The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates that there are at least 45,000 Christian denominations in the world, with two new ones appearing every day.I have no doubt that some of those ought not to exist. Many of us are all too familiar with denominations that have resulted from painful splits, bitter rivalries, and the desire to propagate heretical teachings.
However, I am not bothered by the existence of multiple denominations as such. I am not moved by calls for Christian unity that presume that diverse denominational bodies are a regrettable reality that we should work to remedy. I began to resist that idea when as an undergraduate student I was assigned in a religion class to write a paper on Christian unity. I based my views on a recently published book, Ecumenism and the Evangelical, by the Reformed pastor-theologian Jacob Marcellus Kik. His arguments made good sense to me at the time, and they continue to influence my thinking on the subject.
Kik was not impressed with large denominational structures. “Often the smaller denominations,” he argued, “evidence greater activity in casting out devils prevalent in the world, than do the larger denominations. In Christian work quality counts far more than quantity.” Then he appealed to the example of ancient Israel, where “for more effective organization and efficiency the Lord divided the small nation of Israel into 12 tribes, each having its own government.” When the Israelites wanted a human king to give them a more visible unity, Kik said that God was displeased with them, “and finally caused division into two kingdoms. . . . One wonders how much of the nature of the ancient Israelite is in the ecumenical movement with its passion for a visible central government.”
My later studies of Abraham Kuyper’s thought added some theological substance to Kik’s opposition to organizational unity. Kuyper saw a dangerous modernism at work in the promotion of “the curse of uniformity,” and he set forth a robust understanding of “the pluriformity of the church.” Here he is in his 1898 Lectures on Calvinism: “Though the wall of separation has been demolished by Christ,” he told his Princeton audience, “the lines of distinction have not been abolished. Someday, before the Lamb, doxologies will be sung to him who conquered not by a uniform mass of people but by a humanity diversified in peoples and tribes, in nations and tongues.”
Jennifer Powell McNutt adds some significant nuance to the kind of pluriformity notion that we Kuyperians endorse. In responding to the charge that the church divisions that occurred in the wake of the Reformation are a “scandal,” she observes that “the ability to adapt to context has been one of Christianity’s greatest strengths.” The story of the global church, she says, is about the Gospel’s “spread throughout the world into different cultures, contexts, and people groups,” and it would be scandalous to ignore this fact.
The danger in this line of thought, of course, is that celebrating pluriformity and contextualization can easily serve as a cover for fostering a sinful spirit of separation. We do need to be spiritually vigilant in examining our motives in such matters.
I was compelled to engage in that exercise recently by reading some insightful comments made by Carl Trueman, published in First Things. Responding to a theologian who had recently written in that journal that the preference for “spiritual unity” over the more organizational variety too often functions as an excuse for a willingness to live with existing church divisions, Trueman conceded the point. In his own world of “confessional Presbyterianism,” Trueman observed, church divisions are seen as necessitated by significant theological differences. But, said Trueman, doctrine alone cannot account for the differences. He noted that there are at least four Presbyterian denominations in the United States where he could maintain his ministerial ordination vows without encountering “differences over anything approaching central tenets of the faith.” The actual denominational distinctives have to do with “[m]atters of mission organization, fine points of polity, [and] institutional histories that often have more to do with the wider American context than theological principle.” Thus, “division that is not rooted in theology cannot be solved by theology.” And then Trueman’s candid conclusion:
“Perhaps the framework for principled ecumenical discussion and for doing theology in division needs first to be established by some denominations voting themselves out of existence. That way at least the only divisions we would be dealing with would be those grounded in theology. I am strongly inclined (along with every other Presbyterian minister, I am sure) to say that it should not be my denomination that takes the initiative in doing so, of course—but in that very inclination lies the problem.”
Actually, Kik would have agreed with Trueman. He did not believe that we should simply take all divisions for granted. Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17—“that they all might be one”—requires, Kik said, that we must work for the kind of faithful manifestations of unity that mirror that which holds between the Father and the Son: a unity, he insisted, of doctrine, of purpose, and of love.
I draw wisdom from both Kik and Trueman on these matters. While I see practical value in denominational pluriformity, we do well to operate with a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding the actual boundaries that we are inclined to accept. I have sympathy for Trueman’s sense that some denominations should decide to disappear. But that does not compel me to respond with enthusiasm to urgent calls for “visible unity.”
I do have a further factor to introduce into the picture, though. I think there is something to be learned from comparing Protestant denominations to the system of religious “orders” in Catholicism. It is misleading to contrast—as is often done—the “unity” of Catholicism with the “dividedness” of multi-denominational Protestantism. In reality, Catholicism encompasses many different orders, each with its own set of special vows, and each promoting unique missions and virtues. Sometimes this diversity is spelled out with reference to a living out of different “charisms.” Jesuit life and thought differs from that which characterizes the Franciscan way. Dominicans are different than Carmelites, and Benedictines from Claretians.
I see a genuine commitment to Calvinism as something like both adherence to a specific doctrinal system and the taking of some special spiritual-theological vows. A high school student once wrote to me for advice on the differences between Calvinists and Arminians. She was being educated in a Calvinist context, but she wanted to put the differences in the most “civil” manner in a term paper she was writing. I told her that I think of the differences in this way: We Calvinists have taken a special vow to protect at all costs the ideas of our radical sinfulness and the marvelous riches of God sovereignty, whereas Arminians have taken a special vow to protect the idea of human free will. This means that we Calvinists would rather run the risk of sounding like we are limiting human freedom than to give the impression that we are detracting from God’s sovereign control over all things. Arminians, in contrast, would rather risk challenging God’s sovereignty than to deny our responsibility for our basic choices in life. But when these respective vows are working in the best way, each side knows when it goes too far, acknowledging that we have to live with some mystery on the subject. (She liked my answer, and asked me to pray that her Calvinist religion teacher would like it as well when he read her paper!)
My experience in the diversity of spiritualities and theologies of the Protestant world has been greatly enriched by seeing things in these terms. Lutherans are an “order” organized around a strong commitment to the idea of justification by faith alone. Pentecostals have taken a vow to honor the power of the Holy Spirit in a special way. Wesleyans want to remind all of us of the biblical call to “holiness unto the Lord.” Mennonites model for all of us what it means to walk “the Way of the Cross.” And so on.
To summarize the good things we can say about denominations: they can provide effective ways for communities to organize; ecclesiastical pluriformity can allow for different patterns of worship and mission; and they encourage the cultivation of diverse charisms.
None of this is meant, of course, to deny that there are some very bad theological ideas at work in the world—including in the Reformed part of the world! But when I encounter a teaching that I find strange, and even offensive, I try to remind myself to ask what special sense of calling might be at work in the other person’s way of viewing things, and how I might learn from it. In none of that, however, do I want in any way to be unfaithful to my own Calvinist vows.
How does this speak to Carl Trueman’s struggles with different denominations within his “confessional Presbyterianism world”? It can be helpful, as I see it, to reflect on the non-doctrinal differences that he cites—“[m]atters of mission organization, fine points of polity, [and] institutional histories”—as possible factors in assigning a special charism to each community. For example, a church whose collective consciousness has been shaped by theological controversies in 19th century American immigrant communities have developed different identity markers than one that grew out of controversies at different points in Scottish history.
While the ability to adapt to different cultural contexts and historical memories can be seen as God’s encouragement for different communities to manifest diverse charisms, this does not release us from serious self-examination. It is always important to ask whether the claim to be pursuing a specific charism is still legitimate, or whether our denominational memories, with their associated identity markers, should occasion repentance on our part—and maybe even, as Trueman suggests, deciding to dissolve our own denomination. Certainly conversations about such matters, carried on in a humble awareness of our individual and collective capacities for self-deception, are a mandate for all who care about the true unity of the Body of Christ.