Saturday, July 15, 2006

Do We Still Need Denominations? Do We Still Want Denominations?  An Answer to the questions of Dr. M

Denominations? In the 21st Century?  Are you kidding?

As a member of the PCUSA, the events of late June 2006 greatly upset me.  They should have upset members of the Church regardless of their theological leaning, because they quite possibly are going to lead to the destruction of a denomination with a proud heritage and the possibility of good in a world that needs it perhaps more than ever.

Dr. Roberts ( asks the question on his website, “What’s good about Denominations?” Of course, when that question arises the first passage that pops into mind is John 17, and Jesus’ prayer for unity.  While I have never been to a national convention of any of the denominations I have belonged to, I have seen video that shows, at their best, the members of denominations, across theological spectrums, worshipping God and/or celebrating the Lord’s Supper together.  Dr. Roberts includes on his site the dictionary definition of the question, what is a denomination: “Religious organization whose congregations are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices.”

At its core, it is people who share a common adherence to the same beliefs and practices.  I think it is fait to say that is a good definition of what denominations used to be.  The question in my mind though is, do we still want them and do they add anything to the Christian experience of God that makes them not only viable, but necessary?

Do We Still Want Them?

Denominations are, as the above definition points out, about unity around belief and practice.  But lets face it, we are in the 21st century, and most people don’t want to have any limit, either for themselves or for their spiritual communities, on what they can do, think, or bless. I think it was Robert Wuthnow, the eminent sociologist, who said the difference between community and association is that that community requires that I give something up (freedom) for a deep, painful, and yet blessed return, while association means coming together, not giving up our rights to anything, and disbanding once we have gotten what we want.

In today’s world, especially in the postmodern/emergent circles I run in, there is a lot of talk about community.  However, there is very little talk in most of these instances, of giving up anything to gain that community.  I mention this because I don’t earnestly think that many people want denominations anymore.  Denominations get in the way of the way we practice our faith, of what we believe (and tell me however many people you know who really believe the core Presbyterian or Episcopal doctrines), who can serve, and what we can bless.  That is up for me, or at the most, for my church to decide.  How dare some group of people (including those dead people like John Calvin, John Knox, or Thomas Cranmer) tell us what is what! 

What people want is at most connection to their local church (even this is declining), and they want the prestige and power that comes from the larger community of churches.  In other words, most people in most denominational churches want to associate with the powerful collection of churches around the nation, but they don’t want to cede anything to them (least of all freedom). That is I believe why non-denominational churches, which are fiercely independent, have been joining things like “The Willow Creek Association.” You get all the benefits without any (or barely any) of the costs of denominations/community.

So the truth is, we really don’t want denominations.  But why did I just answer a question that Dr. Roberts didn’t ask?  Because the very fact that we don’t want denominations that makes them so important even today.

Why We Still Need Denominations

Dr. Roberts on his website has already pointed out the two most crucial missional aspects of denominations and the value they bring to individual churches and Christians.  With denominations there is a much greater ability to launch overseas missions and relief operations (an important part of every church’s calling in Christ), thus leveraging the ability and financial resources of the individual church and allowing them to have a much greater global impact.  And then there is the church-planting operations, where new bodies can be planted that are then not the “child” of any one individual or church, but are the blessed (we pray this is true) offspring of many churches, across the nation (and world).  These are important reasons for denominations, and they have good historical examples to prove their power and competency in these areas.

But, today so much mission’s activity overseas has been taken over by the “parachurch” organizations – be it The Navigators, Campus Crusade, or World Vision.  These parachurch organizations (one of which I now serve) have given non-denominational churches just as much access to global reach as the denominations have.  Further, denominations have a woeful record these days at church planting, and at least from the perspective of worldly success (dollars, behinds in the seats, etc), many entrepreneurial church planters have a stellar record (the largest church in Colorado Springs didn’t exist 25 years ago, and was started by a young man with a vision, Ted Haggard, who is now the head of the National Association of Evangelicals). 

You are probably thinking, “Wait, I though he said we still needed denominations.” I do believe that, but not because of the pragmatic reasons that have been the historical basis for denominations.  Instead, I think the importance of denominations is the global community and the example of submission to the community that can and do provide.

Let me start with the second point. Before I joined the PCUSA in 2002, my wife and I were members of the United Methodist Church, the second largest denomination in the country, and one that seems to be turning the tide against the force of heterodoxy.  God called us there (much to our surprise) and it was the first time I had belonged to a denominational community since growing up in the Catholic Church (which I will talk about below on the second point). What really frustrated me was that at the time individual churches and regions were sticking their tongues out at the Book of Order and ordaining homosexuals and blessing gay marriages.  Now, I happen to be opposed to both of these actions (on scriptural grounds, and that said with a certain sadness because it has come between me and gay friends at times who were frustrated by my lack of willingness to fully embrace their “rights”).  But the issue was not, in my mind, that these church did something unscriptural, it was that they essentially said “we don’t care what the community of churches says, we want to do this and we will do this.” This blatant display of disobedience, the unwillingness to live within the bounds of community (mind you, while still reaping the benefits of community such as pastoral pensions, advertising, training opportunities and the like).  Submission has become a dirty word in our culture (and I say this as one who is rabidly egalitarian on gender issues), and because of this my post might sound quite old fashioned.

But it is one of the chief costs of community.  Sometimes the community decides (be it forever or for a season) that some things are not acceptable. Community (and with it discipleship) calls us to either submit to that in the community, or if we believe it to be of such great moral reason, to leave the community (in sadness) and thus suffer the great costs of separation and loss of identity with that community. Denominations act as a community for churches, reminding them of the call to submit to authorities, to live and love one another, and when necessary, to pay the costs of either being part of the community or of losing that community.  Those UMC churches did not suffer any loss from their decisions, and thus their decisions served in no way their discipleship and their process of being formed (both individual and communally) into the likeness of Christ.

Note, there may be times when you have to leave the denomination – because of its heterodox beliefs or pagan practices.  But if, say First Presbyterian Church, left the PCUSA, we would leave behind not just a building (valued at $25 million), and our well earned reputation in the community, but also the connection with other churches around the country and legacy of faith that has gone before us in the lives of other PCUSA members and churches.

So, denominations are a form of community that, if not essential, is very helpful in our calling to be conformed to the image of Christ.  But there is another aspect of denominational life that I have come to appreciate ever more in this shrinking (Flat as Thomas Freidman would say) world of ours.  Having been raised Catholic (and still???), I knew when I traveled that I could go to any Catholic Church anywhere in the world, and experience worship that was, in its core (in belief and practice), the same as the church I attended in Colorado Springs.  That is not to say that there are not liberal Catholic Churches that have the same practices but certainly not the same beliefs. There are. But there was a certain connection to the other parishioners and the fellowship as a whole that I could count on when I traveled or met another Catholic in a restaurant or airport. When I attended a non-denominational church and traveled, I found myself soon scared off by some of the churches I attended in other cities. Non-denominational does not mean anything, and it does not create a shared experience that makes for a truly global faith and for instant connection. 

Now when I meet another PCUSA member (or listen to one like I do with Hugh Hewitt), there is a shared experience of their church life that I can connect with, that I can share.  Now the individual (or church) may be as heterodox as can be, but even that I can come to understand after a very short interchange with the individual (I tend to look at church websites when I travel, see where the senior pastor was educated – Fuller is always a good sign – and then read their statements.  PCUSA churches that are relatively orthodox in their beliefs will have certain statements that are just so evangelical PCUSA) why they are in the PCUSA and why they believe what they believe.

So denominations can create both the costliness of community and the connection that is deeply missed in a globalized world. Do we still need denominations? You betcha! But, alas, I have serious doubt about whether or not we want them bad enough to make them part of 21st century Christianity.  I pray that we do…not because I necessarily like them all the time, but because my faith (and yours) can benefit from their existence.

Christopher Morton, The Roving Theologian

Posted by Christopher on 07/15 at 03:14 PM
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