Denominationalism

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Denominations are associations of congregations, though sometimes it might be said that congregations are localized subdivisions of denominations, that have a common heritage. Moreover, a true denomination does not claim to be the only legitimate expression of the church. A denominational heritage normally includes doctrinal or experiential or organizational emphases and also frequently includes common ethnicity, language, social class, and geographical origin. However, many or all of these once common features have usually evolved into considerable contemporary diversity, especially in older and larger denominations. This often results in as wide a range of differences within a denomination, despite organizational unity, as exists between denominations.

The term "denomination" in general refers to anything distinguished by a name. In religious contexts the designation has traditionally applied both to broad movements within Protestantism, such as Baptists and Methodists, and also to the numerous independent branches of such movements that have developed over the years primarily because of geographical expansion and theological controversy.

Even though denominations within Protestantism have come to be the largest expression of organized Christianity beyond the level of the congregation, there has never been much theological reflection on denominationalism. A look at theology textbooks or church creeds confirms this. Probably the simplest explanation for this omission is that the Bible in no way envisages the organization of the church into denominations. It instead assumes the opposite, that all Christians, except those being disciplined, will be in full fellowship with all others. Any tendencies to the contrary were roundly denounced (1 Cor. 1:10 - 13). Paul could write a letter to the Christians meeting in various places in Rome or Galatia with every assurance that all would receive its message. Today, for any city or country, he would have to place the letter as an advertisement in the secular media and hope.

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Denominationalism is a comparatively recent phenomenon. The theological distinction between the church visible and invisible, made by Wycliffe and Hus and elaborated by the Protestant Reformers, underlies the practice and defense of denominationalism that emerged among seventeenth century English Puritans, who agreed on most things but not on the crucial issue of how the church should be organized. The eighteenth century revivals associated with Wesley and Whitefield greatly encouraged the practice, especially in America, where it became dominant.

Although a true denomination never claims to be the only legitimate institutional expression of the church universal, it frequently thinks itself to be the best expression, the most faithful to the Scriptures and to the present activity of the Holy Spirit. Had it not thought so, at least when beginning, why else would it have gone through the trauma of separating from (or not joining with) an older denomination? A true denomination does not, however, make exclusive claims upon its members. It frees them to cooperate with Christians from other denominations in various specialized ministries.

In theory denominationalism is sharply contrasted with two much older approaches, catholicism and sectarianism. That catholic or sectarian groups are often called denominations reflects either an excessively loose use of the designation or historical development within the group.

Catholic or national churches at the period of their greatest growth are almost always supported, that is "established," by the civil government, whether imperial or tribal or, most commonly in recent centuries, national. Such churches usually have been able to survive even after that official support is withdrawn when the government became Muslim, Marxist, or secular. Catholic (from a Greek word for "the whole") churches see themselves as properly embracing from infancy all Christians within their territories, in contrast with the voluntary nature of individual affiliation with a denomination. When catholic churches, of which the Armenians have the oldest, are dispersed, then the basis for association becomes ethnic rather than territorial. Over the centuries catholic churches have usually recognized each other as having jurisdiction over the Christians of their respective territories or peoples. (The largest of them, the coalition mostly of southwest Europeans and their derivative national churches known as Roman Catholicism, has been recognizing others only in this century since its claims were universal.)

This mutual recognition is facilitated by the catholic view, except in northwest Europe where the national churches became Protestant in theology, that the churches in each place are properly governed only by bishops in a supposedly traceable succession from the apostles. In recent decades, and especially in countries outside their homelands, most such churches have become in practice increasingly like denominations. That is, they have been willing to concede some legitimacy to and encourage their members to cooperate with other than catholic or national ecclesiastical bodies.

In theory denominationalism is also sharply distinguishable from sectarianism. Each Christian sect sees itself as the only legitimate institutional expression of the followers of Christ. Unlike catholic churches the sects have never embraced more than a small percentage of any population (with the possible exception of some short lived medieval sects). Sects are frequently distinguished not only by their exclusive organizational claims but also by their disagreement with the fourth century understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity that is traditionally adhered to by all catholic churches and Protestant denominations. (Such professedly Christian movements as Spiritualism and New Thought may be said to be divided into denominations even as Protestantism is, but it is too confusing to blend these differing kinds of denominations given their widely divergent theologies.) Some sects, especially when they are Trinitarian, have been evolving into denominations. Conversely, some denominational branches so focus their energies on their distinctive beliefs and practices that they might as well be sects.

Besides attracting to its ranks the once clearly distinct catholic churches and some sects, denominationalism has brought forth several other institutional responses. These are related in various ways to the obvious discrepancy between denominational distinctiveness (or rivalry) and the biblical portrayal of a unity of all Christians as close as that of the Father and the Son, a unity perceived not just by faith but observable by the world (John 17:20 - 23).

One response has been to oppose denominations and urge all true Christians to leave them and meet simply as churches of Christ, Christian churches, churches of God, disciples, brethren, Bible churches, evangelical churches, and similar inclusive names. Despite obvious appeal in times of denominational confusion, strife, and declension, the reality is that no such movement has anywhere attracted most Christians to itself. Instead this has been just another way of increasing the number of denominations, and sects, usually with the group's reluctance to admit it.

Another response has been for local congregations to remain organizationally independent but to engage in cooperative endeavors with other Christian organizations near and far that have a variety of denominational links. In fact many congregations that have historical and legal ties to a denomination are functioning as if they did not. (Conversely, an independent congregation that isolates itself is in effect just a small sect.)

The practicality of congregational independency has been enhanced in this century by the growing numbers and kinds of nondenominational specialized ministries such as home and foreign missions; colleges and seminaries; camp and conference grounds; publishers of magazines, books, and Sunday school curricula; evangelistic teams; youth organizations; radio and television broadcasters; occupational fellowships; and many others. Such ministries stress the doctrines and practices held in common by all or at least many denominational families, perform many functions that once were handled mostly by denominational agencies, and enable both denominational and independent congregations to experience broader fellowship. Perhaps a biblical precedent could be the evangelistic team of "Paul and his company" (Acts 13:13). Such organizations have at least as much validity as do the denominations whose leaders frequently disparage them, but only as helpful supplements to and extensions of a vibrant congregational life rather than as a replacement for it.

Yet another response to denominationalism has been the attempt to promote more visible unity in this century through ecumenicity. The ecumenical movement has seen many denominational mergers, sometimes across family lines, as well as denominational cooperation at the higher official levels through councils of churches. Generally speaking, the nondenominational specialized ministries are unambiguously evangelical in theology, while the promoters of conciliar ecumenism are not.

Denominational identity is not nearly so accurate a predicter of theological stance, worship style, organizational preference, or social class as it once was. There is no indication that denominations will soon disappear, but neither does it appear that anyone is eager to justify them theologically. The trend seems to be toward a new kind of denominationalism, one that is no longer based primarily on associations of congregations with a common heritage. Such associations will no doubt continue, but increasing emphasis seems likely to be placed directly on the local congregation of whatever, if any, denomination, and on the network of specialized ministries supported by and extending the outreach of congregations and their members.

D G Tinder

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
R E Richey, ed., Denominationalism; R P Scherer, ed., American Denominational Organization; H R Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism.


The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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