Tuesday 11 October 2016

Denominations and Christian Self-Identity

I think it is probably true to say that attachment to denominations is not as strong today as it was some decades ago. It seems to me that fewer Christians think of their identity in terms of belonging to a certain Christian denomination than used to be the case.

Nevertheless, it is still very common to hear Christians using denominational labels to define themselves. You can often hear believers saying that they are Pentecostals, or Baptists, or Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians etc. You can also sometimes hear them saying that they belong, for example, to the “Baptist faith” or the “Reformed faith.”

Christian unity

Of course, there are times when we need to state our views on Christian things, and this can often be done by referring to denominations. Each denomination holds certain beliefs that differ from some other denominations. So sometimes it makes sense for a Christian to say that they side with the views of a certain denomination on an issue or even many issues.

However, many Christians go far beyond this. They actually see their very identity as a member of a denomination.

When believers talk in this way, it shows that they understand little about Christian unity. In the world there are only two fundamental categories of people. On the one hand there are those who have been born again (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:3, 23) and in a sense created again (2 Corinthians 5:17), and who have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; Romans 8:9; Galatians 3:2; Ephesians 1:13; 4:30). And on the other hand there are those who have not been born or created again, and who don’t have the Holy Spirit.

Inwardly these two groups of people are very different. If it were possible to see the souls of each group, the souls of the first might look brilliant white, but those of the second pitch black. Or, the souls of the first group could be compared to a flock of birds, but those of the second to a heap of pieces of dead wood.

All Christians simply by being Christians are extremely alike at a very deep level and extremely unlike non-Christians.

One church

In Ephesians 4:4-6 the apostle Paul stresses the oneness of key aspects of the Christian faith: 
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (English Standard Version) 
Note here the inclusion of “one body,” which refers to the worldwide church. And note too that there is “one faith.” Every true Christian belongs to the one body and believes in the one faith.

Of course, the true worldwide church should not be equated with any visible structure or grouping of visible structures. Much in the world that has the label “Christian” is false or at least very deeply flawed. The true church is first and foremost an invisible entity, known to God alone. But it is a unity.

For Christians to think in terms of denominations, when considering who they are, is in a sense to divide the one body and the one faith up into parts.

Attitudes to denominations

If someone believes that a certain denomination best represents biblical teaching, then it makes sense that they think of themself as a Christian who sides with that denomination’s outlook and ways of doing things. But they should avoid thinking of themself as an actual member of the denomination.

Of course, on paper, we will often have to become a member of a denomination in order to join a local church. However, any membership should be limited to a piece of paper or a computer file. It shouldn’t enter into our understanding of who we actually are.

Besides, I would suggest that anyone who thinks that a certain denomination is fully, or almost fully, in line with the will of God is making a big mistake. I have spent many years studying and pondering Christian views on all sorts of issues, and in my opinion it is naive to think that any denomination has a monopoly on the truth. There are strengths and weaknesses in all of them, although some are admittedly much better than others.

Membership of a local church

As well as being members of the one, worldwide church, every Christian should also be a member of a local church. The Bible knows nothing of Christians going it alone. Instead, it constantly assumes that every believer will be part of a local church where they live.

There are two ways, then, in which church membership is a biblical concept. Every Christian is a member of the worldwide church, and every Christian should be a member of a local church.

But what we shouldn’t be is a member of a denomination, at least as far as our self-identity is concerned.

See also:

Every Christian Should Be a World Christian