Supporting Article

Denominationalism—A Double-edged Sword


In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of intellectuals among Christian communities. The traditional emphasis of the Chinese church on a believer’s spiritual life no longer satisfies the intellectual desires of this entirely new faith community. Naturally, as people’s desire for the systematic study of theology grows stronger and stronger, how to understand the Bible and “truth” with a deeper knowledge has become the pursuit and priority goal of this new generation of urban Christians. The pursuit of godliness is, of course, a good thing, but I have discovered some dangerous tendencies with this which I will discuss in this article.

Nowadays, theological studies are not only becoming increasingly systematic but also more and more common as an ordinary person can easily access various theological resources because of the advancement of technology and increase in theological publications. Training once available only at a seminary or an educational organization is now accessible to every believer. With the rise of new urban churches, especially where there is a higher level of education, many believers who engage in either formal or informal studies of theology speak harshly towards one another or even become enemies because of the differences of understanding on certain doctrines. Both sides believe that only they stand on the truth, and each makes waves in the church which causes confusion and puts a stumbling block before immature believers. Many people label themselves by this or that school of theology, thinking that by being a part of this or that denomination, they have no worries and the truth is with them. They have no respect for other denominations and do not put effort into understanding the history and development of them. They act rashly on their own opinions, harming both others and themselves.

Many believers in the church keenly realize that doctrine is not enough. The right doctrine must work together with a godly life. Just as the Reformation emphasized doctrine, Pietism added depth to the Reformed Movement. Many people have clearly realized that knowledge and doctrine are only the first step to orthodoxy; some even say that knowledge that does not produce a godly life is not true knowledge. These are all valuable insights. Just as the book of James says, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14) Therefore, many people pursue some kind of godly theology, continually set up models and goals for themselves (such as the Puritans), and continually romanticize the representations and actions of these “godly” examples, creating a self-presumed orthodox theology in their own minds. They use this set model and standard to evaluate other believers and denominations; those who match the model and standard are called orthodox, and those who do not match—they do not even want to have anything to do with them. This so-called “godliness,” is not the true godliness spoken of in the Bible. Moreover, Peter said, “ . . . add to your faith . . . godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (2 Peter 1:7)

This judgement and hostility against other denominations is first expressed in the mutual passing of judgement among believers within the church. In the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, the elder son’s speech and action expressed his inner thoughts. When he heard that his brother received the father’s forgiveness, he was instantly angry and refused to enter the house to see his father and returned brother. (Luke 15:11-32) It is not hard to conclude that the elder son passed judgement in his heart on his brother. He thinks that he has been loyal to the father and has never disobeyed the father’s commands, whereas his brother was a complete prodigal who had betrayed the father. Likewise, believers often pass judgement on themselves and others—whether one is “godly” or “ungodly,” “conservative” or “liberal,” “true Reformed” or “false Reformed,” a “true believer” or a “false believer.” This is most directly expressed when believers give their churches names such as Bible Church, Evangelical Church, Reformed Church, Baptist Church, as well as numerous others.

The danger is that such labelling of faith is eerily similar to the traditional political culture of China. Partisan politics and different sides frequently used ideological propaganda to manipulate the hearts of people, either “leftist,” “rightist,” “capitalist,” “revisionism,” or “liberalism.” The various ideologies were merely weapons and tools in the hands of those in power; as long as the enemy was labeled properly, killing them off was perfectly justifiable. Denominational and theological differences can easily become ideological tools. Seemingly godly theological positions can become powerful weapons for murder. The new generation of Chinese believers often lack sufficient understanding of the political environment and have not carefully considered the political fanaticism and worship of leaders from the previous generation, so it is easy for them to fall into another kind of leader worship and fanaticism after entering the church.

Their blindness and extremeness sideline the clear-thinking believers. Their blind worship of church leaders causes them to lose any ability for critical thinking and reflection. They view the leader’s words as law. Opposing the leader is equal to opposing God. Believers who can think clearly are easily marginalized in these circumstances.

Ever since the Reformation, the reformers have emphasized the “Freedom of a Christian.” In short, on certain questions, believers have the right to choose freely. This can also be compared with politics: democratic countries with rule of law draw a clear line between national law and morality to protect the citizen’s freedom to the greatest extent. On the other hand, totalitarian countries confuse law and morality, not for the purpose of benefiting citizens but to highlight the will of the leader. Believers and church leaders complement one another and equip one another. Blind worship frequently causes church leaders to be carried away, exerting their personal influence on the congregation, even in areas where Christians have freedom of choice. So, we often see believers with similar views regarding all areas of life: female believers wearing dresses; male believers wearing suits; families with many children; house purchases taboo; women staying home to care for the family; and so on.

Blindness inevitably leads to narrow-mindedness and isolation. Believers who think themselves godly and believe “the truth is on my side” are unlikely to humble themselves and patiently listen to the “ungodly” and “truthless” denominations. Once they see others have different labels from themselves, they immediately cover their ears, afraid that their “godliness” might be tainted. They live as life-long inmates in prison who do not know the taste of freedom. Not only are they incapable of self-reflection, but they view open attitudes and thought as unbiblical rebellion, as if God had hidden all truths bountifully among them rather than in the Lord Jesus.

Denominationalism in thought and action is very popular in the current Chinese church—and very harmful. Churches are dividing and falling apart because of it as well as undermining one another and accusing one another. How to assist and respect one another, learning humility to carry out Christ’s work, is a question that urgently needs to be answered. As Augustine reminds us, “humility, humility, humility.” Only when we are truly humble before God and man can we avoid the dangers brought by denominationalism.

Translated from Chinese by ChinaSource.

Image credit: fog and swords by jules_shanghai via Flickr.

Andrew Qie

Andrew Qie (pseudonym) is a Christian educator receiving theological education in the United States.View Full Bio