There was a time when I really hated denominations. I was at one time firmly planted in that stream of thought that considers the term ‘denomination’ to be a dirty word and denominations themselves as ‘man-made’ and dangerous preferring to stay within that sphere dubbed ‘Mere Christianity’ or “non-denominational evangelicalism”. Yet today i stand on the opposite side of that sentiment or at least an inch or two closer to that denominational side. Interestingly enough, even C.S Lewis who wrote that famous book; Mere Christianity, would have abhorred such a category even going so far as to say that one can’t live in the corridor of a house, but rather it is the rooms of a house where lives are lived.
Probably being ‘burned’ by a denominational church caused me to hate all things denominational at some point. Most certainly I DID hate all things about that particular denomination I was raised in as a child. More often than not, I’ve found that many who disagree with denominations have been ‘burned’ by a denominational church in one way or another and usually what attracts people like the old me to non-denominational churches is what said churches are assumed to stand in opposition to, rather than what they stand for.
In my own experience, I was attracted to my current local church because of what they stand for though I must confess that what initially made me stay there was because I assumed that they opposed many of the things I opposed. Lately I’ve come to realise that I had set up straw –man arguments against denominations. Arguments that tied denominations to strife, bureaucracy, a ‘Spirit-less’ life and the list goes on and on. Nevertheless, it is still worth considering why many of us understand the term to imply division rather than diversity.
Truth be told, denominations can not deliver us world peace neither are they the pristine, sanitized habitats that some may think they are. In fact, even orthodox and once orthodox denominations have produced their fair share of weirdos e.g. Harold Camping, Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale were/are members of Reformed Presbyterian denominations (R.C.A and C.R.C) and Harry Emerson Fosdick as well as Fred Phelps were Baptists of some kind. Not to mention that some denominations such as the E.L.C.A and the United Church of Christ have committed and in fact encourage what any right thinking Christian would clearly see as outright heresy within their ranks.
What Makes a Denomination?
So why bother anyway? What is it about denominations that irks some and make others gleeful? Probably what we ought to be asking first is, what is it that makes a denomination or at least a Christian denomination? A layman such as me would assume shared ideals; ideals concerning God’s word spoken and presented in a type of tradition. Also, not every denomination begins ‘squeaky clean’ but they should at least attempt to continuously be shaped by scripture on all things, changing their minds where necessary on non-essential issues that may be the outworking of a particular socio-cultural setting. The exception to the Establishment Principle in The Westminster Confession of Faith by some Presbyterians is one such example.
In 2nd Timothy 1:13-18, we see Paul exhorting Timothy to preserve the ‘pattern of sound words’ given to him. As some theologians have pointed out (and i agree with them) this is the precedent for the formation of expressed orthodoxy i.e. creeds and confessions. Basic Christian orthodoxy to my mind ought to be found at the very least within The Apostles Creed, The Nicene Creed and The Athanasian Creed. Others would go further to say that the various historic Protestant expressions of faith such as The Westminster Standards, The Three Forms of Unity, The 1689 Baptist Confession, The 39 articles, The Augsburg Confession etc ought to be a standard of orthodoxy and i would agree with their right to say so even if i disagreed with the particulars of some of those expressions of faith. Nevertheless, they are all attempts to express what it is that Timothy received; which we too received i.e. Christian orthodoxy. I would also go so far as to say that statements of faith and/or church constitutions that Christian churches make are a valid attempt at phrasing the apostolic faith that binds us all to each other and goes beyond likes, dislikes, or vague shared ideals such as the colour of the carpet in the church or the inherent value of ‘spaghetti western’ movies. In order to notice deviations from orthodoxy, we need to have a recognised orthodoxy that can be (unfortunately and dangerously) deviated from in the very beginning..
Non-Confessional Evangelicalism/Non-Denominationalism: A View from the Pew.
In recent decades, the biggest threat to Christian orthodoxy has been postmodernism. Defining postmodernism is a problem because it refuses to be defined. Yet at the heart of it has been the recognizable denial of certainty, the denial of absolute truth. Truth be told, I can’t help but wonder to what extent postmodernism has affected Christianity as we know it.
Much of modern day American evangelicalism and its urban Kenyan cousins represented majorly by non-denominational churches seems to be averse to certainty and I can’t help but wonder if this has its roots in postmodernism if not the seeds of postmodernism itself. Would the early church fathers or any other faithful Christians in the ages prior to our own have had any notion of the the unique distinctions that define non-denominational evangelicalism whatever those may be? Is there any correlation at all between non-denominationalism and postmodernism given the aversion to certainty in both or is it simply a ‘coincidence’ that they seem to exist within the same time frame?
I recall watching a video of Prof. Ali Mazrui the African Islamic scholar speaking about how Africans uncritically take up everything from ‘the West’ without considering the dynamics of how those appropriated things should work. And therein that statement is where this African finds a reason to reconsider what evangelicalism nay non-denominational evangelicalism has to offer us as Africans.
What We Are Is What We Are Not?
For whatever reason many (though gladly not all) of our brothers in The West decided to abandon distinctives for the sake of socio-political unity, the consequences have not been good. Sadly, the refusal to state what people actually do hold onto for the sake of a vague form of unity has seen heresy and heterodoxy run amok. As a result, we had the ridiculous notion that moralism (teetotalism anybody?) was worthy glue with which to bind Christian unity. Here is where evangelicalism and especially the non denominational version of it has failed as Anthony Bradley points out. It is well worth noting how he connects the pursuit of political mileage, with the American culture wars and the fact that many young people have left the church. And in case you think this is irrelevant to Kenya, all I can say is watch Binyavanga Wainaina’s ‘Coming Out’ interview on N.T.V where he blasts the Southern Baptist Convention; a major player in American evangelicalism whose churches do not all subscribe to a uniform confession of faith.
Additionally, without stated orthodoxy, criticisms also become flippant and majorly based on power grabs and preferences thus causing unwanted strife and division within the church. I recall listening to a lecture by a Presbyterian musician about how music in today’s church is changing and he happened to mention a past scenario in which he enjoyed working with a Methodist church. He went on to say that ‘denominationalists’ prefer to work with each other instead of with ‘non-denominational’ musicians because the latter tend to be hostile towards them and therefore difficult to work with! He and the Methodist church he was working with knew beforehand that he wasn’t coming in as a maverick to convert all of Methodism to Presbyterianism despite his self-conscious Presbyterian convictions. Hearing that, a light bulb was lit in my mind: where you don’t have your church identity sorted out in light of all of God’s word and then progressively communicated clearly, eventually everything from the colour of the carpets to dietary preferences to even differing theories on economic policy will soon become a ‘gospel issue’ and people will eagerly get into fights over all manner of trivial nonsense. Sadly, I’ve seen it happen too often and the hostility tends to be all too real though veiled behind pretenses. A hostility that is symptomatic of the fact that we have forgotten that we are a ‘Gospel People’ first and foremost.
This is the unfortunate ‘pick and choose’ mentality that is a prevalent characteristic of much of the non-denominational world. In this world which I happen to be a part of, the church is always being built from the ground up under the assumption of hermenutical neutrality and a sort of optimism that despite its ‘Spirit-led’ undertones, more often than not ends up in the long run to be inappropriate if not foolhardy.
The Way Forward?
Movements by definition are constantly in motion and seldom take the time to develop healthy roots. Non-denominationalism as a movement, is not an exception to this reality. Who knows what our non-denominational churches may look like in 25 years? Will they have kept the faith or will they have abandoned it under the influence of a great persuasive leader? Furthermore, the very term ‘non-denominationalism’ is a negative definition in the sense that it really aims to say, “We’re not like that church on the other side of the road,”- in fact in order to define itself as a movement, it needs to establish what it isn’t before anything else is done.
And yet the kind of distinctions that automatically give rise to denominations will always be there and many partners of the same mind on critical Biblical issues will find some form of consensus concerning soteriology, eschatology, polity, sacraments etc. These same parties may very well lock hands in ministry functions and inadvertently form…you guessed it…denominations! This may come as a surprise to you but guess what…HillSong, Calvary Chapel, Sovereign Grace Ministries…Mavuno, Nairobi Chapel are all denominations! At least functionally speaking and you know what? That’s not a bad thing at all. No one denomination will be the same as another and yet that’s fine. Even Jesus in Luke 11:23 recognized another as one of his own even though they weren’t traveling together with the apostles. Unity is not necessarily physical. But take notice…it is Jesus Christ who confirms who is on his team. It will do us well to go back to scripture and hear his voice giving us directions on who we can partner with or affirm as he himself would.
I do believe that we need to start going back to the drawing board on absolutely everything as Christian ‘non-denominational’ congregations. We need to be as orthodox as scripture would have us be and leave the outcomes with God. The truth of the matter is that at the end of the day, we will always make up our minds about what we believe God is saying even if we only articulate our convictions in privacy, and it will be an expression of either true or false orthodoxy. Thankfully we can have certainty about what God has said because God has spoken and all things are measured against HIS orthodoxy not our preferences. If God can and does speak through his word, why remain silent concerning the things he has said? He alone can govern the consequences whether it means either turning into new Baptist or Presbyterian etc congregations or joining such presently existing churches. It ought not to frighten us. If anything, an act of obedience to God’s word will only ever ultimately lead to a fruitful life worth living.