This post is going to take a bit of a shotgun approach to something that has been on my mind for quite some time, but was recently shifted to the proverbial front-burner by someone who has become a semi-regular visitor to the church here.
What’s in a name? It’s a simple enough question, or is it? More specifically – what is with denominations and church names? You can drive down the primary streets in most towns here in Arkansas and see a plethora of “churches”. Indeed, some towns might be jokingly labeled as little “Christopias” with all the various building with church names attached. What do they all mean? What’s with the “Heinz 57 flavors” of “churches”? Why?
I have no intentions of rehashing nearly 2000 years of church history in a single blog post. But the visitor I mentioned above really caused me to go back in my mind and rehash my own thoughts on the issue. I suppose I have a slightly different perspective than some on the concept of denominationalism than some of my own faith in that I have been connected to more than one denomination in my lifetime. I was brought up in the Episcopal Church. Today, I proudly stand as a Missionary Baptist (BMA). But what’s with denominations?
I want to begin by clearly stating – I do not believe God is glorified by there being literally thousands of “denominations” all claiming to be “right”. No – I am in no way calling for a new Ecumenical movement. I believe there are solid grounds for NOT just associating with any institution or organization claiming to be a “church” – and indeed, I am convinced that God’s Word clearly says to not associate with those who teach “another Gospel” – which brings up the foundational issue of denominationalism.
When Jesus instituted the “Church” (I use a capital letter as a proper noun because I believe Jesus instituted a single institution. Jesus gave His life for THE Church (ἐκκλησία ekklesia). As the Church grew and expanded, scripture then (particularly in the form of letters to them) local churches were treated as autonomous bodies, being the local, physical, and visible church, as most Baptist view it today: A “church” is the local, called-out, body of believers ( again, ekklesia). One can tread on very thin ice when looking at this subject. It becomes very easy to begin teaching a “universal church” that includes people with beliefs that do not reflect the Christianity and “church” depicted in the Bible! The simplest (maybe over-simplified for some readers) understanding of the concept is that “The Church” that Christ called out, instituted, and empowers is made of of individuals, called together in local, New Testament churches. God works through local churches (and by extension – through the voluntary association of those local churches), yet the power and authority Christ gave to the local church. On that great and joyous day when Christ will marry His Bride (Revelation 19:7), there won’t be a long bridal party made up of multiple brides – but the marriage will be to “one body”.
So – this leads us to a possibly even more important question – What is a “New Testament Church”? I have already addressed the “local” part – the autonomous local assembly of born-again believers, disciples in Jesus Christ. But how does one know if an assembly is actually a “church”? In a perfect world – there wouldn’t be a need to differentiate (here’s that denomination thing again). Yet in an average town, with many local groups identifying themselves as a “church” – many with very wide ideas, doctrines, and theologies – they cannot all be genuine. God is clearly not the author of confusion. The most basic and fundamental answer to “What is a New Testament Church” must be – a church that adheres to the model, practices (as practical), and most importantly doctrines that were established by Christ Himself in His ministry.
Because of both my youthful days attending an Episcopal congregation, and my studies in seminary on the subject, I know what the core doctrines and practices are within the denomination known as “Episcopalian”, including its roots to the Anglican Communion (centered with the Church of England). So while driving down the road, if I see a sign that says “Episcopal”, I have a pretty good idea what they teach and believe. Likewise, most denominational identities can also give us a clue to the general beliefs held by that organization. Unfortunately, names have become unreliable.
First – we have denominations who have seen massive and rapid changes in even their core beliefs and doctrines. So much so that anyone not directly involved or connected with that group might not even be aware. Second, even within some denominations that have not changed a lot, there an be an amazing divergence of though from one congregation to another. Then, to further blur the lines – you have churches that refuse to use denominational identifiers, even when they hold beliefs and practices that are exact mirrors of established denominations.
Take “Baptist” for example. There are dozens of different types of “Baptists” right here in North America, that cover a surprisingly wide swath of doctrines and theologies. Even historic Baptists have had two distinct lines of doctrines that were separated by some rather large differences of doctrine (primarily centered on the security of salvation). Yet today, when you see “Baptist” on a church sign, what assumptions can you make? The church I pastor has a clear-cut statement of faith, shared by other churches in our association. The simplified version:
I. We believe in One God, in three Persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – eternal in nature and equal in Divine Perfection.
II. The Bible is the Word of God – inerrant in its original manuscripts, the Old and New Testaments provide the sole measure of faith and practice.
III. God created all things for His pleasure and glory.
IV. Satan is real
V. Mankind, while created in the image of God and worthy, on that single fact, of respect. But, because of sin (all sin), the image of God in man was marred. We are all sinners, worthy of death and eternal punishment because we are incapable of the perfection God desires.
VI. Salvation is by God’s Grace, through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Not by salvation, not by any works that we could perform with our hands. That salvation is available to all who believe.
VII. God is Sovereign, yet mankind is responsible.
VIII. Salvation is Secure – if one is truly Born-again, then Jesus Himself said we cannot be plucked from His Hand.
IX. We believe that the church is manifest visibly as the local church, autonomous in nature, and it is in the local church that authority has been given to administer the ordinances of the church (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and it is through the local Church that God works to evangelize, minister, and fulfill His commands. It is through the church that Christ receives glory.
X. We believe that Christ is coming back, that there will be great judgments, that there is both a literal Heaven and literal Hell. Heaven is reserved for those who have been redeemed by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ’s atoning work on the Cross. Hell is the eternal destination for the unregenerate.
(For our full Statement of Faith, click here: CMBC Statement of Faith)
All of our practices as a local church have these planks as the stage for our practice and mission. There are many local churches and even denominations who would agree 100% with this statement, while there are even those who identify themselves as “Baptists” who would disagree with some of this. Further, there are local bodies and denominations that would disagree with the majority of that statement. Where does one “draw the line”? Is it on our stand regarding Baptism, its meaning, and the mode (immersion)?
Obviously, regardless of name, any body that denies that Jesus was God in the flesh, that He lived without sin, that He died for the sins of the world, that He actually rose from the dead cannot be considered a genuine representation of the “Church” Christ gave His life for!
Any “church” that denies that Grace, through faith is sufficient for salvation (in other words – that teaches you must earn, merit, or maintain your salvation by works) would fall short of the mandates of the Word of God.
Any body that holds to the teaching that Jesus is simply “A” means to salvation is denying the very words of Jesus! John 14:6, Acts 4:12.
We could continue to pick apart the major divisions between denominations for a lifetime and not get to the bottom of the debate. The important thing to consider – what does the Bible say? And this brings us back to the theme of denominations/names. There are conservative, New Testament churches that are “Baptist” in doctrine, who have chosen to not identify (at least in name) with “Baptist”. This had caused a great deal of hard feelings among sister churches, but it isn’t hard to figure out some of their reasons (whether we agree with them or not). First – as I hinted of earlier in this post – names have lost some meaning due to changes in beliefs and practices, causing confusion. Second, some who have identified with particular denominations have done great harm to that name (think Westboro Baptist and their hate-mongering). Do these provide a solid reason for rejecting a name? I don’t believe so, but I can sympathize.
A shocking reality is, regardless of the “name” a local congregation identifies with, many members of those congregations don’t really even know what their church really believes, much less what others believe! This is a product of recruiting instead of disciple making (what did Jesus command? – Matthew 28:19). Lack of genuine discipleship have led to a total loss of understanding – and people then cling to denominations like a social club. They totally miss the instructions to BE the church.
The church I pastor has chosen to continue to clearly identify at “Missionary Baptist Church” – and we believe that anyone who has an idea what Missionary Baptists typically believe and teach, will know immediately what they can expect, doctrinally, if they were to walk through the door. On the flip side, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to just go back almost 200 years and just identify as “Church at __________”? But as long as there are very real, and important differences in doctrine and understanding, there will be the “need” for the denominational identities. But the real need is for genuine spiritual growth and understanding within each genuinely born-again believer. God is not the author of confusion, so there can only be one true understanding, one true faith. That faith, ultimately, will not be known by a denominational name – but as Christ’s Bride! But until that time comes, I will continue to self-identify as a “Baptist”, with the hopes that most will at least somewhat grasp what that means. What do you identify yourself as? Can you explain what that really means to someone who may not understand? Do you know WHY you identify that way? If not, maybe its time to dig a little deeper.