Thursday, May 03, 2007

Inter versus Non

My friend Siobhan recently posed the following query to me:
In my hospice training class last night someone asked what, if any, difference there was between a church that was non-demoninational versus one that claims to be inter-denominational. 
I thought I remembered from a lecture at the School of Sacred Ministries that the UU (Unitarian Universalist) Church was considered non-denominational and that they took a more socially-activist approach to faith. Of course, with my own involvment at Pebble Hill Interfaith Church, I see inter-denominational as honoring many paths, especially during holidays or rituals.
Sounds like good fodder for a blog post, eh? Yeah, I thought so, too. The non-demoninational vs. inter-denominational debate is a fine exercise, but one that is nearly futile to resolve. I have found that one can ask five different people whether a particular church or organization is inter- or non-denominational, and the result will be a tie with three votes on each side. Yes, that is six votes came from only five people, and it has actually happened! I kid you not. For starters, "denomination" is a loaded word. It has two very strong meanings in Western, English-speaking societies (at least colloquially): The first is associated with a Christian (usually Protestant) church, and the second is money. Once one gets past the loaded nature of the word, there is still the fact that people misuse, or simply misunderstand, the actual definitions when applied to religious institutions. So lets look at the definitions.

First we have the following definitions for non-denominational:
  • Not restricted to or associated with a religious denomination. (American Heritage Dictionary)
  • not restricted to a particular religious denomination; "a nondenominational church"
  • A non-denominational church (usually Christian) is a religious organization which does not necessarily align its mission and teachings to an established denomination. It is also often done to allow the church to govern themselves without interference from the policies of a regional, national or multinational organization, in regards to budgets, memberships, policies, formal standards, and public image. ...
Then we have these definitions for inter-denominational:
  • Of or involving different religious denominations (American Heritage Dictionary)
  • occurring between, involving, or common to different religious denominations.
  • interchurch: occurring between or among or common to different churches or denominations; "interchurch aid"; "interdenominational cooperation between Methodists and Presbyterians"
  • Interdenominational Churches built for the purpose of bringing together Christians of different denominations are often referred to as united and uniting churches. This sometimes leads to doctrinal and stylistic compromises, leading to the idea that there are "primary" and "secondary" issues in faith. Primary issues describe those about which there can be no disagreement, whereas secondary issue can be compromised upon. Christian faith-based organizations which act independent of church oversight are called interdenominational or parachurch organizations (para, is Greek for beside, or alongside). They are typically Protestant or evangelical.
So, to sum up those definitions, non-d means "not part of a larger, governing body" and inter-d means "cooperation between groups." Given these definitions, I would say that Pebble Hill Church, from Siobhan's question, is non-demoninational with respect to the fact that it used to belong to the Reformed Church in America, but was pushed out and has not joined another governing body. By the way, most "megachurches" are non-denominational as well. This is probably the only thing that megachurches have in common with small, independent churches. Is the UU Church non-denominational? Well, that depends on the individual church. But if a congregation is sporting the "Unitarian Universalist" name and logo, chances are it is part of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). According to Wikipedia, the UUA was "founded in 1961 as a consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America, is headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts, and serves churches in North America. The UUA represents more than 1,000 member congregations that collectively include more than 217,000 members" (  That makes UU a denomination. But it could have inter-denominational activities. 

So, what about the School of Sacred Ministries (SSM)? I suppose you could say it is non-denominational in the sense that the school is affiliated with a non-denominational church (Pebble Hill). You could also say, and be technically correct, that SSM is inter-denominational because the school does support working with and communication between different denominations and religious organizations. It's technically correct, but not a completely satisfying description. You see, while we can "technically" say there are denominations in Hinduism, Judaism, and even Islam, most people will still recognize denomination as referring to differences in organized Christian churches. Because this is the case, I reject inter-denominational as the best word to describe SSM. And that brings me to Pluralism. In general, pluralism is a concept that indicates there are many of the things in question. Religious pluralism refers to different religions (not just different versions of one religion) getting along. No two religions can make a unique claim to absolute truth, but they can both be 100% true.

These points come across in Professor Robert Wuthnow's lecture, "In America, All Religions are True: Implications of the New Pluralism for Democracy". I have a recording of this lecture if you are interested. According to Professor Rodney Stark (The Market Approach to Understanding Religion), the natural state for a society is pluralism. And the only time pluralism does not thrive is when a monopoly is forced into place. The Roman Catholic Church in the ancient world (and all the way up to the Reformation) would be an example of this in action. I also have a recording or two of Stark's lectures at the Vanderbilt Student Center. I recommend them. I suggest reading the Wikipedia entry on Religious Pluralism ( and checking out The Pluralism Project (

 Oh, bringing all of this back to Pebble Hill ... I would say that Pebble Hill is a non-denominational church that actively espouses and practices pluralism. In fact, both Pebble Hill and SSM are pluralistic. And pluralism is just fine with me.

No comments: