As we continue our chapter-by-chapter review of Leroy Garrett’s “What Must the Church of Christ Do to Be Saved?” we’ve reached now a funny little essay about our status as a denomination. It’s not funny “ha-ha;” it’s funny like “I agree with 100-percent of what Garrett is saying but I’m not sure how important it is in the big picture.” Writing about it in this space will help me think through it. Maybe we can do this together.
Garrett claims that, in order for the Churches of Christ to have any kind of a legitimate voice for Christianity in the future, we must:
Come to terms with our status as a denomination.
The main reason for accepting this term for ourselves and even applying it to ourselves, Garrett says, is for sheer honesty. Self-authenticity. Being honest with ourselves, being honest with one another, and with the world. We must be an honest people. Calling all other faith traditions “denominations,” but loudly and indignantly throwing our hands up in outrage and disgust when the term is used of us just isn’t logical.
To illustrate his point, Garrett asks the simple question, “What would we have to have to be a denomination that we don’t already have?”
By definition a denomination is a church with a particular name. The Church of Christ has a particular name. The Church of Christ has its own agencies such as schools, colleges, publishing houses, journals, conventions, missionary programs, and retirement plans. It has its own distinctive clergy, separate from those in other groups. It has its own definable doctrines. It has its own history and traditions that set it apart. It has its own list of churches in yearbooks and directories. The Church of Christ clearly qualifies on each of these points. So, I ask again of our leaders who keep on insisting that we are not a denomination: What would we have to have to be a denomination that we don’t already have?
Of course, this is just one result of our distorted view that we are the only true Christians and the only true Church. Thankfully, not as many of us think or talk that way as used to. But the D-Word is a strange phenomenon among our people. We won’t touch it. It’s taboo. Even the most open-minded and big-picture thinking among us won’t use it when referring to our movement.
Ah, there it is: “Our movement.” See, I do this all the time, too. The true word, the one that communicates to the world, the English word that really defines what we are is “denomination.” But I won’t use it, either. I’ll say and write words like “our movement” and “our faith tradition” and “our tribe” or “our stream of the faith.” But I won’t say “denomination.” Because I know what will happen to me if I do. I’m a gutless chicken.
It would surprise most people in our “tribe” to read this line from Alexander Campbell taken from his writings in the Millennial Harbinger in 1840:
We, as a denomination, are as desirous as ever to unite and cooperate with all Christians on the broad and vital principles of the New and everlasting Covenant.
Our founding fathers recognized early on that, in the strict sense of the term, we are certainly a denomination. To say otherwise is to be less than forthright. It’s dishonest. And people within our church families and those in the world are all equally turned off by dishonesty. It’s a stumbling block to the Good News of salvation from Christ. And we must relax a little on this.
Some would say — and, yes, I’ve heard it more times than I can count — that we cannot be lumped in with all the other denominations. We must be different. Ian Fair once told a group of us at an ACU Summit that if we were so fired up about being so different, why don’t we just bar all the doors to our church buildings and come and go through the windows?
Now, I’m not as concerned with our use or non-use of the D-Word as I am with the attitudes that determine that use or non-use. See the previous reflections on the earlier chapters that speak about our understandings of God’s grace and his will for unity among his children. We don’t have to call ourselves a “denomination” in order to be honest or spiritually mature. What we must do is stop saying with all of our words and language that we’re one thing and everybody else is not. That’s the point. It’s not so much about the word as it is about our hearts.
At the same time, Garrett offers some very helpful guidance on how to see ourselves and even speak of ourselves as a denomination in a way that acknowledges reality but still points to and prays for and works toward our God’s ultimate purpose.
A people can be a denomination as a temporary measure, looking for the time when the ideal will obtain and there will no longer be denominations but only the one Body of Jesus Christ.
A “denomination in protest” is a defensible position. We can even say that we are a denomination because we can’t help being one, and that we don’t believe in denominations as the ideal or the final end for the Church, and that we will work for that unity that will one day cause denominations “to die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large,” to quote another of our founding documents.
A denomination in protest. I can live with that. Can you?