Globe Syndicate

Another Way

by Melodie Davis

for release March 10, 2000

Denominational Soup

Sometimes people ask, "Why are there so many different denominations and church groups?" It is a good question, and usually the underlying accusation is "Why can't they all just get along?"

During a special service where several churches looked at how various denominations can work together, we discussed the things we liked about unity among churches and the things we didn't like.

At the meal following the event, I had the job of ladling out soup. People could choose between five types: potato; bean, ham and spinach stew; vegetable soup; and chicken noodle. They each looked delicious to me, a real soup lover. Then someone suggested, "Why not just put all the soups together. Wouldn't that be good?"

But something in me flinched at that! The resulting mixture may have been, indeed, very satisfying-but it would have destroyed the wonderful individuality and uniqueness of each of the soups available.  There would have been only one flavor available to us instead of five distinct, hearty tastes.

And suddenly I knew why church mergers and church unity could only go so far: there is something unique and flavorful about each group.

Various jokes go around that highlight some of these unique aspects. For instance, at an ecumenical gathering, a man rushed in shouting, "The building is on fire!" The Methodists gathered in the corner and prayed, the joke goes. The Baptists cried, "Where is the water?" The Quakers quietly praised God for the blessings that fire bring. The Lutherans posted a notice on the door declaring the fire was evil. The Catholics passed a plate to cover the damage. The Congregationalists shouted, "Everyone for themselves!" The Fundamentalists proclaimed, "It's the vengeance of God!" The Episcopalians formed a procession and marched out. The Presbyterians appointed a chairperson who was to appoint a committee to look into the matter and submit a written report. And the Mennonites, a little behind everyone else, didn't get the fire out but quickly formed a disaster team to clean up and start building a new one.

I hope no one takes offense. Seriously, the many different groups came about partly because historically when people couldn't agree with each other on their religious interpretations, they split off and formed a new group.

Also, maybe there are so many different denominations because just as God created and planned for each of us to be as unique and individual as we are, there is place for differing, unique denominations. With people, we delight in seeing blond, red, black and brown hair side by side: what striking contrasts. Our personalities are just as varied: laid back, punctual, fun-loving, serious, thoughtful, prankster, intellectual, childlike.

I think of the various distinctions or strengths of the different denominations. From Lutherans we get a sense of the free gift of God's grace and an appreciation for majestic worship liturgy. From Baptists, an appreciation for the rigorous Bible training of children and young people, and the autonomy of the local congregation. From Presbyterians, appreciation of a calling from God and a church structure that emphasizes accountability to a larger structure (but not a bishop). From Catholics, a deep vein of social justice and action, with bishops. From Mennonites, an emphasis on Jesus' teachings to love our enemies and refusing participation in war, and a structure mixing congregationalism and accountability! These are all valuable, precious contributions to the overall Christian faith.

The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (1995) by Kenneth B. Bedell lists 85 Christian denominations in Canada and 178 in the U.S. That gives me pause: if five types of soup are a nice array, 178 are overwhelmingly confusing to the uninitiated.

And that's the problem with too many denominations. I think more and more groups are realizing that if they are to have any chance of being attractive to those who don't know anything about their particular brand of denominational soup, then they'd better drop at least the historical divisions over petty differences, form mergers and alliances where groups are very similar, and work to strengthen a combined front.

I don't know if this is helpful; for many it is review-and you may even think I got something wrong! Write and tell me. The bottom line is that yes, the different denominations should try to get along, but they do offer many different pots of soup!

What do you think: Send comments or stories to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail:

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Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from a number of organizations including the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three growing daughters.

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