Beginning a discussion about denominations
For most of us, there’s a point in our lives when we begin to search for our own identity. This critical time helps us articulate who we are and what defines us, whether it’s the clothes we wear, the music we enjoy, or the people we call friends.
The process of becoming self-aware includes an exploration of our roots. We want to know where we come from, who and what has had an influence on our lives, how all of that affects us today, and how we forsake or carry our heritage into the future.
As I ponder the idea of denominations, it’s not so different from thinking about one’s larger family, whether family of origin, or family of adoption. We’re but a smaller part of a bigger picture. Denominations have something to do with identity.
Ultimately, as part of the universal church of Jesus Christ, we’ve all descended from the early church found in the book of Acts. No matter what stream of Christian tradition we come from, this is our common confession despite diverse histories. Our common ancestry is rooted in the biblical account. All intentional followers of Christ are brothers and sisters, no matter what denomination they’re part of.
My own story
But, in order to fully grasp our identity, each of us also needs to belong to a particular branch of that larger Christian family. Although I’m Chinese-Canadian, I chose to become a Mennonite Brethren when I accepted the Confession of Faith and took it as my own. I’ve adopted the Mennonites as my faith family. As part of grafting myself into the Canadian branch of this evangelical Anabaptist clan, I’ve learned to love borscht, pereschtje, plautz, and roll kuchen (with watermelon, of course!), but as thousands of our Mennonite brothers and sisters in Congo and India know, those foods have nothing to do with being MB.
I grew up Christian and Missionary Alliance in Calgary, Alberta. My mom was raised Catholic, my father was raised Anglican. They decided not to argue about their faith backgrounds and to raise their children in a church where they could celebrate faith in Christ Jesus.
I love the Mennonite Brethren, and I celebrate the Confession of Faith that describes our understanding of the Christian faith. As a member of a peace church, I appreciate our distinctive qualities, not because they describe me – but because they describe who I want to be. I feel that an Anabaptist articulation of faith most accurately describes my own understanding of the Bible and how one should live out their faith on a day-to-day basis. The MB denomination gives me a solid and definable identity.
Are denominations important?
In an age of relativism, consumerism, and individualism, it isn’t difficult to imagine why denominations are losing their once vaunted status. Denominations are organizations representing longstanding institutions and structures – of which contemporary culture is wary.
As a largely urbanized culture, our sense of community seems to no longer be determined by geography, place of origin, or history. Rather, it is guided by consumer choices, convenience, and personal preference. That’s why online communities flourish at the expense of live, flesh-and-blood relationships. We can compartmentalize the former, but the latter seems messy, involved, and requires more investment than we’re willing to give.
And yet our culture is experiencing more alienation than ever before.
I derive a sense of belonging, even security, from knowing I am part of something bigger than myself. Denominations help address this need for drawing not only individuals, but also churches together into membership in a larger body. They contribute to a sense of community.
Denominations are important for celebrating and preserving rich histories, and are living legacies to past and present traditions. We are God’s story. Denominations work for the greater good in both practical and spiritual ways.
Practically, denominations are important because they draw together resources from a collection of like-minded churches that have trouble accomplishing their mission and vision alone. Churches within the same denomination can serve one another through encouragement, fellowship, and exhortation – not so different from one’s own broader family! Expressions of such support take the form of ministries such as local and international missions; colleges and seminaries; camp and conference grounds; publishers of magazines, books, and Sunday school curricula. These ministries are part of the possibilities when one has access to denominational resources.
The existence of a varied number of denominations all over the world is a testament to the many different people groups and nations that Christ has redeemed. Each denomination, as part of the mosaic of the universal church of Christ, reflects God’s creativity. Each denomination is known for something. They have distinctives regarding history, theology, and how they live out their understanding of faith. Yet, God is faithful in redeeming the Church despite nasty schisms and splits due to differences of belief, or departures on the basis of more carnal reasons.
As evangelical Anabaptists, it’s easy for MBs to lose our distinctiveness when lumped into the larger group of evangelicals. As part of a peace church movement, Mennonites have something unique to offer the wider Christian community with respect to our understanding of nonviolence and peacemaking. In a world where consumerism, pluralism, economics, politics, and military force dominate, the church needs our perspective in order to remember the nonviolence of Jesus.
Denominations vs. denominationalism
But when the discussion goes from “denominations” to “denominationalism” we need to tread carefully. Denominationalism can take on an air of militant sectarianism. It can lead us to talk about denominations in an exclusive sense, and can cause us to compare and contrast sister denominations in a negative, judgmental way.
I like how Presbyterian theologian Frederick Buechner puts it. “There’s no reason why everyone should be Christian in the same way and every reason to leave room for differences, but if all the competing factions of Christendom were to give as much of themselves to the high calling and holy hope that unite them as they do now to the relative inconsequentialities that divide them, the church would look more like the Kingdom of God for a change and less like an ungodly mess.” This calls us back to our common Christian ancestry rooted in the Bible.
Sometimes we get too caught up in thinking that church structure is the sole expression of the kingdom of God. In his book, The Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch says that “the kingdom extends to God’s rule everywhere…[the] highly institutional version of Christianity is so deeply embedded in our collective psyche that we have inadvertently put it beyond the pale of prophetic critique. We have so divinized this mode of church through centuries of theologizing about it that we have actually confused it with the kingdom of God.”
When we are so self-absorbed, we can have tunnel vision that causes us to neglect our relationships with sister denominations and our responsibility to be a body that represents Christ to the larger community. An exclusive, unhealthy view of denominations ends up dividing the body of Christ.
Our ultimate purpose
At the end of the day, as intentional followers of Jesus, we are part of the body of Christ, and therefore, family. God has called us to accomplish his purposes while we still have breath and life.
We are called to be his ambassadors through who we are and by our actions. We should be sharing the good news of Christ with people who have never before heard the gospel, rather than trying to attract believers from other churches (and denominations) to our congregations. To be crass, we shouldn’t be competing with one another for “market share.”
Working together is important, and that’s why we have bodies such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada or the World Evangelical Alliance to help us maintain unity, to make a statement in the world about what we as churches believe, and to work in the mission field together.
Where are we going?
As we move into the future, we need to continue learning to serve Jesus together – as individuals, as churches, and as denominations, because as part of the universal body of Jesus Christ, we’re related. For the older generations, the challenge is to live under the umbrella of Christianity and not be too confined by denominational walls. For the younger and upcoming generations, it may mean a quest for remembrance and particular engagement with one denomination rather than with all churches.
At a time of great fluidity within our culture, as lines are blurred or erased completely, commitment to one or a set of particular distinctives is becoming less and less common. Increasingly, people church shop without ever committing themselves to one church or denomination. Denominations are more important and relevant than ever before in grounding faith when we’re bombarded with seemingly unlimited faith and value choices.
How interesting that we’re willing to invest time, energy, resources, and loyalty in certain corporate brands, but when it comes to our faith, we often choose the no-name brand. Think about it: we’re willing to give our loyalty to Coke over Pepsi, to wear Nikes instead of Wal-Mart shoes – why not turn that critical consumer mind to our choice of church and commit to a “brand” (denomination)?
A denomination provides a larger community in which to take part. Not only am I held accountable to my immediate and larger church family, but I, in turn, have the freedom and responsibility to contribute to it. In our search for identity, denominations help locate us in the past and in the future. As a member of a particular denomination, I not only benefit from the weight of history (both the proud moments and the shameful, humbling ones), but also the forward driving force and accountability of a specific set of principles and beliefs.
I’ve been very intentional about my denomination. I don’t subscribe to general labels like right-wing conservative or left-wing liberal Christian; I prefer a Confession of Faith to describe my beliefs. I am Mennonite Brethren by choice, and enjoy being known as such. As an MB, I’ve chosen membership in a denomination whose members seek to be known as people of the Book, passionately following Jesus – and that’s an identity I’ll proudly claim.