We often hear, at our public religious community activities, expressions like these. “We are of different denominations, but that makes no difference.” “Denominations aren’t important.” And in one sense these statements are true. Surely no one believes that a specific denominational tag is an automatic ticket to Paradise – “Do not pass Go, go directly to Heaven.” And few would say that a different tag would automatically condemn an individual; though the doctrines taught under that name may be false, some individuals in that group may have a personal relationship with the Creator.
Ever since the founding of the Federal (now National) Council of Churches in 1908, there has been a push away from denominational identity, known as the “ecumenical movement.” Some scholars even say we are living in a “post-denominational age.” Given that, a question must be asked: why then do we still have denominations? Why are those expressing these views part of various denominations? Indeed, there may be more, not fewer, organized groups of professing Christians now than there were in 1908! And that leads naturally to a second question: why different denominations in the first place? Surely the only Bible does not give today’s pattern. How did it come to be, and how should we view it?
Denominations began when people who thought for themselves disagreed with the form of religion they saw around them. Some of these disagreements were probably very minor, though those who held them did not think they were. Some were issues of eternity, important enough to justify division. Denominating tags are a bit like the labels on groceries. They have no nutrition in themselves, but should identify the contents. It would be chaotic to try to shop in a store where the canned goods had no labels! And of course the labels should accurately show what’s inside. If we have a case of the “mulli-grubs” (not in the dictionary, but all of us have had it once or twice), a bowl of chicken soup may be just the ticket. What if, when we open the can, it contains maraschino cherries? No matter how much we may like those in the right recipe, a bowl won’t do much for the mulli-grubs! We would use the “truth in packaging” law quickly and likely demand a refund and a can of soup!
So denominating tags exist to identify points of view. Since some say that I’m “leaning toward the Baptists,” I’ll use our folks for an illustration. When someone visits a Baptist church, they have a right to expect to hear, along with the general Christian basics, reasons why Baptists have a separate existence. The idea of personal salvation by grace, through faith, once for all and forever; the view of believer’s immersion by a church, so that the individual may be added to the local church, the view that each local, visible congregation is autonomous under Christ and is the custodian of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s supper): all these are among the key reasons Baptists exist as a separate group of Christians.
Others have their story, and their reason for existing as separate groups; we can recognize one another as members together in the world-wide family of God, and live side by side in Christian friendship; so long as we have freedom, denominations have their value in expressing differing views of God’s written word. But the Day to end all days is coming, when denominations will be no more because they will not be needed; for all the saved, there will be no differences—and that will be glory for me.
Pastor, Poplar Grove Baptist Church. Hickman, KY
Director of Missions, West Kentucky Baptist Association
*** This article was submitted for publication in a local newspaper