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THE IDEA OF CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS

   Denominationalism, as originally designed, is the opposite of sectarianism.  A sect claims the authority of Christ for itself alone.  It believes that it is the true body of Christ; all truth belongs to it and to no other religion.  So by definition a sect is exclusive.

   The word denomination by contrast was an inclusive term.  It implied that the Christian group called or denominated by a particular name was but one member of a larger group – the church – to which all denominations belong.

   The denominational theory of the church, then, insists that the true church cannot be identified with a single ecclesiastical structure.  No denomination claims to represent the whole church of Christ.  Each simply constitutes a different form – in worship and organization – of the larger life of the church.

   The real architects of the denominational theory of the church were the seventeenth-century Independents (Congregationalists) who represented the minority voice at the Westminster Assembly (1642-1649).  The majority at the Assembly held to Presbyterian principles and expressed these convictions classically in the Westminster Confession of Faith and in the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

   The Independents, however, who held to congregational principles, were keenly aware of the dangers of “dividing the godly Protestant party” in England so they looked for some way to express Christian unity even when Christians did no agree.

   These Dissenting Brethren of Westminster articulated the denominational theory of the church in several fundamental truths:
        First, considering man’s inability to always see the truth clearly, differences of opinion about the outward form of the church are inevitable.
        Second, even though these differences do not involve fundamentals of the faith, they are not matters of indifference.  Every Christian is obligated to practice what he believes the Bible teaches.
        Third, since, no church has a final and full grasp of divine truth, the true Church of Christ can never be fully represented by any single ecclesiastical structure.
        Finally, the mere fact of separation does not of itself constitute schism.  It is possible to be divided at many points and still be united in Christ.

   Thus, the denominational theory of the church looked for Christian unity in some inward religious experience – and allowed diversity in the outward expressions of that personal faith.

   This tolerant attitude was not born of doctrinal indifference.  The Independent had no intention of extending Christian unity to all religious professions. The identity of the “one true church” was restricted to those who shared a common understanding of the core of the Christian faith.

   This denominational view of the church found only limited acceptance in England where the Church of England retained a favored position even after the Act of Toleration in 1689 recognized the rights of Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Quakers to worship freely.  In the English colonies of America, however, the denomination theory gained increasing acceptance.  It seemed to be God’s answer for the multiplying faiths in the New World.

   Few advocates of the denominational view of the church in the seventeenth century envisioned the hundreds of Christian groups included under the umbrella today.  They had no intention of reducing the basic beliefs of Christianity to a general feeling of religious sincerity.  But they could not control the future.  They simply knew that the traditional bigotry and bloodshed in the name of Christ was not the way forward.

   In the end, then, the denominational form of the church has marked the recent centuries of Christian history, not because it is ideal, but because it is better than any alternative the years have offered.

  The above is reproduced from pages 306-308: CHURCH HISTORY IN PLAIN LANGUAGE by Bruce L. Shelley, Third Edition: Thomas Nelson Inc., publisher

  Dr. Shelley is a respected scholar whose work is painstakingly researched and carefully crafted for historical accuracy.  Many of today’s issues are not unique.  They have a link with the past.

  This third edition makes church history easy to follow and retain by dividing the Christian story into the great ages of the church.  It achieves its purpose to make church history clear, memorable, and accessible to every reader.   


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