Some would have us believe that denominations belong to a by-gone past. At every turn, however, even though often intentionally hidden from sight, our denominational divisions still show. Picking up from the last Caravan blog, the church, after the Reformation and because of it, became the representational image of the nation-state, so much so that to be German was to be Lutheran, to be English was to be Anglican, and so on. As we noticed last time, the magisterial reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, etc.) created a domesticated form of Christianity that could bolster the nation it served.
To be sure, radical reformers like the anabaptists, Hutterites, Mennonites, and others, attempted to break the mold by developing independent congregations with high expectations of discipline. These radical reformers endeavoured to restore a Caravan-type church where leaders were interested again in the kind of people formed by life together. These radicals were led by such people as Müntzer (1491–1525), Grebel (1498–1526), Denck (1500–1527), Sattler (1490–1527), Hofmann (1495–1543), Hubmeier (1481–1528), and Franck (1499–1543), names mostly forgotten in Christian memory today.
The central teachings of these radicals, though never uniform from one group to another, consisted of at least the following. They chose to be pacifists in relationship to the powers because entanglement in the government had not served the church or the cause of Christ well. They called people, as does the Bible, to live quiet but productive lives. They honoured the Bible as a sufficient guide for the life of faith. They lived congregationally with no extra trappings of polity. They practiced church discipline, sometimes even excommunication, because, for them, the purity of the church mattered. Against their best efforts, however, they created new sub-groups of believers who would eventually form identifiable denominations. Those of us in the free church tradition should get to know the story of the radical reformers. We might see ourselves in them.
When these traditions, both those of the Protestants and radical reformers, came to North America, they took on new clothing. No longer were they representatives of nations-states or a reaction to that arrangement; they were now denominations, even though some claimed they were not. Noted historian Sidney Mead, in The Lively Experiment: The Shaping of Christianity in America (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 103–4, observed that the “denomination is the organizational form which the free churches have accepted and assumed” in North America. Accordingly, he offered this definition: A denomination “is… a voluntary association of like-hearted and like-minded individuals, who are united on the basis of common beliefs for the purpose of accomplishing tangible and defined objectives.” Thus, in North America, the “natural” expression became the “denomination,” even though it took the United States until 1833 to fully disestablish the state church system. In Canada, on the other hand, being part of the commonwealth, our Queen is still considered the head of the Church of England, thus, a clinging reminder of the time when the church was intertwined with the nation-state of the “old world.” The ironic challenge of the “new” denominational world is that those participating in denominational ways knew deep down that this arrangement was not quite right. Division had to be wrong. They knew this new tribal expression of faith was not what Jesus had in mind.
Still the denominations came and they have persisted in North America and have spread around the globe through massive missionary effort. For instance, consider these statistics. In 1740 when the US had about 900,000 settlers, the churches numbered 423 Congregationalist churches, 246 Anglican churches, 160 Presbyterian churches, ninety-six Baptist churches, ninety-five Lutheran churches, seventy-eight Dutch Reformed churches, fifty-one German Reformed churches, and twenty-seven Roman Catholic churches. In summary, the denomination was already embedded as the form of church life in the colonial period of the US. In 1742, New York City, for example, had nine churches representing eight denominations. The situation in Canada was similar with a much stronger representation of Roman Catholics. In 1763 when the British assumed control, the New England Congregations were most numerous in the Maritime provinces. In what was then called Lower Canada with more than 60,000 people, the Bishop of Quebec oversaw three ecclesiastical governments: Quebec had fifty parishes, Trois-Rivière twenty, and Montreal forty-one. The “new” world was a denominational world created from “old” world remnant churches of the nation-states. This short history lesson points to how pervasive the denominations were that broke the church into various, and sometimes warring, tribal units.
Let’s rehearse our journey so far. In my first article, I suggest that the early church was like a “Caravan,” a group of people on a journey to a specific destination. But somehow that way of being church morphed into something of a “company store” where the leaders became more shopkeepers than people-makers. In time, the church became the mistress or chaplain of the state. During the medieval period, the church became so closely identified with the government that telling where one began and the other ended was difficult. After the Reformation, the church was, at first, shattered into smaller supporters of the various nation-states, but became further fractured into competing denominations. This was the state of things as Europeans brought their form of church with them to the Americas. This legacy clings to us to this day even though churches hide their denominational stripes behind newer, non-brand names. Still, we get the nagging sense that this way of being church is not fulfilling either Christian mission or spiritual formation. We have come to the end of Christendom, and while denominational identity lingers, many of feel an unsettledness that we cannot name.