Friday, March 18, 2005
Denominations, can't live with them, can't live without them
Denominations! Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em.
Denominations are collections of churches which form collectives and share common practices and beliefs. They have common denominators such as (i) the limitation of baptism to adults (Baptists, Anabaptists); (ii) the baptism of infants as well (almost everyone else); or (iii) the type of church government (Presbyterianism, Congregationalism or Episcopalianism). What they share in common binds them together and identifies them as a group with certain accepted norms of worship. Membership is voluntary and this is a historical result of attempting to remain faithful to the revelation of God.
Every denomination claims faithfulness to the Scriptures.
Faithfulness as they see it and almost no denomination started as the intended consequence. As early as the New Testament times, fissures of division were apparent when Paul warned his readers not to identify with either Apollos or himself, but with Christ. The separation of Paul and Timothy from Barnabas and John Mark in their missionary journeys indicated different styles of ministry. The exile of Bishop Nestorius resulted in the division of the Church and the formation of what later came to be known as the Nestorian Church. Martin Luther intended to reform the Church, as did Jean Calvin, but Lutheranism and Calvinism transpired instead. Henry VIII wanted to be head of the English Catholic Church but the Church of England was the result. John Wesley was concerned that after his death, his followers might form a new denomination, which was exactly what happened. Methodism arose even as Wesley lay dying. Yet, for all its apparent negative impact, denominationalism is important today.
Why are denominations important?
Identification with a denomination makes public and holds one accountable to what one truly believes about the God of the Christian Church. To be part of a denomination means that one is committed to a certain understanding of every important doctrine, having examined its consequences and source of understanding. Denominationalism is a direct development from the creedal history of the church as we shall see in another session.
All denominations start out as correctives over apparent errors within church traditions.
In the attempt to reform incumbent church practices, the new correctives often end up as ‘new denominations’, thus the Reformation gave rise to Lutheranism, Presbyterianism, Anglicanism, and other ‘new’ traditions. Yet denominationalism is a result of the human condition as it expresses the doctrines of the church in a changing world. Despite their divisions, denominations of the church acknowledge each other’s claim to the same God of the Christian church, even as they denounce each other as being in error.
The positive attribute of denominationalism is that congregations are pushed to consider what is that exactly that they believe and articulate the beliefs for clarity and accuracy. Churches are the most important gathering of believers and are places for doctrinal feeding and nourishment. For this reason alone, they must be clear about the theological positions they hold.
What is a non-denominational or inter-denominational church?
A non-denominational church claims to hold to no specific stance while an inter-denominational church thinks it is not in opposition to any denominational practice. Both are unworkable definitions. It is to effectively have a denomination of one, which can practice with varying degrees of consistency. It can quickly change positions to accommodate changing conditions but is robbed the benefit and accountability of peer review available in a denominational system.
Inter-denominational churches claim to be friendly to all denominations as international is inclusive of all nations. To be denominational is to accept as authoritative a specific form of theology and worship practice, failure to abide which renders the church outside such a denomination. It is an oxymoron to be inter-denominational, just as it is to be inter-gender. Every congregation which worships in any manner is part of denomination, the question is whether it is part of one or of many. Thus an inter-denominational or a non-denominational church is really a church of one denomination. The problem is that all these churches share the same two descriptive names but not the doctrines or practices of worship. It is to practice denominationalism without using the term to describe such practices.
How did denominationalism arise in Church history?
The Church did not emerge out of a vacuum. Its history is tied to the disciples of Jesus. During his ministry, Jesus spoke at the temple and the synagogue. The origin of the Jewish temple at Jerusalem goes back to the Ark of the Covenant and the nomadic days of the Israelites in the Sinai desert under the leadership of Moses. In the time of Abraham and Sarah, the worship of God was identified with the name of Abram of Ur. His grandson Jacob was renamed Israel by God and soon an identifiable race of people emerged. When Jacob’s son Joseph ruled Egypt, the entire clan of Jacob was invited to settle there to survive the drought. Jacob’s descendants multiplied and by the time of Moses, some 400 years later, these descendants (Israelites) of the Jacobean clan, had become known as the Hebrews.
These Hebrews escaped Egypt into the desert where they were taught how to worship the living God. The Ark of the Covenant became the early physical ancestor of the Church. After the settlement of the Hebrews onto the land of Canaan, Moses appointed political-spiritual leaders called Judges, who gave way to the three kings (Saul, David and Solomon) of Israel. While David’s God dwelt in a tent, Solomon’s was worshipped in the Great Temple, where formal worship was possible, pilgrimage being a form of worship. Following the breakup of the nation of Israel when the 10 northern (Lost) tribes were defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC and the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BC, temple worship was no longer possible. The exiles of Israel had to worship God without a temple. Thus Daniel worshipped through an open window in Babylon. Was it possible to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Well, they certainly learned to.
The survival of the largest identifiable tribe, Judah, was the source of the new name of the Israelites, the Jews. In both Esther and Daniel, this name was used to identify the people who worship the God of Abraham. Indeed, despite being from the tribe of Benjamin, both Mordecai and Esther were called Jews, no longer a name limited to those of the tribe of Judah. The recovery and rebuilding of the Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah now faced the rabbinical teachings which authorized worship at synagogues. Some scholars identified synagogues which predate even the exiles of Israel. By the time of Jesus, the synagogues were alternative places of worship and rivaled the ‘High Places’ of the Old Testament. Upon Jesus’ resurrection, the development of the Churches were mere gatherings of people in homes. It is possible to consider the meeting of the Last Supper at the Upper Room as the first Church meeting. Thus, the Tabernacle or Tent of Meeting of Moses became the Temple of Jerusalem1 , which gave in to the local synagogues and later to the Christian churches.
The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church faced early disagreement between Peter and Paul, until James offered a fellowship with a different focus.
The first major division took place around 451 AD when the church split into the group which submitted to the pronouncements of the Council of Chalcedon while the dissenting group of Non-Chalcedonians emerged later as the Nestorian ‘Church of the East’ with a Syriac liturgy. The Chacedonian division itself broke up by 1054 AD and gave birth to the western Latin rite wing and the eastern Greek rite wing of the Chalcedonian division. By the sixteenth century, Europe was torn by the religious Reformation of the Latin rite wing of the church and three principal groups broke off from Rome; the Radical Reformers, the Evangelicals (Protestants, comprising the Lutherans and Reformed) and the Church of England.
These traditions departed from the Latin wing, forming their own sub-traditions which were exported all over the world through evangelism and missions. One such sub-tradition was the Reformed sub-tradition (Calvin’s system of church government was the real breakthrough and compromise, away from the hierarchical bishopric and the egalitarian congregationalism).
It became the Presbyterian denomination, first in Scotland and later here in the United States and elsewhere. This denomination soon broke off to form many sub-denominations, all bearing the name Presbyterian, of which the PCA is one.
A unified church never existed. Indeed, even before the arrival of Jesus, there was no unified Judaism (Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Herodians, Sicarii, Essenes etc.), and after the resurrection of Jesus, there were communions of multiple gatherings of believers.
Why does the Church continue to divide?
The human condition is one of rebellion. Thus, every initially correct tradition and teaching tends to corrupt over time, with correctives attending to its return to the true pathway, only to turn away again. The emergence of divisions in the church are attempts to correct doctrinal errors. Theological doctrines, as important as they are, remain human institutions which must always be examined within the community of believers. We use them to help us understand God’s revelation to us but they are not to be worshipped. Instead, we are charged to study the Scriptures that we may better understand doctrines and contribute by making them clearer and scripturally faithful to each succeeding generation, even as we receive the inheritance of saints.