the hallway? Or somewhere in between?

Major Text/Passage: 1 Corinthians 1 Related texts or passages to consider: Titus 2:1; Ephesians 4:4-5; Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 3:4-7; 1 Corinthians 11:19; John 10:1-10

Talk Back:

  • Read 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Here, Paul is talking about the use of different spiritual gifts. But how might his logic here apply to denominations?

  • Read through 1 John chapter 4. What instructions does John give about how to recognize true and false Christianity?

  • Read through Revelation 12. Among other things, this passage describes the church (the woman) going through immense hardships. What characterizes the church in this passage?

  • Read through Revelation 7 and compare it to Revelation 14:1-5. What do you think the relationship between the 144,000 and the Great Multitude is?

  • Most Adventists assert (as do other denominations) that they have more truth than other denominations. However, most Adventists can point to an aspect of the church and its teachings with which they disagree. How much can someone disagree with a denomination while still calling oneself a member of that denomination. If one disagrees with their denomination on some points, does it matter where they are?

  • How do you differentiate a denomination from a sect or cult? Is there some use for division among people when they disagree? Is division necessary for preserving truth? When could that be either useful or damaging?

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