Denominationalism (2)


In the previous article we saw that denominationalism originated in America and is the belief that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ consists of a huge variety of ‘denominations’. Despite their differences in doctrine and practices, they recognise one another as legitimate churches of the Lord and cooperate in projects to further the ‘Kingdom of God’. Built on the American spirit of tolerance, anyone has the right to go to the Church of their choice, but not the right to judge (or discriminate against) others in their personal choice. After all, what you feel in your heart is more important than the outward institution of religion! They are willing to cooperate together without necessarily being united as sister churches in the truth: a sort of unity in disunity.

Today’s article summarises and quotes what Rev Cl. Stam says about denominationalism’s link to the idea of the invisible church. We don’t believe in the invisible church as somehow being the sum total of the elect scattered in different denominations because Scripture doesn’t speak that way about the church. Rev Stam also shows how those who dare to criticise denominationalism’s tolerant views of one another are branded as sectarians. He also shows how the Westminster Confession’s formulation of the church lends itself to being interpreted as promoting denominationalism.


Denominationalism has a lot to do with the idea of the invisible church. It’s implied that there is an invisible unity of the church and that each denomination is a part or a “particular manifestation of the one grand invisible Church”. Although all the separate visible churches are independent, in principle they combine to form the whole church.

So it is that, whilst we confess that each true church is church of the Lord Jesus Christ, the denominationalist theory of the Church rests on the notion that the real church of the Lord is invisible. Consequently, you can’t really say that a particular institution can be identified as the church.

Where we emphasise unity in the truth, in denominationalism each denomination accepts that it has viewpoints which may be at odds with the viewpoints of other denominations. Each may freely emphasize those views without considering its own doctrine to be fully the whole truth.

Outward forms of worship are at best only differing attempts to give visible expression to the life of the Church. No denomination claims to represent the whole Church of Christ. No denomination claims that all other Churches are false churches.

A result is that no denomination will claim that everyone should join their church and submit to its regulations. They will also freely cooperate with and respect other denominations in social activities.


This mutual cooperation and respect means there’s a lot of toleration of one another in denominationalism. Conversely, if you don’t show this toleration and criticise denominationalism you are immediately branded as ‘sectarian’.

It would be sectarian of any denomination to state that its form of worship and confession is fully Scriptural and that others are obliged to follow the good example. It would be sectarian to assume that locally, e.g., the Canadian Reformed Church, is the true Church of Christ, for this implicitly contains condemnation of others in the same vicinity. It would be sectarian to call others in the Name of Christ to join you in worship, for you must call people to Christ and not to a specific institution. It would be sectarian not to cooperate with Christians of differing signature in all kinds of worthwhile public activities and organizations. I hate to say it, but, in view of all this, I guess I’m somewhat of a ‘sectarian’ indeed.

It boils down to this: all denominations have the right to exist and are significant for the whole, since pluralism and pluriformity are important characteristics of the one invisible Church. No Church may claim purity in doctrine, liturgy, and polity, although the one may be somewhat ‘purer’ than the other. Each makes his own attempt at serving God in the best way possible, and all are assured of their own in the great invisible Church of Christ. There may be a healthy spirit of ‘competition’ between the churches, yet each must ultimately seek what unites and not what separates, agreeing on the most fundamental issues of faith.

… In view of all this, American Christians might easily regard our Belgic Confession as a ‘sectarian’ Creed, since it contains a call to actual unity (Article 28) and diligently lists the (exclusive) marks by which a true Church can be known (Article 29)…”


The Westminster Confession, which came into being at a much later date than the Belgic Confession, might be used by some to defend denominationalism or promoted as fitting quite snugly into the American denominationalist pattern. In Article 25 of this Confession, we can read that the Catholic (or universal) Church is invisible, consisting of the whole number of the elect, whereas the visible Church consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion together with their children. I realize fully that any formulation can be easily misconstrued, but the terminology here does give occasion to misconceptions.”

Moreover, the Westminster Confession says that “particular churches, which are members of the visible catholic church, are more or less pure . . . whereas the purest churches under heaven are subject to both mixture and error”. This raises the important question: “When does a church become so impure that it ceases to be a true church?” The Westminster Confession provides no answer. Because of this sliding scale of church purity people think it’s quite proper to leave their church for a purer church. G I Williamson [formerly of the RCNZ], for example, believes that it is proper “to leave a true church that is much less pure to join a true church that is much more pure, provided the motive is the glory of God, the welfare of one’s spiritual concerns (and that of his children) and a testimony against error.”

This last statement is, in my understanding, evidence of denominationalism, supported by the terminology of the Westminster Confession. One can be a member of a much purer church, yet recognizing others (which are considerably less pure) as true churches. In the end the matter is not so much decided on the clear existence of the marks, but on varying degrees of purity, and such must be left up to one’s own individual insights and motives. The Westminster Confession gives no clear directive in this respect.”


Robert Baird, author of “Religion in America”

In order to work out where the Church of Christ really is, some people distinguish between ‘evangelicals’ and ‘non-evangelicals’. Robert Baird (1798-1863) does this in his major book, Religion in America. ‘Evangelicals’ were said to be those who “profess the Trinity, the depravity of man, the atonement by Christ, regeneration and faith, and final judgment. Baird also distinguished between Calvinists and Arminians (Presbyterians and Reformed vs. Methodists and Baptists)”. The evangelicals were identified as those who accepted “the whole Bible and nothing but the Bible. Creeds were of some importance, according to Baird, but not decisive, since the basic necessity was faithfully to exhibit the fundamental and saving truths of the Gospel!

Although today’s meaning of ‘evangelical’ tends to refer to those who emphasise spiritual rebirth through revivalism, Baird’s definition is still widely used. However, we can’t agree with Baird’s definitions. “Arminians cannot be classified as being ‘evangelical’, i.e., holding on to the fundamentals of the Gospel, while revivalism, though perhaps impressive in its outward forms, as Sidney Mead also writes, goes into an outright Pelagian direction ‘with the implicit suggestion that man saves himself through choice’.”


“If we attempt to summarize the above, we can come to the following conclusion. The (Protestant) ‘American’ view on the Church is guided by the fundamental belief that the Church of Christ is basically invisible and manifests itself in various denominations or throughout denominations, also in varying degrees of purity, while all ‘evangelical’ Christians profess the Holy Scriptures to be fully the Word of God. All visible Churches are at best ‘mere attempts’ to give adequate, concrete form to the worship of God, and none may claim to have received the ‘true form of religion’. While organization in different denominations is possible, perhaps even desirable, interdenominational cooperation and mutual effort is mandatory.

The rather rigid scheme of the Belgic Confession with its defined marks does not find general acceptance. Of all denominations in America, the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches have the most strongly defended traditional standards of doctrine and polity, suffering ridicule for this stance. There is little stress on knowledge of the Confessions and on the nurture of faith by catechetical instruction and Christian education. Preaching tends to be simplistic, quite methodistic in promoting various ‘steps’ to salvation. Arminianism and Pelagianism prevail in recurring revivals and national campaigns.”

In other words, unity in disunity.

“Sectarian ecumenicity. […] Christ’s prayer (John 17) for the unity of the Church as a unity in the Truth, a unity in word and deed, in love and responsibility, finds little application in the maze of American churches and sects. Does the reason lie here for the fact that American Christianity has so little impact on life in general? At close scrutiny, the grandeur fades and the poverty becomes increasingly apparent.

Our own Belgic Confession speaks much more Scripturally and simply on ‘the Church’, as do other Reformed Confessions like, e.g., the Scottish Confession of 1560. And we hope to make a few more remarks about this D.V. next time.”

(to be continued)