Denominational Affiliation

After reading my blog post of yesterday, one of my readers sent me an e-mail that read in part:

[W]hy Catholic, or Baptist or Presbyterian, Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc. Jesus had no affiliation with any of these denominations….His followers were simply called “Christians.” Our attempt at defining Christ through human eyes has led to denominational divisions which are, in a majority of cases, not God glorifying. Will we ever hear the simple response, “I am a follower of Christ,” without the qualifying denominational affiliation? When Jesus called His Apostles it was with a simple “come follow me.” We seem to spend tremendous time and energy “defending” denominational views and positions at the expense of promoting His simple, yet immutable message….Jesus came to establish a kingdom, not denominations/religions.

To a large extent I sympathize with my reader’s comment and think the question he poses is a good one. Christian is a far more important designation for me than Catholic – what is fundamental to me – and defines who I am in the world – is Christ and the reality of his incarnation, life, death and resurrection.

Having said that, I think, “come follow me,” was probably a clearer command when Jesus was standing right there in the flesh talking to his disciples. When they had differences among themselves or weren’t sure what he meant by something, they could ask him about it. (“In the house the disciples again questioned him about this.”) And if they got something wrong, he could correct them. (“We saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

We don’t have that luxury. While we have prayer and the Holy Spirit to guide us, we have to discern answers to questions that are not always so clear. Inevitably, there will be disagreement about how to answer those questions, disagreements about what it means to follow Christ. We can all agree on the broad command (love God, love one another), but we don’t have the same agreement on the answers to a host of more specific questions that have to do with the implementation of the broad command. Indeed we don’t even all agree as to what issues are central to being a faithful follower of Christ.

To the extent that disagreement is inevitable, so to, I think, are different denominations, which get formed when people articulate one or more areas of disagreement on what appear (at least to them) to be matters of fundamental importance to the faith. It is important for people to have communities of faith with whom they can gather (for communal worship or otherwise) and those will, inevitably I think, become formed along something like denominational lines (whether we give them names like Evangelical, Pentecostal, etc or not). And that makes people’s efforts to understand where they “belong” quite natural.

That does not mean to say there is not a tremendous amount of energy wasted “defending” denominational views and positions that seem to me to have little to do with Jesus’ central message – and to that extent, I share my reader’s sentiment (especially since defending one’s own denomination often becomes “my brand is better than your brand” or, worse, “your brand is evil.”) That energy could be better spent preaching the Gospel. Nonetheless, while it is true that “Jesus came to establish a kingdom, not denominations/religions, I think it unrealistic to think we will ever do away with denominational affiliations.