Pastors’ Forum: Are Denominations Worth It?
9Marks asked a roundtable of pastors the same question: Are denominations worth it? Here are their answers.
Are denominations worth it? That depends on what your definition of “it” is. It is obviously valuable to cooperate for common causes that are germane to their mission. The New Testament points to the financial cooperation of churches in Macedonia, Achaia and Galatia (1 Cor. 16:1; 2 Cor. 8:1-7), the doctrinal cooperation between the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch (Acts 15:1-35), and the missionary cooperation referenced in 2 Corinthians 8:19. So cooperation among local churches is obviously biblical and can be beneficial in many practical ways.
However, such cooperation is not dependent on any particular denominational structure. That has never been truer than in our present day of instant and multi-faceted communication. The emergence of so many affinity networks among churches over the last ten years is a testimony to that.
A denomination of churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention to which my church belongs, is not a church and thus lacks ecclesial authority. But it can still be “worth it” to the extent that it helpfully assist churches by providing avenues for cooperative ventures in a wide variety of ministry opportunities.
Our church just joined Sola5, an association of God-centered churches across Southern Africa. Just three days ago, we met as thirty pastors and leaders from many different churches to strategize for better church planting and training across the region. Further, we are planning to do a joint missions conference in near future. We also heard a report of what God is doing through sister churches up in Zambia and their joint efforts. These things are a great encouragement not only to us as pastors, but also to our people. None of us are in very large churches, so we are able to do far more for the gospel together than alone. We love rallying together around the great, fundamental truths of our faith, for which we stand firm.
Yes, denominations are worth it. First, as a Presbyterian, I believe that New Testament ecclesiology is connectional. I don’t need to go into all the biblical reasons for that belief—they are available in many places. But I think that, in general, local churches should be accountable to a broader body of elders than just those within their congregation. The broader body can bring perspective that often is impossible for leaders embroiled in a conflict or problem within a church.
However, I believe denominations do not provide all the fellowship and support a local church needs. In many ways denominations do the work of “white corpuscles.” White corpuscles attack infection, which means that denominations’ good work is largely “negative,” keeping ministers and churches accountable to sound doctrine and good order. The “red corpuscle” work—of innovative ministry thinking and resourcing—usually happens within “networks” of churches with not only the same doctrinal commitments but also similar visions for how to do ministry best in our time and place. Sometimes a network occurs within a denomination, but sometimes it can exist across denominations when the churches have similar doctrine (e.g., Reformed soteriology).
So most churches should have both a denomination as well as a good ministry network.
I once thought that denominations undermined the unity of the church. In recent years, however, I have developed a more positive view. My thinking shifted as I began to appreciate how different denominations emphasize aspects of the Christian faith that others may sometimes neglect. Learning from those outside our own tradition will help us see beyond our denominational blinders.
I have benefited greatly by reading the work of those in other denominations. From Baptists, I learned evangelism; from Presbyterians, justification by faith; from Charismatics, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit; from Anglicans, catholicity and the beauty of liturgy. I hope that believers in these denominations benefit from the distinctives of my own Methodist tradition as well. John Wesley, convinced of God’s power to deal with sin comprehensively, believed that God raised up the Methodists to emphatically proclaim and model Scriptural holiness. And at our best, we Methodists have faithfully interpreted and appropriated the biblical language of sanctification. I hope that believers in other traditions will benefit from this particularly Wesleyan emphasis as I’ve benefited from their emphases.
Christians are unified by the good news that Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification. When this unity is authentic, it will be marked by charity. God is not glorified when Methodists and Baptists malign one another. If Christ has reconciled us all to God, then we must pursue peace among ourselves. We can begin doing this by learning from the distinctives of denominations other than our own.
Are denominations worth it?
Yes, with a big if. Denominations are important, valuable, and virtually inevitable in several important ways. First, denominations are necessary to ensure churches’ confessional and ministerial integrity, so that Christ’s sheep may be protected from false or incompetent shepherds. Effective oversight can only come from above, and doctrinal fidelity requires cultivation, training, and examination.
Second, denominations are valuable for the formal coordination of ministry and gospel mission. Long-term, permanent partnerships simply require the depth of agreement and formal coordination that denominations provide.
Third, denominations are important so that differences not essential to the gospel (paedo vs. craedo baptism, for instance) may be practiced in peace. In this respect, denominations are important to Christian unity, so that known differences in polity or practice may be accommodated without ceaseless argument within and between churches. So denominations are important and valuable in providing oversight, coordinating long-term ministry and mission, and fostering unity.
But there is a big if.
Denominations are worth it if they do not think their boundaries encompass the entire kingdom of Christ. While being loyal to our own denominations, Christians and churches should regularly, joyfully, and zealously work together across denominational boundaries. Within a shared commitment to the gospel, our churches must be seen working together, and our vision for mission and ministry must be shaped not by our denominational affiliation but rather by the Great Commission of the reigning king Jesus Christ.
Denominations can be very good things. They can witness to the fact that somebody, somewhere actually believed in something at some point in time. They can also witness to the fact that important Christian doctrines are not limited to those things vital to salvation. Take baptism for example: one cannot have a church which takes the Bible seriously and which does not have a clear view on baptism or the Lord’s Supper. It is better to have churches that are committed either to believer’s baptism or to covenant baptism than to have churches that agree to differ on the issue as if it is of no importance.
Denominations can also act as safety valves. I appreciate the 9Marks guys very much, but if we were in the same church or denomination, we would have to fight over things like baptism. I am happy to have fellowship with the Capitol Hill Baptist crowd, and happy that we can do so without feeling the need to engage in mortal combat. Separate denominational affiliations facilitate that.
Finally, denominations offer the possibility of confessionally coherent connectionalism with an appropriate authority and accountability structure. I know my congregationalist friends disagree on the details of that, but I imagine they can sympathize with the basic point.