Denominations part I

I tag this post both as “ecclesiology” and “heresy” to demonstrate right off the bat that this entire subject is one that I consider to be a terrible sinful thing.  Christ’s Body, the Church, was never meant to be broken asunder in such a drastic way as it is.  But we do have to face up to the reality that it is, as the first step toward healing and reconciliation always requires addressing and tackling the nature of the problem head-on.  In another post, I voiced my thesis that ecclesiology – how to define the Church – is the primary thing that separates Christians and keeps us separated.  As we wrestle with the question of ecclesiology, one of the first questions we have to ask is what denominations are?

At first, this sounds really simple; denominations include Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Congregationalists, and so on.  But there’s more to it than meets the eye.  Certain denominations are “in communion” with one another.  Some have “open communion” with others.  Some cooperate with others in social mission while maintaining a respectful theological distance.  And now in the past couple decades a newer movement of non-denominationalism has swept the country, with the result that a larger percentage of Evangelical Christians are part of independent churches.  Does that make each one of those congregations its own denomination?  What about the emergent/emerging church movements, what about non-denominational “associations” like the Vineyard, what about the house church movement?  Are these networks coherent enough to be considered single denominations, or are they so loosely associated that each congregation is independent?

I’m not going to nail down a single definition of denomination in this article; that’s why it says part I in the title.  What I am going to do, however, is float a few options to start a conversation.  Maybe even a new study series, I don’t know.  Anyway, here are some definition possibilities:

  1. A denomination is defined by a group of churches with a commonly-adhered-to confession of faith.
  2. A denomination is defined by a group of churches under a common authority/accountability system.
  3. A denomination is defined by a group of churches with a shared tradition, particularly of worship.
  4. A denomination is defined by a group of churches who accept each others’ pastors/ministers/clergy without having to re-ordain them.
  5. Or perhaps some combination of the above stipulations is more accurate?

Any of these possibilities can spiral open into very complicated realities, which may be worth exploring if questions or issues come up in conversation.  I’d love to hear your feedback as I reflect on this topic for the next couple weeks.  What are the strengths and weaknesses of these possible definitions?  What other criteria would you bring into defining a Christian denomination?  Do the smaller groupings of Orders and sects  and associations play into this discussion?


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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5 Responses to Denominations part I

  1. Ben says:

    The dictionary says a denomination is a “recognized autonomous branch of the Christian church”. But that’s a contradiction in terms. Ephesians 4 says:

    “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

    How can there be an autonomous branch separate from the others? There’s only one body. Therefore there’s literally no such thing as an autonomous branch. You are either part of the vine, or you aren’t. You are either under Christ’s headship, or you aren’t.

    I therefore believe that denominational categorizations are a tool of Satan to divide and separate us from each other. Sure, I love to talk about issues that divide us and try to come to conclusions. But I don’t think the Lord views me as “my beloved Methodist” but as his son, a part of his body. If these categories don’t matter to God, why should they matter to us?

    I guess I think that the body would be in much better shape without denominations. The world looks at our divisions and laughs at God. And they have reason to. If we can’t even focus on the big things and get along, what does that show the world about who God is? This is why Jesus prays for unity among those who will follow him. So that the world can see how loving and unified we are!

    One might say, “Sure, denominations are not so good, but they are a necessary part of the church because we believe different things and worship differently.” That’s just giving in to Satan’s plan. As long as we call ourselves Lutherans and Catholics and Quakers, and treat others with suspicion and contempt, and exclude each other from communion and community, we are missing the mark.

    This is why I never want to be called part of any movement or denomination unless it is the movement of the Spirit through the body directed by Christ. I am not part of the house church movement. I am not non-denominational. I am not Protestant, I am not Catholic. I am a follower of Jesus. I am a member of HIS church, which is not supposed to be divided. We are one under One. All other issues and titles and categories are secondary (and often harmful).

    Maybe I’m sticking my head in the sand here and denying basic truths about how we live out our faith. But I’m looking forward to the day, in heaven, when we will no longer have such petty distinctions. That’s why I’m working for that now.

    • I don’t think your sentiment is going to be argued against too heartily by anyone, really. Your final sentence about sums it up, though, you’re sticking your head in the sand by trying to pretend that these fractures in the Body don’t exist. Insofar as we truly believe those words Paul wrote to the Ephesians, we should be doing everything we can to work reconciliation between these estranged parts of the Body; especially those of us who confess in the the Creeds “the holy catholic church.”

      What I’m trying to do here, at this stage, is work on identifying what it is that we use to divide us. No matter what kind of name, label, or concept you stick on it, there are rifts between Rick Thompson (itinerant house church dude), Cardinal O’Malley (Roman Catholic Bishop of Boston), Bishop Bill (Anglican Diocese in New England), and David Smith (Trinity Bolton). Yes, we all abhor the fact that those rifts exist. But unless we examine them and try to figure out why they’re there and how we put them there in the first place (as well as how we allow them continue), we’re never going to bridge them. What’s stopping the house church in Boxborough from being one with the Roman Church? What’s stopping the Vineyard church in Boston from being one with the Anglican Church of North America?

      That’s why I started with some bullet-point suggestions, rather than go through all this tedious apologetic for the very subject.

  2. Ben says:

    I think I get it. In order to get along we have to study the differences? I think we have to study our Bibles more.

    Hm. You say “What’s stopping the house church in Boxborough from being one with the Roman Church?” My point is that we ARE one already. We are one if we both recognize the lordship of Jesus over us. There is one body! There is ONE body! Autonomous branches do not exist!

    I’m not pretending these rifts within the body don’t exist. The rifts exist because Christians find things to fight about. It’s easy, there are lots of things like those you mentioned above. And Satan is there encouraging us to divide over these matters.

    So how do we change these things within churches? We work toward unity. How? By building up the body:

    “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

    This makes sense because if we are mature in our love of each other, these distinctions will naturally fall away! This is why I don’t call you “Matt the Anglican” unless I’m joking around. You are God’s son first, and my brother second. No other distinctions matter.

    So I understand what you are trying to do, but I think it’s ultimately futile. You’d be better off making a list of things we *can’t* fight about.

    • Your Ephesians quote is a useful place to start. The trouble is that Roman Catholic apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers and other denominations’ apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers give conflicting information about the faith. If you just boil down their messages to what’s held in common, there isn’t much left; stuff considered “essential” on both sides will be gone. The big Ecumenical movements of the 20th century tried this and ran into that very problem. Turning to the Bible for all the answers is a idea, but it’s not enough; the Church was not founded on the Bible, after all!

      Anyway, getting more on track with the original post, your initial comments regarding a dictionary definition suggests that you reject a form of point #2, citing that there are no autonomous bodies within the Church, so long as the headship of Christ is affirmed. This is a much more helpful place to start a conversation. The nature of authority within the Church does need to be addressed in this context!

      (And no, this is not futile. Just as we are instructed to confess our sins, confront our brothers who sin against us, and work for reconciliation between God and the world, so too ought we to confront the problems that cause us to fight and divide. Pretending problems don’t exist never makes them go away, it makes them worse. Case in point: the incredible number of divisions that continue to crop up when people are more interested in being right than in being one!)

  3. Ben says:

    Yup, I have no idea how these theories actually would play out if there were no denominations. So most of that is all wishful thinking. But I still cling to it 🙂

    Truth 1: There’s one body, one baptism, and one faith
    Truth 2: As we build up the body, we reach unity in the faith

    I do love discussing issues like authority and other fun debatable things. But I think that until the body is built up more, we’ll still be fighting over just about anything.

    Example: The Troyer Amish were a group that split from the main Amish group in 1932. There were several issues, but a big one was the size of hat brims. Regular Amish wore their brims at 3.5 inches. The new denomination wore 4” brims.

    Sure, some issues are bigger than others. But what is really worth fighting and dividing over – such that we pretend to form an autonomous branch of the church that doesn’t even exist in God’s eyes?

    I’d like to fight these rifts as you do. I just believe that, because of the above Truths, that unity will only be reached as we mature in our love of God and each other.

    I don’t know how else to combat division. Do you have ideas? Do you think that more debate and discussion over these matters will help? Should there be divisions of any kind in the body? What are the hills that we die on?

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