This is a repost from February 14, 2007:
Last night as I was driving to and from teaching catechism I was listening to one of the White Horse Inn episodes from the last month or so. I find WHI to be a good source of encouragement and spiritual/intellectual stimulation. On this particular program, the word “denomination” was bandied about a lot. Hearing that word always makes me think back to seminary and the Dogmatics 4411 lectures I heard from Dr. Gootjes in 1997. Gootjes spent about a month on this topic. I’ll share some of what I learned from him. This is just a summary from my notes. If there’s something I missed or misunderstood, I bear full responsibility.
He began by noting that this word is frequently used today, though it has no origin in Scripture. That in itself does not automatically mean that we can’t use it (think: “Trinity”). The word is not used in Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (the textbook) either. The term originates in the 18th century with episcopal Protestants in Britain as a collective term for other Protestant churches. Originally it had a negative connotation, whereas today it always seems to have a positive or neutral sense. Gootjes mentioned a few authors who discuss denominationalism: Frame, Schrotenboer, Zwaanstra. Frame and Zwaanstra were discussed extensively later in the lectures.
The word “denomination” is not normative, but sociological and descriptive. In today’s world, all sorts of religious groups are identified as denominations. According to Rossler, “The advantage of the term is that it avoids value judgments…” For many Christians today, the term “denomination” solves the problem of how to designate various groups. It seems to be a value-neutral term.
Gootjes went on to note that the Belgic Confession speaks differently about the church and churches. The Confession speaks normatively. Article 29 speaks about the differences between churches true and false and also uses the word “sect.” The distinctions in the Confession are ignored with the use of the term “denomination,” for with that word everything is included which presents itself as church.
The government, for instance, can legitimately use such a word for surveys, etc. But the term is problematic in an ecclesiastical context because a church which presents itself as a “denomination” must say that every other church also has the right to this term, even though your church may be better. The notion of a “denomination” functions outside of a normative description of the church. The concept works with the idea that all those groups being referred to are church, though some are better than others (or worth more, just like we speak of “denominations” of money).
There is a quote here in my notes; I believe it comes from Monsma (The Trial of Denominationalism): “Viewed from this vantage point, the terms true and false church are incomparable; there are no false churches, strictly speaking. When a church becomes false, it ceases to be a church. But there are less perfect and more perfect churches, as there are less pure and more pure confessions.” Gootjes noted that this perspective puts Monsma at odds with the Belgic Confession. Monsma says that the words “true” and “false” cannot be applied to churches. In their place, he wants to use “denomination.”
Now Dr. Gootjes said a lot, lot more on this topic, but I’ll leave it at that. Let it suffice to say that the word “denomination” does carry theological baggage with it and what we confess can’t be found in that baggage. So, when we innocently (or perhaps advisedly) adopt the use of this word, we’re also in danger of being saddled with that baggage.