In Part 1 of this series I looked at the relatively recent phenomenon of churches who claim no particular creed and hold no allegiance to a particular denomination. They are known as “non-denominational” churches, and their preaching, worship, and even organizational structure are all unbound by any traditional parameters. I noted that even many of the churches within mainline denominations are loosening their external denominational identities in favor of appearing more non-denominational. The great apologetic of the non-denom church is: We’re just christians1. And that’s a powerful apologetic to thousands of Christians in the U.S. and elsewhere who grew up in the sleepy old denominations of their grandparents – denominations that were segregated from the others because of mysterious, ancestral disagreements about faith and practice. The rise of non-denominationalism provides recent generations the option to constitute their faith community around style or interest affinities rather than the old differences that always segregated one denomination from another.
In Part 2 I showed how the reason for that denominational segregation could be found in the very DNA of the Protestant movement which began in the 1500’s. The word Protestant is derived from the protest of those first German magistrates to leave the Roman Church and of all those to follow them. The same desire for purity that drove the first protestants away from the Roman Church soon drove them from each other, as well. I discussed how this pattern of distinction and dislocation played out over the next 500 years, resulting in the formation of tens of thousands of separate denominations, all feeling justified in their dissociation from the others because of their uniqueness of practice, or theology, or whatever it may be. Despite this trend, there have been individuals since the rise of denominationalism who have recognized and mourned this lamentable reality. Many who are now among the non-denominational movement are there at least in part because they too disapprove of that divisive reality.
But as I observed, it turns out that non-denominationalism is merely the fruit of denominationalism — the next evolutionary step among the progressive pattern of dissociation of ecclesial bodies from each other. Except, the autonomous non-denom congregation is often disaffiliated from every other congregation not because of any official doctrines it holds (as is the case with denominations), but precisely because it has no official doctrines to unite it with anyone else. Denominationalism has disintegrated into autonomous congregations unable to be visibly united with anyone else (and I think will continue disintegrating into autonomous individuals all practicing “Christianity” on their own). So while I affirm wholeheartedly the impulse to challenge denominationalism, I think we can go in one of two directions when we realize that our bitterly divided denominations are a sin against our king and savior, Jesus. We can 1) retreat from our denominations which had themselves retreated from the church before them, and thus perpetuate the same pattern of divorce; or 2) choose to end that pattern by orienting ourselves according to the whole.
What do I mean — according to the whole what? Well, for one, the whole of all Christians. If you could form a coherent picture of the faith and practice of the majority of American Protestants today and compare it to the faith/practice pictures of most Christians from around the world, not only would it not look like the other pictures, but it would clearly be the minority picture. And if we started looking back through time, that picture would be more and more a minority, and look less and less like the other pictures. And even those other pictures would converge rather quickly as we move back through time, showing the remarkable unity of faith and practice across the world from the time of the Apostles to the early middle ages. I am confident that most American Protestants have no clue how very different the Protestant faith and practice we’re used to is from the vast majority of the Church down through the ages. Looking at the whole of Christians both today and especially through the centuries will undoubtedly make us question some of our presuppositions about the faith.
And thus it’s according to the whole faith that we must also think. In Part 2 I quoted H.A. Hodges describing how we, as heirs of Protestantism, are accustomed to expressing “a questioning attitude, a disposition to sift and judge, a readiness to hold aloof or even to reject [elements of our tradition],” because Protestantism set up purity as its central principle. The historic Church, while insisting on purity of faith, is nevertheless focussed on attaining and maintaining the fullness of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” In fact, heresy, in the classical view, was always seen as taking away something from the fullness of the faith, rather than an adding to it. It’s the full faith of the Apostles that Ignatius of Antioch (writing circa A.D. 90-117) called catholic, literally meaning “according to the whole.” It’s that faith that Vincent of Lérins (writing circa A.D. 434) said the whole Church had believed “everywhere, always, and by all” (quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus credituni est). And though we have such a hard time shaking our irrational fear of the word ‘”catholic”, I nevertheless want to encourage us all to look to the catholic faith2 to discover what a truly unified Church would look like. Looking at the faith according to the whole will inevitably lead to some basic principles:
Dependence and Community – From conception to death, we’re dependent on other people. We may occasionally think we are or could be independent from other people, but this is not so. Complete independence in life is an illusion, and it’s the same in our faith. We simply cannot be Christians without other Christians. Even solitary monks and hermits have always had ways of staying connected to their Christian communities.
Continuity Matters – If connectedness to those immediately around us matters, then so too does connectedness to the generations before us — and not just one or two generations back, but all the way back to the founders of our faith, the Apostles. It’s much better to be able to trace an unbroken lineage of fidelity to the faith all the way back to the Apostles than to suddenly “get back to the early church” using only what we think the bible shows us; and those lineages still exist.
Faith and Worship Are Linked – Faithful continuity with our family from generations past means we preserve what they’ve given to us. We preserve the faith they’ve delivered to us, derived not only from the Bible which they’ve given us but also from the worship they’ve given us. The ancient and timeless principle that the rule of prayer is the rule of faith (lex orandi, lex credendi) means that the way we pray and worship actually shapes what we believe, and conversely that what we come to believe will determine the way we worship. Safeguarding the way we worship has always been vital to the catholic faith, because that actually preserves the faith.
Sacramental Worldview – From the burning bush to the Ark of the Covenant, the bronze snake to the trumpeted march around Jericho, Namaan’s washing in the river to Elijah’s cloak, and even Peter’s shadow and handkerchiefs from Paul – God has used matter, physical things, to work wonders. More than that, the Church has ALWAYS believed that there were specific mysteries (later known in the West as sacraments) that God established, like he had established the Ark, Tabernacle, and sacrifices, to be used by his people in worship. The world around us is capable of bearing God’s presence (Isaiah 11:9, Habakkuk 2:14), and the Church shows that forth in her worship.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but these principles show that the faith according to the whole, the faith that could unite all Christians, is not the bare essentials, lowest common denominator Christianity we’re so often accustomed to looking for. The basic tenets of the faith that we look for—God as Trinity and God the Son incarnate for our salvation—are not only still there, but are the very things upon which everything else is established. ‘Dependence and community’ matters because God as Trinity by essence is community. The ‘Sacramental worldview’ matters because of the ultimate example of created matter bearing God’s presence: the Incarnation itself, where God puts on flesh and becomes a man. The pursuit of the faith according to the whole is about the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. It’s not supposed to be simple, just real, true. As C.S. Lewis put it, “If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have.” So if we’re grown-up Christians, let’s leave behind the childish prejudices to anything associated with the word “catholic”. And let’s not be afraid to ask grown-up questions, especially of ourselves. So once we become oriented to the whole, what’s the next step? We’ll check that out in Part 4.
1We’re just Christians is a powerful apologetic only within the sectarian landscape of denominationalism. The “just” implies the negation of the “superfluities” of creeds or traditions. “We’re just Christians” doesn’t speak at all to the outside world. “We are Christians” speaks loud and clear, though. The affirmative “are” instead of the negative “just” means the fullness of what it means to be a Christian is promised to the outsider.
2The catholic faith is claimed and practiced primarily by three major communions today: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical Anglicanism (at its best). Of these three, Orthodoxy is probably the most consistently faithful to historic liturgical worship.