Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Fall of Denominations?

A recent story at offered a very interesting and intriguing story taken from a recent Gallup poll. It stated this in the title: "More Protestants Now Do Not Identify With Specific Denomination". It was revealed that the numbers who were aligned with denominations dropped from 50% to 30% in the years from 2000 to 2016. That is something that may have been  hard to believe or predict only a generation or two ago. The poll surveyed over 2,000 adults and in all 50 states in the US.

The article also shared that many surveys in recent years have found a rising demographic of Americans known as simply "nones". These claim to have absolutely no religious identification at all. When looking at this group, we find that their numbers have also doubled in the same time frame. That means that one in five adults in that group now have no link to any official organized religious group whatsoever in a so-called Christian nation.

For the first one thousand years of Christianity, there were no denominations as there are today. Various offshoot groups certainly existed early on, but most were small and quickly snuffed out as "heresies."

The first major division within Christendom came in 1054 with the divide between the Western Church and the Eastern Church. From that point forward, there were two large branches of Christianity that came to be known as the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. The next major division was the Protestant Reformation, sparked in 1517 by Martin Luther's publication of 95 Theses against certain Catholic practices. The Reformation marked not only a break between Protestantism and Catholicism, but the beginning of Christian denominationalism and sectarianism as we know it today.

But what comes to mind when we think of a religious denomination? Here is one definition I saw. "An organized Christian Church or tradition or religious group or community of believers or aggregate of worship centers or congregations, usually within a specific country, whose component congregations and members are called by the same name in different areas, regarding themselves as an autonomous Christian church distinct from other denominations, churches and traditions."

With that said, about how many denominations exist in the world today? According to Christianity Today,  there are now approximately 38,000 Christian denominations. About 242 are Roman Catholic and the bulk of the rest are protestant. And it is estimated there will be some 55,000 by the year 2025. Currently, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that a new Christian denomination is formed every 10.5 hours. That is an amazing concept when considering what is happening in the United States.

We need to pause here and note, just in case it is not obvious already, that there are sometimes significant theological differences between the main branches of Christianity. Then, too, there are sometimes differences in the doctrinal beliefs and traditions even within one particular denomination.  And the truth is that there are some groups that really do not meet even the minimum biblical qualifications that should allow them to be called Christian at all. 

So what about what we are seeing along these lines today especially in America? Is this overall shrinking on many fronts a bad thing? Or is it something that needed to happen in order to open up better ways for the church to relate to a modern culture? And do we really need literally hundreds or thousands of these religious divisions each having their own unique concepts and theological twists? Well the answer to these questions will depend on who you ask and probably what kind of church they now attend.

I have no idea what side of the fence you fall on to with this subject. If you are in traditional denominational church, you may be fiercely loyal to that  kind of ministry and congregational lifestyle. If you are not, you may feel that that denominations have had their day and it is time for a new day. Your personal views are between you and God.

But with that said, for any church or denominational to be valid and come under the banner of Christian, certain essential beliefs must be adhered to. Some have said that a problem with being in a strict denominational system is that "doctrine tends to divide". It is easy to say that and easy to believe it. And there are times where that can be true. But is that necessarily always a bad thing?  

Our convictions about theological issues are crucial. When there is a lack of understanding core doctrinal truths, or they are flat out incorrect, the result can be confusion and even heresy. And when that takes place, especially with essential truths like salvation, that can be eternally deadly. Doctrinal disasters happened in the early church and wreaked havoc, and these errors were the reason that some of the New Testament epistles had to be penned.

When a church body exists outside of a denominational affiliation, they must be certain to form some biblically accurate doctrinal statement and stand by it. To disregard doing so is spiritually careless, not to mention potentially dangerous. As it has been rightly said, "When we don't stand for something, we can fall for most anything."

So what are the core beliefs of Christianity? What should be the essential bare minimum whether within the confines of a denomination or not? And what does a group or person need to believe in order to rightly be called Christian?

There are a few things would seem fairly essential. There must be a firm belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture since everything else logically springs from that divine source. (2 Timothy 3:16-17) There should be the belief in the Creator God who is eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient and holy. It should be understood that man was made in God's image, but that his willful sin broke their perfect fellowship causing instant eternal death and eventually physical death. (Romans 3:23) And it must be known that this breach has to be reconciled apart from any works man can ever do. (Titus 3:5) Then, most importantly, there must come the absolute conviction, through faith, that Jesus Christ is God's Son and one's only personal Savior. (Ephesians 2:8-9) It must be believed that it is His sacrificial death on the cross that brings forgiveness, justification and the only escape from eternal judgment. Yes, there are many other important theological truths to consider, but these are the primary ones to start with because these all have direct bearing on genuinely becoming a true Christian to begin with.

The whole denomination issue will likely continue on for years to come, and the organized church in America may well look vastly different than it does now not far down the road. But what is of the utmost importance is that people base their eternal salvation on those essential truths that God's Word makes abundantly clear.  And then, in addition, that they find a local church that understands the Bible, reveres it, teaches it, and serves the God who authored it.

"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness,  that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

Bill Breckenridge

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