Denomination vs. Confederation
I am writing a series of blogs called "Verses" where I am pondering through a few ideas that have impacted me recently. The first post was called, "Covenant vs. Contract" and looked into the important difference between the two and what impact it has upon our relationship with God, his Church, and others.
ABC churches in Nebraska as a region staff member. As such I am part of the American Baptist Churches USA. I am a Christian who exercises my faith through the lense of Baptist tradition and history. There was a funny flow chart online last week about how Baptist view history. It is true some Baptists have as self-righteous attitude with poor grasps on history, however, I have found most of my fellow American Baptists to have a better understanding of their place in the Christian story than the tongue in cheek graphic would suggest. Many of my fellow American Baptists are well informed on their own tradition and the larger Christian story.
It is also true Baptists are about as diverse as they come. Our theology allows us to be conservative or progressive; Calvinist or Arminian; mega church or small rural church; King James only or all translations welcome; pro women in ministry or not; social activists or total non-conformists; and the list goes on. Most Baptist's don't actually fall into any one category and in many ways defy the ability to define. I personally have an opinion on each item here and more besides, but that would not keep me from fellowship from someone who has a different stance.
There are a few things most would agree upon, but then so would most Christians, the authority of scripture, the separation of church and state, the priesthood of the believer, baptism by immersion (hence our name), and the primacy of the local church. The one thing that keeps all this together is the most important word of all: AUTONOMY.
I believe that autonomy is our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Since we put so much emphasis on autonomy it allows churches to choose their own pastors, theological emphasis, scripture translation, curriculum, community involvement, and every other thing, without any undo outside influence from a larger denominational body (I think I just heard my Southern Baptists friends snicker a little). It also creates a beautiful cornucopia of ethnicities, musical styles, preaching styles, and other local church cultural norms. When all these groups come together for large gatherings, in my opinion there is nothing closer to what the new heaven and new earth will look like. This is great.
Autonomy can also our great weakness. It can be maddeningly difficult for Baptists to reach agreement on anything. It makes for difficulty getting them all on board and focused on social issues, cultural issues, and theological issues. Baptists are so fiercely autonomous that when a church is struggling they don't always know how to ask for help, despite having their covenant relationships with other churches, regions, and national bodies immediately available. Baptists choose to freely associate with one another through covenant relationship. They are never more focused than when they are rallied for foreign and domestic mission efforts, and never more divided that when someone tries to limit their freedoms.
This brings me to the difference between a denomination and a confederation. A denomination can and should be a unified, cohesive, monolithic institution. A true denomination should have the same beliefs practices and rituals in every church every week. They should follow the same calendar, believe the same theological tenants, and have an overseer to make sure everyone is acting accordingly. Many Baptists have attempted this type of control and oversight only to be reminded of the autonomous nature Baptists possess by immediately having churches pull away from such a fellowship.