Monday, June 15, 2009

Whose Disciple Are You?

Although I was raised by parents who are denominationally Baptist, I had the opportunity to intermingle with a number of different denominations growing up. While my parents might offer some “caveats” from their perspective of other denominations, there was always a sense of cooperation that was very evident in how they lived. My dad had served in Presbyterian churches and worked with many other denominations prior to coming to the Baptist church. We had also held combined services with other denominations, so I never got a sense that denomination was as important as some people made it out to be.

Fast forward some years to when I began coming into my own in ministry, I became more denominationally broad, as my father had been before me. I served in Presbyterian, Congregational, non-denominational, and Baptist churches. I never really let the denomination become an issue because spiritual convictions run deeper than denomination, or at least, they should.

Having spent my years in full-time ministry completely in the South, I have had two distinctly different perspectives on denominations. In Asheville, North Carolina, there’s a church on every street corner and at least 70% of them are Southern Baptist. In fact, the church that I served at was Southern Baptist, and in a place like Asheville, where the culture is incredibly diverse, that’s a strike against you before you even engage in conversation with someone. Despite the fact that the vast majority of churches were members of the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention), there was not much cooperation between churches of the same denomination. There was a constant flow of people from one church to the other. If they were unhappy with this Baptist church, they would go to the one across the street where the programs were bigger and better.

Now I serve in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. Although my first inclination was to think that this would be more culturally Southern, I was wrong. This area is such a transient area with some big companies having headquarters here, many people are passing through more than they are planting their roots. But now, in a Presbyterian church, there is a cooperation not only among other Presbyterian churches, but among some Southern Baptist churches. Wow! How could this be? I mean, is this legal? How could two places be so dramatically different?

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, the majority of his letter is setting the record straight and chastising them for behavior which is unbecoming to followers of Christ. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul writes:

You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you,are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men?

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.

By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.

I can’t help but read these words and think about our current denominational state in America. There are some among Christians who have gotten so caught up with their denominations that they have lost sight of who they are following, much in the same way the church in Corinth did. Instead of following Jesus Christ, they are following a denomination. Instead of being committed to the One who is infallible, they instead pledge their allegiance to fallible denominations. Let’s face it, there is no perfect denomination because there are no perfect people. There are no perfect churches for the same reason.

From a denominational perspective, to have gone from a Southern Baptist church, where I was ordained, to a Presbyterian church seemed like a jump from “right” to “left.” But looking beyond denomination to core values, mission, and vision, it is evident that our goal in spreading the Gospel is the same. Somehow, people have elevated denomination methodology above Biblical principles, shaky ground no matter how you look at it.

To think that the Baptist, or Methodist, or Lutheran, or Presbyterian method is the best method is to miss the point. While the heritage of our denominations is rich and they all offer varying methods and approaches to worship, methods are just means to an end: entering into a relationship with the Triune God. The best method is the method which invites people to enter into a relationship with Christ. While there are essential Biblical truths that need to be communicated in that process, assuming that one method is predominant over another is equivalent to thinking that all people process information the same. It just doesn’t happen. Each person is going to spiritually connect through different methodology, and that is all right. The problem becomes when the methodology moves from being a means to the end in and of itself, when it is no longer used as the means to connecting to God, but just a nostalgic methodology which makes us feel “good” inside.

I don’t know what the future of denominations is in North America. There are people who take surveys to attain that kind of information. I do know that if we continue to abandon Biblical principles in favor of denominational preferences, the church in North America will die. It will die not so much because of the quarrels that plague her from within, but from the lack of the movement of the Holy Spirit within her. The moment that we think that we can independently accomplish our goal as the Church is the moment that we cease to allow God to be God and direct us in His way.

I am by no means saying that denominations are wrong, but the moment that they take precedence over the Bible is the moment that they need to be abandoned. As with anything else that can become an idol and stand in the way of our worship of God, when it becomes a stumbling block, either get rid of it or reform it. If we cannot be effective followers of Christ while serving within the constructs of denomination, we either need to escape those constructs or reform them. My vote is for reformation, because if we don’t quarrel about or stumble over denomination, I am sure that we’ll find something else to quarrel about or stumble over.

May our hearts beat in sync with our God who formed us to be in relationship with Him, and may our denominations simply be the means to bring us there.

1 comment:

  1. I agree.

    You should check out John Frame's Book, "Evangelical Reunion":

    Specifically, see Chapter 4 - "What's Really Bad about Denominationalism", where he brings up many interesting issues, some of which you brought up here.