A denomination, in the Christian sense of the word, is an identifiable religious body or grouping under a common name, structure, and/or doctrine drawn from the three major divisions of Churches: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant.
The term may be applied in particular to Protestant church bodies or groupings. Notable among these are:
- Reformed and Presbyterian
- Anabaptist (made up of the Amish, Hutterites, and Mennonites)
- Pentecostal and Charismatic
- United and Uniting churches
Within each of these groups there are sub-groups which are also called denominations. For example, within Baptists are the Southern Baptist Convention, American Baptists USA, and other smaller groups.
Congregations which have chosen not to identify with a particular denomination (though identifying with a particular group) are considered non-denominational. The majority of these congregations are Protestant. There are some groups which fall within a larger grouping but are non-denominational, an example is the Independent Baptist movement which falls under the overall Baptist group but who's congregations are not organized into a sub-group denomination.
The degree to which denominations differ and their acceptance within Christianity varies widely.
To speak of Denominationalism may presume that some or all Christian groups are, in some sense, versions of the same basic thing regardless of their distinguishing labels, as branches of the same identical tree, grown from the same root, producing the same kind of fruit. Not all churches agree to this; for instance, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches do not include themselves under the term "Denominations", as the implication of interchangeability in the term "denominationalism" does not agree with their theological teachings.
There are some groups which practically all others would view as apostate and therefore not legitimate versions or branches of Christianity (John 15:1-6). Others may be seen as heretical, even by some churches of their own denomination. To be a heretic means only that one holds an erroneous doctrine of importance, not that one has renounced (apostatized from) the Christian faith.
A denomination can be organized in one of two ways:
- Under a hierarchial structure, individual congregations are under the direct control of the leadership structure. The leadership determines doctrinal stances for the entire denomination. Ministers and deacons are licensed/ordained by the leadership (and the leadership has the final say on any revocation) and assigned by the leadership to individual congregations; the congregation has little or no say in who is appointed or if they can stay or be replaced. Property used by a local congregation (such as a building, or a bank account) is considered the property of the denomination; thus, if a congregation wants to leave the denomination it will usually be forced to surrender its assets to the denomination or engage in protracted negotiations or legal action to retain all or part of them. The Roman Catholic Church is the most notable example of a hierarchial denomination.
- Under a congregational structure, individual congregations are independent and autonomous of both the leadership and each other. Individual congregations will license or ordain ministers and deacons and hire/fire their own leadership. The congregations maintain individual control of assets, and can leave the denomination at will without loss of such. Although a denomination may (and often has) a "statement of faith" which states the common doctrinal viewpoints of congregations, they are not bound to it. Any leadership exists solely for that work which the individual congregations assign to it (such as missionary work or seminary training). The Southern Baptist Convention is the most notable example of a congregational denomination.
Some denominations have both types of arrangements. For example, the Assemblies of God exist as a congregational structure at the individual level, but ministers are licensed and ordained on a hierarchial structure (i.e. at AG headquarters) and individual congregations must hire an AG licensed/ordained minister.