A few weeks ago I was talking to a friend from NewSpring church and telling him a bit of my spiritual story, which included a brief history of the various denominations that I have called home during my life so far. I was born Baptist, grew up Pentecostal, split the difference and went back to a Charismatic Baptist church, then Evangelical Presbyterian, then Assemblies of God, and now Reformed Presbyterian.
My friend was delighted to hear it. “That’s wonderful,” he said. “You’re postdenominational, and that’s where the church is heading these days.” I didn’t correct him at the time–we had other things to talk about–, but I am definitely not postdenominational. Many modern churches have embraced the non-label label, and I’ve heard several NewSpring leaders describe their church as postdenominational (even though they’re nominally Southern Baptist). The whole concept is at once naive and arrogant.
It’s naive in assuming that we can just do away with denominations. A cursory knowledge of church history, which is often lacking in postdenominational boosters, would tell you that there are important reasons for the apparent divisions within Christianity. The Christian faith has a good many important questions to which the answer is debatable.
If you’ve got a few minutes for a fun party game, get three or four of your Christian friends to answer all the questions on the following list and count how many generate identical answers, assuming they even have an answer for all of them.
- Should infants be baptized?
- Should baptism be by sprinkling or immersion?
- Should Christians pray in tongues?
- Should women be elders or pastors?
- How should the church be governed?
- When is the Sabbath?
- How often should the Lord’s supper be celebrated, and by whom?
- How much free will do we have?
- Who can be saved, and how?
- What is the Trinity?
- How can Jesus be all man and all God at the same time?
- Will Jesus return before or after the tribulation?
- Is there a rapture and when will it come?
- Can Christians drink alcohol?
- When should Christians go to war?
- Can you be baptized more than once?
- To what extent is the Bible trustworthy?
- Did Creation, the Flood, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection really happen the way the Bible describes?
- What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
- What are God’s sacraments?
- Is the death penalty permitted?
- Can you lose your salvation?
- Should the Lord’s Supper use bread or crackers, wine or juice?
Christians believe that their highest calling is to glorify God in their whole lives, especially in regards to worship. It should be important for every Christian to find answers to these questions, because they affect our conduct and bearing in our worship of God. The history of denominations is simply the story of believers associating with other Christians with whom they can worship God with integrity. If you know, or come to believe, that your church is in error on important matters of doctrine, why wouldn’t you be looking for churches that follow God’s commands more closely?
Paul said that disputes about doctrine were inevitable and could be healthy because they help sort truth from error.
I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.
I think it’s the same concept as is expressed in Proverbs, which says that as iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. No denomination is going to get Christian doctrine perfect, but all should be trying to get as close as they can by submitting themselves to God’s Word. The great value of denominations, then, is that they at least try.
The only way you can achieve postdenominationalism is to say that no points of conflict over Christian doctrine matter enough to hinder personal unity, which brings me to my second objection to the postdenominationalist mindset.
It’s arrogant because it says that for 2,000 years Christian’s who have contended for the faith have been wasting their time. You can throw out the creeds, because they are all products of believers systematically sorting out doctrinal truth from error. Of course, throw out the denominations, because choosing a church over how they treat the sacraments or what they believe about the authority of Scripture is just petty and silly. Don’t you know that all you have to do is have a relationship with Jesus, and then nothing else matters?
In its arrogance lies its most profound weakness. “Just love Jesus more” has rarely been a sufficient approach for a secure Christian walk. Error comes quickly, invisibly and easily when you think you don’t have to sweat the small stuff.
Christianity is not simple. It’s a system of beliefs that profoundly influence actions; creeds that influence deeds. Paul and Peter were much more concerned that the church would be corrupted by false teaching than by its eager and obvious enemies, and the reason the false teachers could gain purchase in the minds of their victims was that error very often sounds a whole lot like truth.
G.K. Chesterton expressed the idea well in Orthodoxy.
[Balancing competing emphases] explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfilment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious. … Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad.