Denominationalism – The Disease

Denominationalism – The Disease

Consider these situations:

  • A Sunday School class for young adults is growing by leaps and bounds. Many young men and women who are not members of the church are showing up just for the class. The church leadership shuts the class down because it is not using denominationally approved curriculum.
  • A speaker who is not a member of the same denomination is invited by a pastor. The guest has an extensive publication record, which the pastor has read. He has spoken to other groups of the same denomination, and even taught pastoral continuing education programs. Leaders in the church make such a fuss that the speaker cannot be allowed to speak at the church because of the divisiveness. (None of the objectors have read any of the speaker’s books, nor have they ever heard him speak.)
  • A leader claims that only denominational material can be used, because if it’s in print, the members will believe it, and so the leadership must make sure that nothing “wrong” appears before the members in print.

I’m guessing that most of my more liberal readership is imagining that these are stories that come from my conservative upbringing. If that is what you assume, then you’re wrong. Now I could match those stories with ones about attitudes from my upbringing as a Seventh-day Adventist, a group that surely is infected with denominationalism, but I actually took those stories from my experience in United Methodist churches.

It’s interesting to note that my experiences as a Seventh-day Adventist and those as a Methodist are not all that different. There is a difference of degree, there is some difference in the specific theological issues, but the attitudes are so similar that I can tell stories of what I experienced in Adventist churches to Methodist congregations without specifying the denomination, and they ring true, and similarly I can discuss Methodist experiences with my Adventist family and friends and they have no problem relating.

I find it tremendously humorous in Methodist circles that the same people who criticize the denomination and the agencies in Nashville bitterly, will also act as though having “Abingdon” or “Cokesbury” on the cover of their book somehow makes it “safe.” One wonders if they have really considered that issue logically.

This is one symptom of the disease–and I do think it is a disease–of denominationalism. By denominationalism I mean a view that suggests that one’s own denomination is really the true Christianity, that books written by folks in other denominations are dangerous simply because they aren’t from the same denomination, or even that people in one’s own denomination are somehow closer to God, simply by virtue of being a member of that denomination.

I do not mean here loyalty to one’s organization. As a member of a United Methodist congregation I am obligated to support my church and to do things that build it up. I believe that denominationalism is actually destructive of my church congregation. I also don’t mean here that all selection of curriculum materials is bad, but rather that selection based simply on the “it wasn’t made here” criterion is dangerous and fear based.

This type of denominationalism results in fear-based decisions. It tends to isolate people from other members of the body of Christ who worship across the street or down the road. It tends toward theological inbreeding. It produces sheep in all of the negative senses, and none of the positive ones.

There are a number of positive things about denominational churches:

  1. Accountability to some higher authority. Completely independent churches can have accountability problems and are even more subject to inbreeding of ideas than are denominational churches. But note that the variation by congregations is pretty wide. I’ve encountered very open independent churches and denominational churches that were closed to other congregations in their same denomination.
  2. Stronger connections to other Christian churches. Within the denomination this is obvious, but it is also possible that the denomination, through programs of outreach and cooperation with other groups, can help the local church be more connected.
  3. “Brand” identification. When I’m visiting a town and looking for a place to eat, if I have no local recommendations, I’m likely to go for a chain restaurant, simply because I know where I’m going. For some people, being able to identify the general focus of a local congregation through the denominational label can be helpful.

There are certainly more points that can be made. Take the inverse for independent churches. Remember, of course, that all generalizations, including this one, are wrong! If you are looking for a congregation in which to worship and serve, you may need to look for the symptoms of denominationalism even in the smallest independent congregation.

My suggestion? While being loyal to any organization to which you have offered your loyalty, work actively to build connections and understanding. Understanding your neighbor does not mean necessarily agreeing with your neighbor. If you think church members believe everything that’s in print, instead of trying to limit what they see, try to educate them to realize that this is not so. I actually believe you’ll find that church members aren’t as stupid as you think.

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