This article will appear in two parts. The first part is written by Rick Shrader, president of Aletheia Baptist Ministries. The second part will be written by Matt Shrader, Educational Consultant at Aletheia Baptist Ministries.
The question continues to be asked, “why should we keep using the denominational names?” My answer is because they are needed as much now as ever and probably more. The use of the name Baptist has never been without controversy with multiple detractors and supporters. In this first part I want to give some historical and practical reasons why I am a supporter of keeping denominational names, especially our name, Baptist.
To denominate something is to name something. I don’t think there is anything in this world without a name, a description that tells us what the thing is and a little something about it. God started this in the six days of His creation. Whether sun, moon, stars, land and sea, heaven and earth, all were given names so that we would know them. Adam’s first job in God’s creation was to participate in this task and give the animals names that would describe and denominate them. Scientists, Botanists, Zoologists, and the rest have continued this practice with amazing descriptive preciseness. As I look around the room in which I am sitting, I can’t find an object without a name, whether chair, lamp, shelf, or picture. I’m glad for that. It makes everything useable and knowable.
If I am asked what I believe, I use names also. These names may be very specific such as pretribulational, or very broad such as Christian, but the more I use, the more you know about me. In fact, I can’t deny something without a name, e.g., I am not charismatic, I don’t do that practice named speaking in tongues. Now you know even more about me. This is good.
Baptists have jokingly but somewhat seriously referred to John in the Bible because God gave him a descriptive name, “Baptist.” This means he was the baptizer. I am not making a case that John the Baptist was a Baptist in the denominational sense, I am pointing out that such a name served a good purpose and described what John did. This is good.
When some independents were first called “Anabaptists,” it was a good descriptive name because they were re-baptizing their converts. Later when certain of them decided to give themselves a name, they chose Baptist because it continued to describe a specific and major doctrine which they practiced, even with threat of life or death. Even those who haven’t liked the traditional labels still must label themselves something, whether “charismatic,” “evangelical,” “conservative,” “liberal,” or “nondenominational.” Everything has a denominator or name and this is good also.
I also want to admit that Baptists, as all other religious groups, have had their embarrassments. There have been those who did or believed things that brought despite to the name. Sometimes people will become too loyal to a group at the expense of truth. This is especially true of those in cults and liberal denominations. There have been those in the Shrader family tree that did not help our name, but we keep trying to better the name, since we must be called something.
Many have pointed out that a postmodern generation doesn’t like the traditional “branding” of past generations. Millard Erickson wrote,
A further characteristic of the postmodern age is a reduced sense of commitment. There was a time when people possessed brand loyalty. . . Brand loyalty was also manifested in commitment to a religious denomination, so a Presbyterian would look for a Presbyterian church when moving to a new community, as a Methodist would seek out a Methodist church to attend. This was a lifelong commitment, and would not be deviated from without a very strong and compelling reason for doing so.1
George Barna said,
America is transitioning from a Christian nation to a syncretistic, spiritually diverse society. It is shifting from a denominational landscape to a domain of independent churches. It is a country where past defenses against ecumenism are giving way to the perceived benefits of cooperation, understanding, and consensus. The days of theological rigidity are history; America is now a theologically pluralistic and encompassing society.2
Barna, not the most conservative of evangelicals, is just stating the facts and so is Erickson. Much of our decision about the use of denominational names will depend on how far we can walk with the culture which they describe.
Denominational names have a good history.
Like so many subjects today, our thoughts of history are shaped by the latest thing we hear on the evening news or read on a blog. From what some say one would think that denominational names were invented by the devil himself. For example, one statement of faith from a well-known evangelical organization admonishes readers, knowing that all believers are part of the larger body of Christ, to “rise above all sectarian prejudices and denominational bigotry” and just to love one another.3 Actually, denominations were started to guard against that very thing.
A good history of the beginning of denominations is given by Bruce Shelley, Professor of Church History at Denver Seminary, in his book, Church History In Plain Language, (p. 303-308). Following the Reformation, Germany was headed into the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) because Catholics and the new followers of Luther were trying to make Germany either Catholic or Lutheran. Historically, a land or country had to be the religion of its ruler or king and so fighting for territorial rights was a religious fight. The peace of Westphalia (1648) was a landmark decision that allowed Catholics, Lutherans, and even Calvinists, to exist in the same territory without giving up their own interpretation of Christianity. England would wrestle with the same problem in deciding whether the country was to be Catholic or Anglican or Puritan. Each believed it ought to be their interpretation exclusively. “The use of the word denomination to describe a religious group came into vogue about 1740 during the early Evangelical Revival led by John Wesley and George Whitefield. But the theory itself was hammered out a century before by a group of radical Puritan leaders in England and America.”4
The great American “experiment” was the natural setting for the solution. In the old countries, a land had to be controlled by one religion and that religion had to be enforced by law. The Puritans who first came to America tried to set up their colonies this way with miserable results and with no more individual freedom than in England. It was Roger Williams, whom most regard as the first “Baptist” in America, who solved the dilemma.
In his book, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, John Barry describes this problem in the enforcement of the ten commandments.5 The Puritans, especially John Winthrop, John Cotton, and Thomas Hooker in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, set up a government that controlled and punished citizens for their adherence to the ten commandments, even to the extent as to whether they loved the Lord their God enough (much less church attendance, daily prayers, and whether one should pray before or after the meal). Williams had come firmly to believe that human government could enforce the second half of the Decalogue (man to man) but must not infringe on his relation to the first half (man to God). Out of this Williams eventually founded Providence, Rhode Island with a separation of church and state where the state could not enforce or punish an individual concerning his relationship to God.
Also, the territorial problem had to be solved. Can anyone in a Puritan colony worship God in any other way, or would they have to move out of the territory? Denomination was the answer. Shelley explains,
Denominationalism, as originally designed, is the opposite of sectarianism. A sect claims the authority of Christ for itself alone. It believes that it is the true body of Christ; all truth belongs to it and to no other religion. So by definition a sect is exclusive.
The word denomination by contrast was an inclusive term. It implied that the Christian group called or denominated by a particular name was but one member of a larger group—the church—to which all denominations belong.6
The idea of denominations solved the territorial problem and allowed different interpretations of theology and polity to exist in the same area. Rather than promoting “sectarian prejudices,” they actually solved that problem.
If a good thing has fallen on hard times, it ought to be restored.
The alternatives to denominations are not proving to be any better and will probably end up far worse. As Barna pointed out in the above quote, theological pluralism is growing within Christian circles. The lack of specificity in a church or in a group of churches will only end in chaos and bad teaching. Denominational names and specifics help to guard against this problem and also allow the seeker to know a few things up about a church up front. It was a better day in America when the average citizen knew what the names meant, knew what his neighbors were, and got along fine with them. Strong religious fences make good neighbors too.
In the early 1980s the church I worked for sent a staff member to California to start a church. He thought it would be a good thing if he selected a generic name for his new church and not be identified with any particular denomination. After weeks of making visits on people he found that the most common question he was asked was, “What kind of church are you?” He also found that his most common answer was, “We’re Baptistic.” In the end he added the name Baptist and avoided the problem. Those who don’t know what the denominational names mean don’t care and those who do know want to know what you are. The name over the door saves a lot of time.
The details of what we believe are important.
Denominational names have always kept a good parameter around the beliefs of any denomination. Baptists have fought and died for the authority of Scripture and the priority of the New Testament in defining the church; the absolute necessity of a regenerate church membership; the exclusive use of immersion of adult converts; the autonomous authority of the local church to govern itself; the separation of the state from church affairs; and the belief in soul liberty in matters of conscience before God. These are historically identified with the name Baptist. We should not take lightly the discarding of a name that carries such weight for the sake of some who might not even believe these things.
In addition, what we believe is important to the seeker, even if he overtly disagrees with us. Doesn’t he deserve a straight answer from us? Why is it better (it is certainly not more honest) to hide our beliefs from another human being who has shown interest in our church? This is something cults do because they know their doctrine would be astonishing to the average person, especially to a Christian believer. I am not talking about pushing theological minutia ahead of the gospel, but rather of simply being up front about what we believe with our fellow man. Even if he has had a bad experience in another Baptist church, our beliefs are important enough to correct his estimate of us and to honestly portray what our great heritage has believed.
We are trading external divisions for external but false unity.
It is probably no coincidence that our generation is losing a clear conscience and understanding about the coming of Christ and the tribulation to follow. A generation ago R.V. Clearwaters wrote,
Any casual observer of the Protestant world can easily see that there is a rapid shifting from a state of many external organizational divisions, called denominations, which through the years have had a large measure of internal unity based on their fidelity to the Word of God, to a state of external organizational union in the National Council of Churches with increasing internal divisions.7
It is worth remembering that we live in the latter days and a world conglomeration of religions is coming that will deceive the whole world. No one will be willing to resist but will believe the lie told to them (2 Thes. 2:3-12). It would be hard to argue that this lie of the antichrist is based on clear divisions of beliefs rather than on an unclear mixture of truth and error. Will we be found faithful to the truth of the Word in these last days or be found apologetic and maybe embarrassed about what we believe?
Are there not already many who have traded fidelity to truth for ease and peacefulness? Don’t we live in a day when many are seeking to get along in the world and are afraid of rejection especially on religious grounds? Although I am sure that many who drop their denominational name believe they are doing it in order to reach more people and believe that such a name is a hindrance to evangelism, but I have to believe that such decisions are giving up a mile to gain an inch. The contribution to pluralistic syncretism, will in the last days, do much more to harm men’s souls than to win them.
And So . . .
G.K. Chesterton (who was a practicing Roman Catholic) said,
Hence the difficulty which besets ‘undenominational religions.’ They profess to include what is beautiful in all creeds, but they appear to many to have collected all that is dull in them. All the colours mixed together in purity ought to make a perfect white. Mixed together on any human paint-box, they make a thing like mud, and a thing very like many new religions. Such a blend is often something much worse than any one creed taken separately, even the creed of the Thugs.8
No one I know is arguing for denominational names over Scripture. When such sectarian attitudes occur, they are immediately expelled by those who know better. Yet everything under God’s sun has a name and that is a good thing. It is the way God has made us and made His world. History and honesty argue for the keeping of those names, even when detractors detract and naysayers nay. It is better for those of us who hold specific doctrines and practices to say so publically, and it is better for an honest seeker of the gospel to know that as well. Ours is to be faithful to what we believe the Scripture teaches and pray like the apostle Paul, “That I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak” (Col. 4:4).
1. Millard Erickson, The Postmodern World (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002) 31.
2. George Barna, Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996) 130.
3. CEF doctrinal statement, #9. “That the Church is composed of all those who truly believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.”
4. Bruce Shelley, Church History In Plain Language (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1995) 306.
5. John Barry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul (New York: Viking Books, 2012) part IV.
6. Shelley, p. 306.
7. R.V. Clearwaters, The Local Church of the New Testament (Chicago: CBA, 1954) 63.
8. G.K. Chesterton, Heretics/Orthodoxy (Nashville: Nelson, 2000) 45.