Bridging the Pentecostal Denominational Divide

Finding unity within the shared-centeredness of our one faith

In Pentecostal circles, the word denomination has never received a warm reception, especially when used in an attempt to self-define. We have often relegated the term to articulate what we are not, as opposed to what we are.

Pentecostal

Viewed primarily from a negative perspective, the term is seen as something to be shunned rather than embraced, avoided rather than sought after. In describing the pentecostal church, we would prefer the categories of movement or fellowship, but never denomination as a means of definition.

For many, denominationalism paints a picture of a church gone cold, even dead, institutionalized, a museum for saints, a location to be visited for its architectural beauty, but historical in its purpose and meaning and irrelevant to those in modern society.

  • But are the criticisms warranted?
  • More importantly, are they even accurate?
  • Has such a notion affected our collective witness as the one universal Church under Jesus Christ?
  • Has it made us to believe that pentecostals have a more complete handle on biblical truth to the exclusion of all others?

It seems to me that such a response would foster only ecclesiastical discord in a group that are supposed to be identified by the mutual love they have for one another (See John. 13:35). If this is true, it may be time to redefine.

Forming Pentecostal Denominations

Where and how did denominationalism acquire such a bad reputation? Certainly there must have been some traumatic experience that facilitated such an influential reaction? Not quite.

Actually, the idea of denominationalism was the creation of the leaders of the evangelical revival on both sides of the Atlantic. Its purpose was to make possible a more informed understanding of what the Church should look like and how it should act as a transconfessional community of faith.

Rather than bring harm to the evangelical cause, it was meant to help it better organize itself as the Church universal ought to, bridging the gap through the idea of unity in diversity, a concept originating in the New Testament (1 Cor. 12:12-31).

As a result, denominationalism becomes an outlook to be acknowledged and emulated, rather than a basis for contention and demise. It seems a new, revised definition is in order.

In his book Renewing the Center, Stanley Grenz highlights and redefines the concept of denominationalism as the outlook,

that refuses to acknowledge any ecclesiastical body as comprising the whole church on earth. Instead, Christ’s church is denominated into the various confessional groups, each of which constitutes only a part of the one church of Christ.

What exactly does this mean? Do Pentecostals have to relinquish any of their distinctive doctrines in order to better facilitate inter-church cooperation? Not at all, and if anything, the opposite is true, for denominationalism offers its adherents the best of both worlds.

Grenz responds by stating that,

each confessional group can continue to see itself as the best or most biblically faithful visible expression of the church.

Yet, rather than exhibiting a know-it-all attitude, the group voluntarily gives up the claim to be the only legitimate expression of the church, seeing itself instead as one denomination among many.

What about Pentecostal distinctives? Wouldn’t that be a bone of contention impossible to overcome? Definitely not, for on this basis,

members of any denomination are able to maintain their confessional loyalties while both affirming other denominations as expressions of the one church – with the intended result of extending the hand across  – denominational lines in various tasks and ministries.

All of this is made possible because as evangelicals committed to a conversion experience coupled with a subsequent changed life,

Christians of other denominations whom they might well affirm and with whom they might therefore cooperate were those who, like they, had experienced the new birth and consequently were bona fide regenerated believers.

Gathering Around the Center

The result is simple, though there will be various doctrinal differences along denominational lines, what ties us together and makes us one is our collective experience of Jesus Christ. What unites us is far greater than what divides.

And, though our styles of worship and organization are somewhat different, “they are but differing attempts to give visible expression to the life of the church in the life of the world.”  (Winthrop S. Hudson)

In the end, our response to one another should be that of John Wesley when he declared, “Dost thou love and serve God?  It is enough.  I give thee the right hand of fellowship.”  (See Eph. 4:3-6)

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  • Grenz, Stanley J.  Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000.  Pg. 296.
  • Hudson, Winthrop S.  American Protestantism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.  Pgs. 33-34.
  • Wesley, John.  “The Character of a Methodist” The Works of John Wesley.  Ed. Albert C. Outler et al.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1984.  Pgs. 9:41-42.
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