Is Your Denominational Label Helping You?

August 17, 2019
Dr. D. Clair Davis

[Note: The item below expresses the views of the individual named as the author and does not necessarily reflect the position of the WRF as a whole.]

 
Is Your Denominational Label Helping You?
by
WRF Member Dr. D. Clair Davis
carolclair219@gmail.com
{Dr. Davis served for many years at Professor of Church History and Moderator of the Faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia}


For me, the function of a denomination has been especially hard to understand since I have worked almost all of my life in trans-denominational seminaries.

I remember one year when we had students from 80 denominations and 40 countries!  When I talked with a student I was definitely not aware of his denomination.  At times his denomination must not have been not a Reformed one at all, but that just wasn’t a problem, since I knew everyone is at least an implicit Calvinist, when the Lord gets the glory for everything.

My student Marq had been doing student evangelism in Mexico City, and there was nothing there but resistance.  So he asked for a time of prayer, asking the Holy Spirit to go ahead of them.  But their leader rejected that, on the grounds that he believed in people’s free will! I bring that up because it’s so rare; I’ve never heard of anything like that in my life. But if people know how much they need the Lord, then that’s close enough for me for anything.

Should babies be baptized? I’ve tried to answer that by asking what you’d say in a baby’s funeral, and when the answer sounds good to me I’ve been able to ignore the sign and seal of what they believe.  (A student called me from his first church, telling me how he’d had to do one of those funerals—‘I was still unloading the truck’).

I don’t have experience with speaking in tongues, though I have lot of experience sitting through unintelligible language. High-church liturgies seem OK, provided they make room for a decent sermon.  By now I like a worship team provided they don’t drown the rest of us out.

A few years ago people in my PCA denomination talked a lot against ‘intinction,’ dunking the Lord’s Supper bread into the grape juice. I was in a Latino church that did that. The thing was that the Latinos were very much into the ‘common cup’ and we Anglos cherished hygiene, so dunking got us together. That proposed denominational ban on intinction didn’t get very far, with not enough presbyteries agreeing.  But I started to think about getting a student to make a map for me, showing the red anti-intinction presbyteries and the blue OK ones. Wouldn’t that help me counsel students considering a pastoral call somewhere?

In the 1970’s, ‘joining and receiving’ was in the air; let’s just get all of our evangelical presbyterians together, right away without the need to work through all our differences first.  PTL, that got the Southerners in the PCA together with some Yankees in the Reformed Presbyterian Evangelical Synod, and that has been wonderful.  But many others weren’t up to that, I think worried about being outnumbered.  That was personally very disappointing for me, as my OPC wouldn’t make the jump.  Someone invented a brand new phrase then, ‘voluntary realignment,’ that meant if your denomination can’t come together then at least you can personally—and I did.

We Presbyterians of any label have so totally much in common, and mostly our denominations work well for us—but union is now a long way off.  Recently the late-bloomers in the old PCUSA finally understood that they should be in a biblical church and many are moving on—but not to us.  That’s partly about sticking together with old friends but I think it’s mostly about ‘role of women.’

That can get complicated.  I know I haven’t figured it all out yet. Is it OK for a woman to give us some biblical insight in a home group? In church, off the platform away from the pulpit? On the platform?

What should I say to my brilliant and godly women students? I’m working on that. Maybe you’ll never teach in a seminary, but a graduate school of religion is just as good?  Missionaries are so short-handed that they need everyone to do everything, try that out? Here are some denominations that want and need you to be a pastor?

Teaching in a trans-denominational school is wonderful but complicated, and in this very helpful.  I hope you understand when I say I think there’s room for you and your gifts in the church of Jesus Christ but not in my denomination?

In my PCA, there was some discussion about women deacons. That looked easy to me, everyone knows that a deacon doesn’t ‘rule.’  Does it make some people happier to put ‘ess’ on the end, deaconess?  (There are no ‘poetesses’ around anymore, are there?).  Does it help them to say that the people can’t elect them but elders could appoint them?  (I honestly don’t get that at all).  They can do the job so well, but don’t ordain them to do it? Or, let’s study this all together, and have a study committee lead us. That was shot down 6 years ago, I guess for many there’s nothing still worth studying?

Where is this going? Nowhere, it’s all over. The pro-role of women people have left and more are leaving, to denominations who have figured it out in various ways.  I’m not going anywhere but I miss those folks. I guess that’s where denominations come from, when some decide there’s nothing to talk about and others figure out that no one wants to talk to them.

I hear denominations aren’t as important as they once were.  Maybe so. Maybe it is the values of that local church that are the really important things.  We’re getting used to that, aren’t we?  It’s not, "What do you think of that denomination?"  The answer to that always is, "That depends on the local church."

I know some church history. I know about when people said there are way too many denominations, we’ll need to start another more open one. What??  But in that imperfect world of ours could that work? Revival and unity fit together, that’s why this hurts so much.  But so do talking and the unity that brings.  Our Lord Jesus said it to us, very clearly: be one, even as I and my Father are. Online? Reading different books? Starting with one just one brother? Praying for the way ahead?