FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – In a Gallup poll two years ago, only 16 percent of Christians said that their denominational identity was important to them. By comparison, in the same study, 21 percent of the general population said it mattered to them what kind of toothpaste they chose.
“So denominational identity is not nearly as important in the lives of some as it is for me and for you,” said David Dockery, newly-elected president of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., during Southwestern Seminary’s 2014 Day-Higginbotham lectures, March 6-7.
In his lectures, Dockery, who is completing an 18-year tenure as president of Union University, examined the topics of denominational development and decline, evangelical identity, and the future of theological education in the 21st century.
“Why look at denominations?” Dockery asked in his first lecture. “Because, historically, denominations have been the instruments used of God to help men and women who think in organizational terms to provide structure for carrying forth three major things: (1) the supporting and starting of churches, (2) maintaining shared beliefs and practices, and (3) the enabling of shared work of evangelism, missions, education, and benevolence.”
Dockery began his series of lectures by summarizing the long history of denominations, beginning with the three broad traditions that have shaped the understanding of the Christian faith throughout history: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. Dockery discussed how various denominations broke off from these three branches over the years such that now there exist thousands of denominations and variations thereof.
Dockery then looked at evangelicalism, which he said is distinct from a denomination.
“Evangelicalism is a cross-denominational movement,” Dockery said. “[Evangelicals are] people who are heirs of the Reformation, influenced by Puritanism and pietism, shaped by the 18th century revivals and 19th century mission movements. Largely it's a renewal movement that countered liberalism, rigid fundamentalism, and dead orthodoxy.”
Regarding evangelical identity, Dockery said it is “grounded in a commitment to the truthfulness and authority of the Bible, to the uniqueness of the Gospel, to the necessity of conversion, and to the need, then, for taking this Gospel to the ends of the earth in forms of service and mission.”
Dockery ended his series by discussing the future of theological education. He encouraged renewed emphasis on a number of topics, including biblical, theological and ministry formation (including the use of mentoring models rather than just lecturing hundreds of students at a time); helping students think about church health, renewal and church planting; careful biblical interpretation and theological reflection; and a global vision that includes cross-cultural and inter-cultural conversations that are contextual, yet convictional.
In conclusion, Dockery said that denominations are still important, as is evangelical identity, but he also stressed overall unity among Christians.
“It is possible,” Dockery said, “to hold hands with brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary matters and work together toward a common good to extend the work of the Gospel around the world and advance the kingdom of God.”