Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Denomination vs Confederation

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.

Today I want to examine another idea, "Denomination vs. Confederation." I am an ordained American Baptist minister. I work with the 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.

A true Baptist fellowship can never be a denomination. This was pointed out to me recently by a good friend. He said Baptists are more like a federation. But upon further reflection federation still has a strong central governing power over individual entities.And this would make most local Baptist churches cringe. It think we should go even further than federation. Instead Baptists should choose to covenant together for the sake of mission and ministry in the form of a CONFEDERATION. In a confederation each church continues to remain themselves, while uniting together for common purposes. At any point one of the churches can leave the confederation. The larger body is reliant upon the individual churches. All action at a larger level must be approved by the churches. This is a more Baptist confederation than a true denomination.

Denominations have their place. They just do not work in a Baptist setting. I am constantly reminded of this since my primary ministry is through the confederation rather than the local church. Our regions are ministers to individual churches. Each region is just as autonomous as our churches in relation to our larger body. Our ABC USA structure is more a confederation than a denomination yet we call ourselves a denomination because for a while we wanted to be like other mainline groups. Also to use the term confederation brings to mind the Civil War, of which ABC USA was strongly opposed to slavery (which caused a Baptist split in 1845 creating Northern and Southern Baptists) and don't want to be confused for a pro-slavery confederate state issues. Today we use the term "societies" in reference to our various autonomous groups. It has caused some confusion and difficulties over the years.  I don't know what to call ourselves if we are uncomfortable with the term confederation. What I do know is that as we continue to transition our leadership in the next couple years our future will rely on our ability to continue to navigate the difference between these two concepts, whatever terms we may use.

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