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.