For years now, those in the business of measuring and evaluating the effectiveness of the church in our culture have been telling us that we have entered a post-denominational age, when the lines between the various groups of brand-name Christians have blurred, when Christian identity as a Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal carries less meaning than it once did and when things that used to easily distinguish one group of Christians from another no longer do. 

I grew up in a small town in Arizona, where the majority of the population didn’t attend or even identify with a church at all, and where the majority of those that did were Mormon.  Evangelical churches were few, far between, and small.  As a result of being encouraged by my Sunday School teachers, pastor and parents to have my most meaningful friendships with other Christians, my closest friends were kids who went to other churches.  Among my best friends in late elementary, junior high and high school were several PK’s, including the Assembly of God church and the Church of Christ. 

When I was in the fifth grade, as a result of a friendship, I went to VBS at the Church of Christ.  In some ways it was a lot like the VBS at my church, right down to the red koolaide and chocolate chip cookies served for “refreshments.” by elderly women who worked in the kitchen.  But I noticed there were some differences.  They didn’t have a piano, or a musical instrument of any kind.  Sometimes at my church, we didn’t have a pianist or an organist, and our music leader had to play his guitar, but these poor folks didn’t even do that.  Then, on Friday, when the pastor came and gave his “evangelistic message,” he made it clear that if we went to another kind of church, and it didn’t matter what kind it was, we were not part of the true Church of Christ and thus, were not saved.  I wasn’t saved at the time, but I was troubled by the fact that he didn’t think Baptists were Christians.  That, I did not believe and could not accept.

Another good friend of mine was the son of the pastor of the Assembly of God church.  They were pretty much the same in most ways as well, and I was more comfortable there than in the Church of Christ.  We went to VBS in the summer, on Wednesday nights we went to RA’s at my church and on Thursdays we went to Royal Rangers at his church.  At the time, my church had a pastor who preached in the “hellfire and brimstone” style, but I noticed that in the Assembly of God, everyone prayed out loud at the same time, and it was a long prayer that got pretty loud before it was through.  They raised their hands and clapped during the singing, and I was always amazed at the fact that there were several people who responded to the altar call, and that people either spouted gibberish or passed out.  That’s where I learned that I wasn’t a “full gospel” Christian as a Baptist because in our church, we didn’t believe in the baptism of the Holy Ghost. 

But even in my own church, I often heard why we were better than other denominations and churches, because we were “closer” in our beliefs to what the Bible said than they were.  And we had some members who were not bashful about disclosing that fact to other Christians.  Each of those other churches made the same claim, that their practices were closest to the correct interpretation of the scripture.

Is that what God wanted me to know?  Are those distinctives, and the divisiveness that they cause, something that Jesus wants from his church? 

The New Testament is pretty clear when it comes to the subject of unity in the local church.  And in underlining the importance of harmony and unity in the body, I think it is also pretty clear about unity between Christians in different local bodies of Christ.  There is one distinctive doctrine around which New Testament writers agree and insist that should unify the church, and that is the nature of Jesus Christ.  John drives that point home very clearly in his gospel, chapter 14:6, and in his first epistle, 4:1-3 and 5:1-2.  That’s the distinctive of the Christian faith, belief in Jesus as the fully divine, fully human Son of God whose purpose is to redeem humankind.  We are to separate ourselves from any other belief, and unite around that one. 

Frankly, I don’t see any other things that denominations use to distinguish themselves from each other mentioned in the New Testament to be used for that purpose.  Where does the Bible tell us to shun other believers because they do not teach inerrancy or baptize by immersion?  Where does it say to exclude those who sing to the accompaniment of a piano and organ, or full orchestra, or praise band, or to separate out and divide over the issue of hymn singing versus choruses, and traditional music versus contemporary, alternative, or heavy metal?  Where does it say that everyone in the church must speak in tongues to be spiritual, and that those who do are given the right to lord their superior spirituality over those who don’t?  And where does the scripture say that people to whom God gives prayer in tongues are less capable and doctrinally unsound? 

I can’t remember where I heard it, to give it the credit it is due, but I once heard a pastor say that he would love to be called to serve a church that had the spiritual fervor of the Pentecostals, the doctrinal integrity of Baptists, and the social consciousness of the Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians. 

Doug Bannister wrote a book in 1999 when he was pastor of Fellowship Church in Knoxville, Tennessee called The Word and Power Church, which is basically an outline of the many points on which Charismatics and Evangelicals agree, and a call for greater unity and cooperation between them.  I’ve met few in my own denomination who have read it, or have an interest in reading it when they hear what it is about. 

In comparing Baptists to other Evangelicals, what are the specific “distinctives” that set us apart?  Is there anything uniquely Baptist enough to warrant not only the denominational division, but the faint aura of dislike and the unwillingness to cooperate?  Baptism by immersion isn’t a Baptist distinctive; most evangelicals do that.  Belief in the authority of scripture, whether it is expressed as “God inspired” or “inerrant” is not unique to Baptists, nor is soul freedom, independent, autonomous local churches, or anything else for that matter.  Perhaps the combination of these things is distinctive, and the avoidance of other things associated with Charismatics, Pentecostals, Mainlines or Catholics sets us part, but there are others in the evangelical community who do the same.  I don’t see the Bible endorsing divisions based on “distinctives” in doctrine or practice that are the result of human interpretations of the scriptures, and a few pre-disposed assumptions thrown in.  The Bible only admonishes Christians to separate themselves from antichrists, those who do not receive Christ as Lord. 

It may be time for some walls to come down.

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About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

8 responses

  1. Timothy says:

    Good post. One of the main arguments that Muslims use in converting people to Islam is Christian disunity. Muslim apologists argue that Christianity is clearly false due to the differences in Christian doctrines and practices. A true religion woukld have unity of beliefs.

    Until the Christian church becomes one again, Islam has a very strong arguement. Christ often prayed that His Church would remain as one, we should pray and work for the same.

    Fortunately, I see signs of a pending reunification in the next century or so. There is hope.

    – Timothy

  2. Bryan Riley says:

    I really don’t understand how we justify denominations at all. Great post.

  3. lees1975 says:

    Have you read Dr. Malcolm Yarnell’s most recent comments on Southwestern Seminary’s website? It’s certainly a “justification” of Baptist theology, and seems to push the view that Baptists are more “Biblically correct” than any other denomination.

    I’m sure that’s a politically motivated piece to rally the troops for a showdown with the Burleson-McKissic blogging group, but it seems a bit arrogant to me. I used to serve a church in Kentucky that was right across the street from a publishing company and bookstore that promoted Church of Christ material, and they had a whole series of “Laymen’s Reference” books on why the Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, etc. were wrong. The set began with a volume called “Why the Church of Christ is Biblically Correct.

    Seems like a set back to me.

  4. Nathan says:

    These are great thoughts.
    It’s rare to hear voices of self-reflection and self-critique. I wish there was more of it. It would be healthy and make people “outside” the inner circles feel like there is safety and openness.

  5. Jay Fleming says:

    Great post on a topic that merits much discussion. I did not have the cross-denominational experiences you enjoyed as a kid, so I had to learn as an adult and a pastor that there are, indeed, committed believers in every church in my community (that even includes some Catholics). We must understand that the Holy Spirit is not held hostage by theology or practice that is imperfect in lesser matters. As I have opportunities to minister cross-denominationally at funerals, weddings and such, I hammer on one thing alone – personal faith in Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord. At a severe risk of oversimplification, that is all one needs!

  6. Linda Lecci says:

    I would like to purchase Brother Bannister’s books. Thank you.

  7. lees1975 says:

    The Word and Power Church is the title, published in 1999 by Zondervan. I’m sure it’s still in print and you can order it from Amazon. You might also check with Cokesbury if they have a bookstore in your community. I always have better luck with them than I do with Lifeway on stuff like this.

  8. speedzzter says:

    Obviously God in his absolute sovereignty has permitted the “Body of Christ” to develop with many divergent parts. We see them manifested as denominations and quasi-denominational movements within the Church universal.

    Those who lament doctrinal “divisions” and seek to ignore or paper over sincerly-held material differences of opinion on the teachings of Scripture seemingly are not cognizant of the diversity that apparently God himself deems helpful and perhaps even necessary to the effective spread of the Gospel.

    If God wanted absolute uniformity on doctrinal matters, he could achieve it wholly without our consent. But for men to strive after such an intellectual “idol,” we elevate our judgment on what constitutes “unity” above God’s judgment.

    An essential part of our freedom in Christ is to seek God through the Bible and to debate our convictions about His revelation therein. Inherent in that process is the development of diverse organizational families, oriented toward addressing a different niches in this diverse world.

    While each genuine part of the “Body of Christ” will necessarily have some agreement on certain essential fundamentals of the Gospel, part of the genius of the Church is that within God’s sovereign and permissive will, it has developed in meaningfully diverse ways.

    While I firmly believe the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is the best existing confession of faith, is fully consistent with my sincerely-held convictions, and is an accurate and effective gauge of orthodoxy for our collectively-subsidized cooperative efforts, I do not begrudge my brothers and sisters in Christ who are convicted to organized around other scriptural principles, confessions, biblical traditions, or doctrines. To the extent they’re genuine Christians (a call “above my pay grade”), they are merely other segments of the “Body of Christ.”

    That, of course, doesn’t mean that I can’t debate their choices and emphases, in love.