Why Denominations Matter

I recently returned from a great time at my fourth Together for the Gospel Conference. It was a great time with my wife, old friends, and new books sitting under great preaching, eating out, and enjoying a preview of Spring.

The session I was actually most looking forward to was the Panel entitled, “Denominations: Your Grandfather’s Oldsmobile?” The importance of theological traditions and denominational affiliation has been growing in my mind over the past few years. I grew up in a certain denominational context and then left that for broader Evangelicalism in my college days. Over time I’ve come to identify and benefit from what may be called the Young, Restless, and Reformed (YRR) movement expressed in conferences like T4G and organizations like the The Gospel Coalition. But I’ve also stumbled into a Southern Baptist Church and from there been drafted into denominational service and initiated into our confessional history and theological distinctives.

I was hoping that the Panel would be focused on making the case for YRR types not to settle for a mere non/inter/transdenominational movement, but to also settle down in a clearly defined ecclesiastical tradition. As it turned out, the discussion focused mostly on what to do if your denomination goes Liberal.

[As a fascinating aside: it was the hierarchical denominations represented (Presbyterian, Episcopal, Reformed) that had irretrievably strayed from orthodoxy and the Baptists representing congregational polity which told a story of righting the ship.]

One illustration that has helped me a lot in this comes from Michael Horton, drawing on C.S. Lewis:

I’ve argued elsewhere that evangelicalism is like the village green in older parts of the country, especially New England. There may be two or three churches on the grounds, but the green itself is a wide open space where people from those churches can spill out in conversation and cooperation. Evangelicalism is not a church, though it often acts like one. It isn’t the big tent (more appropriate, given the history) that encompasses all of the churches on the green. It’s just…, well, the green. When it tries to adjudicate cases of faith and practice through conferences, press releases, and blogs, evangelicalism (including Calvinistic versions) exhibits its movement mentality.

My analogy echoes C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”: a hallway in a large house where believers mix and mingle, often opening the door as non-Christians knock. But, as Lewis insisted, it’s in the rooms where people actually live as a family—where they sleep, are warmed by the fire, fed and clothed, and grow. We are formed in the family life of Christ’s body by particular churches, with their distinct confessions and practices. You can’t live in the hallway.

I’m not against evangelicalism as a village green or hallway. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful meeting place. However, when it acts like a church, much less replaces the church, I get nervous.

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