Today I will take on the question Sharon raised: “How important are church denominations to God?”
The roots of this question go all the way back to the First Century when Paul was engaged with a debate with the Pillars of Jerusalem (Peter, James, and John). The Pillars thought that in order to be a Christian a person should HAVE TO observe strict dietary requirements and be circumcised (if a person was male), while Paul did not believe those “requirements” were necessary. Hence, a person could argue that early debate was the beginning of denominationalism.
The long and short of it – in my humble opinion- is that the answer is: “Not important at all.”
So why do we have them?
We have denominations because human beings seem to have a deep-seeded desire to separate themselves from others and be a part of a group. Once we’ve put ourselves into groups, the very next thing we do is decide which group is better than the others.
I’ve seen this dynamic get played out in sports (New York Yankee’s fans despise Boston Red Sox fans, and Boston Red Sox fans despise New York Yankees’ fans); I’ve seen this dynamic played out in politics (Democrats despise Republics, and Republicans despise Democrats); and I’ve seen this dynamic played out in religion (Evangelicals look down on mainline denominations; and mainline denominations look down on Evangelicals).
So do denominations only exist so we know who to despise or look down upon?
No. I believe denominations can actually play an important (and even positive) role in our spiritual lives. In order to explain that, let me use an analogy.
All human beings need to be fed. Literally.
With that said, not all human beings take in exactly the same food in order to thrive. Some folks like me eat a diet heavy on junk food (at least until they hit the age of 30 or so). Other folks denounce meat (and even, perhaps, meat by-products) and call themselves vegetarians or vegans. Still others adopt a low-sodium diet in order to improve their health.
So which diet is correct?
It depends on the needs of the individual.
Same thing goes with denominations. Some Christians need to believe there is a rulebook that sets out all of their beliefs in black and white; hence, they call themselves “Bible believing Christians”. Other Christians need to worship in a highly emotional and expressive way; hence, the creation of charismatic and Pentecostal communities. Other Christians feel the need to integrate reason and science with their faith; hence, the development of the mainline denominations (Presbyterians, Methodists, Congregationalists, etc.).
So which approach is right?
Here’s where things get tricky. Since all of them have the same purpose in mind (to develop the best possible relationship with God), I believe a better questions is, “Which approach is right for me?”
If you put a mainline Christian in an Evangelical church and told him or her, “In order to be a Christian, you should believe exactly what you are taught?” – the mainline Christian would run away screaming. If you put a Pentecostal Christian in a highly structured and orderly mainline worship service, they would fall asleep shortly after the first hymn (written in the year 1631) is sung!
The challenge for us in spiritual community, then, is to help individuals develop a spiritual maturity where members come to understand that what feeds them is NOT what necessarily feeds everyone. If they can nurture the seeds of humility in their hearts, they can grow into a place where they are not only comfortable around those who have different needs someday they might even do what Peter, James, John, and Paul did over 2,000 years ago: love their sisters and brothers who see things differently!
To draw upon the inspiration of Louis Armstrong, “what a wonderful world” THAT would be!
So what’s your take on this?