A Dummies guide to the Differences between Denominations


I remember asking my dad, while heading home from a family holiday, what the difference between Anglicans (my father is an ordained priest) and Methodists were. His answer to his seven year old son was simple enough, “worship style”; and then, slightly tongue in cheek/slightly pained, he added that he’d still love me if one day I became a Methodist.

I’ve never really stopped asking that question often turning it over in my mind. It’s been thirty years and now my kids are at that age where they’re starting to ask the same questions. Below is my answer, well three answers, simple enough I hope, and yes, I’d still love them if one day they became Anglicans:

The Differences like two Petrol Stations

Take two petrol stations, an Engen and a Shell. Petrol is highly regulated in South Africa so there’s little difference in the petrol itself. Their logo may be different but they’re really both the same.

At their best denominations ought to be like petrol stations: Different logos outside, same Gospel inside.

The Differences like two Shops

Take two shops, a Makro and a Woolworths. They both sell food and clothing but in entirely different ways. Different products on their shelves, different shoppers at their tills.

Denominational differences like worship, liturgy and paint on the wall outside doesn’t separate us when it’s the same Gospel inside.

The Differences like two Books

Take two books, the Bible and 17 Steps to Healthy Living. The Bible contains the words of eternal life, 17 Steps for Healthy Living is here today and will blow away tomorrow.

Some churches preach God’s Word, a Word which can save a sinner to salvation; other’s preach man’s mind, a mind which will drive a sinner to damnation. This isn’t just a denominational consideration – it’s not like Baptists and Presbyterians are safe and Anglicans and Methodists are problematic – this is a church by church, preacher by preacher test.

“What I’m trying to say my child is don’t be a Baptist and go to hell, an Anglican condemned to the abyss; be a God fearing Bible believing Christian who goes to church bent on glorifying God by proclaiming His Word and bringing honour to His name by serving Him and His people.”

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11 thoughts on “A Dummies guide to the Differences between Denominations

  1. Any Anglican rector that does not point his Anglican people to the Holy Scripture, and the historical and somewhat biblical Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles, is not doing his pastoral job! As too a Baptist also, that does not point his flock to the Holy Scripture, and the Ecumenical standard of at least Nicaea and Chalcedon! But that’s how I see it as an Evangelical Anglican. ;)

  2. Mark,

    Biblical catholicity is an imperative, and your post has good points. I’m wondering if you could expand a little on this:

    “Denominational differences like worship, liturgy and paint on the wall outside doesn’t separate us when it’s the same Gospel inside.”

    Is it possible that the worship and liturgy of some churches (not necessarily denominations as a whole) is able to warp the meaning of the gospel – even if they are ostensibly committed to the fundamentals of the faith? What if the forms we use to express our worship contradict the message we say we preach? Would these still be cosmetic differences?

    • Hey David,

      Thanks for commenting: I’ve listened to much of your thinking on worship and I know I’d trust your answer on this subject far sooner than my own.

      Can “worship and liturgy… …warp the meaning of the gospel”?

      ‘The Gospel’ (the right understanding of God) must affect ‘worship’ (the right response to God) and together they affect ‘liturgy’ (a formulation of both understanding and response). They are not abstract from each other but intricately woven.

      So, whilst the expression of worship may be considered ‘cosmetic’ the content that results in worship is not. Proper content will not give rise to false expression. False expression is an indication of improper content.

      Would changing the sentence to read “worship style” more accurately indicate this?

      Does that make sense, and does it answer the question you posed?

      Ps I gave thought to http://conservativechristianity.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/are-media-by-definition-morally-neutral/ before answering.

  3. Thanks for the answer, Mark.

    I understand what you mean by worship style, but I can’t help but feeling there’s a bit of a discrepancy in your thinking. If, as you say, ‘proper content will not give rise to false expression’, then the content and the expression are far more tightly linked than even a conservative wackadoo like me would suggest. In that case, the expression cannot be cosmetic, for it is the necessary outworking of the content, the way James connects works with faith.

    I wouldn’t take it that far, but that’s where the logic goes, if true content always leads to true expressions. In other words, you can’t have it both ways. If worship expressions are cosmetic, they can be so only because they can fail to properly flesh out true beliefs. If worship expressions always flesh out beliefs, then there is no way they are cosmetic – they become litmus tests for propositional orthodoxy.

    My own position (since you’re dying to know) is that it is possible for a form (or worship expression) to contradict the propositional content, if the users are ignorant of what and how those forms communicate. In time, this can actually mislead. Putting orthodox truth about hell in limerick form will eventually mislead, in that the form of a limerick is amusing, and the truth about hell is not. The seriousness of hell will not ‘redeem’ or transform a limerick into poetry that communicates seriousness. Rather, the comical sound of a limerick will trivialise the message of hell.

    Make sense? Sorry if this has sidetracked the conversation.

    • Yes it does make sense.

      I guess I’m thinking now of Hermeneutics 101; When handling Scripture we consider the genre and acknowledge that it directly impacts the interpretation of the content. Is that what you’re conveying – the medium matters?

      The flip side to that thinking – in my mind at least – is the recognition of how wide God’s use of genre is in His Word (legalese, poetry, academic quotations, artistic quotations, narration, epic…). The point made in the post above isn’t to say that all style is necessarily appropriate but that variety in style isn’t necessarily divisive.

      Here’s a thought for you, and one that’ll hopefully clarify my thinking: “true content always leads to true expressions.” But that relationship isn’t one-to-one it’s one-to-many. To relate it back to handling Scripture: we would look for a single interpretation often with multiple applications. Related now to the previous comment “Content is to interpretation as expression is to application.”

  4. No, sure, variety is all good and well. It’s just that ‘variety’ and ‘style’ can be used by Christians the way unbelievers use the words ‘tolerance’ and ‘freedom’. The fact that God uses multiple genres doesn’t mean that some genres exist that would be hostile to God’s purposes. In the end, I’m simply saying that we must parse each one for meaning, not assume that the propositional content necessarily leads to a good expression.
    And to your point, it’s possible for a preacher to make applications without good warrant from an originally clear interpretation.

    My two cents.

    • Thanks for paying the toll :).

      I’ll come back and revisit the questions raised after giving it some thought; I feel ill-equipped and ill-prepared to do your arguments the justice they deserve. Your thoughts relating to the weight and meaning behind media are very well made.

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