Why Denominational Identity Still Matters

To many Christians, denominationalism seems pretty old-fashioned. Not “vintage” old-fashioned, like vinyl records and safety razors, but “outdated” old-fashioned, like phone books and VHS tapes.

Have denominations gone the way of the buffalo? Does denominational identity matter anymore?

Denominationalism Then and Now

When it comes to denominations, American Protestant history can be divided into five general periods. The “proto-evangelical” era, covering roughly 1600 to 1720, was a period when Old World denominational traditions were planted in the New World. The “evangelical-revival” era, covering 1720 to 1820 or so, witnessed two major awakenings, the American Revolution, and the growth of a trans-denominational evangelical identity that in some ways transcended particular traditions. Nevertheless, denominational identity remained pronounced. The remainder of the 19th century was an era of “denominational-evangelical polemicism” as denominations competed with and challenged one another, as nearly all Protestants pushed back against Catholic growth via immigration, and as evangelicals within denominations grew increasingly concerned with modernist ideas during the Gilded Age.

The late-1800s through the 1970s might be considered the era of “pan-evangelicalism,” when the combination of denominational battles, parachurch ministries, two world wars, and anti-Communism helped forge stronger ties among evangelicals across various denominational traditions. It became increasingly clear that theologically conservative and morally traditionalist Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians had more in common with one another than with progressives/revisionists within their own denominations. This led directly to the current “post-denominational” era, in vogue since at least the 1980s, wherein denominational identity became far more fluid and many of the largest and most influential congregations in America held no tie to a particular tradition.

Clearly, denominational identity at least seems less important than it used to be. But I would suggest that the time is ripe for a revival of denominational identity among evangelicals. I will use my own tradition, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), as a test case and then make broader application for other traditions.

Denominational Evangelicalism

Until relatively recently, Southern Baptists were financially and programmatically self-sufficient, mostly regional in their identity, and more than a little insular. Though some individual Southern Baptists were involved in pan-evangelical endeavors, most were content to focus on their own denomination. In the mid-1970s, one denominational executive famously dismissed evangelical as a “Yankee word.” But by the 1980s, the SBC found itself in the throes of a denominational controversy over biblical inerrancy, gender roles, and cultural engagement—all issues also contested within the wider evangelical movement. It was only natural for some to begin questioning how SBC identity relates to evangelical identity.

Between 1982 and 2011, three different books were devoted in part or in whole to this question. Additionally, several stand-alone essays were published in scholarly journals and other volumes. As theological conservatives came to control the SBC, a process completed by the mid-1990s, fewer questioned whether Southern Baptists hold to basic evangelical beliefs. It’s hopefully apparent that virtually all Southern Baptists joyfully affirm a high view of Scripture, an emphasis on the gospel message and its transformative power, and a commitment to evangelism and missions. The question is how these views relate to Baptist convictions such as a believer’s church, credobaptism, congregational freedom, and a commitment to church-state separation.

Longtime Southern Baptist theologian James Leo Garrett provides a helpful paradigm for thinking about this question. Southern Baptists are indeed evangelicals, theologically speaking, but we are what Garrett calls “denominational evangelicals.” By and large we filter our evangelical identity through our Baptist identity. The pan-evangelical movement says little about the nature of local churches or the sacraments, and for good reason: these are among the key issues that tend to distinguish different denominational traditions. But Baptists have never been prone to “punting” on ecclesiological matters.

To be a convictional Baptist who affirms traditional Baptist emphases makes one a certain sort of evangelical by definition. Mind you, not the sort of evangelical that cooperates primarily around parachurch ministries and special-focus institutions like so much of postwar evangelicalism; rather, the sort that affirms the primacy of the local congregation and values denominational institutions. We tend to be Baptist evangelicals, rather than evangelicals who happen to attend Baptist churches. To borrow an analogy from Presbyterian theologian Michael Horton, we value the evangelical “village green” but aren’t very interested in moving out of the Southern Baptist house on the town square.

For Such a Time as This

To be sure, Southern Baptists aren’t the only denominational evangelicals out there. Most of my Presbyterian and Anglican friends are denominational evangelicals, and the same is true of many (if not necessarily most) of my Methodist and Pentecostal friends, too. Despite what the prophets of post-denominationalism may say, denominational identity will continue to matter for countless evangelicals until that day when the Lord gives us full clarity on the secondary and tertiary matters that divide authentic Christians from one another. And I’d suggest that at this particular moment in history, that is a very good thing.

America is rapidly losing her memory in an effort to reinvent her morality. As a full-throated Baptist, I don’t believe America ever was a “Christian nation” in the sense promoted by some conservative political activists. However, no one can credibly deny that the Christian worldview exercised considerable—if not always consistent—influence on American culture until relatively recently. As Bob Dylan reminds us, The times, they are a-changin’.

Evangelicals in the past could count on the wider culture to understand much of our jargon, give at least ceremonial respect to our God, and resonate with some of our morality. This is no longer the case, which presents challenges for the public square but also provides a “kairos” moment for Great Commission faithfulness. Being a Christian is weird again—just like it was in the earliest centuries of church history. I believe this bodes well for denominational identity.

Roots and Scaffolding

At their root, denominations are faith communities that embrace certain doctrines, traditions, habits, and priorities. Whether Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Assemblies of God, or Lutheran, these labels—when taken seriously—actually mean something. They are particular ways of being Christian that predate postwar evangelicalism and recent post-denominationalism. To varying degrees they have roots, which is all the more important in a culture fast abandoning its own. Of course, these denominational traditions at their best are also in intentional continuity with the Great Tradition of catholic Christianity, but that’s a related topic best reserved for another day.

It is more difficult to be a serious Christian in the American public square than it was a generation ago. Nearly all the signposts indicate our culture will become increasingly anti-Christian; biblically speaking, this shouldn’t surprise us. I’d suggest churches with a thick sense of denominational identity are in the best position to provide the sort of catechesis and discipleship necessary to live faithfully in American Babylon. We should find our way forward by looking backward to the Scriptures and the best of the Christian tradition. While it’s not impossible for an independent congregation or parachurch ministry to do this, it’s more natural for a church tied to a particular denomination. All the necessary scaffolding is already in place.

What About Sectarianism?

While I think denominational evangelicalism is the path forward, some evangelicals will understandably raise concerns about sectarianism. As a member of a denominational tradition that has at times been characterized by a sectarian outlook, I’m sensitive to this caution. However, I don’t think sectarianism is that significant of a threat at this point in history—at least not for denominational evangelicals. Cultural decadence, threats to religious liberty, and the sheer scope of spiritual lostness all point to the need for what Timothy George calls an “ecumenicity of the trenches.” While George is referring more generally to evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox co-belligerency in the culture wars, I think his vision applies all the more to intra-evangelical cooperation.

As America’s founding fathers were moving to sign the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin purportedly remarked: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Denominational evangelicals will recognize a similar principle at work in our contemporary culture.

Denominational distinctives won’t disappear, and we will no doubt continue to have “family discussions” about the doctrines and practices that divide us. However, we will also be more united than we’ve ever been in preaching the gospel, serving those in need, and speaking out against evil and injustice, thereby bearing witness to the culture around us. We won’t have the luxury of reverting to sectarianism—the stakes are simply too high. Denominational identity will matter, but only in a secondary way as we seek first and foremost to be “blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Phil. 2:15).

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