Accept That We Are a Denomination

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?




  1. Zach

    Wow.I’ve read most of your entries here, Allan, and feel it’s all very timely, very poignant. I very much appreciate them all.

    I am CoC born and bred and I was told, directly, that we were a “non-denominational” group. I always found that a bit odd, but it was clearly in the name of being different. We don’t go to FCA like kids from “those denominations” do. etc. I think, like you say, that to call ourselves otherwise feels like semantics. It’s SOLELY based on trying not to be like those other groups, not really on trying to be the unique body of Christ the Gospel calls for.

    And, to be absolutely clear, I don’t look back and see my spiritual upbringing as negative in all ways or inherently dysfunctional. Far from it. But as adults, we all look back to see just how our upbringing/foundation applies to our current lives, our current attempts to be Christ-like, our current attempts to grow spiritually.

    Three other things that come to mind as I have wrestled with my spiritual life and the issues you’ve brought up in your posts:

    1. It’s all about the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom is not the doctrinally superior group of Christians. Such a view is inherently inward-focused. The Kingdom is literally and spiritually God’s presence on Earth. The Kingdom is God’s intentional start to his re-creation project that started with Jesus’ victory over death makes us the body of Christ everywhere we go, proclaiming God’s sovereignty over everything from the fabric of the universe to the cubicles we work in – and it’s ALL so others can see it. If we are praying, striving, meditating on how to be that to the world and not just each other, that will include sound doctrine. But the doctrine simply is not what ensures it. (ie, we are to BE the kind of people who would give all our money for Jesus, not just give the right amount every week (10 percent,etc.)).

    2. I think, at times, groups like the CoC can inadvertently rely too much on the slippery slope mentality. We’ve seen man mess it up before, so we assume better safe than sorry. But that is also inherently inward focused and passive. We become stewards of the traditions that feel safe and run the risk of making them our focus.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and this forum.


  2. Jocelyn Boyer

    ok, I think I might have to buy this book (on my kindle especially since it’s so affordable) I have ALWAYS been so baffled by why all COC people have this idea that they are not a denomination.

  3. Allan

    It’s a noble idea, it’s a high calling, it’s Christ’s holy will, and it’s something to which all Christian churches should attain: that we all be one. A denomination of God’s Church is an unimagined concept in Scripture. So, I believe our Stone-Campbell forefathers were right in not wanting to be called a denomination. Where we have gone horribly wrong is in claiming that every other Christian group out there is a denomination in contrast with CoCs which are the real true Church of Jesus.

    Of course, ironies abound when you study human behavior. One of the funnier ones to me is that if you and I were to take our local CofC sign out front and add to it the words “A Non-Denominational Community Church” we’d get in huge trouble. Even though a non-denominational community church is what we’ve been taught for decades that we are. The trouble is that now some of the “denominations” are using that phrase and, in order to fulfill the strange mandate to be different from all other faith traditions, we can’t use it.

    The problem for us comes with our own attitudes when we say we’re not a denomination. We’re intentionally setting ourselves over and against all other Christian groups. That’s flat out sin.

    I like Garrett’s “denomination in protest.” Let’s admit to the obvious, that we are certainly a denomination. But let’s also point to the ideal, to our God’s ultimate will for unity among all his children.

    For some really terrific insights into why the CoCs today think the way we do, I highly recommend “Things Unseen” by Leonard Allen. It’s excellent. It analyzes all of our peculiarities — the five steps of salvation, a cappella music, our unique views on baptism, the limits we impose on the Holy Spirit, our biblical hermeneutic — and traces back to their origins. And then Allen presents a fantastic case for the CoCs to be perfectly positioned for evangelism and revival in our post-denominational, post-Christian world. It’s a great book. We may review that one next.

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