August 4, 2020

The Church: Flawed and Finished (Final F.A.Q.)

church-pews.jpgUPDATE: What makes unity more difficult? The continued propagation of new dogmas about non-essential matters that divide Christians from one another.

1. It’s surprising that you say denominations are inevitable when you seem to spend so much time saying they are wrong. Contradiction?

Human beings are diverse in the fact of creation. I believe cultural diversity is a gift of God; a merciful and potentially beautiful expression of his own diversity. So I don’t believe that denominations are wrong, per se. There’s something there of God and the Gospel in each one that can’t be seen the same way in the others.

But we have to admit that the actual history and behavior of denominations is more about sin, pride and willful ignorance and exclusion than anything of the character of God. Almost every denomination with any history at all has to equip itself with a kind of defense technique to overlook things that are wrong- even terrible- in its story.

If you are going to take the post-evangelical route, you have to approach every denomination with appreciation and honesty, especially your own. That won’t be the route to a lot of applause, I can assure you.

2. What do you think of “non-denominational” churches?

There is no such thing. Historically, almost every non-denominational church is a kind of evangelical, semi or totally Baptistic, often charismatic gathering of people who simply want to believe that they opened the Bible and started from scratch.

I know that denominational names get in the way, but somewhere- not necessarily on the sign out front- its helpful to say “This is the stream of Christianity we come from.” Everyone has a family, even if you have reasons for wanting to avoid your connection to them.

Just being honest, every time I’m in a conversation with someone committed to the non-denominational label, there’s always an aire of superiority that really gets tiresome. It stifles conversation, unity, fellowship and so much else.

3. When you say that the church is flawed, are you undercutting any particular denomination more than another?

When you exempt your church from the mess we see in the New Testament, you’re on the wrong path, and the longer you walk on it the worse it’s going to get. There are dozens and dozens of denominations that have written some kind of exception into their polity or history or theology that makes them “different” from the rest of the Christian community.

The church is a forward looking movement. It looks back to Christ, of course, but it is primarily looking forward. And it puts its hopes in the Trinity, especially the promises of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. It chooses its leaders primarily on the basis of “How will this person keep us in the story of Jesus and looking toward what God has promised to do in his church?”

When you start looking backward- and almost every denomination anywhere does this- you are looking the wrong direction. For example, a group of believers who want to return to the era and practice of the Puritans are going in the wrong direction. If you want to return to the faith and dependence on the Spirit of some Puritans, fine. But the Puritans were a historical movement, deeply flawed and divided like the rest of Christianity, and nothing would tell you to emulate them.

It’s like looking to Abraham as an example of faith. Abraham looked forward to a city who couldn’t see, whose builder and maker was God. Imitate that.

4. So is Christian history not helpful?

It’s very helpful as a teacher, but not as a map for going forward. We need our churches to be looking forward to what God says he IS GOING TO DO for the church, not back to what happened in the past.

5. So what does ecumenism look like to you?

Good question. It doesn’t look like “crashing the communion table,” which I’m frequently accused of promoting. It starts with taking every tradition seriously and respecting the path it has taken that truly values and exalts Christ.

It looks like we all understand Christ is the head of every church, or starters, and Christ as the head has no agenda for division. Diversity, yes. Division, no. Whatever divides us in a way Jesus wouldn’t recognize should be abandoned. If there are divisions as we seek unity, then so be it.

I don’t expect Catholics and Protestants to agree on the issue of the role of the bishop of Rome. But I think we could work on ending the anathematizing of one another on that basis, or of creating barriers to communion that have no chance of passing the test of “Would Jesus refuse his table to someone who couldn’t affirm this?”

Another aspect of this is to understand that large denominations resist unity because they tell themselves they will eventually win out and put the rest of Christianity out of business. That’s how super-denominations think, as bizarre as it is. And small congregations resist unity because they have told themselves that the actual body of Christ is made up only of a faithful, identical remnant. Which always happens to be them.

In fact, the true church exists somewhere across all denominations, time, culture, language, etc. We all know this, even though we don’t have a list of names. None of our historical churches, no matter what stories and propaganda we create, are identical with the finished bride of Christ. We can get as creative as we want in telling ourselves that our church is, in the end, going to be “it,” but Jesus is going to gather his finished bride from every kind of diversity and in a way that vindicates him, not us and our history.

6. So how would you pray?

I’d pray for God to raise up leaders determined to treat the church as Jesus treats it. I’d pray for leaders who understand that Christ is the head of every congregation. I’d pray that our denominations would become missional organizations and not fortresses of pseudo-identity politics and power. I’d pray that God’s people would cross every barrier possible to talk to one another, hug one another, learn from one another, pray together, worship together, do mercy ministries together and so on.

I’d pray that we seriously repent of the lies we told about ourselves and others and humble ourselves before the Lord of the church. What we hold on to as denominational believers needs to be held on to humbly. We can’t take something like verse by verse exposition or pentecostal worship or Marian dogmas and honestly say these are worth dividing the body over. They aren’t. They have relative value that we can appreciate, but for any of them- or fifty other things- to be actual barriers is simply demonstrating that we are still as broken as the disciples who asked Jesus to make them his right and left hand men.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this post!
    But…
    You said, “We can’t take something like verse by verse exposition or pentecostal worship or Marian dogmas and honestly say these are worth dividing the body over.”
    I am wondering if ‘verse by verse exposition or pentecostal worship’ is in the same category as ‘Marian dogmas’…
    hmm…

    I guess the challenge is that we all strive for the clearest presentation and ‘living out’ of the Gospel of Jesus wherever/whichever congregation you belong to, while remaining humble enough to look at other people with open arms, understanding, and appreciation.

  2. I think this last post was my favorite in the series.
    I really agree with what you say about denominational behavior. More than that, I like your thoughts on ecumenicism, and approaching your own denomination with “appreciation and honesty”. I have a prof that studied under Stan Hauerwas and he told me one time he said “The greatest ecumenicists are those that stick with who screwed them over.”

    I think of that every time I try to explain to people why as a Southern Baptist I went to a non-baptist seminary, but still (actually for the first time) maintain an active ministry in an SBC church.

    Great thoughts again Michael. Have you ever read much Thomas Oden? I know he considers himself “mainline”, but he has great thoughts regarding ecumenicism and what it means for the church.

  3. Amen and Amen!
    Just had this conversation with my senior pastor yesterday. We are from a main line protestant congregation and were remarking about how resistant even other churches within our denomination are to joint projects. It’s the saddest thing and completely sinful!

  4. I expect the commentary plethora to follow to be quite replete with ooohs, and aaahs, and “huhs?”. Yet for my part a hearty Amen!
    As you have clearly stated, denomination appears no where in Scripture as a litmus test. As we are finishing our lengthy study in the Book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ shortly, I can however offer the litmus test given by our Savior.
    For fellowship in this life: Philippians 4:3 and for eternal fellowship: Revelation 21:27.
    Having been exposed to several denominational bents in my thirty years as a true believer, I am convinced the though many pages be well written (as you have), many shall remain argumentive and unconvinced except by their own “wisdom”.
    “The worst dilemma I face, as I consider this issue, is how can I have true fellowship with someone who claims to be a believer and doesn’t have a firm conviction on which side to part their hair???”

  5. 2. What do you think of “non-denominational” churches?

    I’ve heard it called the “Non-Denominational” Denomination.

    And “Baptist with the labels painted over”.

    Just being honest, every time I’m in a conversation with someone committed to the non-denominational label, there’s always an aire of superiority that really gets tiresome.

    This also has a snarky name: “RTC Syndrome”.

    (RTC = Real True Christian)

  6. Thanks, Michael. I totally agree with that concern over “non-denominational” churches, while making sure that I affirm they do good work for the Kingdom. But you ably point out that the problem with refusing a label often becomes the failure to be critical and self-aware about one’s own identity and heritage.

  7. Chris S: Your comments, particularly your last sentence, is very well put.

    Michael:

    After my parents left the RCC when I was six, I spent the next 30 years in a series of mostly “non-denom” churches. I was one of those who felt the air of superiority, and the idea of attending a “mainline” church was almost as unthinkable as visiting a seance, since they were all liberal, apostate and had abandoned the Bible.

    Remarkable how wrong one can be about something when one knows nothing about it.

    A move to a new town this August coincided with a growing disillusionment with my tradition and the discovery of your site. A perfect storm, if you will.

    After a wonderful and eye-opening few months of learning and of visiting a local conservative PCUSA congregation (yes, you read that right), that sadly has almost zero accommodations for my young children, my biggest problem now is finding a mainline Protestant church in our town with enough children to satisfy my wife’s and my desire for a church that provides a place for our public school-attending kids to learn and grow with other Christian kids. Now, as I observe a very meaningful Lent for the first time in my life, the idea of returning to a church that has no concept of church history or traditions, the church year and lectionary, corporate confession of sin, and is afraid of the word “liturgy,” while not unthinkable, is depressing. I don’t condemn the non-denom churches, I just don’t want to have to reach into the grab-bag again.

    Michael, although I don’t always agree with you, I owe you a lot of thanks for helping me expand my horizons, to see past useless and unbiblical divisions, appreciate that part of Christendom outside my own narrow experience, and to recognize that the true Church is found all over the map, even in less-than-perfect churches. To paraphrase something you’ve said elsewhere, a lot of RTCs (thanks Ken) may be very surprised some day at all the sinners who were let into heaven.