Denominations in the American Religious Experience
Can Christians disagree about some matters and still recognize one another as true believers? In this brief clip, W. Robert Godfrey examines the crucial role that denominations play in the American religious experience.
Freedom of religion means that all denominations are treated equally under law. Nobody has a superior place under law. That really then leads on, of course, to the notion that religious freedom is tied to the separation of church and state. Now, there were different notions of the separation of church and state in the time of the American Revolution, but clearly there was a notion that would not been an established church so that all denominations could enjoy freedom. The very idea of denominations is crucial to American religious experience. Denominationalism, as a way of thinking, says that the true church of Jesus Christ finds expression in a variety of organizations, so that one is not obligated to say, “If I am a Presbyterian and you are a Baptist, you are a member of a false church because it’s not my church.” That was the old way of thinking. There were only true churches and false churches, and mine was the true church and yours was the false. But has happened in the course of 17th, 18th, and leading on into the 19th century is the rise of this notion that we can have dominations. We are separated over certain things, but we can recognize that at a fundamental level we are all still Christians, we are all still going to heaven. Presbyterians are getting a first-class ticket, Baptists a second-class ticket, but we’re all going. We take that attitude so for granted that we don’t recognize how revolutionary it is in the history of Christianity. Really, up until the 17th century, Christians fundamentally had believed that there is only one true church and all others are false churches. But the Westminster Confession of Faith itself talks about purer and less pure churches. So, if you are a Bible-believing Baptist, you think your Baptist church is purer than the Presbyterian church on the issue of baptism. But you are willing to grant, if you are an easygoing Baptist, that the Presbyterians may get to heaven too, and this is an important part of America’s religious experience.