We hear increasingly that we’re entering a post-denominational world.

Recently LifeWay researcher Ed Stetzer wrote an interesting post on the value of denominations. Known for his theologically-informed insight as well as research analysis, Stetzer offers some interesting statistics and evaluation on this question. (See Do Denominations Matter? by Ed Stetzer)

From my perspective, though, an important emphasis is missing from Stetzer’s argument. He affirms denominations primarily as a way of pooling our resources for a common vision. Denominations gather people who have similar convictions to work together toward common goals. True enough. However, what then distinguishes denominations from for-profit corporations, for example?

Scripture’s focus is on what God is doing rather than on what we are doing. The Triune God is saving sinners through preaching and sacrament. There is “one holy catholic and apostolic church” not because individual believers realized that they could more effectively reach the world and accomplish their goals in tandem. Rather, this church exists because of the Father’s eternal election of a people, the Son’s mediation and saving work for them, and the Spirit’s work of uniting them to Christ through the gospel. We are recipients of a kingdom; the Father is the builder, by his Son and Spirit, through the Word.

Therefore, there really is one church—catholic, spread throughout the world yet united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism—even though its visible shape right now seems to speak against it. Same thing with the holiness of the church: holy in Christ, it is nevertheless “simultaneously justified and sinful.”

Even the apostolic church was rife with sectarianism, strife, and false teaching. Eventually, the equality of pastors gave way to bishops and the bishop of Rome raised himself above all other bishops. The church of Rome unilaterally amended the Nicene Creed and excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople for not bowing the knee to his office. Then Rome excommunicated the Reformers in the sixteenth century, and divisions among the Reformers themselves appeared. Today, Protestantism is an incubator of new denominations and sects, while deep divisions within Rome are overcome merely by the single dogma of obedience to the pope.

There’s no going back to a pristine era in which the apostles, ministers, and elders of the first century led a reasonably united church. However, I would argue that denominations matter because Christ said he would build his church, not just churches. One local congregation cannot be the whole church, although it is an expression of the whole church insofar as it shares in the true ministry of the whole church. I understand the New Testament to teach a covenantal order of church government, where local churches are connected to each other in narrower and wider assemblies. This, I believe, is the Lord’s express will for his visible church.

In a fallen world—and church—denominations come and go. They cannot presume to be “the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” but they can at least be fragile expressions of that covenantal koinonia that Christ wills between people in local congregations and between local congregations.

Whatever we think about denominations, the crucial question is not pragmatic: What do they help us do. Rather, it is theological: What is God doing in the world through them? And how can denominations, for all of their faults, express more fully the unity and catholicity of Christ’s body than independent churches? Once that question is addressed, the pooling of resources becomes a natural by-product rather than the reason itself.

May.June 2003 MR

The May/June 2003 issue of Modern Reformation contains helpful resources concerning denominations.

In the Church: Finding Common Ground Across Denominations
By Ann Henderson Hart

Historical Chart of Denominations
(30kB PDF)

From the Sept/Oct 2005 issue, W. Robert Godfrey has
A Reformed Dream