Denominations and Traditions: Thoughts on Differences


“To stand within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge, but makes it possible.”

Hans Georg Gadamer

Today I spent a few hours working on my Mid-Program defense for my PhD program, I will be presenting it to my committee on May 14th. This entails laying out the key questions and motivations behind my research. It also includes what I’ve studied so far, where I am headed and how I will finish up (God help me!). It’s a good exercise but it’s rather grueling and kind of works against the way I am wired. When I was editing today I came across the word “denominations” which I had written awhile back and I instantly replaced it with the phrase “faith traditions.” Shocked by my initial response, I realized that I still have an allergy to the word.

I grew up Catholic, went to mass regularly, was baptized Catholic (as far as I know) and was confirmed as an adolescent. I did my time, literally, in parochial schools up through 8th grade and was devastated when my parents decided to stop going to mass and start taking us to some small store-front Charismatic church. I was by then pretty committed to my Catholic faith. Then I was indoctrinated in the non-denominational framework, where all denominations are evil! Boo!! And will steal your soul, because everyone in them is mindless and not really passionate about their faith, they just go because that’s where their parents went, or whatever.

I stopped believing this anti-denominational doctrine once I realized the importance of being a part of something bigger than one local congregation, and the amount of support, accountability, and richness of history involved with, well, denominations. But still, I don’t like the word. I prefer instead to talk about (faith) traditions for a couple reasons.

For one, the word denomination just has a bad rap for a lot of Americans. It sounds overly paternalistic, top-down and dated. Whereas tradition, at least to me, rings of something more alive, something that is potentially more organic and flat. Anyone can participate in a tradition. For instance, think of all those interested in aspects of the monastic tradition, who adopt this or that practice, but are not themselves wholly monastic.

A friend made a great point to me on twitter saying that denominations help to name something that would otherwise remain unnamed and unnamed things are ultimately untenable as movements. I think he was right to suggest the importance of naming something, this is a process we see happening again and again in the Bible. But still, the problem lies not in the fact of naming something, but rather that often everything can be lost but the name. Consequently, the denominational name simply becomes a placeholder for something that has become largely obsolete. Rather, tradition in the way I understand it stresses the (dis)continuity between our stories, the practices we engage in as Christians, our beliefs, and points to what texts, biblical and otherwise, are important in the formation of our communities.

Finally, denomination still signals, at least to me, a preference to structure and hierarchical authority. Here “denomination” is the opposite of “movement” or “organic.” A denomination was once a movement that has become top-heavy, bogged down by its irreplaceable and non-translatable history and text. Instead, a tradition is more like a way of perceiving our contemporary world and relating to our shared history, a way of interaction with and communication about God. It can remain fluid and translatable even when people within that tradition get caught up in denominational-isms.

This is what I like so much about the Quaker Everett Cattell who worked within the denominational structures of the Friends church, he was both a college president and a superintendent, but suggested that the heart of the tradition was not found in those structures but in the community’s organic relationship to God’s mission and fellowship with one another in the Spirit, both of which he felt would actually undercut our structures and challenge them to be re-thought according to our contemporary needs. My reading of Cattell is that he believed the only way to truly be a Quaker was to betray the structures in favor of obedience to God’s call to be for the world, and in doing so, we might in fact be truly Friends.

Following Cattell, I have very little interest in Quakerism, in as much as it is an ism. These things that are the “way we’ve always done them” can actually becomes obstacles to our believing in the power of God’s Spirit. The denominational nitty gritty, when it is left to its own devices and not rooted within the life of the tradition, only sustains structures often reinforcing the church’s role as a placeholder for our belief rather than a bottom-up community of people following God’s mission in the world. I want to be a part of a community that not only tells but also lives into the stories of those we call Quaker.

45 responses to “Denominations and Traditions: Thoughts on Differences”

  1. I consider myself a Christian who worships and serves in a Quaker context. The Quaker tradition is very important to me, and I am part of a Quaker community, and I practice Quaker disciplines, my primary self-understanding is not as a Quaker but as a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.

  2. My favorite denomination is the $20 bill. It's too much to break for a tip, but not enough that cashiers give you funny looks.

  3. I have consciously tried to make the switch you talk about. Somehow it seems to me that "denomination" emphasizes the different biblical interpretations people have come up with while "faith tradition" emphasizes the Spirit in which the scriptures were written, something many of the different interpretations seem not to have taken into account.

    In His Love,

  4. I wonder if this distinction you're making — between folk tradition and practices on the one hand, and structured religious organizations on the other — is partly an artifact of modern life, especially modern American life. If you lived in a community where your family had been forever, and the families of your neighbors and social superiors had been forever, I'm not sure how you could separate the "organic" tradition from the hierarchical one. The Bible gives mixed messages about this. When Jonah tells Ninevah to repent, for instance, all he has to do is persuade the king, and the king orders his subjects to go along. Despite the fact that that doesn't sound like a terribly authentic national repentance by present standards, God accepts it. In the New Testament the state of an individual's heart is more important, but of course the church is brand new, so the fact that it hasn't acquired the institutional barnacles yet may just be a product of its age.

  5. I think this is because if you scratch the surface of any folk tradition or movement, you'll find a game of "follow the leader." Even egalitarian movements like the Quakers formed around a charismatic person with big ideas. That pattern continues today with scholars. Whatever denomination they are, I can tell when someone's been to Duke's seminary, or has been reading Hauerwas or Yoder or someone of that lineage, because they sound awfully similar. And universities are, of course, about as institutional and hierarchical as you can get.

  6. Some differentiate between sect, movement, denomination, association. Technically-speaking I don't think I actually belong to any denomination. The highest governing church body is my yearly meeting. The closest thing to a denomination among liberal Friends in the US is Friends General Conference, but that's very explicitly a free association that does not set yearly meeting policies. This is in contrast to Friends United Meeting which was originally set up in a more denominational model under its name Five Years Meeting and it's focused on a unified book of Faith and Practice.

    When I say "denomination" these days I'm usually referring to the bureaucratic structure and formal relationships between churches. It's useful as a short-cut description of a group, but it tends to over- or under-emphasize the actual diversity within the group.

    • "It's useful as a short-cut description of a group, but it tends to over- or under-emphasize the actual diversity within the group."

      This is helpful Martin – after having just spent the week with NWYM pastors the diversity is there too.

  7. Were you speaking of demoninations;-) When I was a young Christian, I used to belittle denominationalism, thinking aren't we all in Christ? What's with the labels? But then as a young adult, I discovered the labyrinth of doctrine–and some denmination's doctrinal views so contrary to the God of love I had personally met. I finally agreed with John Wesley (even though I was a Baptist) I would rather be an atheist than agree to some denomination's theological ideas. That is how I moved in my spiritual journey to Mennonites and Friends.

    Would you agree with H. Richard Niebuhr's view (I think the idea was from him) that denominations go through a journey from a dramatic move of the Spirit of God, to formation (sometimes misguided even distorted) but then down to abstract formalism without much of the Spirit?

    • Daniel great question at the end there – I think that is definitely one way of looking at it and probably a common path any number of organizations take. Another cycle is found in the book Sociology of Hope by Henri Desroche. After a movement has its revolutionary start, Desroche argues that at some point followers begin to Leave and that movement either becomes religious movement or a political movement. Eventually you either return to the previous state, you make peace with your previous state, or you start a new revolution (155-56).

      Something like this has happened among Quakers as well. The Quaker movement has split down to either religious (right) or political (left) and needs to either come to peace with the beginnings or start another revolution.

  8. I also connect denomination to the "name church." I believe this non/anti-denominational intent of early Friends in setting up a Society in which the local community (Meeting) is the group's "authority." I believe that "Meeting" can also denote a denomination when stated beliefs become the measure of "obedience" rather than living the life of the Spirit.

  9. I tend to look at matters like this in the light of Ursula LeGuin's _Lathe of Heaven_. By controling one patient's dreams, a mad shrink gets a grip on the condition of the world… and starts making whatever improvements he can via explicit verbal directions. The more 'rational' he manages to make things, the more he denatures & destroys their life… the prime example being the time he directs his patient to utterly eliminate racism, which transforms the world into a place where, throughout history, every single human has been born battleship grey. No racial oppression, no Martin Luther King, no Billie Holiday or Charles Mingus or Ritchie Havens, etc etc.

    I agree that much of what we call Quakerism is a distraction from the real issue, which is: How are you & God getting along? Often, I fear, it is a direct means for evading that issue. But those peculiar details of tradition are also a way in which the creative exuberance of God has expressed itself, something which adds to the richness of the world and of God's ways of incarnating here. I do want to see more happiness, less suffering in this stew!–but even that suffering has its purposes (or it could not, even for a moment, exist!)

    What am I going to make of someone like Jacques Ellul? His way of looking at the Bible came out of a Protestant tradition that assumes every element of it, even things I would automatically dismiss as scribe glitches, is meaningful. And he kept finding meaning in it! I doubt that it, or he himself, was ever error-free, but you've gotta say 'inspired'!

    It's a little like the old saying that the eye is the chief impediment to good vision! We have all these different ways of looking at things, and some of them are frankly warped! But would we see anything at all without them?

    • Forrest – thanks for these great examples! I loved the Ursula LeGuin reference, you're right no with this constant desire to control and rationalize.

  10. Walter Wink who is a Quaker writes about that as well in his Powers books. I think he sees it as central to the Christian life. My papraphrase would go somewhat like this: insititutions, even church institutions, are set up with good intention, for divine purposes, but any institution can fall away from its vocation to become self-serving and that is when institution's spiritualities become poisoned.

    Wink presents it as the job of the faithful to recall institutions to their divine vocation, to God's purposes. He presents this view as scriptural, calling on the language in scripture about angels as spiritual representatives of institutions: Daniel and the angel of Persia, through to angels in Revelation. I think this model is where his theology of prayer comes from. He's big on the role of intercessory prayer: praying to make the space in ourselves through which God can redeem us of the poisoned spiritualities of the world's institutions, and through which God can heal us, reset us and equip us to recall the institutions themselves.

    • Alice – thanks for pointing out Wink on this topic. He is a good resource in helping to show that even structures can (and need to) be redeemed.

  11. I was not aware of Walter Wink having any Quaker connections. He is a pacifist. According to his own website and also Wikipedia, he is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church.


  12. What if "tradition" is not just "the way we've always done things" or "the denominational nitty gritty" merely serving to reinforce "top-heavy" hierarchical structures. What if there really is a Church in which Tradition can be capitalized because it was handed down by the Apostles? What if that Tradition's teachings are authoritative? Then that Tradition is no mere denomination or "faith tradition," is it? It's not just about naming, it's not just about perspective, opinion, or a certain rich culture or practice. (Yes I'm both making a statement and asking the questions. Go figure.)