I was talking labels the other day and, asking why someone would rather be an Anglican than a Presbyterian, added the hasty coda, “I’m not saying I actually am Presbyterian.”

Later I wondered why not. I make an hour-long commute to a Presbyterian church every Sunday and help lead a Presbyterian Bible study. I went through membership classes, an elder interview and made a public commitment to be a member of a Presbyterian church. If I moved anywhere else I would look first for a Presbyterian church. Of the theology I loosely hold, most of it is Presbyterian. I even joke about being born Presbyterian—my discomfort with changes in Sunday routine, my inhibitions where clapping is concerned. And here is the real test: I would baptize my babies.

But if a pollster asked me my denomination (like they asked 54,000 Americans in the latest huge landmark survey of religion in America), I apparently would have balked and said something like evangelical—just like 45 percent of American Christians did. This survey found that more Christians are reluctant to identify with a denomination, choosing terms like evangelical or non-denominational instead. While the number of Christians has gone down, the number of self-described non-denominational Christians has risen from 200,000 in 1990 to 8 million in 2008. The number of self-described evangelicals has gone up from 546,000 in 1990 to 2.1 million in 2008.

I guess I’d be among those Christians with my tiptoeing around that label, Presbyterian. Why is that, when I’m actually far more Presbyterian than what I think of when I say the term, evangelical? I chose my church for a reason—because the whole denomination seemed to have more solid fare than the bubbly pop that passes for nourishment in most “evangelical” churches.

I suppose I might tell a pollster evangelical because Presbyterians are so wildly different. My brand of Presbyterian is not remotely related to other brands of Presbyterianism—but my friends know all that, and they know my particular brand, so why tell my friends I’m “not actually Presbyterian”? I suppose it might be because I’m not sure if I’m Calvinist—but I’m not sure that I’m not, and no one ever said I had to be Calvinist to be Presbyterian. It might be because some denominations are changing so fast that I don’t want to be married to one until death do us part; but my brand of Presbyterianism is post-split and stolid right now.

But all of that is part of it. Claiming a denomination means finding out if you are a Calvinist or not, which takes time and a deep commitment to seeking truth. Then it means making a long-term commitment not just to a local body but a body bigger than your local body. It means submitting yourself to the authorities in that body, but it also means fighting for the body’s integrity and well-being when the authorities are wrong; and keeping them accountable means more study and time and commitment to truth. “Being” a denomination means losing yourself in a larger body. Isn’t that what Christian living is about?

You hear some Christians dismiss “labels” as sub-spiritual as if, once we’re truly enlightened, we’ll move past all of that to a peaceful utopia peopled with Christ-followers. (And that is how they talk about it—in enlightenment terms, with those who cling to labels still living in the Dark Ages of barbaric internecine Christian warfare). But at least in my case and, I’d wager, many others, not “being” a denomination is just a case of intellectual and spiritual sloth.

It would be a nice ending if I said, "So I'm a Presbyterian." In fact, I wrote that very ending. But I deleted it because after all of that, it seems a little flippant—like slapping on a label just to escape the "spineless" label I currently wear. Labeling myself for the sake of "being" something is just as lazy as not labeling myself at all.

So here’s hopefully the honest ending: I'm going to be thinking harder and studying more. (But I won’t be clapping in church.)

About The Author

Alisa Harris

0 Responses to The flight from denominational labels

  1. I always tell pollsters I am a heathen.

    I also tell Christians this, as I’ve found that, in general, they’re less offended by godlessness than by a similar but rival denomination to their own.

  2. Ruthnh says:

    I was raised Catholic, and still hold many of the Catholic beliefs – but not all. I now call myself Progressive Christian, for lack of any other suitable term. I think labeling myself Catholic might be the same as saying “I believe in everything in the Catholic faith.” I probably am a Cafeteria Catholic, which seems more like a snide term. So maybe Progressive Catholic might be a better term, but I am still confused about it.

  3. Mark P says:

    “Claiming a denomination means finding out if you are a Calvinist or not, which takes time and a deep commitment to seeking truth.”

    That’s exactly why someone would prefer Anglicanism over Presbyterianism. A Presbyterian has to vouch for, agree with, and understand the entire Westminster Confession. The detail in that very hefty document (http://www.pcanet.org/general/cof_contents.htm) seems beyond the human mind’s capabilities given the material we have. Does Scripture really offer a detailed system of theology? While systematic theology can be helpful, I find it very problematic in a creedal sense. It’s nice if it aids understanding, but I cannot vouch for the particular way someone chooses to fit the complex and paradoxical pieces of Scripture together.

    I wonder if this move to non-denominationalism is less a sign of laziness and doctrinal apathy as much as a healthy understanding of the limits of human individualism—yet another sign of the end of the modern age. In that sense it may reflect healthy rejection of scientism and the modern-age’s presumptions.

    This seems to lead two ways.
    1. The kind of sugar-plum bubble-gum nonsense you mentioned, where the failings of doctrine are exchanged for no doctrine at all, for an even shallower individualism resting on emotion instead of intellect.
    2. Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism (or at least a liturgically based denomination). Rome only asks you to agree with one issue. Just one. Anglicanism has thirty-seven articles of faith, but these rest on a general concept of the middle way—an understanding that neither the papal authority structure nor Protestant individualism can really satisfy.

  4. Jacob says:

    I’ve had an interesting on-going conversation with a lutheran friend of mine about why one would identify more with Lutheran or Reformed theology. I think we both agreed that much of it has to do with the kinds of big questions and concerns we have. I can’t help but think that’s part of this equation. Mark P’s point about Westminster being a very large and weighty document to understand and sign-off on is a valid one. That said, I’m more inclined to say that non-denominationalism is more akin to laziness that humility. Humility forces us to recognize that we have much to gain from the insights of those who have gone before us in the faith. Laziness lets us ignore grappling with the issues.

  5. David says:

    Well said, Jacob.

  6. Todd S. says:

    I think this is complicated. Even within the Anglican Church you have variations. A lot of it is the style of worship. Some of it is theology. I was raised Presbyterian who ended up Anglican in College, with a brief tour of the Catholic Church. 1. I don’t have any real issues with Presbyterian beliefs. You can get the same basic teaching from Anglican, Lutheran or Presbyterian pastors. 2. I do, however, like receiving Eucharist on Sundays. 3. I enjoy both the spirit-led worship that some people like to dismiss as “bubble gum” – but I like some good bone-rumbling organ music too. I like a sermon that touches the heart as much as it touches the mind. 3. But what has driven me out of the Episcopal Church was their deviation from the Creeds, the 39 Articles and everything basic I was taught as either a Presbyterian or Anglican Church. I’m not ready to accept Thew Forrester’s assertion that the God of Israel is interchangeable with Buddha, Allah or others. I’m not prepared to accept the idea that God is an anthropomorphism of Human Goodness. I’m not prepared to deny the Divinity of Christ, the Virginity of Mary or salvation through the Merits of Christ.

  7. Depending on the reasons, a general move away from labeling oneself as a follower of a certain denomination might actually be a very good thing. I often wonder if it was ever Jesus’ plan to have denominations. In the end, what do they really gain? Even within denominations, we are never going to agree with everyone’s interpretations of doctrine, so we will have to learn to live with people who we disagree with. Why not do that in the first place?

    Obviously there have been times in the past when a break away from the traditional church was, in my opinion, required, because of severe differing between what the Bible says and what the church practiced. But it is important to understand the difference between foundational disagreement and more of an outer disagreement. Foundational has to deal with something that goes directly against the very core of Christianity. But as long as we can agree on that very important core, we have far more in-common with any Christian than any non-Christian, and that is important to keep in mind.

    Disagreements are not the problem. The problem has much more to do with the finger-pointing at different denominations, because this brings about disunity. Jesus said “Make them one so that the world will believe”. Is that all the world is waiting on? Than why in the world are we bickering about all these small doctrinal things? Why do we feel the need to create a new sub-denomination whenever someone decides they don’t agree with something their church is saying?

    “Make them one, so that the world will believe.” Doesn’t sound very denominational to me. Maybe a non-denominational title could be a very good thing, so long as it doesn’t become, in itself, just another denomination with all the same finger pointing at others.

  8. Derby says:

    Like CT above, I simply don’t like drawing a distinction between myself and a fellow believer as a member of one church with one Lord.

    But I also avoid denominational labels because I don’t want to commit to any one theology or reading of Scripture. Am I lazy, or just intellectually humble? I don’t want to take the effort to answer that.

  9. Ryan says:

    Was “Jesus” ever mentioned once in this post?

  10. I believe we’re talking about “Christianity”. If you have a different definition from Webster’s “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ”, then, well, I don’t really know where to start.

  11. Kevin D. says:

    I think that you’re greatly oversimplifying the matter when you say, “But at least in my case and, I’d wager, many others, not “being” a denomination is just a case of intellectual and spiritual sloth.”

    I agree that there are many Christians who don’t take the time to investigate the intracacies of their own theologies, and I also agree that there are many Christians who choose not to use labels out of piety and vanity. However, it seems that you’re ignoring the fact that attaching labels can be sub-spiritual, and does little to advance your spiritual life or the spiritual lives of others; declaring such things simpy doesn’t matter anymore. It also seems that you’re too quick to dismiss the possibility that there can be a day when Christians just label themselves as “followers of Christ”. Why is that hard to believe? Why wouldn’t we want to go back to that?

    Didn’t Paul speak to the Corinthian church about this very problem? Something like, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul?” ?

    Is Christ divided? Apparently so, and the world will look at us and judge us accordingly.

    …I’m reluctant to identify myself with a particular denomination not because I’m intellectually slothful or that I think I’m better than others who do, but rather because I only want to identify myself with Christ (who is, come to think of it, the only one who matters anyway). Calvin, Wesley, Graham… they’re good theologians. But, if I’m being asked to share with the world who I’m a follower of, I’m going to reply with ‘Christ’ all the time.

  12. Jacob says:

    Kevin, Colin,

    I see where you’re coming from, but the big question I have for non-denominationals is “who decides what counts as an essential doctrine?” In essence, a denomination is a gathering of men and women who share the same convictions about what is important, and what Scripture teaches.

    There is a great deal of unaddressed vanity on the part of non-denominationals who seem to think that they have a corner on the market when it comes to decided what counts as “essential.” Certainly we can call each other brothers, in most cases, but I will not allow my (weaker) brother’s misgivings to render null my convictions.

  13. It is a very good question about what counts as essential. Probably more important than the exact doctrine is the heart of the person. Are they truly trying to follow the teachings of Jesus? After this, there will be plenty of disagreements, but if we both are looking at the issues from the same beginning point, that of following Jesus’ teachings, we can have disagreements without it dividing us.

    Now, in all of my fluffy sounding ‘can’t we all just get along’ ideas, I also believe it is essential to know what you believe and why, and be ready to give a defense for it. Just don’t let it divide you.

    The problem with the church today is that everyone is looking for the problem with the church today. Or something like that.

  14. Jay Urban says:

    Imagine trying to tell people you are a Reform Jew. They usually follow it up with the question, “So what do you believe in?? Nothing??

  15. Yael says:

    Very interesting post! I definitely think that a lot of Christians do not bother to learn the history of the faith, and the tenets of their own denomination. I spent 13 years in a Christian school run by a non-denominational church. During this time, I learned little about why we were non-denominational and why there were so many other denominations present within the Christian faith. I wish those subjects had been addressed even if it was just on an introductory level. I’ve had to do the research myself(and still have far to go).
    It should be noted that not all non-denominational churches are “happy-clappy” purveyors of watered down doctrine. Many of them contain a good mixture of people who were raised in specific denominations, but then left those because legalism and partisan lines got in the way of Christ’s teachings/ true fellowship.
    We are the body of Christ with many members- there are bound to be some that love worshipping the Lord through clapping/dancing and others that do not. As long as we all agree on the core tenets of the faith, issues of practice shouldn’t matter. Both denominational churches and non-denominational churches treat each other with smugness and that is wrong.

  16. Kevin D. says:

    Jacob ~

    While I know that some people who label themselves as “non-denominational” do have issues with vanity (I said as much in my first comment), I hope that we can all keep the whole “splinter/log in our own eye” image in mind. As Yael said, smugness is found on both sides.

    I do take issue, though, with your comment: “In essence, a denomination is a gathering of men and women who share the same convictions about what is important, and what Scripture teaches.”

    …which, in practice, is just flat-out wrong. It’s true in theory, but what we’ve seen even recently is how incorrect that is – churches separating and splitting over issues of homosexuality, etc. Denominations are divided about this issue and others, and not all pastors in a denomination are of one mind about them. The spectrum is vast: there are both conservative and liberal denominationals and conservative and liberal non-denominationals. Worship styles can run the gamut as well, from dynamic, lively services to more ascetic, contemplative, or traditional styles within the same denomination. To assume that the people in the pews not only know exactly where their denomination stands theologically on every issue but also believe it too, is naive. Most people join a denominational church for reasons other than doctrinal stances, as Croft reminded us. I know that in my own church, location, fellowship, and service opportunities play a huge role in whether or not people attend. Doctrine? It’s way down the list of priorities.

    Everyone ~

    In general, I find the whole question (and article) comical. I think that the Apostles would think we were absolute bonkers to see us debating such things; “Just preach the Gospel!”, they’d say. Go a little further and for the next thousand years you have churches all across Europe and the Middle East with varying theologies, and they were still under the umbrella of one, unified church.

    In my personal observation, there’s also people who will pick and choose a denomination because they don’t like the message of the other – as if it wouldn’t be good for us to hear different opinions about baptism, or marriage, or the role of women, (etc.); to be encouraged to study, read, and pray for ourselves, and come to our own conclusions! Denominations can feed into the idea that we should pick from what we agree with, and ignore what we don’t… it reminds me of one of the Screwtape Letters.

    I don’t dismiss the significance and contributions of Luther, and the Counter-Reformation is evidence enough that change needed to happen. But, I sometimes wonder if something tragic was lost when everyone and their brother started to have a particular theological following. I wonder if we lost part of the intention of the Church.

  17. Jacob says:


    You say that we should “just preach the Gospel,” and I heartily agree. But whose Gospel shall we preach? There are similarities between my Lutheran (LCMS) friends and I (a Reformed Baptist) on the issue justification, but there is far less agreement than with Rome or even some Arminians. When you say “Gospel,” what do you mean?
    When I was on the leadership team of my campus’ student ministry, we ran smack into this problem when we wanted to do a campus-wide event that included essentially any one who identified himself as a Christian: We could not all agree on what is meant by “Gospel” and what is implied by the term “justification.” Consequently, we ended up not holding the event. Was it because we were being vain? I don’t think so. It was because my Roman Catholic friends have their firm convictions about the truth, which differs from my Lutheran friends’ convictions about what is true, which again differs from the convictions of my Presbyterian friends. Because we love the Gospel and want to clearly articulate it clearly in all its majesty, we could not water it down or give up our convictions. The Gospel mattered too much for that.
    Now, is there no room for unity? Certainly there is! For one, we all affirm the Trinity and understand Scripture to be authoritative. We all agree that life is sacred and abortion is a heinously barbaric act. We can agree that we have a command to care for widows and orphans, and that we should love God and love our neighbors.
    The problem is not that doctrine divides but that men are sinful creatures who do not see fully or clearly. The truth matters, and I have to speak with Luther: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

  18. Alisa says:

    I’ve been watching the discussion with interest. This post is just me speaking some thoughts loud, so I’m interested to see other people’s perspectives.

    Obviously, the church wasn’t always splintered the way it is today. Protestantism splintered things (not just by splitting from Rome, but by rejecting the doctrine of apostolic succession); and from my reading, the Second Great Awakening led to an even greater individualism and splintering. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but I think a lot of it just follows from rejecting the doctrine of apostolic succession. I think at some level, committing to a denomination is a possible answer to the individualism that disunites believers today.

    And as for the church at large, I love Augustine’s axiom: “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”

  19. Mark P says:

    Let’s remember that the Eastern church schism occurred half a millennium before Luther. We westerners tend to forget…

    “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”

    Absolutely, and the question then becomes what is essential, as Jacob pointed out – what is dogma, in the best sense of that poor maligned word. As T.S. Eliot said, “It is not enthusiasm, but dogma, that differentiates a Christian society from a pagan one.” What can you and I disagree upon and still commune together? I personally believe that if we can say the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds together, we should be able to take the Body and Blood together. I’m not sure, though, that we should then say “to each his own” about everything else, where as a body we will just avoid thinking or talking at length about the stickier parts of Scripture because disagreement breeds division.

    I think my main problem with non-denominationalism is how it almost invariably severs itself from tradition. There’s this pretense that we’re “getting back” to the “early church”… by ignoring the intervening twenty centuries of believers living out their faith in community? Because we know better than them?

  20. Jason S. Kong says:

    Alisa, then you’d love the EFCA!

    I don’t find the Westminster Catechism that long. It’s not even close to be as long as the Bible (or even the Patriarchs, even), and it’s a lot easier to study and understand (and therefore agree/disagree with).

    Most people I know who are non-denominational don’t really know anything enough to be able to even differentiate between them doctrinally.

  21. Jason S. Kong says:

    Sorry for the double-post – I also see it as the fact that the Church has been giving up the responsibility of teaching people about their faith. I think this article from JP Holding really summarizes it well – Tektonics – Why Johnny Can’t Believe

    People are simply non-denominational because they don’t know any better.

  22. Levi W. says:

    i started reading comments and then got so humble that i ended up scanning for interesting usernames.

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