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?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 54-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA with his black Labrador Retriever named Max. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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6 Responses to Denominations

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    Wouldn’t the same argument apply to different religions as well as different denominations? If an individual’s spiritual needs are better met by being a Buddhist than by any flavor of Christianity, is God equally okay with that? Are some doctrines closer to God’s own truth than others, or is it all just whatever works for you?

    I hate to be a troublemaker or hijack someone else’s question here, but the denomination I was raised in taught that denominations are not just about how you worship, but also what specifically you believe. And that whether you believe in things like the validity of infant baptism or transubstantiation or predestination makes a difference in how fully you can “sync up” with God and his will for you. I’m all for the “many roads to spiritual fulfillment” approach, but it feels like that puts what humans need from God over what God needs from humans—which is fine if you believe there is no God or that God doesn’t have a specific will for you, but I’m not sure how you reconcile it with the belief that God exists and wants you to act in accordance with his truth rather than your own.

  2. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    A pagan friend just reminded me that another way the “many roads” idea works is if you believe that all deities are faces of the same great truth—specific metaphors for a much bigger reality that humans aren’t capable of comprehending all at once. So I guess with denominations it could be that each has a view of God that is incomplete, and that’s why they differ on details but agree in the big picture.

  3. Stevie says:

    That’s what I think. I believe that all religions and denominations within religions lead to the same truth. I guess I’m a Universalist. The details don’t matter to me as much as the connection we all have to God. So many arguments here, I know, but it’s the idea that makes the most sense to me. I took a class on religions once at the Unitarian Church. They peeled down all the religions and they were all the same—-love one another.

  4. Stevie says:

    I also think that God’s capacity of love is so huge that we really can’t grasp what he’s thinking. (Oh, wait, Craig, you said that. Sorry.)

  5. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    I like the Unitarian philosophy, especially since the friends I know who practice it also allow for the possibility of atheists joining the party via the Saganesque idea that all things in the cosmos ARE deeply connected, though on a natural rather than supernatural level.

    The only part that troubles me is the concern that in our well-meaning desire to include all paths, we’re unintentionally turning God into some kind of vague, lowest common denominator concept. “Love one another” is necessary, but not sufficient. It’s like politicians who say they’re for peace, prosperity, safe streets, good schools, and all that; of course they are, everyone is, but that doesn’t really tell you anything about how they intend to get there. I like to think God is a savvy voter who cares at least a little about how we get there.

  6. Stevie says:

    I think it’s a good example of “what works for you is what is best.”. The Unitarian Church didn’t work for me, either, for that reason. However, it is a very welcoming community for those who are searching. They provide good, comprehensive classes on understanding another’s path.

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