David Dockery: “So Many Denominations – The Rise and Decline of Denominationalism”

Dr. Dockery is speaking tonight on “So Many Denominations: The Rise and Decline of Denominationalism and the Shaping of a Global Evangelicalism”.

Beginning with a historical overview of the history of denominationalism.

American Christianity is on the verge of losing its identity through amnesia of its history.

The rise of non-denominationalism is not a new phenomenon.  It was already in existence as early as the Great Awakening with the ministry of George Whitefield.

History of Demonimationalism

  1. The early church was more unified than what we experience today.  There were four major councils culminating at Chalcedon in 451.
  2. The Reformation brought denominationalism through the fracturing of the Roman Catholic Church.  Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, and Lutheranism began to develop.
  3. The 17th Century:  Expanding Denominational Differences.  The Puritan movement of this period sped things along in the direction of denominationalism.
  4. The 18th Century:  Awakenings
  5. The 19th Century: Revivalism
  6. 20th Century:  The Holy Spirit and Sign Gifts
  7. Denominational Distinctives (each group emphasizes each of their respective distinctives)
  8. So Many Denominations
    1. Theological Differences
    2. Denominational Polity
    3. Liturgical Practices (Another way to understand the development of denominations is through the window of liturgy and worship)
    4. A Sociological Perspective
      Denominations as we know them are probably best traced to 17th century Puritanism in England and America.
  9. Denominationalism through American Eyes.
    Denominationalism is primarily an American phenomenon due to American freedoms to expand and flourish. Denominationalism has resulted more in the Americanization of Christianity than the Christianization of America.

The Birth of American Evangelicalism

  1. The Rise of Liberalism (Key Thinkers:  Schleiermarcher, Bushnell, and Rauschenbush), (Key Popularizers:  Fosdick, Beecher, and Brooks).  These attempted to adapt the substance of faith to changing times.  They elevated reason above revelation and experience above tradition.
  2. Orthodoxy, Fundamentals, and Fundamentalism (Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism), (Also a reactionary fundamentalism began to exist with J. Frank Norris, etc.).  This resulted in the splintering of many new movements among the Presbyterians, and independent Baptist churches, etc.
  3. 20th Century American (and British) Evangelicalism.  Billy Graham, Carl F.H. Henry and Harold Ockenga called for an engaged Evangelicalism that was not “anti-intellectual”, not “other-worldly”, and not separatistic/legalistic.
  4. New Affinity Groups:  Transdenominational Evangelical Networks.  New Evangelicals are committed to traditional Christian beliefs.  The influence of first D.L. Moody and later Billy Graham produced networks which brought more commitment than to any denomination.  This has changed the way we think about denominations.
  5. Networks, Denominations, and A Theology of the Church.
  6. Denominational Rivalry and Geographical Perspectives
  7. From Mainline to Sideline

Denominationalism and Evangelicalism: Questions About the Future

  1. Denominational Conviction and Cooperation.  Networks are posed well to meet the challenges of the future.  Denominations that thrive must remain connected to their Tradition, while exploring and working together in a new global context and working cooperatively in a renewed way with networks and special purpose groups.  The SBC’s future can be very bright with doctrinal convictions and diverse cooperation.
  2. A Global Perspective.  We must see the work of God among the nations.  The look of Southern Baptist churches must change as we see God working around the world.  There are more Christians in Africa today than there are citizens of America. By 2025 the typical Christian will be a woman living in Nigeria or Brazil.
  3. Toward Hopefulness and Renewal.
  4. A Plea for Denominational Faithfulness.  Denominational distinctives still give guidance.  These distinctives are particularly important at the local church level.  A model of dynamic orthodoxy must be reclaimed.  the orthodox tradition must be recovered in conversation with Nicea, Chalcedon, Augustine, Bernard, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, the Pietists, and the revivalists.

Trinitarian Christians, Gospel-Centered Missions, the Church, and the Future of Denominationalism

Denominations still matter and continue to matter if they remain committed to historic orthodoxy.  We need conviction and cooperation, boundaries and bridges, structure and Spirit.

Let us move from handwringing to hopefulness.  May God grant to us a genuine renewal and a renewed spirit of cooperation for the good of the Church and for the glory of God.

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