Are church denominations useful?

A recent conference on the future of evangelicalism raised some interesting questions about a longstanding, if sometimes controversial, aspect of the Christian faith: denominationalism. Blogger Trevin Wax liveblogged much of the conference; his recaps are well worth reading to get a sense of how the question of denominations is being approached by the church today.

At the core of the issue of denominationalism is a simple question: is it a good or bad thing that the Christian church is split into so many different denoninations? Answering that question requires addressing many other issues as well, such as how a denomination might help or hinder individual churches’ ministries, and how members of different denominations should (or should not) work with each other.

Responding to the discussion raised by the conference, this post at Blogotional puts forth an interesting reason that denominations can be useful: they bring balance to individual churches’ tendency to “over-specialize” in just one area of ministry.

…congregations, regardless of size, tend to only take on part of the total ministry that God intends for the church. They tend to “specialize.” Evangelical churches in general tend to specialize in, unsurprisingly, evangelism. And while necessary, that’s not church, that’s para-church. There is something a bit wrong when something that chooses to call itself a church is acting more like Young Life than anything else.

Narrow definitions and limited experiences do not stretch us into the people that Jesus came to make us into. Even though we are all called at different points to different specialties (gifts, ministries, vocations – insert your word here) in the church, God has also called us to be first His in ALL aspects of life. We need to experience others who are specialists in aspects that we have, but may not concentrate on. We need their perspective, and we need to learn form them.

Is your church part of a denomination, and if so, has that association been a help or a hindrance to its ministry? Do you see a tendency to over-specialize in individual churches, and does a connection to many other churches under a denominational umbrella help to keep that in check?

Share your thoughts!

16 Responses to “Are church denominations useful?”

  • Excellent article! I have maintained for a very long time that denominations equate to traditions. When a tradition and its accompanying practices become MORE important to the following than basic bible doctrines, that denomination becomes a constraint rather than a blessing. I especially adhere to the point that specializing in a single or few practices derived from Scripture may rob the following of a full teaching of the Christian life as set before us by the ONE EXAMPLE: Jesus the Christ and in some cases encourage an attitude of eliteness. Another thing that emerges in some “specialized” practices is a forced or choreographed response which only tends to serve man and allows for personal pride.

    There are positives as well to traditions. The most glaring is that it provides a certain structure and comfort for a following and certainly order. I simply believe that we need to be open to guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit, without any sense of trepidation when something occurs that falls out of the realm of “tradition” as long as there is NO conflict with basic bible doctrine. I am well aware that various denominations iterpret the doctrines differently and therein lies the draw to followers that seek a personal comfort zone in which to worship.

  • Sheltie says:

    This is a very good article. I think that the country a church is situated in, as well as its denomination can make a huge difference. I became very uneasy, and unhappy with the denomination I was brought up in. It was very insular and tradition bound. To the extent that denominational doctrines took precedence over the teachings of God and Jesus. I tried other denominations in that country, and found them all to be much the same. Some of the traditions were different, but the insular, inward focus was more or less the same. So much so I turned away away from God completely.

    Years later when He did bring me back to Him, I tried again to find a church to attend. But there were none I did not feel uneasy in. In the years since I left, they had gone further down the road of church before bible.

    I then went to visit friends in another country. They took me to their church. The difference was amazing. This church puts Jesus and the bible first. They actively follow His teachings, both within the church family, and out in their community, as well as in wider mission work. It is alive, growing and very much part of the community. The denomination they belong to does have its traditions but these give structure and a sense of belonging. Other denominations there have (in differing degrees) the same outward looking attitude and also take great joy out of serving our Lord.

  • jon says:

    it is a difficult question.
    denominations give identity, it can also segregate.
    the question really comes down to a determination of why you call yourself a baptist or catholic or luthern, etc.
    we are all christians – as long the dogma is correct, the liturgy and opinion is not real important

  • Jess says:

    That is a really interesting question. Where I currently live, there is a strong separation of Catholic and Protestant denominations. Yet, are the “Christians” in the Protestant denominations more Christ like? Not necessarily. There are many opportunities which I feel we miss out on because of those separations. Yet, other separations are due to disagreements in Bible and tradition interpretation. Perhaps the denominations are more due to our sin conditions.

    There is an old adage, if I stand in a garage and declare I’m a car, does that mean I’m a car? If I stand in a church and declare I’m a Christian, does that mean I’m really a Christian?

    • Morris Saffold Jones says:

      You have an interesting point. However, the terms ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ are Catholic-centric terms. These two terms assume that there is someone protesting the catholic church. The bigger question is, “Do you have a personal relationship with the Messiah?” This is why I think that your second paragraph is such a good one.

  • In my experience, the tricky thing about denominations is the same as political parties: if you don’t toe the party line you’re at great risk. There leaves little room for growth into new developments of theology and understanding. If one is merely a member of a church, he may feel that his larger denomination overlooks local needs. If you are on paid staff, you may find your career and financial support disappearing if you are convinced by conscience and study that the dogmatism of your particular denomination isn’t accurate. And this silences many preachers because it’s better to keep quiet than to not put food on the table.

    Something often overlooked is the more nebulous question of what it means for Jesus to be the “head” of the church and for the Holy Spirit to bring unity. Seems, in practice, we sidestep these two and impose hierarchy to “replicate” the work God promised to do among local assemblies.

    That’s not to say denominations are “bad” per se. They’ve done many great things. And when they go well, they have more strength, resources, and voices than mere local assemblies. But when they go bad, they can be devastating, silencing strength, resources, and voices of local assemblies.

  • Ijeoma says:

    I think church denominations may be beautiful if we d members remember we are all part of Christ’s body, there’s no division. As all does better when they specialise, so we should be sure of our place in His body & show His love to one another as He taught us.

  • Morris Saffold Jones says:

    I also believe that denominationalism is a bad thing. When you look at the New Testament, there is no justification for such a thing. In fact, the way church is practised in America could be described as ‘a waste of time.’ The first century church got together and actually fellowshiped. Coming together today (for church) is a joke in that people drive to a massive building, drop 10% of their income in a bucket, listen to someone espouse their opinion for 45 minutes (without ANY dialogue – which means that many people have not engaged), then scrambel through a throng of people to pick up their kids and go home to the same lives that they left 3 hours prior.

    in the first century, the ekklesia or the assembly was small, local, and lacked the destructive culture that we have today. they actually sat around a perimeter and debated the scriptures. Imagine that! thinking about the scriptures in front of other believers. Do we believe the bible or do we believe in structure?

  • Julie says:

    Two of my most rewarding experiences were spent at international churches in Greece and China. In both locations, the Protestant congregation was a mix of cultures and denominational backgrounds. Each Sunday different groups rotated in leading the music and preaching. We had some who led in solemn organ-accompanied hymns, while others, such as the Africans, brought their bongos and danced to lively songs. Our preachers were equally diverse. The refreshing aspect was that even if we didn’t always relate or agree on theological points, we were one family, and because there were no other (or few other) choices, we stuck together and took care of one another. I often thought my experience was a taste of the diversity and unity we would one day experience in heaven. When I returned to the US, I was struck by how many of my friends were still “shopping” for a church, looking for the right one (perhaps this is less a result of existence of denominations but of a consumerism culture in my generation). I love that in the US we have the freedom to choose a church and denomination that suits us, but we also have to be weary that our range of choices doesn’t paralyze us, hinder us from maturing, and bar us from reaching outside our comfort zone.

  • Lois Thompson says:

    Good morning: Just a short word on denominationalizm. Denomination does not mean that every church in that denomination teaches or preaches the full gospel of Jesus Christ. There are still churches within the denomination who have an evangelistic, charismatic emphasis and it is unwarranted to think that a non denominational church with an evangelistic emphasis, neglects and are not balanced in the other areas. What I am saying it is not the denomintion or lack of one that makes any local church more balanced. It is found in the leaderships reliance of the Spirit of the Living God, The Word of God knowing that there is still only one Lord, One Baptism and certainly one Body. We need all of us in our denominations and those who pride themselves in their non denominationalizm to realize this fact of the Universal Body of Christ and stop hindering our communities, nations and others from seeing this Body in action.

  • Ira Kirkpatrick says:

    Thanks for this subject. Denomination is not in the Holy Bible and is like a two edged sword. It brings people together and separates them as well. There were seven churches of Asia because of different cities and all were followers of Jesus Christ and that is what we need more than denominations. We do not need to be traditionalist to the determent of the spirit of the lord and its function in us. When we get to heaven there will not be Baptist, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Pentecostal or any other. I have seen all my life the divisions of denomination cause more problems than it solved in my opinion.
    We must read and study the Bible for what it states and not what we want it to say.
    I am Christian first and when asked what religion I am, I say I am a Christian and follower of Christ. Blessed is the Lord Jesus Christ who did for our sins and God so loved the world that he did not send a committee, or denomination, but did send one God/Person Jesus. Thank God. Amen

  • Colin Hartman says:

    I have read all of the above contributions to the topic of denominations and their part in the lives of christians..
    There are some principles and spiritual gifts which make it impossible to regard denominations as more important than the Church we become part of once we have accepted the sacrifice of Jesus for ourselves , that is His Church. The Gift of Love which is the greatest gift of all, does not allow us to follow doctrines that do not conform to his gift of love.We will of necessity become part of a denomination but it is not to this “body” that we will have a lifelong commitment.
    God Bless you.

  • Colin Hartman says:

    My apologies for an additional comment to my contribution sent a minute ago. The crux of my view is as follows: Gods gift of love (See Johns gospel) if received will make it impossible to regard the denominationalism we experience in our contact with our fellow members as something more importsant or as substitutionary for the Church of which we are part.
    God bless you all.

  • Mitch says:

    Simple answer:

    We are to emulate Christ in all things, understanding that HE, and He alone, was of GOD’s own heart. What denomination was JESUS? I can’t possibly reason that HIS ministry was wrapped up in man-made ideologies.

    When asked what denomination I am, my reply is simply: Follower of Christ, Child of GOD.

  • John R. says:

    I have searched the scripture for answers on things pertaining to this life and the next for 23 years and never have I run across a passage of scripture that supports the separation of the church. When I look at denominational lines, I see the same problem that existed in the Nation of Germany for years, a wall of seperation. Just like the Berlin wall divided one nation into two for so many years, denominational lines divide the church into many different bodies. If you look closely at the way Jesus structured the church during his tenure on earth, you will see that he never supported denominations. Why? Simple, because one head cannot have several bodies. We are all supposed to be members of the same body, with different gifts given to us by the same spirit. We are not supposed to be followers of the same head and members of different bodies. Denominations do more to hinder the work of the church than to help it because they create borders between various groups of Christians which should not exist. If we learn that our denominations do not define who we are, but what we are good at and begin to unify as one body the way Jesus intended for us to be from the beginning, then the gospel can reach the farthest corners of the globe and bring our time of suffering to an end a lot sooner. As long as we operate as seperate entities there will always be an air of confusion which will hinder the spread of the gospel and make the work of the enemy much easier for him. It is time for us as Christians to celebrate our differences and come together as one united front to take this world for the Lord. We must remember that no one group is gifted in all areas and that means that the strength we experience in our seperate groups can be greatly magnified if we learn to work together as the family we all claim to be a part of. May God bless this submission and it’s readers with a greater understanding of his plans and purposes for his people. Submitted in the name of the master, Jesus Christ, Amen.

  • Sam Adams says:

    Jesus says in John 17:20-21:
    “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.”

    Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:10-15
    Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
    I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name.

    Nuff said. Time to submit to Christ and obey.