Roger Olson on Denominations and Christian Unity

If you don’t normally read Roger Olson’s blog, check it out: he’s on a roll. I’ve probably got three or four posts to write that have been inspired by something Roger’s written, but let me start with the most recent topic: denominations.

Roger OlsonI know this will shock many people, but my attitude toward denominations is “the more the better.” Let me explain.

It seems to me one of the strengths of American Christianity has been its multiplicity and even diversity of denominations. That blooming, buzzing profusion (to paraphrase William James) has produced both good and bad results, but overall and in general, I judge, it has benefited American Christianity and American society as a whole.

He closes with the case against “post-denominationalism” and “plain label” churches: in sum, that “Christian churches do have distinctives; there is no such thing as (organized) generic Christianity.” This generated lots of agreement in the comments section of the post from people who find non-denominational labels unhelpful or misleading.

But I’m more interested in his positive case for denominations, even seeing them as the best means to achieve the end of Christian unity.

First, Roger points to three specific, historical benefits of denominations in this country:

  1. Swedish Covenant Hospital
    One legacy of denominationalism in the Pietist tradition – Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago

    They found hospitals, schools, and charities and send missionaries, engaging the world in a way that’s hard for individual churches to do by themselves. Historically, this was the original argument for my own denomination: the Evangelical Covenant Church began as a “Mission Covenant” pooling the resources of Swedish immigrant congregations in order to send missionaries to Alaska and China and to build charitable institutions.

  2. They “provide accountability for pastors and other ‘church professionals.'” Similarly, when I posted a pro-denominations argument a while back, a local Covenant pastor commented that — in Methodist history — the denomination had helped pro-civil rights pastors to stand their ground.
  3. They provide competition, and in turn, “motivation constantly to update, refurbish, stay sharp.”
    This has been one argument (of Philip Jenkins, among others) for the continuing vitality of religion in this part of “the West,” unlike Europe and Canada, where established churches had little incentive to be energetic or creative and eventually eroded amid the currents of secularization.

Of course, the ecumenist in each of us hears of interdenominational competition and instinctively shudders: just more evidence that the Church is not the one Body that Jesus prayed for in John 17 and Paul urged in his epistles (e.g., Phi 1:27-2:11). Roger acknowledges the importance of seeking Christian unity, but argues strongly against seeing a “worldwide Christian church” as the solution to the problem of disunity.

1. Christian unity is not necessarily institutional unity. This has been a recurring theme on Roger’s blog: “As I have stated and explained here recently, my vision is of an ecumenism of the Spirit, not of institutions…. There is no reason why denominations cannot worship and work together while maintaining their institutional lives. There is no reason why separate denominations must harbor or express hostility toward each other. They don’t even have to be exclusive…. My vision of ecumenism is all Christian denominations agreeing to worship together (on occasion), cooperate together (e.g., in charitable endeavors), and even admit one another to the Lord’s Table.” This does not require “visible and institutional unity.”

Logo of the World Council of Churches2. Indeed, to accomplish “visible and institutional unity” would require “hierarchical structure of some kind” and that “some traditions’ distinctive would have to be slighted.” He gives the example of Baptists being forced to give up their beliefs about baptism in order to become part of a single, magisterial church that “decided to open the Lord’s Supper to all Christians except unbaptized children.” The best result of this kind of unification would be undesirable for Roger: “…lowering of standards of belief and practice to a ‘least common denominator’ in which robust belief and practice get lost (e.g., ‘generic Christianity’).”

A good example of Roger’s blogging style (passionate, feisty, and somewhat rambling, but always well-reasoned), his post brought back to mind my own evolving thoughts on Christian unity.

Since my first year teaching at Bethel, I’ve given the final lecture in the Reformations unit of our Christianity and Western Culture class. I use that time to problematize the legacy of Luther and Calvin for students (95% of whom are Protestant): to explain the history of the Catholic Reformation (as something more than “Counter-Reformation” responses like censorship and heresy trials) and to explore the ramifications of a “Here I stand, I can do no other” mindset for the Church.

Denominations in MinnesotaMy best illustration is to put up a PowerPoint slide (right) listing all of the denominations (plus a couple of clusters of non-denominational churches) that have at least 1000 adherents in the state of Minnesota alone. All forty-two of them, including half a dozen Baptist groups. (For the whole country, we’d need to add at least 81 more denominations with 1000 members — and this only includes the groups that take part in such data-gathering.) The slide is titled with some of Paul’s words from Philippians 2, quoted earlier by Ignatius Loyola in his explanation for the importance of a magisterium.

I still think it’s a teachable moment for students who might have had an uncritical appreciation for the Reformation coming into the course, but I’m more willing to look at that list of denominations and see not just a fractured body, but a colorful tapestry, or at least a collage, of different expressions of Christian worship, thought, arts, and witness commingling. (And, of course, the supposedly “one” medieval church had had its own schisms and maintained whatever institutional unity it possessed partly via coercion.) Perhaps Roger is right that these post-Reformation differences can be cherished, and need not produce conflict so long as there’s a prevailing spirit of charity and cooperation.

Read Roger’s full post on denominations here.


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