Why Do Denominations Exist?

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Years ago, I attended a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) dinner. I was serving as pastor of my first church, and Daniel Vestal led a Q&A session. When my turn at the microphone arrived, I asked, “What should I tell my congregation when they ask the purpose of a new Baptist denomination?”

Vestal replied, “Tell them they are asking the wrong question.”

I still remember the exchange because I would sound condescending if I repeated his answer. It would seem like I was not taking the question seriously. It would feel like I was dismissing someone as if he didn’t know what question to ask. Vestal wanted people to stop using the word ‘denomination’ but lacked the magisterial authority to wave it away by decree.

In those days, congregants asked me that question often. How could I serve, teach, and grow with them if I was as dismissive of their questions as Vestal was of mine? Today, I would not tell an interlocutor that he was asking the wrong question. I would try to answer it.

Paul Tillich writes, “Churches are united because of the unity of their foundation, the New Being which is effective in them… This is true of every particular local denominational and confessional church which is related to the event of the Christ as its foundation” (Systematic Theology, Vol 3, p. 168-69).

All Christians are united in Christ. Even with divisions between individual churches, each body of believers comes from a tradition. It planted the church and trained its ministers. A group of churches within a tradition that forms a cohesive group is a denomination. Even though some denominations call themselves something different, they exist.

If I were having the same conversation with Vestal today, I might quote the poet James Whitcomb Riley. “When I see a bird that walks like a duck and swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, I call that bird a duck.” Denominations exist because people think they exist.

Thus, we can ask, “What is the purpose of a denomination?” People who are united in Christ and by tradition can pool their resources for missionary works. They can put their money together to form seminaries to train future generations of ministers. They find experts to help churches when they need help. They provide training opportunities and encouragement for those who do God’s work at a local level. They can intervene when churches make unhealthy choices and provide assistance during times of transition. They can be a wonderful source of support and camaraderie.

More reasons probably exist. If I were to crowd-source answers to my question, I might find some wonderful reasons to have denominations. Yet, we live in an increasingly fractious world. In the 1960s, the Southern Baptist Convention split over biblical exegesis. Different denominations have divided over different reasons. Issues from the past and present include modernism, literalism, alcohol, pastoral authority, women in leadership roles, LGBTQ+ rights, and more. Finding a litmus test issue makes it easy to decide who is with you and who isn’t.

Denominations do not exist as orthodox clubs. As soon as people coalesce around one issue, another will arrive to sew new seeds of division. Solving theological differences does not mean breaking fellowship. Humanity has the capacity to maintain fellowship even when people do not see eye to eye. Even issues that seem to be essential can be a source of rich dialogue. If we have the divine patience of God’s time, then people who view one another as heretics can maintain fellowship because they have unity in Christ.

It might seem radical, but denominations do not have to divide or fragment. Every split, even the Reformation, was a human choice. During East-West Schism of 1054, the Catholic and Orthodox churches split over theological and political differences, not because God demanded it. They could have stayed together and the world a millennium later would model dialogue and debate instead of split after split after split.

Denominations do not exist for the people who work at the denomination either. Some years ago, a man from a denomination asked to meet with me. We went out to lunch and I asked about his background. He was in his early 60s. It seemed shocking to me when he described his entire career working for different denominational bodies. Maybe he represents a denominational-skillset. I don’t know. It seems like ordained ministers should serve churches or should have experience serving churches.

A man named Terry is one of the best examples of a good denominational leader. He was a vibrant and caring minister. His congregation knew he loved them, and they loved him. He led his church through an exciting period of growth. He serves in a hierarchical denomination, and one of the higher-ups called Terry to a denominational leadership position. He served in the position well and, after his period of service, went to another local church. Later, when a denominational leader called him to serve again, he said, “I’ve served my time with the denomination. God called me to the church.” He continued serving in local churches until he retired.

Denominations are at their best when they exist for their constituent churches. They will never leave so my prayer is for them to be at their best as much of the time as possible. I hope the best for them because that’s the best for the body of Christ. I pray for more dialogue, discussion, and healthy disagreement in the future. It will help all of us grow.

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