Unity, Identity, and Idolatry

In the religious tradition in which I was raised, that of the churches of Christ, the dirtiest of all dirty words had way more than four letters. It was the dreaded d-word, “denomination.” This unease with denominationalism was rooted not in a spirit of cantankerous contrariness–you can’t blame that community for my own character flaws–but out of a noble conviction that Christian identity, unqualified by any denominational loyalty, should be the sole identifier of the disciple of Jesus Christ. From this perspective denominational labels and identities served to foster division in (or, more radically, from) the Body of Christ.

Whether it’s fair to say that this laudable commitment to being just Christians, rather than this or that type of Christians, made a lasting impact on me, it’s certainly something I’ve come to re-appreciate over the last several years. While I don’t quite share the same conscientious opposition to recognizing denominational identity that was the hallmark of my tradition, I’ve long since thought that the only noun a Christian ought to own is “Christian.” Denominational labels are at most adjectives. Confusing the adjective for a noun goes a long way toward sowing disunity among Christians.

I recently came across this short clip of Michael Kinnamon, a Disciple of Christ who then served as General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, who made this same point quite vividly. He goes so far as to say–hyperbolically–that using denominational labels is idolatrous. Obviously, it’s not my contention that if one slips into common parlance and speaks of herself as a Roman Catholic, a Baptist, or a Mormon, she’s instantly the enemy of Christian unity. Still–not, mind you, that anyone asked me–I think it would be better to mentally drop the article and start thinking of our denominational labels only as adjectives: not a Methodist or a Lutheran or an Anglican, but as Methodist, or a Lutheran Christian, or a Christian who happens to be Anglican.


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