Denominational Differences: Why They DO Matter

Recently, I went to a friend’s wedding at an Episcopalian church.  The church wasn’t that large but it was a very elegant building, and the wedding itself was a good experience.  I was, and am, obviously very happy for my friend and his new bride.

I found the wedding interesting because it was, after all, an Episcopalian wedding, and therefore it was far more liturgical than a typical congregational church.  Everything was different; the way the priest spoke, the way the congregation responded to certain phrases, the way Scripture was read, and the way they administered communion (the fact that they gave communion at all during a wedding kind of threw me off).  I appreciated the experience, silently joked to myself that I broke a seminary rule because I drank a drop of alcohol for communion (Baptist churches primarily serve non-alcoholic grape juice), and then moved on to the reception, which did not feature the regality of the wedding service but instead showcased really, really loud club music.  I had to yell at the people right next to me just to carry on a conversation.  Then we went to a very cowboy club/bar which featured more loud music, this time of the country variety (a place I had never been to despite living in Abilene for 18 years), and I got beer spilled on my suit jacket.  Yep.

Anyway, here’s the thing:  Despite the fact that I found everything interesting and I respect the way they do things, I would never become a member of an Episcopalian church unless it was the only one within any reasonable distance.  This is not because I have a special beef with them (obviously, I have no ill-will towards my newly married friend).  It’s because of honest differences in both biblical interpretation and ecclesiastical practice.

It is popular now for many Christians, especially younger ones, to discount the importance of denominations and even decry their existence.  On some level, this is understandable:  In a perfect world, if we all had perfect understanding of the Scriptures, there would not be any denominations because we would all agree on everything.  Furthermore, denominational battles have often been very ugly, which is a turn-off to many Christians who rightly believe that our unity in Christ should supersede our relatively minor differences, as long as those differences do not strike at the heart of basic orthodoxy or practice.  However, as understandable as it is, it is also very irresponsible and frankly pretty lazy to pretend that denominational differences don’t matter and are only the product of combative old people.  The reason denominations exist is because many Christians have honest disagreements on how to interpret and handle Scripture, and the acknolwedgement of those differences is actually far more respectful than pretending they don’t exist or don’t matter.

I’ll use a very common dividing line as an example:  Baptism.  Many denominations practice infant baptism, such as the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, and the Presbyterians, not to mention the Catholics.  Many believe that infant baptism is unbiblical and refuse to do it, practicing only believer’s baptism, such as the Baptists, the Church of Christ, and the Assembly of God.  Now, is this a “Gospel issue?”  No, most Christians do not believe so, particularly most Protestants, because we do not believe baptism saves (it gets more complicated with some old school Church of Christ folks, but we’ll pass that by right now).  Nonetheless, most Christians would also agree that baptism is a biblical practice and quite a big deal.  It is not something that is easily glossed over.  It gets even more hairy because baptism has such strong ties to the very concept of how to “do church”:  Should we have free, local congregations like the Baptists or should everything be more heirarchical like those of the magisterial Reformed tradition?  If the former, than membership is restricted to those who are regenerate and have made a public confession of faith.  If the latter, than infants can be considered “members” whether they are saved or not.

How then, may I ask, is it responsible to just sweep such a large difference under the rug and then think it is easy to have fellowship with one another in a local congregation?  One side holds to believer’s baptism, local church authority, and regenerate membership, and will preach and practice accordingly.  The other believes in mixed membership, infant baptism, and heirarchy (I understand I’m simplifying here but it’s just for present purposes of distinction).  That is not just a difference of liking vanilla and liking chocolate.  This cuts deep in how one practices church.  If a congregation had half the people trying to sprinkle their babies while the other is refusing to acknowledge that as a true baptism, that congregation would have issues.  A lot of issues.  I am not saying it is impossible, but that church would have be very, very intentional in regulating and handling those type of differences.

In this situation, the respectful thing to do would be in fact to have denominations and practice seperately.  There can be mutual respect but this way acknowledges the very real theological differences.  Instead of trying to cause each other trouble, they will leave each other in peace while still having some dialogue.  That is respect.  It doesn’t have to turn ugly, but it’s kind of like if some white guy came to a Korean church and pretended that cultural differences didn’t exist or were unimportant.  That wouldn’t make him “tolerant” or enlightened; that would just make him ignorant and he would probably end up offending a lot of people there at some point.  Frankly, as real as cultural differences are, they pale in comparison to important theological differences, which is why it’s far easier to have multicultural churches than churches that have a wide range of beliefs on something as important as baptism.

I like Tim Keller.  I’ve read a couple of his books, I think he’s very bright, and I think he has a lot to teach.  I would also never become a member of Redeemer Church in New York because I am not a Calvinist and I heavily disagree with infant baptism, thinking it has almost zero biblical support.  I’m sure he would disagree with me there (and lose 😉 ), but that’s the thing:  Why would I go to a Presbyterian church just to pick fights when I have the option to go to a congregation that is more of like mind and practice?  I think it would be far more respectful to leave Keller and other Presbyterians to do their thing and I can air my disagreements and baby-sprinkling jokes in another avenue rather than cause a ruckus from within.

If you go to church, it would behoove you to know where they stand on many important issues and if they have denominational ties, if any.  It’s kind of amusing, but frustrating, when somebody who has gone to a church for years and is surprised that said church is a Baptist church or whatever.  I’ve heard of elders belonging to a church and then becoming angry when they are told that they can’t baptize their two month year old grandson… at a Baptist church.  That’s just ignorance… and no one wants to be willfilly ignorant on such an important matter, right?

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