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Thoughts on Denominations

We had a Hot Topic event this past week at Faith Church called “Where Did We Come From? An Exploration of Our Denominational History” in which we explored the origins and development of the Reformed Church in America, the denomination to which Faith Church belongs. There was irony in me leading this session, as I did not grow up in the Reformed Church, have spent most of my ministry in the Presbyterian Church (which is part of the wider Reformed tradition but has a different origin), and am by no means an expert, but I have learned this tradition and have studied denominations and traditions. Talking about a particular denomination led to some reflections on denominations that I think are worth sharing and thinking about.

  1. Most denominations agree with each other more than they disagree

“What’s the difference between X group (e.g. Methodists) and Y group (Presbyterians)” is a question that pastors are often asked. The problem with this question is that we stress the areas of disagreement and forget that these different groups agree much more than they disagree. We share confessions like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, studying the Bible and affirming the deity, lordship, and saving work of Jesus Christ. And even when we disagree over something, say baptism or communion or how a church should be governed, we agree about what we are disagreeing about -- we believe the Bible and have disagreements as we seek to understand it and apply it to our world today. In addition, lots of the disagreements are in areas in which we have to come to “good and necessary conclusions” because they are not fully explained in Scripture -- a classic example is baptism, as there is not a clear example of a child being born to a believing family in the New Testament and whether this child was then baptized or not. We will believe that our tradition has the correct understanding of it (otherwise, we would not believe it!), but we can also have charity and love towards others who disagree with us when we recognize this.

  1. Denominations have a historical origin in a time and a place -- and continued development

This might sound like a “truism” in that everything starts somewhere, but it is important to keep in mind when it comes to denominations. They all started in a particular country and at a particular time for a particular reason, with this unique history shaping the church’s beliefs and practices. The Reformed church started in Europe because of disagreements with practices and beliefs found in the Catholic Church, as the people in the Reformed church sought did not find the basis for these in the Bible. The reason for the Reformed Church in America was that Dutch settlers brought their church over, first to the New Netherlands area (New York and the like….even old New York was once New Amsterdam!) in the 1600’s and then to places in Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, and the like in the 1800’s. The Christian Reformed Church broke off of the Reformed Church in America over issues like the practice of allowing people from other churches to communion, singing hymns and not psalms only, and not preaching as much from the catechism. At times, we might wonder if the reasons for these splits are important -- and time shows that often are not big deals -- but at the time, people saw them as important elements, important enough to leave. Over time, more and more denominations have worked together, as they see the reasons for the split as less important now, just as we often have a different perspective on a conflict with some time and space. The distance of time since the origins often make churches more alike now -- as people mix with people from other traditions and have a different perspective now. Denominations continue to develop.

  1. American history has lead to the many different denominations in America

Different denominations emerge in part because Europe was a land with many countries (and there were smaller kingdoms back in the Reformation as well). For example, Reformed and Presbyterians agree about most things, but Presbyterians come from England-Scotland while Reformed come from the Netherlands -- they were writing in different languages. Lutheranism was popular in Germany and in Scandinavian countries. Methodism came from revivals in the English church that then migrated to America. The reason for so many denominations in America is that you have settlers bringing their churches over with them and then you have development within these (and new movements) in America, as revivals in certain groups led to new groups being formed. Rather than a mark against the Christian church, the plethora of denominations in America can attest to the diversity that has marked America and the fervor and vibrancy that leads to new things being sparked.

  1. Christian unity does not necessarily mean organizational unity

At times, people will say that all churches should come together and there should no longer be denominations, as Jesus prayed for the church to be one. However, Jesus was not speaking against denominations but against a spirit of division; you can have unity even within different groups, as we think there is unity found in Christ even among different cultures. The call for the elimination of denominations also seems to overlook the unique history and tradition found in each denomination; could they all come together and still retain their distinct feel? You can appreciate insights from other traditions and groups even as you retain and cherish your own traditions, just as you can learn from other cultures even as you live within your own culture. In addition, the early church, and even the New Testament (4 gospels instead of just 1!), reflects an idea that distinctive groups can work together without complete organizational unity; unity can be found in diversity. The early Christian movement was not centralized but grew in different cities; similarly, you can have different churches in the same city but still have a unity (besides the fact that it would be tough to house all the Christians in a city in one building!). In fact, I would maintain that being able to work with people in different groups is actually a better way of modelling unity than having everyone as part of the same organization -- as working across denominational lines can stress that what unites us is a faith and not a structure. We do need structures to help us stay accountable, but we also need to move beyond structures as a way to show unity. We should not think that our group is the only true group, but we also do not need to be ashamed of a denomination and tradition, as it shows that we are part of something bigger.

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