Forgive us our denominations

 

I confess that I am amused at the length to which some go in order to argue that their particular grouping or ‘stream’ is not a denomination. In order to do so they invent a definition of ‘denomination’ which does not apply to their association! Of course if a church is actually and in reality independent (though perhaps not isolated; the two states are not identical), then it is not in a denomination. But to ‘denominate’ simply means ‘to give a name to,’ and the word ‘denomination’ means ‘the act of naming; a name or title; a class or group.’ [Chambers Dictionary]. In other words, if a group of churches is known by a distinctive name, in order to distinguish them from other churches, they are a denomination, whether they like it or not.

 

In order to clarify whether a particular association, group of churches or ‘stream’ is a denomination I simply ask these questions: Does the group of churches have a distinctive name? Is there a definite membership? In other words, is it clear which churches belong and which do not? If the answer to these questions is ‘yes’, that is a denomination. Other questions, such as the following, may make that designation even clearer. Is there a common acknowledged doctrinal standard or confession? Are there recognized leaders of that group? If an individual church departs from the doctrinal standards or recognized practices of the group, can they be removed from fellowship or side-lined in some way? There are, of course, different levels of commitment in the various denominations. Some groups, associations or ‘streams’ are more loosely affiliated, while others are more closely related.

 

In the early stages, denominations often form around one particular leader. John Wesley and William Booth are typical examples from the past, though modern examples could be supplied. This leadership may be authoritarian, or quite benign. In either case the grouping is often identified by association with the man. Sometimes, when the leader passes from the scene, the group dissolves. In other cases the organization has a structure and is carried forward by its own momentum. Again, modern examples could be mentioned.

 

With regard to joining a church, or coming into membership of a church, there is no perfect church. Even churches with a sound doctrinal basis are composed of sinners saved by grace but still far from perfect. However, most sincere and biblically taught Christians will want to belong to a church which, in their judgment, most closely adheres to biblical teaching and practice. The state of things in the UK is such that it may be hard to find a biblical church in one’s area. But if we are honest in our endeavour to obey all that the Holy Spirit enjoins in the New Testament, then we must not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some (Heb. 10:25).

 

Years ago I came to see that every local church is like a tree in God’s forest. Every tree in a forest is different, and every church is different. Men sometimes plant trees of one kind, say pine trees, in rows to form a plantation. That is like a denomination. But even in a plantation, every tree is unique.

 

More recently I have come to use the illustration of every church being like a family. When you visit a family you do not normally criticize their décor, their choice of music, or their diet, etc. But if we are invited to join that family then we look carefully at these things before committing ourselves. We need to know that the diet is healthy and whether we can accept, or just tolerate, other things which may not be to our liking.

 

Denominations are a matter of convenience and are almost inevitable, at least, associations are. Any attempt to bring all denominations together must of necessity result in compromise of doctrine or practice or both. One day all our denominations and associations will be dissolved and all the elect will be gathered for the marriage supper of the Lamb. Our doctrinal errors will be corrected, our mistaken practices forgotten, and we shall all worship the glorious One who redeemed us and be together with Father, Son and Holy Spirit for evermore.

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