I did not grow up in a Reformed denomination, nor did I come to faith or begin my path to ministry in one. Much of my early experience in faith and ministry was in what one of my college professors called “Baptistic” traditions; that is, Baptist churches, congregationally-driven churches like the Evangelical Free Church, or non-denominational churches. I remember having conversations with my college roommate questioning if there should be denominations and what value they have. As I prepared for ministry, however, I was drawn into a Reformed denomination and ordained into one. The pull was not only the beliefs of the church, but also the structure found in a denomination. My place within a denomination therefore, was by choice and not by default.
While many people question the importance or relevance of denominations for today’s church, I see value in being part of a denomination. Of course, denominations are not perfect places – they are filled with sinners who are being sanctified by God’s grace – but they serve a purpose. I will not seek to be exhaustive of their purpose or value in this post, but I want to draw attention to the way denominations can root us in the past and provide accountability and clarity in the present as we move forward in mission.
Rooted in the Past
All Christians stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. Being denominational reminds me that I am not the first Christian, nor my church the first church; we are moving forward in ministry by building on those who have gone before us and who continue to influence and impact us today.
When I was in the non-denominational fold, it seemed like every church and pastor had to write their own statement of faith. This seemed a bit daunting to me as an individual and also a bit unnecessary – wouldn’t it make sense to build upon the best of what came before me? What I appreciate about the Reformed tradition is that it makes a connection to those who have come before me explicit by utilizing the creeds and confessions of the church. In the denomination that ordained me, rather than writing my own statement of faith, I had to express agreement with the denomination’s confession and catechisms and note any places where I might differ and why (as the ultimate authority is the Bible, which confessions made by fallible humans seek to explain). Therefore, I had to study the history, the confessions, and the Bible.
In fact, an advantage to being part of a denomination is it notes that there are particular roots to the group to which I belong. It identifies our family of origin, noting both good and bad things. We celebrate the good, and we seek to learn from the bad, seeing problematic tendencies that we need to be aware of and address as we move forward. Embracing our past does not discourage engagement and conversations with others, but allows us to better understand ourselves and others. We live in a time and culture which emphasizes that we all have perspectives and backgrounds that influence how we view the world as we seek to engage others. Therefore, it would seem that our post-modern context should encourage rather than discourage connections to denominations.
Accountability and Clarity in the Present
When I teach our church’s membership classes, I describe church membership as a person declaring that they are going to follow Jesus and asking for the help of others (the church) as they seek to follow Jesus. We need each other as Christians, which is why church membership is important. I then pivot to say the same thing is true of churches: we need the help of other churches in order to make sure we stay faithful in our pursuit of Jesus, which is why we are in a denomination. We hope that other churches will help us as we also help them. This helping relationship between individuals and churches could be done informally, but when we make vows, the commitment is strengthened and clarifies what is expected of both parties. Therefore, in my mind, part of the beauty of denominations is that individuals and communities acknowledge agreement on certain things and vow to remain faithful to these beliefs and commitments; in addition, they expect to be called out if they deviate from this commitment.
This principle requires both honesty and humility. It requires honesty in that we must admit when we are stepping outside of the bounds that we agreed to. Humility is essential to allow others to point out places where we might be drifting from our commitment. There is also a need to be honest and humble when we look at others – is there a disagreement on the core levels of our shared commitment (striking at the vitals of our covenant), or is it more tied to a difference of opinion or semantics (wording)? If honesty and humility are lost, it would seem that the foundations for unity are gone, with distrust and division likely getting in the way of mission. When this happens, personal agendas or peripheral issues will become more important than mission or shared commitments.
Possibilities for the Future
While some might say there is no future for denominations, I believe there is when we recognize the importance of how they connect us to Christians in the past and link us with Christians in the present. Denominations must not exist for themselves but for the sake of Christ’s mission to the church; they are helpful in the mission of today’s church when we appreciate and recognize (and also critique) our past and stay faithful to the vows we make in the present. There may need to be changes in structures, forms, or functions for denominations, but I still believe there is not only a place for them, but an advantage as we seek to bring the gospel to the world.