For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. 1 Corinthians 12:12.
Robert E. Webber, in his book The Younger Evangelicals (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2002) observes that denominations as we have known them are rapidly becoming irrelevant to the new wave of evangelicals in today’s church, a movement many are calling post-denominationalism. By this term I do not have in mind independent churches versus denominational churches. I have in mind a lack of loyalty to a local church which reveals itself in a smorgasbord approach to doing church. In other words, people shop churches, looking for the best deal, like they do with airline tickets or buying appliances. No doubt this is an observable trend. One of the reasons for this is the general disloyalty in our culture for any institution with which we were formerly connected. The majority in our country do not stay married to their original spouse, and people work for five or six companies throughout their careers. Why should changing churches be any different? Another reason for post-denominationalism has been the mass exodus of people from mainline churches over the last fifty years. But something else is fuelling the more recent disloyalty to denominations, even solid, evangelical ones. Clearly the theological distinctives which have characterized denominations are no longer sufficient to maintain loyalty. In other words, things other than theology, type of church government, or preaching draw people to certain churches. The tendency in many of these neo-evangelical churches is to minimize theological distinctives, to adopt a belong-then-believe strategy, and to require little of attenders.
The idea behind minimizing theological distinctives is the assumption that doctrine divides. When embracing this assumption the obvious next step is to avoid doctrine altogether. Of course this really cannot be done, but what these churches seek to do is to dumb down theology. The result, I suggest, is an anaemic, shallow people, ill-prepared to handle life’s hardships when they come crashing down on them. So the preaching tends to be shallow, man-centered, therapeutic, denying people the privilege of feasting on the glory, profundity, and mystery of the Trinity, the two natures of Christ, our union with Christ, the now and the not yet of the kingdom of God, or the transcendence and immanence of God. A steady diet of cotton candy will not grow strong children.
When these churches suggest that doctrine divides, I counter by saying exactly the opposite. Doctrine unifies. Christians all over the world, regardless of theological distinctives or form of church government, hold to the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. All Baptists believe in immersion and believers’ baptism. All Calvinists believe in unconditional election, regardless of their denominational ties.
The second tendency is equally as harmful – ‘belong first, then believe’. I need first to make a disclaimer. All people, whatever their belief and practice, whether homosexuals, prostitutes, agnostics, or the moral family living next door, ought to be invited to church and welcomed with open arms. The problem with ‘belong first, then believe’ is the underlying assumption that the longer such people attend they will become comfortable with Christians and want to be part of us, eventually coming to believe what we believe concerning the gospel. However the question is this – shouldn’t people outside of union with Christ become uncomfortable with their belief system or lifestyle at some juncture of church involvement? Wasn’t the Samaritan woman uncomfortable in Jesus’ presence? Wasn’t it clear to those who heard Paul preach that they were outside the covenant of grace and needed to do something with what they were hearing? I know of couples living together who attend local churches for years, who are fully engaged in the life of the church, but no one has challenged them on their lifestyles. No one has called them to repent of their fornication. Such practice among neo-evangelicals gives a false sense of security to many, blurring the lines between belief and unbelief.
But my biggest problem with post-denominationalism is how little such churches expect from their attenders. In fact many of these new churches do not at all have church membership, thinking such is an unbiblical concept. This actually is a very convenient or deadly concept, depending on which way you to choose to look at it. It is convenient in the sense that the leadership really does not have to get too involved with people’s lives. Church discipline is unheard of in these situations. After all, how can church leaders excommunicate those who are not members anyway? Such a church can always appear open and affirming to all, looking the other way at sin which ought to be addressed, giving all who attend a false sense of acceptance before God. Paul says that adulterers, fornicators, homosexuals, liars, and thieves will not enter the kingdom of heaven. That’s why this is so deadly. A father who allows his child to do whatever he wishes, living in ways contrary to the family’s values, proves that he really does not love his child. Real love means expectations, responsibilities.
There is great benefit to taking vows of church membership, of promising to submit oneself to the leadership of that church, of promising to support the church by attending, serving, and giving. There is great benefit in having elders who will ask you the hard questions – Are you walking in obedience to Christ? Are you living in a way which is honouring God or causing people in the world to blaspheme God?
So, I suggest you consider carefully this question – are you in a church that dumbs down theology, that stresses belonging before believing, that expects next to nothing of attenders? I urge you to reconsider your affiliation with such a church. I promise you that this is harmful to your spiritual well-being, no matter how exciting and dynamic the church service may appear. On the other hand, are you in a denominational church, or an independent church which takes seriously church membership, which takes theology seriously, which is open to all but requires believing before belonging, which makes demands on her members? Think long and hard before you leave such a church. Resist the temptation to shop for churches like you do supermarkets. There is no perfect church. What reason do you have for leaving such a church? Is the church leadership in sin? Is the church teaching heresy? If so in either case, have you gone through proper biblical procedure to address the issues at hand? Have you exhausted all possibility of reconciliation? Only then should you leave such a church.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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