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:
- A denomination is defined by a group of churches with a commonly-adhered-to confession of faith.
- A denomination is defined by a group of churches under a common authority/accountability system.
- A denomination is defined by a group of churches with a shared tradition, particularly of worship.
- A denomination is defined by a group of churches who accept each others’ pastors/ministers/clergy without having to re-ordain them.
- 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?