I’ve never really had much attachment to the idea of Christian denominations. If you think it matters, I attended a Baptist church growing up, but I wouldn’t consider myself to have any strong sense of identity as a Baptist. For that matter, I don’t remember our church having much of a sense of being Baptist – there was never a very strong sense of distinction between us and most other churches that taught the Bible and trusted Jesus.
The matter of denominational label just wasn’t important. The important thing was whether you believed and taught the Bible as authoritative, in which case you were an evangelical and One Of Us, or you didn’t, in which case you were a dodgy liberal and One Of Them.
In my late teens and early twenties at university, the only time I would use a denominational label for myself was when pushed, in order to show that I was part of a respectable mainstream church and not a sect.
I was at least 12 before I first encountered the (Calvinist) idea that Christ died solely for the Elect, and to this day I could not tell you a single thing that John Calvin said about anything. We didn’t place much stock in human founding figures; the origins of the Baptist denomination are a little more obscure.
Cut to the present day in which I live and go to church in America, last bastion of denominational thinking.
I simply do not get the stock placed in one’s denominational allegiance. And I’m using the word “allegiance” deliberately; it always seems like you’re expected to maintain an allegiance to whatever denomination you’re in. I have learnt, for example, that when one of my work colleagues asks “What religion are you?”, they are looking for an answer along the lines of Baptist/Methodist/Lutheran, not, as I instinctively interpret the question, along the lines of Christian/Muslim/Buddhist. It’s all very strange.
Most of the differences between the denominations seem like either peripheral issues of practice (like form of church government or mode of worship), minor issues of theology (like the issue of whether one can genuinely believe and then fall away), or purely semantic, with different denominations misinterpreting one another’s standard terminology. Unless you’re a member of a non-mainstream group like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, we all believe the same essential body of truth about God, humankind, sin, salvation, Jesus and the Bible. These are the core matters of faith. Everything else is like the question of whether it’s ok to eat food sacrificed to idols (in Romans 14 and elsewhere). They are things that can be left to individual conscience and preferences.
But the American church, at least in the denominational forms I’ve seen here, seems all too often to extend the circle of “core doctrines” further and further out, with many denominations, if not every denomination, seemingly focused on the things that set them apart from every other denomination.
I get it that denominational labels can often be a fairly good shorthand for certain positions on church government and theology. But the result of numerous theological discussions between me and my wife has been a realisation that the only thing separating her distinctly Methodist-flavoured doctrine from the Baptist-flavoured generic evangelicalism I grew up with were the question of whether one can genuinely fall away, and the terminology we used for everything else. I learned that when a Wesleyan talks about having “received sanctification”, they don’t mean what I would naturally expect, ie that they think they’ve been placed forever beyond sin, beyond error and beyond temptation, but that they have come to a place of maturity in their walk with God in which they are not bound to sin as if they have no choice, but instead they love God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. I learned that when I said that full sanctification is impossible this side of Glory, they understood it to mean that one was condemned to keep on repeating the same old sins and that there was never any hope for freedom from them or for walking in victory, when what I meant was simply that we weren’t going to be placed beyond error and beyond temptation in this life. We both use the same word, “sanctification”, but we mean slightly different things by it.
I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that I’m fairly certain that an awful lot of other denominational differences are probably similarly semantic in nature. The experience of learning to speak one another’s theological language has left me wondering what all the fuss is about over what label we put on our church and our theology.
As for me, “Christian” or “follower of Jesus” is all the denominational label I feel I need. I always feel it ought to be good enough for any of us, but then, I really don’t get denominational thinking at all, so maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.
Why do we insist on dividing and separating the one Body of Christ into ever smaller and finer segments, based on how we answer abstruse theological questions? I couldn’t care less what label is on the tin; if we have the same functioning set of basic beliefs, we ought to be able to work together.