|The Barnabas Ministry
Denominationalism, as originally designed, is the opposite of sectarianism. A sect claims the authority of Christ for itself alone. It believes that it is the true body of Christ; all truth belongs to it and to no other religion. So by definition a sect is exclusive.Denominationalism may not be perfect. But it allows those having honest differences to treat each other with respect and love, not unwarranted judgment (ref. Romans 14:13). It gives everybody Christian freedom to follow God as they understand Him and His words, with a clear conscience. It allows Christians in a congregation to focus on God and not on items that may divide them from others, while simultaneously treating others with respect and giving them the freedom to do likewise. It allows Christians to respect Jesus' prayer for unity in John 17 by recognizing and loving other Christians. The spirit of distinguishing and distancing oneself from other Christians, or claiming to be superior to them, is not found in John 17.
The word denomination by contrast was an inclusive term. It implied that the Christian group called or denominated by a particular name was but one member of a larger group-- the church-- to which all denominations belong.
The denominational theory of the church, then, insists that the true church cannot be identified with any single ecclesiastical structure. No denomination claims to represent the whole church of Christ. Each simply constitutes a different form-- in worship and organization-- of the larger life of the church.
... The real architects of the denominational theory of the church were the seventeenth-century Independents (Congregationalists) who represented the minority voice at the Westminster Assembly (1642-1649). The majority at the Assembly held to Presbyterian principles and expressed these convictions classically in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.
The Independents, however, who held to congregational principles, were keenly aware of the dangers of "dividing the godly Protestant party" in England so they looked for some way to express Christian unity even when Christians did not agree.
These dissenting Brethren of Westminster articulated the denominational theory of the church in several fundamental truths:
First, considering man's inability to always see the truth clearly, differences of opinion about the outward form of the church are inevitable.
Second, even though these differences do not involve fundamentals of the faith, they are not matters of indifference. Every Christian is obligated to practice what he believes the Bible teaches.
Third, since no church has a final and full grasp of divine truth, the true Church of Christ can never be fully represented by any single ecclesiastical institution.
Finally, the mere fact of separation does not of itself constitute schism. It is possible to be divided at many points and still be united in Christ.
Thus, the denominational theory of the church looked for Christian unity in some inward religious experience-- and allowed diversity in the outward expressions of that personal faith.
This tolerant attitude was not born of doctrinal indifference. The Independent had no intention of extending Christian unity to all religious professions. The identity of the "one true church" was restricted to those who shared a common understanding of the core of the Christian faith.
... Few advocates of the denominational view of the church in the seventeenth century envisioned the hundreds of Christian groups included under the umbrella today. They had no intention of reducing the basic beliefs of Christianity to a general feeling of religious sincerity. But they could not control the future. They simply knew that the traditional bigotry and bloodshed in the name of Christ was not the way forward.
In the end, then, the denominational form of the church has marked the recent centuries of Christian history, not because it is ideal, but because it is better than any alternative the years have offered.
Copyright © 2004 John Engler. All rights reserved.