Friday, June 25, 2021

Why I'm Non-Denominational




Introduction and Disclaimers

Recently, a large gaggle of Southern Baptists got together in Nashville, Tennessee. Although I'm sure there were many great conversations that took place and lots of edification had by all, the general characterization of the gathering has been one of bickering and backbiting. From discussions about critical race theory and abortion to electing a new president to discovering heresy on said president's church's website, the convention did not disappoint in the excitement department. Yet, as I observed it all as an outsider, I couldn't help but reflect upon how glad I am that I do not belong to a denomination.

Before I get into all that, let me clarify some things that you're probably already thinking about.

First, I'm not anti-denominational. I do not believe it's sinful or foolish for a person or church to be closely affiliated or involved with a denomination. There are a variety of approaches to ecclesiastical structures, formation of doctrine, and fellowship among churches, and that's fine. We'll all have to agree to disagree at some point.

Second, I'm not non-associational. When I make reference to "associations," I mean the grouping of individuals and churches who have formed some sort of parachurch organization because they have such closely aligned convictions that a formal coalition serves them well as a hub for resources and encouragement. I am personally a member of an association of pastors and churches. My local church is not. Some local churches are. Others aren't. It's all good. 

Third, I understand that a variety of people can mean a variety of things when they use the word "denomination" and that can lead to unhelpful dialogue. I hope to provide clarity on that issue in the next section of the article.

Fourth, non-denominational does not mean anti-accountability. Again, more on that below.

Fifth, if you're a member of a denomination, I'm not seeking to change your mind. I'm writing this mostly for the sake of providing an explanation for non-denominationalism (or "the independence of the local church") and why some of us are quite happy existing in such a way.

Now, without any further ado, let's consider this matter from a few angles.


A Denominational Spectrum

Not all denominations are built the same. In fact, depending on the context, one person might make reference to a cult as a mere Christian "denomination" and another person might hesitate to use the word because his "denomination" isn't really a denomination. So how can we start to wrap our minds around this complex topic? Let's start by considering three Christian movements that are commonly called denominations. They can become reference points from this point forward as the issue is thought through.


Roman Catholicism

The Roman Catholic Church is polarizing. We all know this. But consider the weight of their beliefs: This church teaches that they are the only true and pure church on the face of the earth and that their ecclesiastical authority is the only authority commissioned by Jesus. They do not truly recognize the greater global church, comprised of Christians who are not all Roman Catholic. These claims are audacious. Yet, when it's understood how this church considers itself, it makes sense that the local parishes are micromanaged as they are.

Parish priests are under the authority of diocesan bishops who are under the authority of archbishops who are under the authority of cardinals who are under the authority of the pope. Of course, there are other officers, like patriarchs and primates that can also be found in the hierarchy, but I think you get the point. The Roman Catholic Church exists as an organized system full of commandments, rules, and procedures because they claim they are the church that Jesus is building. This all stems from their claim to direct revelation from God. They believe He speaks to the pope, who speaks to the people, who are expected to do what they're told.


The United Methodist Church

Although United Methodists don't go as far as Roman Catholics in saying that they are the exclusive church of Christ, they still exercise quite a bit of control over local congregations. Ministers are assigned to churches and usually serve for a designated amount of time in this "pastoral appointments." Bishops, who oversee UMC districts, also oversee the pastors and send these ordained ministers based on the needs they perceive. They refer to it as an "itinerant system."

Additionally, the UMC has a shared Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. These documents contain shared doctrine and theology, as well as rules of conduct and social principles. There are conferences held at regional and general levels where representatives gather to discuss a variety of topics, including changes that may be made to their Books of Discipline and Resolutions. Lately, the every-four-years general conference hasn't been successful in uniting the church, as they've recently announced that a split is impending due to disagreements over LGBTQ issues. Not so "united," after all.


The Southern Baptist Convention

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the SBC. This denomination isn't labeled a "church," but a "convention" of churches. The vast majority of the fellowships that participate in this convention are quite independent, as the autonomy of the local church is one of the SBC's pillars. In fact, Southern Baptist churches only relate to and partner with other Southern Baptist churches on a voluntary basis. No hierarchy or centralized authority exists to strongarm a local church to do anything in the SBC. So what makes this group a denomination?

First of all, the churches must all agree to the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. Any variance from this message could disqualify a local church from the Convention. Second, in the Convention, the churches band together to share resources and develop resolutions among themselves only, not with any other churches. Third, the SBC has their own network of parachurch organizations and educational institutions (six seminaries) that teach their doctrine, reflect their customs, and provide exclusive opportunities to members of the denomination.



Hopefully, the brief overview given thus far has established some basic reference points regarding the different approaches that denominations take when it comes to church governance. Based on the overview and the illustration above, I'll leave it to you to figure out where the different flavors of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and the rest should stand.


Why I'm (Happily) Non-Denominational

Some of the reasons why I (and countless others) desire to stay away from some denominations should be obvious at this point. Any movement that claims to be the exclusive church of God is a cult and should be avoided. Any extrabiblical superstructure of authority that micromanages a local church's decisions is an offense. These approaches to denominationalism are actually means of controlling large numbers of people and I'm entirely uncomfortable with those methodologies. 

But what's so bad about joining a denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention? Providing an answer to that question can be difficult, since, as noted above, the SBC is hardly a "denomination" in the traditional sense of the word. Before I go on to provide an explanation, let me reiterate a point from the Introduction: I'm not anti-denominational. I do not believe it's sinful or foolish for a person or church to be closely affiliated or involved with a denomination. This applies to the Southern Baptist Convention more than to any other group.

With all that said, I am here to tell you that I'm happily non-denominational for these five reasons:

1. Non-denominationalism reflects New Testament instructions and examples.  

As a person reads through the the New Testament, it's clear that local churches were self-governed by a plurality of elders. This rules out the idea of a hierarchical structure that doles out beliefs, rules, and discipline from the top-down. This concept also exists apart from the idea of a "convention" of churches. It's true that churches supported one another (Acts 11:27-30, 1 Cor 16:1-9Phil 4:14-20), but this was done without some sort of exclusive designation to which the people had to subscribe (outside of "the Way"). As it's been said, local churches should be "free from outside control, dependent simply upon the Lord Jesus as the Head, the Holy Spirit as the Power, and the Bible as the Guide."

2. Non-denominationalism keeps the focus on the local church.  

One thing that struck me during the Southern Baptist Convention this year was just how devoted SBC members are to preserving "the way" of their denomination. When you're a member of a particular Christian movement, there's always concern about the direction the denomination will go -- and this can be a major distraction from caring for people at the local level. I'm not saying that Southern Baptists should be characterized as approaching church life in this way; however, there are certainly some Southern Baptists who behave this way and I can imagine how tempting it would be at times to prioritize "saving the movement," to the diminishment of local church ministry. This article from The New Yorker illustrates my point.

3. Non-denominationalism preserves the conscience in cooperative efforts. 
One of the quagmires that denominations find themselves in quite frequently is the discomfort or offense that comes from being associated with certain individuals, churches, schools, or other organizations. For instance, a rural United Methodist Church may hold to orthodox Christian doctrine and conservative values and, consequently, increasingly find themselves in the minority in their own denomination. How can the attenders of such a church support their denomination and its affiliates in good conscience? They can't. It creates much angst in the local fellowship. In contrast, consider the life of an independent church as articulated in an article I've already quoted:

"Each of today's independent local churches depends upon the Holy Spirit's direction (Acts 13:1‐3) and chooses its own name, government, and programs. It is free to call its own pastor and invite into its pulpit any speakers it considers true to the Word of God. It is also free to seek God's direction in supporting those evangelistic ministries they find Scripturally acceptable and choosing the Christian education materials they believe are best to teach Bible truths to their people. They are also free to support whatever schools and institutions they believe are valuable for training their own young people and preparing their men for the Gospel ministry; mandatory obligation to protect a tradition or an investment is not involved in an independent local church's decision to support an educational institution."

4. Non-denominationalism allows for true accountability.  
Many denominationalists have mischaracterized non-denominationalism as a way to avoid accountability in the local church. Contrary to this statement, however, independent local churches are free to have as much accountability as they would like. Tragically, for many churches this means that there is little-to-no accountability. Yet, for those churches that prioritize a biblical ecclesiology, they are able to train and install their own men as pastors and deacons and establish the form of government they believe is right. All policies, including financial oversight, are developed in and carried out by the local church.
There is no more biblical or better model of local church accountability than that which is totally generated and practiced in-house at the local congregation level. Local leadership is most-informed about what's going on in the churches, they know the people the best, and they are the ones God has appointed to handle the affairs of the fellowship. Paul's inspired instruction for the church was that men would train men who would train men -- locally (2 Tim 2:2, Titus 1:5-9).

5. Non-denominationalism encourages a right dependence.  
Another mischaracterization presented by denominationalists is that independent churches basically exist in a deluded state of autonomy -- one that goes beyond healthy autonomy -- in such a way that they reject the help and wisdom of other believers and exist in a state of isolation. To be sure, there are some non-denominational churches that abuse their independence in such a way. (For example, in the first couple of seasons of the Do Theology Podcast, our introduction featured a clip of an Independent Baptist preacher saying, "I got an idea. Let's not run with anybody who thinks they've got another idea.")
However, there are a great many non-denominational churches who are continually growing in their dependence on the Lord Jesus Christ and His people. They are constantly looking for ways to be sharpened and shaped in holiness. This can be done precisely because of their freedom to seek out and partner with whomever they choose.


About Associations and Networks

I apologize for quoting myself again, but here's something else I stated in the Introduction: I'm not non-associational. When I make reference to "associations," I mean the grouping of individuals and churches who have formed some sort of parachurch organization because they have such closely aligned convictions that a formal coalition serves them well as a hub for resources and encouragement.

A variety of associations exist in the world, particularly in America. Some churches are "Nine Marks" churches. Others are "Gospel Coalition" churches. Others are both. Calvary Chapel is a huge network, as is The Master's Seminary network. I'm about the attend the annual convention for IFCA International. The churches that exist in these associations have agreed to an essentially modern statement of faith that contains some particular distinctives, to greater or lesser degrees, distinguishing them from other associations.

Beyond the more modern doctrinal separations, there are networks of churches that are bound together simply by their common upholding of a historical creed or confession. The Fire Fellowship of churches fits into this category, as do the less formal network of churches that simply subscribe to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith and support each other. These churches are what are known as "Reformed Baptist" churches, and there is even an Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America. Founders Ministries, which developed out of the Southern Baptist Convention, has published a list of churches that uphold historical Baptist confessions, whether those churches are SBC or not. 

Outside of Baptist confessions, there are churches that uphold the Westminster Confession of Faith, which preceded the Baptist confessions and is distinguished from them by its teaching of infant baptism. Most of these churches are of a Presbyterian denomination like the Presbyterian Church in America or the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Other churches simply hold to an ancient statement of faith like the Apostles' Creed and/or Nicene Creed as their doctrinal statement while maintaining a non-denominational position. Some denominations, like the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church, put their creeds and confessions front-and-center.

So, when it comes to these historical creedal documents, some denominations and associations are founded on them and others don't speak of them at all. Some non-denominational churches prize them and others ignore them completely. It all just depends.

Associations abound, and they are not denominations. However, the line between these networks and a denomination like the Southern Baptist Convention can be quite blurry. As denominations slide farther to the right on the graphic above, they become more like a mere association of churches. As associations slide farther to the left on the graphic above, they become more like a real-deal denomination. Churches and individuals will have to discern these things for themselves as they consider how to proceed with such relationships.


Final Thoughts

The world of Christian churches can be quite confusing and frustrating. For new Christians especially, it can be difficult to know which churches are solid and which ones are wayward. This leads some people to follow a well-known denomination or association because of the comfort of its reputation. I can't blame those people; I, too, see value and comfort in that.

However, at the end of the day, it is my conviction that the independence of the local church should be maintained through a non-denominational existence. In this way, the biblical instruction and example is maintained, the focus rightly remains on the local church, congregations' consciences are preserved, true accountability is established, and right dependence is encouraged. There are endless opportunities for missteps in this endeavor, though, so each of us must be careful to approach this subject with the proper humility and charity required for Christian dialogue and sharpening.

Whatever path we choose, may we serve God with integrity and joy!

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