Unite around gospel essentials, Dockery urges
Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press
December 30, 2009

Unite around gospel essentials, Dockery urges

Unite around gospel essentials, Dockery urges
Tim Ellsworth, Baptist Press
December 30, 2009

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.”

Photo by Morris Abernathy

Union President David S. Dockery delivers an address entitled “So Many Denominations: The Rise and Decline of Denominationalism and the Shaping of a Global Evangelicalism” at the Southern Baptists, Evangelicals and the Future of Denominationalism conference.

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

American phenomenon.”

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.)

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