JACKSON, Tenn. — Though church denominations are in decline,
they still provide benefits such as structure, connections, coherence and
accountability, the president of Union University said Oct. 8.
David Dockery, speaking at the conference he hosted, to mark
the 400th anniversary of the Baptist movement, said the value and significance
of denominations depend on the degree they are rooted in scripture and biblical
“I believe (denominations) do matter, and they will continue
to matter,” Dockery said.
“But if, and only if, they remain connected to scripture and
to the orthodox tradition. Even with all of the advancements of our
technological society, we still need some kind of structure to connect and
carry forth the Christian faith. We need conviction and boundaries, but we also
will need a spirit of cooperation to build bridges.”
Dockery said denominations have been important throughout
Christian history “to carry forward the work of those who come together around
shared beliefs and shared practices.”
He acknowledged that the rise of so many Christian
denominations came about because of spats over often trivial matters.
Tracing the development of denominations, he said they are “primarily an
He said “the freedoms in America have enabled denominations
to expand, to flourish and to break off from those from which they were
birthed,” a development he said “dreadfully,” has resulted “more in the
Americanization of Christianity than the Christianization of America.”
The decline of denominational significance began as a result
of the influence of liberalism in the early 20th century, Dockery said, and
continued through the reaction of fundamentalism to liberal drift in mainline
He attributed the lack of denominational identity in more
recent years to the rise of parachurch and special interest groups that have
become more important than churches among evangelicals.
The rise of trans-denominational movements is one of the
most important developments in Christianity over the past several decades, Dockery
“No longer do people identify with kindred spirits in
vertical alignments — as Lutherans, as Anglicans, as Presbyterians, as
Methodists or Baptists,” he said.
“Instead, people identify more around other connections and
identifying markers such as fundamentalists, conservatives, evangelicals,
moderates and liberals.
“Thus liberal Anglicans and liberal Methodists have much
more in common than liberal Anglicans and conservative Anglicans.”
The growth of Christianity worldwide is another great change
that has occurred in recent years, Dockery said. Whereas the United States for
many years has been the capital of worldwide evangelicalism, statistics
indicate a shift is taking place.
For example, Africa now has more Christians than the United States
has citizens, he noted.
Dockery argued that this shift provides a tremendous
opportunity for Christians to think in fresh ways about the rifts that have
divided them in the past.
“We must realize that our real struggles are not against
fellow Christ followers, but rather against the demonic, secularism and
unbelief,” Dockery said.
“What is at stake if we do not take our eyes off the
intramural squabbles that seem to characterize most all of the denominations is
a loss of the unity within the Christian movement and a loss of the mission
focus of the Christian movement in the West.”
He said that denominations will continue to have a place in
evangelicalism in the future, and “denominations that thrive will remain
convictionally connected to their tradition, while working and exploring ways
to partner with affinity groups and networks, and seeking to understand better
the changing global context around us.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Ellsworth is director of news and
media relations at Union University.)