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The Unifying Feature of Christian Denominationalism

Christian denominationalism is easily dismissed as anything but Christian. True, Christians should be unified, not at each others’ throats. Yet, in a fallen world where sinners abound, denominationalism may be the best way of preventing more significant division within the universal body of Christ.

Denominationalism takes Scripture more seriously, not less seriously. As one grows in his or her knowledge of the word of God, one becomes more conversant with differing interpretations of that word. Various theologies are associated with differing interpretations. Thus, in a task as basic as interpreting the Bible, doctrinal differences with other professing believers begin to surface.

So-called non-denominational or inter-denominational churches and organizations attempt to stave off divisions based in these differences in biblical interpretation and theology. The difficulty is that in doing so, the non-denominational or inter-denominational entities become a denomination of sorts. How we answer questions of interpretation and theology entails a difference of practice related to how we do church and other activities. Non-denominational churches and organizations still support particular views and reject others much like any other denomination.

Every church or organization will come down somewhere on doctrinal distinctives. They will draw their ‘lines’ in different places and on different issues, but draw their lines they will. While we tend to think of this division as a bad thing, it actually serves to protect churches and organizations from doctrinal division. Squabbles and infighting in churches, schools, and denominations are more easily dismissed when clear doctrinal distinctives specific to a denominational affiliation are in place. Of course, this line of reasoning all overlaps with our need to consider confessionalism, but that is a topic for another post.

To put the aforementioned points into practice, consider the Southern Baptist Convention’s stance on pastors. Although the SBC is not, strictly speaking, a denomination, it is a body of cooperating churches with a confessional statement, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, which answers important questions regarding doctrinal distinctives, biblical interpretation, and theology. On the issue of the pastorate, the BFM2000 specifies that the office is limited to men in accord with Scripture. Promoting an egalitarian position on the office of pastor, claiming that women may also serve as pastors, is thus a divisive act.

The SBC confessionally precludes ‘female pastors.’ Certainly, people may disagree with the SBC on that topic. But why would anyone want to push a different position on the issue when plenty of other denominations have space for that egalitarian position? Rather than a group of believers being constantly beset by division over doctrine and interpretation and theology, especially when those differences entail contradictory practices with regard to a particular body, denominationalism allows for real disagreements between believers without them necessarily getting in the way of either catholicity or the work of ministry. Denominationalism allows us to take Scripture seriously and focus on the work of ministry. In that sense, denominationalism unifies.

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