Why Be a Member of a Denomination?
“I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1:3-5)
We are members of the International Baptist Convention and also of the German Baptist Union. We value these relationships and appreciate the privilege of serving the Lord together with them. Baptists are called the “non-denominational denomination” because we believe in the autonomy of the local church. Our church is free to do what we believe the Spirit of God is leading us to do. Yet this does not mean that these relationships are unimportant.
The International Baptist Convention is an association of English-language international churches, originally founded by Southern Baptists from the United States. Our church property in Stuttgart was originally enabled to be purchased by a financial gift from the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.
Some have asked why we in Stuttgart aren’t members of the Southern Baptist Convention. The answer is simple: we do not qualify. For a church to send delegates to the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting, that church must exist in the United States or its territories. However, I consider myself a Southern Baptist; I was saved and baptized in a Southern Baptist church and was educated at Southern Baptist schools and seminaries. I was discipled by Southern Baptist literature on the Christian faith and wrote adult Sunday School material for Southern Baptists regularly for more than 20 years.
In our church in Stuttgart, however, the majority of our worshipers have come from a wide range of denominations. We are honored to have many who are not Baptists join us in our worship and even in many types of service. We love and appreciate them and consider them part of our Christian family. I usually say, “We do not apologize for being Baptists, but we try not to beat everyone over the head with it.” We are more concerned about being Christian than being Baptist.
Yet a denomination is important. I have felt called upon to defend things in these last few years that I never dreamed I would have to defend in my youth. In recent years the anti-denomination mood of Western churches has led me also to have to defend the idea of being a member of a Christian denomination.
When I started my ministry in the 1970s, it was assumed that a church would be associated in a responsible relationship with other churches of similar faith. A non-denominational church was looked at skeptically, as though they were unpredictable and even a bit proud – seeming to be better than others. A denomination brought responsible doctrine, accountable relationships, and meaningful partners in the Gospel.
But somewhere in the 1990s things began to change for churches in the U.S. From somewhere there arose an anti-denomination way of thinking. Non-denominational churches grew at the expense of denominational churches.
Part of this is due largely to an anti-institutional trend as a whole across the U.S. Americans are suspicious of institutions, having felt betrayed more than once by them. Another factor is that many denominations formed when transportation and communication between nations and states was difficult and now many of the things that used to separate us are removed. Almost all denominations across the world have some geographic and ethnic issues behind their history, and once these are removed are they still relevant?
Also, the Jesus Movement Revival of the 1960s and 70s led to influential churches and movements that emphasized “just being Christian is enough.” Denominations were viewed as too narrow and divisive. Some denominational leaders were liberal also and took stands that seemed like a betrayal of trust of the common people who were much more conservative.
Yet, when the grass roots rose up in complaint, they were viewed by some as being too negative, too controlling, and even of some unchristian behavior. And toss in a moral failing or two, a doctrinal scandal, or some financial mess and it developed into a perfect storm. So rather than trying to fix things, people felt powerless and denominations seemed increasingly irrelevant.
So let me share with you four reasons why we at International Baptist Church of Stuttgart are members of a denomination.
First, there is no such thing as a non-denominational church.
What should be the most obvious is that non-denominational churches do not really exist. Roger Olsen, who teaches theology at Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, observed that every church that claims to be non-denominational actually belongs to some network of churches.
And if you ask the leaders of those churches, “Well, how do you baptize?” or “How do you observe the Lord’s Supper?” or “Who do you work with?” or “What seminaries are training your leaders?” or “What mission organizations do you support?” you will find that they have specific answers to these questions. All responsible churches have statements of faith that identify them as some specific type of Christian church. More often than not the word “nondenominational” actually means “non-old-denominational” because they have associated with another Christian network.
Second, caring accountability
All alone a Christian is in a vulnerable position. He needs fellowship, encouragement, accountability, and someone who loves him in the name of Christ. A church is also in a vulnerable position when it is all alone. Paul writes, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2). This is part of the nature of the new person that Christ creates in us by His Spirit.
Care: When Paul gave his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders he said, “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of God of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). So Pastors have not only an obligation to care for the church but also for one another. This is one of the things that should happen between pastors and denominational leaders.
Doctrinal accountability: We also have someone who cares about our doctrinal beliefs. Baptists in particular have a great respect for the individual church, and we have significant freedom in many areas of doctrine, but there is a particular reality to being a member of a Baptist association. We have doctrinal stability because we have doctrinal accountability.
When people come into our church as a member of the International Baptist Convention, they should know that we stand on the Scriptures and will be consistent in our interpretation of them. We will not be blown this way or that way in what we believe, rather, we will be consistent.
Third, caring cooperation
Together we are able to do things that we could not do apart. We do mission work and are able to sponsor meetings and trainings that we would not have otherwise. Here at IBC Stuttgart, our men and women and children and youth all benefit through the conferences we have shared and training we have received through our association with the International Baptist Convention.
We have also received our loan for our building through the help of the German Baptist Union, so we have important partners in them. Together we cooperate for the glory of God, and just as they were there for us, so we will be there for them.
We are stronger because we belong to a denomination. We have someone who cares about us, with whom we can work together to care for other churches as well. We can join hands in mission work and do those things together than we could not do as an independent church. Ecclesiastes says: “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10).
A church that claims to be a non-denominational church, even though there actually is no such thing, I would like to ask: “Who cares for you?” And also, “Who do you care for?” To say we do not have anyone who cares for us seems proud, as though we do not need anyone or are too good for anyone else. And to say we do not care for anyone is uncaring, as though we are all that matters. We need one another, and we should build those relationships that are mutual and helpful.
Fourth, meaningful Christian unity
Christ prayed to the Father, ” I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23).
Notice that the unity Christ prayed for is not mere unity in name, but unity as a sent people who work together, love together, and worship together. Christian unity is not only an ideal that all Christians and churches should recognize and value, it must also be experienced in a meaningful way. We are members of a denomination because in this way we are able to meaningfully fulfill this command and desire of Christ, that His followers would be united.
As an international church I have found it happens quite often that we find we have more in common with some Christians who are not Baptists than with those who are. In Christ all of our relationships with Christians are eternal ones. Our church is actually blessed to be a place where so many people of different denominations can come together and praise and serve the Lord together!
David Packer, IBC President and Pastor, IBC Stuttgart, Germany
This article originally appeared in the IBC Stuttgart newsletter. It is reprinted here with permission.