… that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you — that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. -John 17:21
I was talking with a friend the other day about his church and about how he helps out with the youth program there. He told me about a recent weekend event where the kids had several opportunities to worship in a group setting, and about how enthusiastically they sang and worshiped. He contrasted the enthusiasm of the kids with some older, stodgy churchgoers he’d experienced, noting that there weren’t many of those at his church. And he went on to tell me that though his church has “Baptist” on its sign, in many respects, “It doesn’t look like your typical Baptist church.” By typical, he of course meant that, at least in generations past, most all Baptist churches, or any churches of a particular denomination, all looked alike. This led us to talk about the phenomenon of non-denominationalism, and about how many churches belonging even to the mainline denominations are beginning to hold on less tightly to their denominational identities and distinctives. In fact, my friend disclosed that he would just prefer we do away with all the denominations and titles and just be Christians. I agreed (with a caveat), lamenting that denominationalism is a blight on Christianity.
I’ve heard the sentiment “I’m just a Christian, not a denomination” affirmed by all sorts of people in all sorts of churches. This sentiment seems to be beaming with that virtuous charity that despises prejudice and segregation and instead bridges chasms of ignorance and misunderstanding to unite people that were never so very different to begin with. It was this charity (along with a healthy dose of biblical anthropology) that bolstered the civil rights movement. It seems like a good basis for tearing down denominational walls, too.
I suspect, however, that there’s also a less commendable motive behind the desire to do away with denominations. If I had to guess, I’d say that 60-80% of regular church-going people couldn’t tell you some basic doctrinal differences between the major denominations — not just the obvious exteriors like Baptists dunk and Methodists sprinkle, but real core differences. That’s because doctrine doesn’t matter like it used to.
Doctrine certainly mattered to the charismatic Reformers who started and led their denominations. It mattered to the European magistrates, princes, and governors who risked civil war and war abroad for their nations by aligning with this or that Reformer. In fact, doctrine even mattered during that obscure, prehistoric period between the 28th chapter of Acts and the 16th century at the birth of denominationalism. But from where we’re standing, all this doctrine looks to be responsible for the perpetual fracturing of Christianity into a bewildering cacophony of differing opinions, angry accusations, and self-righteous declarations. We may be aware of a few brave and noble representatives of our denominations making ecumenical attempts at unity, but obviously they haven’t worked, because we still have denominations. We still see Larry Lutheran and Betty Baptist passing like ships in the night, guided by their own doctrinal stars, and think to ourselves, “What a shame they can’t get on board with one another.”
Because we blame an over-emphasis on doctrines for the fracturing of the Church, and because it’s difficult to follow the heady doctrinal language in ecumenical dialogue, we’ve greatly de-emphasized doctrine on the popular level. We’ve extended the olive branch to members of other denominations and established congregations based not on lists of doctrines or dogmas, but on simple Gospel truths. We think because Christianity has gotten too complicated and too much doctrine has muddied the living water, we’ll solve the problem by getting back to the basics. Denominations with their dogmas are the problem, so we have invented “Non-Denominationalism.” But what we don’t realize, because we’re too short-sighted, is that this model is unsustainable.
Because no official doctrines unite any two non-denominational churches (or they would be a denomination), the local congregation becomes the locus of the Church. Sometimes this breaks down even further to the house church, just a handful of people, or even the individual. When a pastor encounters a congregant saying something he perceives as being contrary to the basics of the faith, the only authority to which he can appeal is the Bible, or rather his interpretation of his translation of the Bible. The problem is, the pastor of the next non-denom church down the street has interpreted this particular issue differently in the Bible, and welcomes the dissenter into his congregation. Or, if the dissenter can find no church that agrees with him, he will simply start his own church, insisting to everyone that he still affirms the basics of the faith — he just affirms them differently, or affirms different ones. Just like those early charismatic Reformers who gathered whole masses of people to their school of thought, the local congregational dissenter gathers his Sunday School class to his. Non-denominationalism is not the solution to denominations; it’s the natural result–the next evolutionary step.
This brings me to my earlier caveat when I agreed with my friend in wishing to do away with denominations. I think divisions among Christians are contrary to what Christ prayed for: “that they may all be one.” Though denominations show our clear dividing lines, dissolving into autonomous congregations does not make us one. There is a word the Church has used to describe itself as one: Catholic. And that doesn’t just mean Roman Catholic. It’s a word Ignatius of Antioch (student of the Apostle John, and martyred around A.D. 110) used to describe the Church way back in the first or second century. It’s a word that in New Testament Greek (katholikos) means according to (kata) + the whole (holos). Looking at the Church according to the whole is something many heirs of the Reformation haven’t done in centuries, but it’s something that is absolutely essential and, I think, a mandate if we want to take seriously the Lord’s desire for Christian unity. Let’s not cheapen unity by ignoring each other’s doctrines and hoping heresy won’t happen. Let’s fully engage our brothers and sisters, including those in other parts of the world and all those who have gone before us. We can learn from generations past, which is why I’ll look at the Reformers of the Western Church next time in Part 2.