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Why does denominational identity matter?

This is a question asked by my non-Baptist supervisor on reading my essay.  It's a good question - why does it matter?  We think it does (or we think it doesn't) but do we think about why?

From my perspective as someone who is pretty committed to being a Baptist, it does matter (though twenty years ago I'd have said it didn't).  It matters, I think, maybe more in our post everything age, and perhaps especially in a Christian tradition where local autonomy and freedom of conscience are foot stamplingly defended. 

It matters, for example, because we are a tradition that affirms the ordination of women but respects the freedom of local congregations not to allow women to hold preaching or teaching roles.  It matters because we see ordained ministry as having a translocal element (we are accredited by the Union) and that somehow creates a tension with congregational autonomy.  If we are to handle this tension well we need to understand ourselves and how we came to this strange situation.

It matters, for example, when ministers transfer in from other traditions - perhaps because they have shifted their views on Baptism - and bring with them, subconsciously the baggage of another tradition in which, for example, governance is not congregational.

It matters , for example, when individuals come from other traditions - perhaps because of a congregational fall out or perhaps because they like our worship style better - because they (as I did when I was part of a Methodist church) assume a whole heap of things that just aren't so.

But, is this enough of a reason for it to matter?  Does it help or hamper mission?  Was Jesus a Baptist?  No, (old jokes notwithstanding) he was a Jew.  I think that I think that it matters (yes there are two 'I think that's there) because I need to know who I think I am in order to be able to critique that.  How can I comment on the strengths or weaknesses of being a Baptist if I don't actually know what a Baptist is?  I do, like many others, cringe at the expression 'Baptist DNA' because I don't really think I know what it means.  I like 'Baptistness' better because, I think, it is a little less determinist (I don't think that needs -ic on the end) in its intent.  I'm not really sure there is 'Baptist DNA' - we are too interbred with ideas pinched from other traditions and ideas, and I think that is a good thing (everyone knows that to much inbreeding makes for mental incapacity.. Hmm.  Discuss!) but we do still, at least officially, hold to some central principles.

All of which gets me no further in addressing the comment on the essay, but does make me wonder what other people think.  So, why does denominational identity matter to you (or not)?


  • Sitting here in Prague at IBTS, Baptist identity, history and structures (which is, what I guess a denomination consists of) is very important. I think one of the reasons why everyone is encouraged to read James McClendon is that he is someone who seems to give students and staff together a common way of doing theology that is felt to be profoundly baptist - in that it takes the community, the history of the community, the story of individuals and the story of God equally seriously in creating and living out a theology for the community.
    For this reason I struggle with your idea that one of the things that makes us baptist is that we ordain women and allow some churches not to call them because they don't recognise women's ministry. Surely that is just another way of saying that we have a confused and confusing, live-and-let-live approach to everything which at the end of the day means we don't have any convictions at all just preferences.
    I know people will say that our convictions are all about baptism, gathering, etc. But surely our convictions are about gospel and the equal treatment of all believers is a gospel issue not a matter of preference.

  • Hi Simon,
    obviously my grey matter is duller than I thought it was and I am talking gibberish (or failing to express myself adequately anyway). I don't think that the situation we have over ordaining women is part of what makes our identity, I think it's part of what happens because we don't understand our identity. And it was only ment as one example of the muddled thinkig we seem to live with.

    That'll teach me to try to think 'out loud' on computer when I'm exhausted!

    Hope Prague is still proving enjoyable

  • This is something that has exercised me quite a lot for most of my Christian life (some 30 'odd years now - with the emphasis on the "odd"!). I am a member of a 'free church' that is governed congregationally along Baptist lines, and is a member of the Baptist Union, but that is also formally recognised by the Methodist Church (appearing on the 'plan' and participating in pulpit exchange arrangements) and the URC. Other members and attenders at our church come from virtually every denominational background (and none).

    Of course individual identity (at the level of the person, church, or denomination) is important in helping to understand why we believe what we do, and why we may have trouble accepting other views. The danger, though, is that preciousness over that identity leads to us failing to recognise all those things that we share with others (in our local congregation, other local congregations, the wider Christian Church, and even the wider faith community) and that should rightly bind us together.

  • "But surely our convictions are about gospel and the equal treatment of all believers is a gospel issue not a matter of preference."

    But I can't think of ANY Baptist values that could be described as a matter of preference and not gospel issues.

    That doesn't mean the values Baptists find most important would be denied as heretical by other denominations, it just means that generally speaking the areas of interpretations which Baptist churches and individuals overlap on lead towards emphasising some values more than others, surely?

The comments are closed.