Fences or Flagpoles? A (Very) Short Commentary on Denominations and Their Confessions

It has become very popular—indeed, even a sign of maturity and wisdom!—to disparage the idea of joining a denomination or of subscribing to a historic Christian confession (or sincerely receiving and adopting one…wink, wink). I wish I had the magic words to fix this problem. But I don’t. So, at the risk of offending people I very much love and appreciate, please examine the three points below to discover what you have missed.

1) It overlooks legitimate expressions of Christian unity that do not involve total organic ecclesiastical union. 

This has been the great contribution of Dr. W. Robert Godfrey in his well-known article, A Reformed Dream. There, Godfrey observes that most of the confessional Reformed and Presbyterian denominations of North America have expressed their unity already in the form of the National Association of Presbyterian and Reformed Churches (NAPARC). He then goes on to call those denominations to take their unity a step further by creating a pan-Reformed general assembly that would meet every three years for very specific, limited discussions. Such an arrangement, he argues, would leave most of denominational and congregational life untouched. Church orders, pension plans, and all the other accoutrements of denominational life would remain unchanged. Certainly, Godfrey’s Reformed dream remains just that at this stage in history. But his very proposition militates against the popular wisdom of our day that denominations mean division. That idea is simply false.

2) It overlooks the fact that those calling for church unity often create the most division. 

I owe this point to the wise observation of one of my fellow presbyters: “If people are so committed to Christian unity nowadays, why are they constantly starting new denominations?” Great question! Think about it: in almost every group established in the interest of unity, the result has been division and the formation of a new faction.

As liberals and evangelicals held hands in the 20th century while riding the train of ecumenicity, the formation of the United Church of Christ (UCC) resulted in just that, a new church. In fact, that very event had a precursor in confessional Reformed circles. The Reformed Church in the United States, a German Reformed denomination going back to the 1740s (yes, that’s right…they are older than America), was threatened with extinction when a proposal for merger came from a Brethren body (praise God for the Eureka classis). Did the Brethren want to join the RCUS? Did the RCUS churches advocating for union join with their Brethren brethren? Nope. They, like always, formed a tertium quid in the form of the Reformed and Evangelical Church, which eventually merged with pieces of other denominations to form the UCC.

More recently, Douglas Wilson and company have formed the Confederation of Reformed and Evangelical Churches (the name itself is a form of de ja vu). As one person from their ranks has explained to me, the advantage of a such confederation is that congregations can utilize different confessional documents in their day-to-day life and still remain united under one ecclesiastical umbrella. In other words, it’s great for unity! But is it really? We (an Orthodox Presbyterian Church congregation) frequently and openly use the Heidelberg Catechism (HC) in our worship services despite the fact that the Westminster Standards officially govern our denomination. And yet our presbytery has never once hinted at the possibility of bringing charges against me or the other members of our session (because they know the HC is an historic Reformed confession). The truth then is that the CREC has not formed to avoid narrow-minded denominational cronyism. They could have joined the OPC and experienced lots of creedal freedom in the lives of their congregations. The disjunction between those who cry for unity and their formation of new splinter groups unfortunately finds its genesis elsewhere.

3) Most importantly, it overlooks how confessions are in fact a rallying point of union for those committed to apostolic Christianity.

“But the apostles didn’t have confessions in the early church; therefore, neither should we.”  This is simply immature thinking.  The apostles did not write confessions because their writings are the very things upon which we have based our confessions.  If the NT had the apostles themselves, why would they need to produce an accurate summary of their teaching?  Duh!  

The Reformation began with Martin Luther’s conviction that the Church needed to recover the true apostolic faith (from Roman abuses, in particular).  That simple, yet glorious project produced what we know today as confessional Protestantism.  And quite amazingly, the project of confessional Protestantism only produced three factions: the Lutherans, the Reformed, and the Anabaptists.  In one of the greatest tragedies of the Reformation (in my opinion), the political circumstances of the time prevented the Lutherans and the Reformed from working out their differences.  (As I see it, they were basically divided over the role of mystery versus reason in the Bible’s system of doctrine.  I would like to think they could have bridged that gap with better conditions and more time.)  And yet those differences did not include the basics of the nature of salvation; there was considerable unity regarding justification and the imputed righteousness of Christ.  What separated the Anabaptists from these two groups?  An attitude that basically said, “We don’t need no stinking confessions!  (…or professional clergy or infant baptism or…)”  Why not?  If their spiritual descendents (the Brethren movement) give any indication, the reason is clear: “It’s bad for church unity.”  Go figure!  Far from tending toward division, confessions have a strong tendency toward unity because they seek to set forth the very thing after which all true Christians should be searching: the whole counsel of God as captured in the Bible’s prophetic and apostolic doctrines. 

In the end, do denominations and their confessions create fences?  Sure.  But no more than they also create flagpoles.  The corollary to “us” has always been “them.”  To ignore that truth is nothing more than stubborn denial, plain and simple.  Perhaps our preoccupation with the fences created by denominations and their confessions actually betrays our even greater lack of concern for the flagpole of an apostolic body of divinity.  Unnecessarily promoting the former will injure our testimony among men; neglecting the latter can threaten our very souls before the Judge of all flesh.  


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