JAC Online

by Envoy Steve Bussey


The word “denomination” comes from the old French and Latin, meaning “to name something completely.” Some etymologists believe the Latin word “nomen” and the Greek word “nomos” are interchangeable. The Greek word refers to the idea of “law” or “precept.”


A denomination is a band of people who share a complete and logical understanding of the precepts of Scriptural interpretation. In Judges 17:6 we read about how in Israel “everyone did whatever seemed right in their own eyes” - they interpreted the law (nomos) subjectively and in isolation.


In today’s postmodern world, we have come to celebrate radical subjectivity. “My truth” is absolute. In many ways, every person has become their own denomination, their own tribe. Recently, it has become popular to say, “I am post-denominational” - I don’t associate with any tribe. I’m a theological “nomad.” This sounds better, right?


Let’s play this out: Romans 12 challenges us to “not be conformed to the patterns of this world” but rather to “be transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we can test and approve what God’s will is.” That makes sense! I read Scripture, interpret it, and live it out. Simple.


How do I test and approve what God’s will is? Do I just do what is right in my own eyes? No. I need to be accountable. Who should I be accountable to? People who are going to tell me what I want to here? Doesn’t this lead to confirmation bias? To groupthink? Yes, somewhat. But how do I know what God’s will is? How do I make sure I am not “drinking the kool-aid of some crazy cult?”


Interesting to note that “cult” has to do with worship… It is also where the idea of “culture” comes from - a group that shares an identity, a set of beliefs, values, and behaviors. Those shared ideas entice folks to come together and share in community around those shared convictions. Many cultures are shaped online these days by virtual groups of people who share their ideas - their views of the world.


But back to the kool-aid: How do I know I’m not in a cult? How can I figure out whether my culture is healthy? If I am a sheep (stay with me on this metaphor) - and I know sheep have a tendency to stray… How do I make sure I am not being led by a wolf in sheep’s clothing? How do I make sure the culture that is shaping my identity, values, beliefs, and behaviors is good for me - and, more importantly, is true? How can I know whether “my truth” (or, for that matter, “our truth”) isn’t a bunch a baloney?


Back to denominations - why am I a part of a denomination and how can I make sure it is not a cult?


A “denomination” is not merely a Facebook group or a couple of folks meeting together to form a book club. A denomination roots itself in Scripture - which is what we in The Salvation Army call “the DIVINE RULE for Christian faith and practice.”


However, we do not interpret this independently, but we test it in light of TRADITION. To help avoid groupthink and slip into the whole “doing whatever is right in our eyes” thing, we connect to a broader movement that has tested and approved interpretations of what should be believed (what is called “orthodoxy”) and how this should be lived out (which is called “orthopraxy”). The “wisdom of crowds” idea applies here - in that we look to a global and historic community to test and approve these ideas. Those ideas should work together - you don’t want something that is illogical, testing an idea to make sure it works is a good practice!


There are, however, different interpretations of “what is true” and “what works” - and this is where we have the gift of REASON and EXPERIENCE to wrestle through these matters.  


A denomination is a band of people who share a coherent and logical orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Those who share these convictions make up that culture. They share a view of Scripture that is rooted in a particular tradition and embrace an articulated logical belief system which they commit to living according to. Like any group, there are certain rules which govern the band. If I am a fan of Coca-Cola, I join that club. If I am a fan of Pepsi, I join that club. If I think Coke should be Pepsi, I am entitled to that opinion… but I should probably join the Pepsi club…


Likewise, those who are part of a denomination share those convictions. A person is entitled to change their views, but this ends up changing which group one associates with.


In our denomination, The Salvation Army, we are global, we are diverse, we are historic. How do we remain united? What is it that brings us together? This movement is rooted in Scripture. We are part of the universal church. We come from the Protestant tradition. We come from the Classical evangelical tradition - and more specifically the Arminian, Wesleyan, revivalist, and reform tradition. We were founded by William and Catherine Booth who rooted us in the worldview we call “Salvationism” which is tethered to this tradition.


Our orthodox beliefs are articulated in our Handbook of Doctrine. Our orthopraxy (behaviours) are articulated in our Orders and Regulations. These continue to be wrestled through with international governance councils. We are connected to the broader evangelical community and the wider ecumenical church. This is not merely a Facebook group, this is a denomination.


One other important point, while some tribes/denominations operate on a Congregationalist governance model, we do not. We are an autocratic movement - which means that we don’t “vote” whether or not we are going to change our beliefs. This was abandoned in 1875 when the Booths realized the governance model of the Methodist New Connexion would lead to mission drift.


To keep “the main thing the main thing,” the members of the Christian Mission began to make the shift from mission to Army. They shifted from their 'superintendent' leadership to 'General' leadership.


Superintendent to being a “General” - yep, a person who says, “this is what we are doing - and we do it.” Wow - that’s some serious trust! How do we make sure this person is aligned? There are checks and balances out into place. In fact, there are limits to even the authority of the General to change things! That’s how serious this movement is about not drifting from our convictions and mission! The Army even set a succession plan in place (modified in 1929 for extra checks and balances) to guard this identity and purpose and to protect the movement from straying from these convictions of belief and practice.


While we have a new Orders and Regulations for Soldiers - it really is the same, but just articulated in a new and fresh way. However, we in The Salvation Army believe strongly in free will. Every person chooses whether they will follow Christ. Likewise, every person chooses whether they will be part of a denomination.


So what band are you a part of? For me, I have wrestled and been convicted that I am called to be a soldier in The Salvation Army. My covenant is not to the General. It is to God. However, I will faithfully serve under my General and my Territorial leadership to live out these ideals. I hope you will join!










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