Does working together make you a denomination?

Recently I read two different posts on the issue of denominations and I thought I’d repost them here. First I read Andrew Wilson’s what’s wrong with denominations? which articulates some of the conversations I’ve had with friends in the past. I’ve passionately argued that Newfrontiers is not a denomination and yet the differences haven’t been all that convincing although I think some of those differences are more significant than Andrew suggests.

A day or so later I read on John Stevens blog his update on the progress of FIEC. FIEC for the uninitiated is the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches in the UK. It has perhaps twice as many member churches as Newfrontiers does in the UK.

But John is adamant that they are not a denomination. Their history is founded on not being a denomination. So John, who is National Director of FIEC, writes:

“We remain convinced that independency, meaning the ultimate authority of the local church to determine its own affairs (including its practice on secondary matters, the appointment of ministers and the control of its property), is the biblical pattern of church life, but are equally convinced that that autonomous local churches are called to be in relationships of fellowship and mutual support with each other, so that they are willingly interdependent rather than isolationist.”

To me that sounds like Newfrontiers and is a point that Andrew didn’t pick up on. Yet Andrew would, it seems, argue that despite John’s protests tot he contrary, FIEC is actually a denomination too!

“In short, I think that any gathering of local churches that shares a name and a set of values or doctrinal commitments – even if they call themselves a network, a movement, a family or even a fellowship of independent evangelical churches! – is functionally a denomination as far as the English language is concerned.”

You could be thinking, does it really matter? But I would argue that it does, I’m increasingly convinced that our ecclesiology is vital especially as we grapple with what it means to be a church in the increasingly secular world of western and northern europe.

7 thoughts on “Does working together make you a denomination?”

  1. Charles Crosland says:

    Interesting post Phil-  Thank you
    Each local Baptist Union church can determine it own affairs including the appointment of ministers and (in practice if not in theory) the control of its own property..  I would call the BU a denomination( as I am sure  FIEC would call the BU a denomination) though I often wish we were more like a movement ! There is a big debate going on about this among Baptists at the momentHowever most Baptist churches are probably in deeper relationships with other evangelical local churches than most FIEC  churches who tend to mix more with other FIEC churches 

    To go of at a slight tangent surely our deepest relationships should be  with those who share our mission to a bring the gospel to a local area?

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Hi Charles, I think how you define mission is very important here. So mission locally is likely to be with others (of whatever flavour) that share the same gospel priorities and convictions. Mission Shrewsbury being a good attempt in that direction.

      But mission isn’t just local, it’s national and international too. So, personally, Newfrontiers gave me an opportunity to be engaged in prayer and giving and a sense of personal involvement on both those levels. I found it helpful to be exposed to a movement and found that this bigger grouping of like-minded people with similar theological convictions to be a great place to form deep friendships. The result of that is we have churches all across the UK supporting us here in Sweden. Local, national, international.

      1. Charles Crosland says:

        Thanks Phil ,your right of course and  in my limited experience of New Frontiers you are very very   good at both the local and national//international-.
         I wish the BU were better (just a personal opinion) but they  give  or seem to me to give  much less common vision than Terry Virgo and other New Frontiers leaders give/ gave >Perhaps as a movement /denomination gets bigger it just gets harder to do?
        Perhaps they are content to let local church get on with it?
        But you have certainly got me thinking!

  2. Mark Heath says:

    Having experienced both FIEC and newfrontiers for many years I would say this is one thing that newfrontiers does better, as there is a real sense of family between the churches, probably due to the regular Bible weeks and conferences, as well as (perhaps to a lesser extent) the idea of churches relating to apostles. My experience of FIEC is that the churches are a lot more independent with perhaps the leaders preaching at each others churches, but the regular members rarely meeting each other.

    One similarity of both groups though is that they are often reluctant to get too involved with local churches from other denominations. Partly I can understand the desire to avoid bland watered down ecumenical services, but I do at least think we could cooperate a bit more effectively with our evangelical neighbours.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

       Yes the two groups I’ve had longest connection with are FIEC and Newfrontiers and I’d agree with all your observations. What struck me was Andrew’s suggestion that in fact we (and perhaps FIEC) were actually denominations. I’m not sure he’s right though.
      As for working with others, I hope we’ll get better at that. Dave Stroud challenged us too at the last Brighton conference!

  3. John Stevens says:

    Hi Phil – thanks for your thoughtful comments. 

    As far as I am concerned the term “denomination” connotes two key ideas. First it identifies church groups which are defined by commitment to a required position on church government and the administration of the sacraments, eg the “Baptists” or “Congregationalists” or “Presbyterians.” When the FIEC was established it was intended to be “non-sectarian” (that was the language used then), in that it would welcome churches with a range of views on these issues. We welcome both baptistic and paedo-baptist churches into the Fellowship, and our churches would have a range of models of church government, from the increasingly common elder-led church to the more traditional congregational democracy.  The term has also been used to mean a “controlling central organisation,” which has power over the life and affairs of the local congregation. In essence the local congregation is an expression of a superior ecclesiological entity. The result is that the local congregation cannot simply agree to leave by its own sole decision and take its property with it. This second sense is evident in regard to churches seeking to leave the Episcopal Church in North America, or the Church of Scotland here. I am not sure where this exactly leaves both FIEC and NF.  My guess is that NF is more denominational in the first sense, in that it expects churches to conform to a more narrowly defined package of  theological beliefs than the FIEC (eg we would welcome both cessationist and continuationist churches), and that the apostolic character of NF means that there is more relational authority over local churches than FIEC exercises. However FIEC and NF have much more in common with each other, as they try to achieve a balance between local church autonomy, accountability to biblical standards and partnership in the wider cause of the gospel, than many other “denominations.”  I hope we can work together for the cause of Christ in the UK.     I am very aware that the younger generation of FIEC pastors is no longer allergic to the language of “denomination” (unlike and older generation who had to fight against institutional ecumenism) but are more concerned to establish a biblical pattern of inter-church relationships, whatever that is called.Best wishesJohn(FIEC National Director)                                        

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Hi John, thanks for the comment. I’ve been enjoying your blog and I believe you may know my dad, Roy Whittall in Shrewsbury and also my friend Rich Hopkins vicar in Sileby. If those names mean nothing, no worries!

      I think there are some interesting similarities and differences. So FIEC has a much tighter statement of faith, in fact Newfrontiers doesn’t have one of their own! On the other hand as you say in other ways has a narrow brand – baptist, continuationist and it’s view of apostolic ministry too of course. 

      I think that striving for that balance between independency and working together is crucial, and I trust FIEC will see the fellowship aspect balance the independent aspect in coming years. And absolutely hope that there will be greater common cause for the Gospel in the UK!

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