Take Protestantism, drop it in the American context, and what do you get? A proliferation of schisms and denominations.
Protestantism broke off of the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century and quickly formed different streams of Protestants after Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli failed to find agreement over the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. Fast forward to the early years of the United States when the young republic disestablished religion, and there you find Christian sects—and some not so Christian—forming even more rapidly.
Now in the twenty-first century, with the vast diversity of Protestant denominations, one wonders what unifies this colorful array of Christians? Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan, and Robert Peterson suggest that denominationalism is not essentially at odds with evangelical unity, and in their book, Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity (Crossway, 2013), they probe this question from several angles, pooling the insight of evangelicals in several denominations to offer a helpful foray into the tension of unity and diversity in the church today.
The contributors’ underlying conviction is that they all “belong” in three senses: to Christ, to each other, and to “denominations that seek to be faithful to Christ” (16). Thus they suggest that “denominational affiliation can be natural without being negative” and “evangelical identity can help rather than hinder Christian unity” (15).
This volume is literally bookended with chapters that provide a theological and historical framework for thinking about specific denominations. Morgan develops a theology of church unity based on the book of Ephesians, and Chute gives a lively account of the history of denominations, focusing on the origins of the six represented in this volume. David Dockery lays out some of the more recent history of denominations and evangelicalism, challenging evangelicals both to develop a stronger ecclesiology and to cooperate across denominational lines despite second-order differences.
The meat of the book lies in the six chapters written by evangelicals from different denominations who explain why they are both broadly evangelical and specifically committed to a denomination:
- Gerald Bray (Anglican)
- Timothy George (Baptist)
- Douglas Sweeney (Lutheran)
- Timothy Tennent (Methodist)
- Byron Klaus (Pentecostal)
- Bryan Chappell (Presbyterian)
I could easily spend time engaging with each of these writers, but in light of space will discuss some of the broader issues raised by these essays.
As I read this volume, I had two reservations—predictably, one with denominationalism and one with evangelicalism. First, the essayists tend to emphasize the healthy roots of their denominations, but do not address at length the subsequent failures of their denominations. For example, while Martin Luther, John Knox, and John Wesley all offer helpful resources to the church, significant segments of the denominations that have emerged from their teachings have, in many cases, departed from their founders’ teachings. (To be fair, the authors were assigned to explain why they belong to their denominations, not why one should hesitate to join their church.)
Second, the essayists do not share a single definition of evangelicalism, which left me wondering at times whether they share an “evangelical” identity. Relatedly, while the authors do an excellent job of explaining why they belong to particular denominations, not all explain clearly why they are evangelical, leaving the reader fully aware of the differences between these denominations but still wondering how they “belong to each other” (16).
Of course, finding unity amidst diversity is the challenge facing the contributors to this book, and my reservations highlight the inevitable deep tension that will characterize any successful expression of unity in diversity in the church today.
That’s why I find this volume helpful. It provides clear evidence that many evangelicals value unity and are willing to recognize those outside their denominational fold as belonging to the broader Christian fold.
At the same time, these essayists retain narrower identities. The book allows readers to hear denominational representatives explain what attracts them to their denomination and keeps them there, providing much historical perspective along the way. In a culture that often values generic unity to the point of ignoring actual diversity, this book commends denominational particularity alongside evangelical unity.
As Sweeney says it, “being an evangelical, by itself, is not enough,” largely because “[e]vangelicals do not have a theology of their own” (131). As Sweeney observes, “[w]e need both objective and subjective Christian faith,” and we can find the objective theology in denominations and the subjective spiritual renewal in evangelicalism. Thus this book suggests that denominations and evangelicalism can work together to sustain a Christianity that’s both theologically attuned and gospel-driven.
Why We Belong is a commendable blend of theology, history, and personal narrative. Readers will benefit from engaging these ideas, exploring the history of denominations, thinking about the broader unity of the church, and reflecting on the value of identifying with a local body of believers that expresses particular doctrinal convictions.
As Timothy George astutely notes, “[t]hroughout history, the Christian church has always been pulled toward one of two poles: identity or adaptability” (106). In a world influenced by the proliferation of denominations (identity) as refracted through American evangelicalism (adaptability), perhaps the church today can pursue a healthy tension between denominational particularity and evangelical unity as it seeks faithfully to promote the gospel.