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Optimistic Denominationalism

Optimistic Denominationalism

It is one of the realities of the Christian faith that people love to criticize—the reality that there are a host of different denominations and a multitude of different expressions of Christian worship. We hear it from skeptics: If Christianity is true and if it really changes people, then why can’t you get along? We hear it from Roman Catholics: If the Protestant faith is biblical, then why is it splintered while the Catholic Church remains unified? I do not deny that both skeptics and Catholics ask valid questions.

But while believers have become accustomed to responding to this criticism with a sense of shame, I choose to see it in a different light. I choose to see each tradition as highlighting different aspects of God’s purpose for his people. This is what I consider “optimistic denominationalism.” It admits that the church is, indeed, divided along many different lines. But it looks for the good in it. Instead of focusing on the matters that divide us, it focuses on what each tradition chooses to emphasize.

The various paedobaptist traditions, for example, emphasize welcoming children into the full life of the worshipping community as did our Old Testament forebears. “Let the children come,” they say, “and come all the way by being baptized and received.” The Baptist traditions, on the other hand, value the beauty of the children of believers being raised in the church, professing faith, and being baptized on the basis of it. Only one of the two traditions ultimately has it right and only eternity will finally resolve the debate. But today, rather than focusing on matters of disagreement, why not take the optimistic approach and appreciate what each emphasizes? Both do what they do to honor the Lord and celebrate his grace.

Some Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed traditions sing only Psalms in their church services. They are convinced that unless the New Testament explicitly prescribes an element of worship, they should avoid it. Most other traditions will gladly sing psalms, hymns, and “spiritual songs” (such as modern worship or choruses). They are convinced that we must avoid what the New Testament explicitly forbids, but otherwise have a measure of freedom. Only one can be right, but both can be fully seeking to honor God and each can show us something beautiful: Those who hold to a strict interpretation of the regulative principle can emphasize the beauty of allowing God to regulate our worship while those who hold to it in a looser sense can emphasize the many ways in which God is pleased to receive our worship. We can face the disagreement with optimism and appreciate what each tradition brings to our experience of Christian worship.

Brethren churches traditionally celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Sunday. Worship without the Lord’s Supper is hardly recognizable as worship, they insist, for they understand Jesus to command it and the early church to model it. Churches in several other traditions celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a monthly or quarterly basis, some even insisting it is so important an occasion that they must spend weeks in proper examination and preparation. In the former tradition, we see the desire to commune with the Lord briefly but regularly while in the latter the desire is to commune with the Lord at such depth and length that it must be done infrequently. Rather than criticizing those who take an opposite viewpoint, why not appreciate what they choose to emphasize and respect their reasoning? Though their convictions may lead them to different denominations, we can see that distinction with optimism rather than pessimism.

Instead of criticizing the differences, we can appreciate the varied emphases.

This applies to any number of matters for which Christians have varied understandings—using instruments in worship or singing a cappella, permitting female deacons or reserving the office for men, keeping young children in the service or providing age-appropriate programs for them. In all of these ways, we can look to other traditions as observers rather than critics, to appreciate that while others may differ from us in our convictions, they do so for the best of motives. And instead of criticizing the differences, we can appreciate the varied emphases.

Some time ago I reflected on all this and suggested that as a prism refracts the light and separates it into its component colors, the differing traditions refract the Bible’s varying commands and emphases. As long as those traditions and denominations love Jesus, honor the Bible, and preach the gospel, we can love and respect them, appreciating what they add to our understanding of Christian worship.


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