Denominations: When churches network.

by K.W. Leslie, 23 February
DENOMINATION di.nɑm.ə'neɪ.ʃən noun. Organized network of affiliated churches.
2. Autonomous branch of a religion.
[Denominational də.nɑm.ə'neɪ.ʃən.əl adjective.]

When Jesus began his church, it had a really basic organization: The Twelve, the apostles whom he hand-picked to lead his followers… and his followers.

Over time this evolved. As it kinda had to, ’cause the church spread. The Twelve didn’t stay in Jerusalem: Simon Peter went to Rome, Andrew to Greece, John to Ephesus, Jude and Simon to Syria, Bartholemew to Armenia, Thomas to India, and so forth. The followers spread out to different cities in the Roman Empire, and to the barbarians outside the Empire. They founded new groups.

All sorts of questions began to crop up about how connected these groups were with one another. Of course since power is always a stumbling-block for us humans, there was also concern about what authority various apostles and bishops in other groups had over the new congregations and their leadership.

The short version: The church remained one universal group for roughly a thousand years. I say “roughly” because it got pretty rough there near the end. Too many power struggles between bishops. Too many cultural and theological differences between Greek- and Latin- and Coptic- and barbarian-speaking churches. Too many hurt feelings. It all culminated in 1054 in the Great Schism: The bishops of Rome and Constantinople declared each another heretic. From that point on there were two official denominations: The eastern Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church.

Although the Orthodox and Catholics insist on calling themselves churches, not denominations. ’Cause their original attitude was they’re the real church, and any other “chuches” were heretic. (That’s largely still their attitude, though they’re a bit nicer towards the rest of us: They’re the real church, and the others are wayward, not necessarily heretic. ’Cause some of ’em are heretic.)

They’re not alone in shunning the word “denomination.” Two churches in my city insist on calling themselves “nondenominational”—yet both are heavily plugged into the “nondenominational” Bethel Church in Redding, Calif. Because Bethel hasn’t created a formal denomination, the many churches affiliated with it, and no other group, figure they’re nondenominational. But they’re far from independent of all other churches. (Which is good. Go-it-alone churches are like go-it-alone Christians: They tend to get all weird and cultlike and heretic.)

Sometimes churches prefer another word, like fellowship or alliance or assembly or network. My denomination, the Assemblies of God, is kinda partial to “movement.” And—as is the case with episcopal groups like the Orthodox and Catholics—some consider themselves the one same single church with many, many campuses, no matter how big they are.

But despite what they call themselves, whenever we got a network of churches—loose or tight, doesn’t matter—I’m gonna refer to them as denominations. Sometimes “denom” for short. (Not to be confused with “demon.” I’ll leave that for the anti-denominational folks.)

The really loose networks.

Recently I had to explain to a friend there’s not just one kind of Baptist. Technically a Baptist is any Protestant who believes you only baptize people who’ve professed Christ as Lord (i.e. not babies), and believes they’ve gotta be dunked in water, not just have it poured over their heads. But there’s not just one Baptist organization: There are hundreds. There are the Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Progressive Baptists, Regular Baptists, Independent Fundamentalist Baptists… and that’s only a few of the groups in the United States alone.

Still, some people are gonna take the whole Baptist branch of Protestantism, and call it a denomination. For that matter, they’ll take Protestantism and call it a denomination. Even though technically, the only thing all Protestants have in common with one another is they’re not Catholic. (Nor Orthodox.) And some of ’em, like the Church of England, hasn’t entirely decided they’re not Catholic.

You can see how widely people will cast this word: A whole movement will get labeled a “denomination.” All the Fundamentalist churches in the world, all the Calvinists, all the Pentecostals, all the Evangelicals. But these churches aren’t always affiliated. Fr’instance a Reformed Baptist and a Free Will Baptist: They may totally agree about the creeds, Evangelicalism, and baptism, but certainly not about whether God wants to save everyone.

Properly, you don’t wanna call them a denomination unless they really are networked. Do they share ministries? Resources? Colleges? Centers? Publishing houses? Missionaries? Musicians? Do they preach at one another’s churches? Do they share a divisional headquarters? Do they have bishops/directors/superintendents/presidents over them? Do they submit to one another—the leaders of your church prefer to bounce ideas off other churches, other pastors, first? Do they advertise their affiliation, figuring it’s a valuable thing to play up?

Anti-denominational churches.

A lot of churches describe themselves as nondenominational, or independent. Now there’s independent, and there’s independent: In fact many “independent” churches are networked. Independent Fundamentalist Baptists use a lot of the same resources, meet with other pastors of the same stripe, and consider them brothers and spiritual mentors. They’re hardly all that independent.

They’re kinda like those Christians who never formally join their churches—yet they do attend every service, participate in most functions, contribute financially, and do everything but join. These Christians aren’t anti-church, but they’re in a bit of denial about how committed they are. Same deal with the “independent” churches which aren’t quite as independent as they claim.

But y’know, that’s not a bad thing. Churches should have relationships with other churches. It’s only when they have no such relationships, and fight any such affiliation—when they’re not just nondenominational, but anti-denominational—that they become a problem.

These churches defend their go-it-alone behavior by claiming God means every church—not just theirs—to be autonomous. They’ll highlight “the autonomy of the local church” in their faith statements: They recognize nothing and no one above their leadership. (Well, other than God and the bible. Although I’ll debate that.)

Why do they defend this autonomy? Various reasons. Some valid. Like I said, power’s a stumbling-block.

  • Power. Anti-denominational Christians are worried, often rightly, about handing too much power over to the leaders of a denomination, instead of keeping it in the local church. Many denominations began as the result of power struggles between denominations and their individual pastors: The pastors felt the denomination was more interested in worldly power than in God’s kingdom. They felt the denomination was going astray. (And sometimes the pastors weren’t wrong.)
  • Money. When churches send money to their denomination, they often no longer have a say in how the money is used. It might go towards objectionable leaders, missionaries, ministries, campaigns… stuff the local church leaders find wasteful or stupid. Plus money is power too, y’know.
  • Cardinals/patriarchs/popes aren’t biblical. Church leadership, in the New Testament, refers to apostles, bishops, elders, and deacons. Arguably all these positions are at the local level, not a parish/district/national level. (I would point out the apostles who wrote the New Testament wrote to a bunch of churches, not just their own; hence I said “arguably.”) There are no cardinals and patriarchs and popes in the scriptures; therefore many figure there should be no made-up authorities placed above the local churches.
  • They’re redundant. In a congregational church, leaders are democratically elected: Pastors, elders, deacons, board members. They answer to the members, who are the real authority in that church. A denomination would therefore be another authority—one which won’t necessarily answer to the members—and to congregationalists, that’s unacceptable. (Congregationalist denominations nonetheless do exist, but only to pool resources—not to oversee member churches.)

Now, I get all the concerns about power, and how it corrupts. But it’s naive to assume keeping all the power local, won’t corrupt people just as much. That’s precisely what we see in independent churches: Because they answer to no one, wholly inappropriate people are given, or gain, power.

(Case in point: Me. When I was 16, my congregational church made me a voting member. Was I spiritually mature enough to have such power? Absolutely not; I was a giant hypocrite. Yet I had all the rights and privileges of any other voter; if I marshalled all the other teenagers I could even have been elected to the board. Yikes. But such things have been known to happen.)

If you’ve been in a church where fruitless hypocrites were in charge, and you were burned by it, I don’t blame you at all for wanting to avoid such authority. But the proper response is neither anarchy, nor seizing power for yourself—the two extremes we all gravitate towards. Christians must avoid both. One way we do it is in a church whose government has a lot of checks and balances. A denomination is usually one of those checks.

Churches which avoid denominations tend to avoid those checks—and become the breeding ground for cultish activity. That, we definitely don’t want.

Where denominations can be useful.

Here are some positive attributes denominations have, or contributions they can make.

Uniform beliefs. Most networks of churches claim all their churches believe the same things. As they should. One of the Calvary Chapel churches believes the same as another Calvary Chapel. One United Methodist church believes the same as all other United Methodist churches. All the Roman Catholic churches believe alike. This way, if you know what one of ’em believes, you shouldn’t step into another, and be horrified to find it believes entirely different things. (Shouldn’t, but some “free churches” can be a little too free with their beliefs.)

True, churches may have uniform beliefs but differ in style. That’s another consideration. But as far as beliefs are concerned, they’re usually consistent.

Accountability. If an individual church isn’t consistent with the others in the network, the denomination will call ’em on it. As they should. Denominations help police their member churches to make sure they’ve not gone cultish or heretic. They hold the leadership to certain standards and expectations.

Nearly every denomination ordains leaders—sets the standards for what church leaders need to know, and screens out anyone of bad character. If the denomination vouches for them, they oughta be good.

True, often denominations don’t police their churches directly. Sometimes the only way they can enforce the rules is by threatening to boot the church out of the denomination. Still, if the church is in, it usually means they’re in good standing.

Resources. One church may not have the resources to finance a missionary. Ten churches, combining their resources, can. A thousand churches definitely can. And a lot of denominations figure their primary job isn’t just to support existing churches, but start new churches, new ministries, and make new Christians. Pooling our resources makes this job easier.

If your church needs books and materials for its Christian classes, yeah you could write your own. But you can also contact the denomination’s headquarters, and more than likely they already have ’em ready to go, already consistent with what your church (and denomination, and you) believes and teaches. Or if they don’t, they know another church in your network which does.

Same with charities to support, missions to go on, churches to connect with, schools to attend, publishers, fundraisers, all sorts of things. The denomination has a much wider and greater access to these things than any one individual church. You don’t need to be a megachurch to get ahold of these things: You just have to be in a network.

These resources aren’t just for your pastors and church leaders. They’re are for you too. It’s your denomination too, right? So if you don’t know much about your denomination, start looking into it. Visit their website. Check out some of their resources. Find out what you have access to. You might be very pleasantly surprised.

Really there’s one church.

Now, despite all the positive attributes of denominations, the reason we have multiple factions of Christians is, bluntly, sin.

Some of us got power-hungry, greedy, selfish, and tried to impose our will in areas where it was not our place. Other denominations are the product of Christians trying to escape the power-mad. And yeah, others are the product of heretics trying to escape accountability.

Now when churches leave the network, does that mean they leave Jesus? There’s the $64,000 question.

Some Christians say yes, absolutely: They left Jesus’s church, so by definition they left Jesus. Others (including me) say it entirely depends on why they left that church. If they were honestly trying to follow Jesus, and their church wasn’t letting ’em—intentionally or not, sinfully or not—in most cases they’re justified in stepping away. Now if they weren’t honestly trying to follow Jesus, they’re likely yet another cult or heretic church.

But y’know, even if they do go wrong, they technically still belong to Jesus. And one day they’ll answer to him for what they are and aren’t doing.

Because there’s only one Jesus. One Lord. Not “the Baptist Christ and the Presbyterian Christ,” not “the Jesus of the bible and the Jesus of tradition,” not “white Jesus and black Jesus.” There’s one Christ Jesus, and all groups have our misconceptions about him. We’re all wrong. Assuming we’re not, that we have him right and the others don’t, is the entire problem: It’s what keeps us separate.

Since there’s only one Christ, and he has only one body, it makes us all members of one church. We see multiple churches and denominations, but when Jesus looks at us, he sees one church.

And he’s irritated at our stupid, petty disagreements. He ordered us to love one another whether we disagree or not. Jn 15.9-17 We’re meant to be one, just as Jesus and the Father are one. Jn 17.20-21 His goal is our oneness. His kingdom will erase all the artificial and stupid barriers we’ve erected because of our power-worship and self-centeredness. Jesus chooses to look at us from that kingdom point of view: He sees us as those people whom he’s saved, who are in his family. Our denominations are another organization he can either work with… or overthrow.

So as Jesus’s followers, we need to look at our denominations the same way: Either they serve Jesus’s purposes, or not. We don’t have to abolish them, as anti-denominationalists would. Most denominations began for good reason. (Some not so much. But just as the Holy Spirit works on individuals, he works on churches too, and some of ’em are much improved.) Every denomination, church, and Christian has its flaws. There are always things we, and our denominations, must repent of. So let’s repent. Then follow Jesus.

Nor do we have to combine all the denominations into one massive mega-denomination. God is totally fine with diversity. He made the body of Christ diverse. 1Co 12.14-26 There’s nothing wrong with separate Christian organizations—so long that we work together instead of fight. We need to bridge the unnecessary gaps between our denominations. The things which split the churches 500 and 1,000 years ago: Must they still divide us? Can’t we work together and follow Jesus together today?

Well, some Christians say absolutely not. They still fixate on power. They still believe we’re saved by orthodoxy instead of grace, still insist everyone believe as they do, still demand our capitulation. Or they’re just jerks: Back when they were pagans, they liked to pick fights, and once they came to Jesus, they decided they were gonna do battle with “heretics,” and don’t wanna make peace!

But Jesus wants his church to be one. We must agree to his prayer, and do what we can to obey him.