Why I Believe in Denominations

Having had the privilege of spending some time with the wonderful students of Belfast Bible College, I was able to hear stories of how they came to be studying at the college and the reasons why they chose to study there. The college itself is non-denominational according to its brief statement of beliefs and this is one of the key reasons students choose to study there.

Students evidently want to come to their own conclusions about issues that create denominational differences, issues of faith and practice such as baptism, position on the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit and so on. Students must assume that they will simply be taught the party line if they ended up in a denominational bible college rather than be helped to think through the issues on their own two feet. They may fear becoming indoctrinated with a particular view or be treated poorly if they questioned the system. These are real fears.

An anti-denomination sentiment is also something I hear across the spectrum in various types of churches. “I don’t like denominations,” people tell me, or worse, “denominations are just a result of sin,” hinting of course that Christians should shed the oppressive chains of denominational affiliation and discover a free and pure form of church.

This is certainly a noble and biblical desire in many respects – to pursue and uphold a church that honours the name of Jesus through its all-of-life worship. All churches should have this attitude, knowing that we all have an ongoing struggle with sin but simultaneously enjoy the overwhelming grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit to make us more like Christ. Therefore a healthy church must be a repenting church.

And in many ways the ‘anti-denomination sentiment’ is a reaction against the ways that various church bodies and affiliations have had a negative effect on the health and vitality of churches and their impact in their neighbourhoods. Nowhere is that more acutely felt than here in Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants have had a longstanding and unhappy history with one another. Add to this the bewildering fracture of the Protestant wing of the Christian church into shards of countless denominations and groups, many as a result of sinful splits and discord, there is no surprise that a rejection of denominationalism is found so prevalent among young, modern Christians.

It is right to reject wrong doctrine, harmful assimilation of worldly values, acceptance of blatant sin, or even a slavish adherence to a tradition or church culture that blocks gospel ministry of the local churches. All these things are to be grieved over, repented of and rejected even if that means leaving a church or denomination in rare situations.

However the ‘anti-denomination sentiment’ out there contains several critical faults. As I hinted above, the main reason for the rejection of denominations is all of the bad things that they produce (or are assumed to produce). Whilst the reasons for institutional problems are actually extremely complex and vary from denomination to denomination, one key reason for the negative things that they produce is because they are run by fallen and broken people – sinners like you and I. Of course, there is a great variety of the expression of this sinfulness within denominational institutions, but I simply want to point out that the problem, ultimately lies within us all. This is why all churches should carry an attitude of repentance. We are always prone to wander, no matter who or what we are.

A second critical fault in the ‘anti-denomination sentiment’ is that it can represent a certain naivety when it comes to the core teachings of the bible that bind a local church or denomination together. Take baptism for instance. What does the bible teach about baptism and who should therefore be baptised – believers on profession of faith only, or infants of believing parents as well? The bible either teaches that infants are to be baptised or it does not. Local churches and groups of churches that form denominations will have a position on baptism that reflects one side of the debate or the other – they must. You may attend a church that baptises believers only or you may attend a church that baptises infants as well.

Or take a church’s position on the so called charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit. Either they still exist and are to be expected today or they do not exist and therefore are not to be expected today. (I realise there is a great diversity of positions on the above spectrum but I’m polarising just to prove a point.) And so on. We find churches and denominations differing over multiple issues such as justification, sanctification, Christian living, attitude towards the state, understanding of the Lord’s Supper, position on the end times, and so on.

Therefore the anti-denomination position is somewhat precarious. People who adhere to this sentiment cannot have their cake and eat it. By believing in infant baptism or the ongoing gifts of the Holy Spirit a Christian will want to align themselves with others who agree that this is the biblical position.

Denominations then are groups of churches who subscribe to the same position on these important factors, matters of doctrine, practice and ministry. To think that someone can avoid these factors by rejecting denominationalism is simply wrong-headed. Unless someone wishes to attend a church with a membership of one, they must find other like-minded Christians who share the same convictions.

Obviously a bible college is not a church and therefore does not need to have a specific position on the right subjects of baptism (unless of course it is a denominational college that is bound to a particular view – but it is still not a church even if it does so). The same rule applies to other agencies: parachurch organisations, University Christian Unions, women’s groups, youth ministries and so on.

It is a good thing for Christians of all types to enjoy unity and fellowship with others that they happen to disagree with over some practical or doctrinal positions. But when it comes to what local church we should attend, a greater and deeper form of unity is required upon which we can build the kind of relationships that Jesus taught we should see within the church (John 13:35 for example).

If anything, the kind of unity of faith and practice that denominations reflect and offer is a cause for being pro-denominational rather than anti-denominational. With groups of like-minded churches (sometimes numbering hundreds of congregations) there can be great unity and strength. Groups of churches can achieve so much more than any single congregation, no matter how powerful or influential it thinks itself to be. Denominations can make great gains for the kingdom of Christ through coordinated and strategic ministry endeavours, be they church planting, mercy ministries, ministry training, overseas missions and the rest.

Jesus, the word that became flesh, came and lived among us. The apostle John wrote that Jesus was ‘full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Grace and truth. Not grace or truth. Neither was he a fifty percent grace, fifty percent truth. Full of grace, full of truth in abundance.

This is the character and attitude our churches and hence denominations should hold. Being deeply convinced of the truth of the biblical teaching but doing so steeped in the grace that comes from God and thus fills the churches. That means we can firmly hold to our biblical principles but do so with grace towards each other within each church and denomination, and also towards other Christians who walk in different traditions to our own.