Around the turn of the nineteenth century, in the hill country of New Hampshire, a beleaguered young woman by the name of Lucy Mack Smith contemplated the seeming Catch-22 of American religion: “If I remain a member of no church, all religious people will say I am of the world; and if I join some one of the different denominations, all the rest will say I am in error.” Mrs. Smith’s frustration over denominations foreshadowed the skepticism that many self-professing Christians share today. After all, in the words of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13) If there is one body and one Spirit and one Lord, why is it that so many Protestant denominations aren’t united? (Eph. 4:4-6) Should we even have denominations? After years of searching for a local body of like-minded believers, Lucy Smith eventually decided to find a minister who would baptize her in solitude, without the authority of a particular church. Lucy’s story is not only a picture of the spiritual journey of millions of future Americans; her decision actually helped to forge yet another denomination in America. Lucy’s Son, Joseph, would become the founder of the Mormon “church.” Like Alexander Campbell and even John Wesley before him, Lucy’s dissatisfaction with the ills of denominational Christianity would eventually breed, ironically, yet another denomination. Such, it seems, is the American destiny: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness elsewhere.
The question of denominations too often begins on the wrong foot with wrong assumptions. For instance, there is often a false belief that denominations are a distinctly American Protestant phenomenon, and that the Roman Catholic Church has meanwhile preserved their unity as the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” While the First and especially the Second Great Awakenings did give rise to the abundance of American Protestant denominations as we know them today, by no means does this suggest that Catholics haven’t weathered their own intramural rivalries. Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and Jesuits are just a few of the many Catholic denominations that have flourished through the years. Today, countless Catholics are divided over essential Catholic doctrines like the nature of the Pope’s authority, the issue of same-sex marriage, or the necessity of the Eucharist in salvation. Indeed, the church has seen its share of factions ever since the Corinthian church splintered into the Apollos-followers, Cephas-followers, Paul-followers, and Christ-followers (1 Cor. 1:12), or the Galatian church defended apostolic teaching against Judaizers who came in teaching a “different gospel.” (Gal. 1:6) Even in Jesus’s day, there were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and zealots within second temple Judaism. After He turned Adam and Eve’s holy matrimony into a sinful blame-game, Satan has been stealing, killing, and destroying ever since. (Gen. 3:1-12, John 10:10) Division in the church isn’t an American invention. It’s thoroughly Satanic.
In the American church landscape, Satan desires that well-meaning sinners approach the question of denominations much like Adam and Eve approached the question of the fruit: What do you say? In other words, what’s your preference? What’s your interpretation? What’s your desire? Amongst other human and historical factors, denominationalism (and anti-denominationalism) has often been the fruit of me-centered religion. As a result, the American church has traditionally reflected the world around it: anti-traditional during the Enlightenment, anti-authoritarian during the American Revolution, anti-inclusive during the Civil War, non-committal during the age of free market capitalism. Today, greater questions of theology are often subordinated to the 3 C’s of the modern church: comfort, community, and consumerism. Rather than basing our views of denominations on how we feel or even what we see (as in the case of Adam and Eve), the question of denominations is much better addressed when we begin outside ourselves: What did God say? When the Bible becomes our first step in choosing or evaluating denominations, we’re generally much more apt to ask the right questions about churches and much less surprised at the spiritual landscape inside and out.
A few years after Lucy Smith was baptized without a church home, a young missionary named Adoniram Judson set sail for Burma. He was to become the first American Baptist missionary. However, Judson and his wife Ann were not originally sent as Baptists, but as Congregationalists. After searching the Scriptures to determine the truth about infant baptism and concluding instead that believer’s baptism was the prescribed means in the New Testament, Ann Judson wrote home to a friend,
“Thus, my dear Nancy, we are confirmed Baptists, not because we wished to be, but because truth compelled us to be. We have endeavored to count the cost, and be prepared for the many severe trials resulting from this change of sentiment. We anticipate the loss of reputation, and of the affection and esteem of many of our American friends…We feel that we are alone in the world, with no real friend and no one on whom we can depend but God.”
The difference between Lucy Smith and Ann Judson is that Lucy responded to the maelstrom of denominations by withdrawing from godly community and church discipline while Ann simply found a corresponding community of saints (albeit in Burma) to grow in the Scriptures in which she believed. The solution to an America full of denominations is not to give up on denominations, no more than the solution to a world full of religions is to forsake religion. Nevertheless, our hope isn’t in the denominations themselves, but in the truth of God’s Word. In the words of Ann Judson, Scripture should “compel” us to believe what we believe, not the brand or community or style of worship that it’s packaged in.
And herein lies the difference between denominations and denominationalism. To be Methodist for the sake of being Methodist, or to be Episcopalian for the sake of being Episcopalian, is to forsake the exclusivity of the Gospel for the exclusivity of an interest group. It returns the new wine of faith for the old wineskins of physical and social circumcision. Denominationalism is Pharisaism. It trades truth for tribalism, the Gospel for groupthink, Jesus for Judaism. However, for instance, to be Baptist for the sake of honoring Christ according to the Scriptures is something else entirely. The truth and authority of God’s Word is what prepares and sustains us for a world of division and what helps us to discern godly brethren (no matter the denomination) from those who would “slip in and spy out our freedom that we have in Christ, so that they might bring us into slavery.” (Gal. 2:4) In reality, not every denomination is created equal. Fellowship and disfellowship depend not on personality nor even on polity, but in theology and faithfulness to the Gospel message. And when Scripture becomes the foundation of the church instead of denominational identity, we see that anti-denominationalism is more of a response to denominationalism, not denominations per se.
When Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman at the well, he met someone with a different genealogy, different religion, different Scriptures, and different worship style, but yet who claimed to be worshipping the same God. And like so many Americans today, she had doubts about the division that religion could bring. (John 4:20) However, Jesus’s response to the woman wasn’t to suggest that she follow the God she’d created in her head. It wasn’t that all denominations are essentially the same. It wasn’t even to give up on organized religion. Instead, the Son of God began with the idea of truth: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” (4:22-23) In short, if God has revealed Himself in Scripture, it’s not okay to worship Him any way we please. “Sincerity” and emotion and “honest, hard-working people” do not constitute a God-honoring church. There is indeed a wrong way to worship God. In correcting her spiritual ignorance and pointing her to truth, Jesus was loving her. Today, in a postmodern world unwilling to pronounce right and wrong and even more unwilling to study the God-breathed Bible, denominations have appeared in the cultural crosshairs. And in many ways, this can be a good thing: denominationalism must die as the old self must die. Our faith is in Jesus, not in ourselves or in our families or even in our churches. As long as there is truth, it is incumbent upon believers to seek out community with those who worship the God of the Bible in Spirit and in truth. Denominational identity means nothing apart from biblical fidelity and the message of the sovereign grace of Jesus.
Should the church have denominations? Ultimately and eternally, no. At the end of the age, when the Son of Man returns in glory to judge the living and the dead, Jesus tells us that there will be only two denominations: sheep and goats. (Matt. 25:31-46) And the difference between the two will be their faith in the exclusive Gospel, not in their exclusive denomination. May our unity never come at the cost of truth, and may our pursuit of truth never compromise Gospel unity.