OACS Admissions Resource
Denominationalism and Christian Education
OACS Church Relations Committee
Acknowledgements .............................. v
Introduction ................................... vi
Denominationalism .............................. 1
1. Definition of Denominationalism----------1
2. Origins of Denominationalism............... 2
5. Spiritual Unity Rather Than Church Unity ......4
6. Sociological View of Denominationalism ........ 5
7. Post-Denominationalism ................... 5
8. Circulation of the Saints ................... 5
Suggested Readings .............................. 7
Sources Cited .................................. 8
The Ontario Alliance Church Relations Committee would like to thank Rev. Johan D. Tangelder, B.Th., DRS. TH., for his significant contribution to the content of this publication. His efforts have made this compilation possible.
Rev. Tangelder is a pastor with a varied denominational, pastoral, and teaching background. He received his Bachelor of Theology from Central Baptist Seminary in Toronto, Ontario, attended Calvin College and Calvin Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he completed his ministerial preparation, and later studied at the Free University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands. He served as pastor in Vernon, British Columbia, Wellandport, Strathroy, and Williamsburg, Ontario, where he retired in 1993 for health reasons. Drs. Tangelder also taught at the Christian Reformed Seminary and Bible College in Bacalod, The Philippines for two years, and has been an occasional part-time instructor in world religion at Redeemer College, Ancaster, Ontario. He is a frequent contributor on theological, political, and ethical topics to magazines and journals, and is currently working on a major book on the ethics of politics.
OACS Church Relations Committee Admissions Resource Booklet II
This is Document II of the series dealing with denominational influences and the character of Christian schools and Christian education. The first volume, Canadian Protestant Church Traditions, concerning Christian schooling, is available from the Alliance and provides the historic background to the shorter paper on denominational interests in the 1990s.
This booklet is written in order to help administrators, admission committees, board members, and teachers in Christian schools deal with interdenominational issues that arise in any Christian school that wants to be of a general coherent Christian character as opposed to serving a single denominational constituency. Alliance schools are committed to a more general, broad-based Protestant division of schooling, and consequently, the question of inter-denominationalism has been a constant source of debate.
A significant development in the social history of North American culture is the demise of denominations and the end of denominationalism as a feature of church life within Protestant churches. The reader will be interested in finding that the document under discussion here reaches some interesting conclusions. But this document is not about what may possibly replace the changes in attitudes toward denominations. This document is really about how Christian schools should envision and deal with what is now the post-denominational era.
Post-denominationalism presents a peculiar challenge to Alliance schools. The questions that must be answered today are vastly different from the ones that were raised when Christian schools and other independent schools were founded at the end of World War 11. In the 1950s and '60s, denominational loyalties, whether based on strong ethnic communities or strongly defined doctrinal positions, were secure and were considered to be part of the way the universe should unfold. The existing loyalty could be used by community leaders to build on institutions for cultural witness in other areas. And that is indeed how a broad network of Christian social organizations was developed in the 1960s and '70s.
However, in the 1990s, denominational loyalties are under severe restraints and the issues which constitute the cultural wars in North America buffet and shake the abilities and confidence of the denominational leadership in all denominations, at all socioeconomic levels, and in the First, Second and Third Worlds. So this document, in effect, marks the passing of an era and updates and then prepares the school communities to deal with the questions of the 21st century.
Dr. A. Guldemond, Executive Director
The purpose of this paper is not to discuss church doctrine, but to define denominationalism, trace its origin and to describe its current use.
"Denomination" has become the best available term to delineate the mosaic of churches and sects in a country where none of them occupies a privileged situation and each has an equal claim to status as a Christian communion in the eyes of the law. Sydney E. Ahlstrom points out that especially among the mainstream churches of British origin, it very soon came to constitute a virtual theology of the church. He says that denominational doctrine repudiates the insistences of "the Roman Catholic Church, the churches of the `magisterial' Reformation, and of most sects that they alone are the true Church" (1973, p. 381).
"Denomination: an association of churches with a particular name and a particular confession of faith ... . When a body of churches or people deny basic Christian doctrine (e.g., the Trinity), they are usually called a sect. Denomination is normally reserved for churches that hold basic orthodoxy" (The Concise Dictionary of the Christian Tradition, 1989, p. 121).
"Denominationalism denotes a pattern of religious structuring and of ecclesial [sic] diversity that appeared in the modern, western world under conditions of religious pluralism, disestablishment, toleration and religious liberty" (Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, 1991, p. 264).
"Denominations are association of congregations-though sometimes it might be said that congregations are localized subdivisions of denominations-that have a common heritage. Moreover, a true denomination does not claim to be the only legitimate expression of the church. A denominational heritage normally includes doctrinal, experiential, or organizational emphases and also frequently includes common ethnicity, language, social class, and geographical origin" (Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984, p. 210).
The denomination "is the most manifest form of the organized church. Taken together, denominations remain vivid to any who own a telephone book with Yellow Pages or who want to choose which clustering of congregations, which more-than-local part of the organized church should serve as an instrument for expressing their faith (Marry, 1991, p. 3).
Denomination "is the common mold into which the religious spirit is poured to form and cool" (Faith Today, Jan/Feb 1994, p. 25).
"Denominations are sociological groups whose principle of differentiation is to be sought in their conformity to the order of social classes and castes" (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 1993, p. 217).
Until recently, use of the word denominational was confined to the Christian tradition. Presently, however, non-Christian religions and sects use the word, which makes it even more difficult for our secular, irreligious society to define church, sect, cult and nonChristian religions.
The word itself came into common usage only in the 19th century. As a concept it bears the marks of its origin in 17th-century England. It was first formulated by the small group of Congregational "Dissenting Brethren" who objected to the presbyterian "inflexibility" of the Westminster Assembly (1643). The British 18th-century Evangelical Revival gave this view wide currency. John Wesley (1703-1791) stated: "I ... refuse to be distinguished from other men by any but the common principles of Christianity ... I renounce and detest all other marks of distinction. But from real Christians, of whatever denomination, I earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all ... Dost thou love and fear God? It is enough! I give thee the right hand of fellowship" (Ahlstrom, p. 381).
Martin E. Marty observes that until about 1788 the church did not depend on denominations. He says, "The denomination, like the competitive congregation-system, the Sunday School, the mission movement, the voluntary society pattern, and even early ecumenism, is an invention of early industrial and democratic Western life (p. 12).
During the 19th century, the splitting of old denominations and the forming of new ones in the United States accelerated with such rapid speed that it has become nearly impossible for a history to list all the churches which claim to be authentic churches. Charles Hodge said that the "unblessed ambitions of restless individuals" had made schism a major problem in his day (Woodbridge, Knoll, & Hatch, 1979, p. 176ff).
In Canada there are approximately 100 denominations. Some of them have come about as Canadian denominations separated from their American counterparts. Ethnic or geographical differences mark some denominations. Others formed due to theological or personal conflicts (Faith Today, p. 18).
Denominationalism is seen by many, especially in the ecumenical movement, as destructive for the church. H. Richard Niebuhr portrayed it as the "moral failure" of the church (Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement, p. 265). Many mainstream Protestants find in ecumenism the purpose, vision and unity of the church.
In today's anti-institutional climate religious seekers ignore or are indifferent to denominations, or find them dysfunctional (Marty, p. 7). "Pick and choose" cafeteria or smorgasbord style-Christianity has become popular, but the denomination presents itself in a kind of "take it all" way, as a package deal (Ibid, p. 20).
Marty notes that "denominations appear to be demanding. Most of all, they seem to want money to run their programs, and their demands are more vivid and visible than are the services performed for each congregation and each congregant. And there are also legitimate expressions of concern over the inevitable bureaucratization of the denomination, which was born as a bureaucracy and born to be bureaucratic" (Ibid, pp. 18f).
John Vissers, professor of theology at Ontario Theological Seminary, Toronto, Ontario writes that denominationalism is a denial of faith's claim to believe one, holy catholic and apostolic church. And it stands as a sign of God's judgement upon the church (Faith Today, p. 30).
We live in a so-called ecumenical age. Never has so much been written about the unity of the church, but never has an age seen such fragmentation of the church. The secular spirit of individualism has had a powerful impact upon the life of the church, including its evangelical branch. Martin Lloyd-Jones spoke of the endless divisions that have taken place among "men who have held to the same evangelical faith. They have divided on personality; they have divided on subtle, particular emphases." And he notes, "There is a multiplicity of denominations, and men do not hesitate to set themselves up and to start denominations-not in terms of vital truth but in terns of matters which are not even secondary, but of third-rate, fourth-rate, even perhaps twentieth or bundredth-rate importance (1989, p. 309).
a. Marketing the faith
Craig Gay, assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Regent College, Vancouver, BC, observes that in responding to the competition in the religious marketplace, various denominations have adopted marketing-like strategies for attracting and keeping "their customers." Gay also claims that since religion has been relegated to the private sphere of personal fulfilment and identity, it is not surprising that many churches (denominations) have been almost entirely preoccupied with the administration of personal and family therapy (Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, pp. 217f).
b. Critique of denominationalism
Marty calls denominationalism "tribalism that threatens civil and ecclesiastical order." He also critiques the Church Growth School people who speak of the Homogenous Unit Principle. This means reaching out to special social groups, units or tribes in order to establish a homogenous church. And I believe that Marty is correct when he says that this Church Growth Principle denies much of that to which Christians ought to aspire. "It is successful precisely for the reasons all tribalisms tend to be successful in our time of eroded personal and social identities" (pp. 30f).
Leslie Newbigin, for many years a missionary and bishop of the Church of South India in Madras, now retired in Birmingham, England, calls for "a radical break with that form of Christianity which is called the denomination." He believes that denominations are a hindrance to missions. He writes that in North America the denomination is simply the institutional form of privatized religion. "The denomination is the outward and visible form of an inward and spiritual surrender to the ideology of our culture. Neither separately nor together can the denominations become the base for a genuinely missionary encounter with our culture" (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 1987, p. 7).
Generally speaking, the negative voices outweigh the positive. Many scholars, both evangelical and liberal, have shown how the confusing denominational scene has contributed to the decline of the Christian faith in our 20th century.
Marty claims that denominations are necessary. He provides pragmatic rather than theological reasons for his claim. He believes that the local church cannot effectively train ministers, engage in publishing across the spectrum of possibilities, or mobilize many people for refugee and relief services. And he says, "Denominations may and do combine in Church World Service and similar agencies. But such agencies tend to be inefficient and powerless if they do not, from the other direction, recognize the organization of life that consistently goes on in the denominations" (p. 33).
Helmut Harder, general secretary of the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, wrote that the denominational head office can address national issues of politics and social policy with greater chance of being heard than local congregations. "The role of the denomination is one big voice" (Faith Today, p. 26).
James MacKnight, general superintendent of the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada, says that denominations give churches "a sense of belonging to a large body (Ibid, p. 27).
Among evangelicals, committed to the sufficiency of the local church, the emphasis is on invisible spiritual unity rather than on denominational unity. In general, evangelicals have done little with the theology of the church. Vissers comments that for a variety of social, cultural and theological reasons, evangelical Christianity has virtually abandoned the biblical doctrine of the church in the past 30 years. He says, "Anyone familiar with historic Christianity will recognize this radical departure from the orthodox faith" (Ibid, p. 31).
In The Gospel in America, the authors claim that Americans in the 19th century divided the body of Christ into so many pieces that it was no wonder that many became sceptical about the value of the church as an institution (The Gospel in America, p. 177). Abandoned by mainstream churches, denominationalism has prospered among evangelicals and conservative Protestants.
Russell E. Richey of Duke University, Durham, NC recognizes in denominations and denominationalism a form of religious order and organization "peculiarly expressive of the social and cultural life of democratic capitalism" (Dictionary of the Evangelical Movement, p. 265).
In our postmodern times denominational identity is no longer an accurate predictor of theological stance, worship style, or social class as it once was. There is increasing congregationalism within denominations. With modernity comes freedom of choice. Most of the time the choice is based on feelings. The truth factor is ignored by and large. Individualism has created havoc with the theology of the church. Consumerism also plays a significant role in the choice of churches. What programs and services do local community churches offer? Denominational loyalty is rapidly declining. A 1991 Faith Today opinion poll reports that only 36 percent of respondents think that denomination is an important factor in choosing a church with which to affiliate (p. 25). Maxine Hancock, a Christian writer and speaker living in Alberta, comments, "As we move deeper into the post-Christian era, we have to find ways to express our oneness in Christ, and denominational tags become less significant. Many people are wondering if we can afford to divide ourselves over too many particulars when there's a world to reach (p. 27).
Denominations will not disappear as structures and cooperation between the local congregations are still necessary. As a matter of fact, the number of denominations increases globally by five a week (Marty, p. 4). The relationship of congregations to their denominational headquarters will continue to change, however.
Since a denomination is less an identifying factor, there is more church-hopping, a matter of concern to denominational leaders. The church population in Canada is not growing. Studies have shown that conservative churches are growing at the expense of liberal denominations. The charismatics draw from both spectrums. Few are won from the secular world. That is why I call this phenomenon of switching "the circulation of the saints." One important negative aspect of this switching trend is the consequent relativizing of Christian doctrine loyalty. There is more emphasis on personal ethics than on doctrine. Due to the privatization of religion, the ethical questions today centre on the family and its needs.
Postdenominationalism presents a peculiar challenge to Alliance schools. Questions that must be asked today are vastly different from the ones that had to be raised when postWorld War 11 immigrants founded the Christian schools. Most were from the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) denomination, with its confessional and even ethnic loyalty. Today, denominational loyalty in the CRC is eroding. Christians from other denominations who may want to enrol their children in a Christian school will most likely have little understanding of the biblical doctrine of the church. And loyalty to their own denomination is not strong.
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Marty, M. E. (1990-91). Denominations near century's end. The Stob Lectures of Calvin College and Seminary. Grand Rapids.
Marty, M. E. (1980). Where the spirit leads. American denominations today. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
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