For years I have heard people proclaim the end of denominations – assuredly declaring that “denominations are illegitimate result of schism and division in the church.” (An idea that I’ve heard a lot over the past few days, in response to our recent general Synod.) While I don’t argue that innumerable denominations are the result of unholy division (a skill honed to the level of “art” in the United States particularly), I actually believe denominations are here to stay and that their existence is actually a good thing.
Because Paul’s body theology can (and should) be applied far more broadly than merely to individuals within a local congregation.
Yes, of course, individuals are uniquely skilled, gifted, and resourced to participate in the local church. I’d argue that the concept can be extrapolated upward and outward to recognize a congregation’s place in the community (and the denomination), the denomination’s place in the national church, and the American church’s place in the Church universal.
I believe denominations can be a healthy and effective way of focusing the gifts of particular branches of Christ’s Church. In other words: denominations can (and should) be a way of gathering people together, rather than separating them from one another.
It’s a difficult transition to make since most (although not all) contemporary denominations exist because of “separations” rather than “gatherings.” In other words, in the “great” American tradition: a small group secedes from it’s originator; that group claims orthodoxy while condemning it’s body of origin for having left the “one true faith” (although, ironically, they are the ones leaving); lines are drawn, and eventually both sides anathematize the other as heretics.
In the above (all-too-typical case), we now have two denominations that define themselves over and against the other.
Sadly, that is why we have so many denominations. Those who herald the end of denominationalism (rightly) hope and pray for an end to such behavior. So do I.
My hope is not the end of denominations. My hope is that denominations will begin understanding themselves in a salutary way.
A denomination, at some level, is not the Church. It is merely a part of the Church. The very first sentence of the Reformed Church in America’s Book of Church Order beautifully describes this concept:
The purpose of the Reformed Church in America, together with all other churches of Christ, is to minister to the total life of all people by preaching, teaching, and proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and by all Christian good works.
Notice those gorgeous phrases:
…along with all other churches of Christ…
…to minister to the life of all people…
Here’s my opinion: the RCA has spent too much time (1) trying to clarify who it isn’t (we are not the CRCNA, we are not the OPC, we are not the UCC, we are not the ELCA, etc.), and (2) trying to save itself by growth.
The body metaphor here, remains effective. An organ doesn’t define itself by what it isn’t (i.e. an eyeball has no need to prove it isn’t a big-toe… it just isn’t. There’s no need to clarify that fact for anyone – including itself.) In the same way, a healthy nose doesn’t legitimate its existence by creating new noses or by somehow growing to a bigger nose – it’s place is legitimized by it effectively doing what noses do.
All metaphors break down at some point, I don’t reference this one to suggest that there isn’t a place for founding new congregations (certainly not!) but I would argue that we don’t legitimize our existence or prove our importance by our ability to do so.
We earn our legitimacy by being what we are – what God has made us to be.
What are we? Well, that’s a question the RCA both hasn’t effectively answered and doesn’t seem interested in answering.
We’re too caught up trying to make ourselves a bigger nose (or… whatever other metaphorical body part you’d like to compare us to!)
Historically speaking, I think there’s little question that we have been the part of Christ’s Church (body) that:
…Thinks well (i.e. has a firm commitment to educated clergy, values the education of members, understands her doctrine and theology and because of it, ably embraces theological dissonance)
…Worships wisely, and
…Tends to the well-being of the Church universal through a deep commitment to Global Missions
These are gifts the Church universal needs, now perhaps, more than ever.
They’re gifts no one else has, historically, done as well as we have.
They’re gifts that have formed who we are and arisen out of how we’re formed.
Both we, and the Church (universal) are weakened because we have spent far too much energy either (1) trying to be bigger, or (2) trying to be something we aren’t and not living into them.
My opinion? We don’t need to figure out who we are; we don’t need to make ourselves into something we aren’t; we need to embrace what God has made us to be and live it out to the best of our ability.
The RCA still enjoys some of the benefits of historically offering those gifts to the larger Church (though, I fear, we’ve deserved it less and less). It isn’t too late to regain our footing!
We need it;
the Church needs it.
What more is there to say?
Grace and peace,