Church, Sect, Denomination

At First Things, Peter Leithart looks at David Martin’s 1962 paper on denominations, identifying four areas in which denominations fall between a church (a single, all-encompassing, culture-wide institution) and a sect on the sociological scale.

  • The boundaries of the denomination are not the same as the boundaries of salvation. Denominations see themselves as one valid expression of the wider church.
  • The unity of the broader church lies in a unity of experience rather than a unity of doctrine, confession or organization.
  • The ordained ministry is functionally pragmatic division of labor within “the priesthood of all believers.” Ordination is not primarily an indelible, sacred imprint on character on the ordained.
  • Denominaitons do not maintain the impossible standards of the sect or relax moral standards after the fashion of churches.

Finally, “Martin concludes by observing a connection between denominational organization and Anglo-American liberalism, individualism, and pragmatism. The denomination seems almost designed as the ecclesial facet of American civilization.”