The Case for Denominations
By J. Matthew Pinson
A few years ago, friend and former student Jacob Riggs asked me to participate in a panel discussion regarding denominational identity. He sent me a list of possible questions, to which I formulated some “rough” answers (most of which I never introduced into the discussion). Below are his questions and my responses.
Some younger Christians have trouble understanding why local church membership is important, much less denominational involvement. Why is it important to be a part of a denomination?
Historically, Free Will Baptists have viewed conferences, associations, and general assemblies as God’s way of bringing churches together for the protection of sound doctrine, mutual accountability, the ordination of church officers, and the joint support of missions and Christian education. Even though such general assemblies on the state and national level do not ordain ministers, they are important for maintaining the other aims I just mentioned.
The bottom line is a concept I call confessional community. We confess what we believe to be biblical faith and practice—apostolic faith and practice—and we constitute churches and ordain ministers to confess apostolic faith and practice. What is the natural response if we think Scripture teaches churches to covenant together for the protection of sound doctrine, mutual accountability, and the joint support of missions and Christian educational institutions that also confess apostolic faith and practice? It is to have confessional solidarity with those of apostolic faith and practice throughout our nation and the world.
One concern about denominations is that they can appear to be divisive among the universal Church. Is this true? Why or why not?
It’s helpful to keep in mind confessional or theological commitments rather than division. This is a positive designation rather than a negative one. Natural divisions occur when people disagree about significant matters. That doesn’t mean they have to be divisive or uncharitable in the negative sense.
I have some very good Calvinist and paedobaptist (those who practice infant baptism) friends. Let’s say I start a church, and a conservative Presbyterian friend joins the church. One Sunday, I preach a sermon from Hebrews 6:4-6, and his 11-year-old son gets confused, saying the sermon contradicts what his father taught him clearly a few weeks earlier—that true believers can never lose their salvation. Several months later, my friend’s wife gives birth to their new baby daughter. They come to me and request baptism for the infant. I gently deny it, lovingly and respectfully saying, “The Bible teaches that only believers should be baptized.”
Now, if I really believe the Bible teaches the possibility of apostasy and believer’s baptism, and my friend really believes in eternal security and infant baptism, we have a real, practical problem on our hands. It’s not just a theoretical, pie-in-the-sky problem like making the timing of the Great Tribulation a test of fellowship.
We’re talking about actual, practical problems where we simply can’t go forward because my friend believes the Bible demands that he have his covenant child baptized and feels compelled by Holy Scripture to go forward with baptism, while I believe the Bible prohibits the baptism of infants. What are our options? We have to part ways amicably. This is all denominationalism really is.
It’s ironic that most non-denominational people today don’t sprinkle infants if it’s requested either. Most take a clear position on whether or not one can lose his salvation. This is just to use two examples. Most non-denominational churches are really baptistic, once-saved-always-saved churches, and though many pretend to be “playing it cool” regarding these divisive issues, they
What about the Willow Creek Association? Presumably, high church Episcopalians will not be comfortable in the Willow Creek Association. Does that mean the Willow Creek Association, non-denominational as it is, is divisive? Of course not! My point is that every group of believers, no matter how denominational or non-denominational they claim to be, have specific beliefs and practices that make it impossible for others to be a part of them and to raise their families in that church group.
In a sense, if being different from others is divisive, then everybody is divisive. Even so-called “interdenominational” churches, in the end, can’t work. They have a shallow view of denominational differences. You can’t have a church that is Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox, high church-low church, liturgical-non-liturgical, tongues-speaking-non-tongues speaking, baptistic-paedobaptistic, etc.
The only way to pull this off is arbitrarily to agree certain things are “off-limits” for discussion, things like whether or not you can lose your salvation, whether you should have your infant baptized, whether you should have archbishops, whether your worship should be liturgical, whether major decisions are made by an elder board or the congregation. These are all things the Bible doesn’t cover—out of bounds for discussion.
If you can get enough people who all happen to believe that these sorts of things are not covered in the New Testament, then I guess denominations or confessional groups would not be necessary. But, in the end, I think serious, theologically grounded people of all persuasions are going to find non-denominationalism impossible.
Are there any potential dangers in being a part of a denomination? If so, what are they, and how can we avoid these?
There are no potential dangers to being part of a certain confessional community per se, of being a part of a church that confesses apostolic faith and practice per se. The potential danger is being human, contentious, and uncharitable—not recognizing that the universal Church is made up of people who may be in error on certain key points that don’t compromise orthodoxy. But this isn’t a danger inherent in being a part of a denomination.
I’ve known non-denominational church members just as contentious on questions of end-times eschatology, Bible translations, or elder rule who would never dream of becoming part of a denomination. Sometimes, they are much more contentious and uncharitable toward the wider church than my denominational colleagues.
What would be a situation when you would see it as appropriate to leave our denomination?
It would be appropriate for an individual to leave our denomination if it began to deny an article of faith and practice historically considered biblically binding (Arminian theology, the ordinances, self-government of churches, interdependence of churches, Christian moral teaching, etc.).
For various reasons, some younger leaders leave our movement to minister with other groups. What can our movement do to encourage those on the fringes to stay?
I think the best way to keep people loyal to confessional commitments is to get them to fall in love with biblical exegesis, systematic theology, and the Christian tradition. No question that the young people in our movement most saturated in serious Bible exegesis, theology, and a love for the saints and martyrs of the Christian past have no desire to leave our denomination. And the very few of this type of young people who do end up leaving for other serious theological groups do so because of a genuine change in doctrinal convictions.
We have a great heritage, but we also have some examples of division. How can we recover from times of division and maintain unity and identity?
I once wrote an article on Free Will Baptist controversies for the Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States. It gave me an opportunity to give serious thought to this issue of controversies, splits, and divisions among Free Will Baptists. What I concluded after my research was that almost every split and controversy in Free Will Baptist history has come about when we were not satisfied to be Free Will Baptists but wanted to be someone else. We imported faith and practice from other denominational or non-denominational groups because we were embarrassed by our own commitments as Free Will Baptists.
If we had the self-confidence and courage to stand by our principles and be confident in our scripturally grounded identity, without an inferiority complex about who we are, it is unlikely we would have experienced these divisions and splits.
About the Writer: Matthew J. Pinson is president of Welch College. Learn more about the college: www.Welch.edu or visit his blog: http://welch.edu/matthew-pinson-blog/