Monday, March 31, 2008

Do We Know What We Believe? Does It Matter?

Today's Christians tend to fall into three camps (in my humble [but accurate] opinion ;~):

  • Those who say things like "No creed but Christ" and "Doctrine Divides" (but in fact do have a doctrine, they just don't like the word. Most churches have a "Statement of Faith" even if they don't use the term "doctrine.")

  • The "creedal" or "confessing" Christians" - such as the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, who say: "We are “confessing” because we warmly embrace the rich biblical teaching articulated in both great ecumenical creeds of the Church, and reformed confessions and catechisms. Further, we believe the Church must not only assent to her confessions but confess the gospel afresh in protest against the spirit of this age." Also see this link for ACWI's Statement of Faith and this one for samples of specific creeds, confessions and statements of faith.

  • Those who don't really know what they believe. This is, I believe, the majority of those who would call themselves "evangelical" or "born again." (Even the term "evangelical" has lost meaning in the last few years, but that's another topic.) They have a very vague understanding of elementary Christian doctrine, but have never attempted to apply it to their daily lives and have never considered "theology" of any importance or interest. Many have taken part in an altar call, walked down an aisle, or raised a hand to "receive Jesus". . . but far too few have ever gone beyond that. (See Stephen Prothero's op-ed piece in the LA times, We Live in the Land of Biblical Idiots [sorry - link is no longer available], where he says "U.S. citizens know almost nothing about the Bible. Although most regard it as the word of God, few read it anymore. Even evangelicals from the Bible Belt seem more focused on loving Jesus than on learning what he had to say." FYI: Prothero also states on his website that "Most Americans cannot name one of the four Gospels.")

In an article I wrote last fall for Faith Talk magazine, I referenced a 2003 study of self-identified "born-again Christians" who apparently have no clue what it means to be a Christian; 91% don't have a Biblical worldview (email me for the article and more info.). In other words, they have been more influenced by the culture than by the Bible and the church. (A friend often says "If the church doesn't disciple the culture, the culture will disciple the church.") They haven't applied Biblical principles to their daily lives. Many have yet to make any effort to grow in their faith.

The folks in this last group are the ones most likely to move toward the non-denominational church because they don't know their theological identity; they don't have a theological base, a place to call home. Even some who identify themselves as Baptist or Charismatic or Methodist or whatever wear the label simply because it's the church closest to their home - not because they believe that denomination's doctrine most accurately reflects Biblical truth. To make matters worse, they don't know what makes a Baptist different from a Methodist or a Charismatic or a Presbyterian - and don't really care!

In contrast, the other two groups have an understanding of their beliefs; their doctrine is important to them. If a family moves to a new community, they'll look for a new church in the same denomination, not just one where they feel comfortable or with a big youth group. Some (many?) will look first for the same denomination they came from because of a couple of reasons:
  1. doctrine
  2. it's familiar
  3. transfer of membership is easy (since some denominations are more restrictive than others about receiving new members as transfers from other denominations.)

I would suspect that if that denomination isn't available, they'll often look for something with a similar doctrine.

So. . . .what are your thoughts on the growth of non-denominational churches? Is it a good thing for the body of Christ? Do they help to unify believers? Or do they tend to "dumb down" the average Christian by ignoring denominational distinctives?

Let the conversation continue.


Jacob said...

In college, I went to our "non-denominational" campus ministry's regional training program and they fell into what I like to call the "neutrality trap." Because they are "non-denominational" they assume that what they say and do ought to be acceptable to everyone, so when there is a disagreement, the dissenters are automatically pegged as "hair-splitters." Fact is, "non-denominational" is itself a viewpoint, usually standing for "essentials only" (as we define them, which is usually with an unconscious Arminian bent).
I am of the opinion that they tend to dumb down in many (not all) cases.

Eutychus said...

Non-denomination churches are more a personality spin off. What the leader believes is what the congregation should believe. There seems to be no accountability for the leader (pastor, elder, bishop or her or his highness) in so far as doctrine and decorum is concerned. I believe there is no biblical weight for this. However, I do not want to form a stereotype.
I prefer a church with denominational distinctive. I know then where I am and what can be expected. This is important for me in the area of what is being preached from the pulpit. I find it more accommodating moving from place to place.
The most task stress area is making sure that the church is reformed in theology (preaching the Word being first). For a Baptist in the Southwest, this is most bothersome. I find myself a pilgrim, satisfied with some and hoping for better.

Brian Ring said...

I am in a somewhat unique, yet fortuitous position. Theologically, I am in the third category (PCA), while practically, our family attends a non-denom church.

Why? Ultimately, I would say we were led there by God. Along with that, I would say it's in the best sense a "reformed" church. It proclaims the gospel (not just an invitation) faithfully each Sunday to Christian and non-Christian alike. The leadership is humble, Christ-focused and Christ-centered. The worship is God-glorifying. And it's evangelical in the best sense of the term. Our body of believers are concerned with our friends, family, coworkers, etc. coming to Christ.

It practices church discipline regularly according to scriptural guidelines.

It's solid in it's teaching, borrowing heavily from Reformed and Presbyterian doctrines, yet it's a church that hasn't lost it's love. It's not a cold - yet correct - body.

Did we visit other PCA churches when we moved? Absolutely. Are there some doctrinal differences I have with my non-denom church? You bet. But they fade in comparison to the strengths that our church has been blessed with.

Ultimately, there won't be Baptists, Presbyterians or Methodists in Heaven; only Christians. As trite as that sounds, it's true. (If you're rolling your eyes at this statement, don't worry I used to as well.)

Am I saying non-denoms are better than denoms? No. Like I said, we looked for one for the same reasons the author stated. Yet I am saying that we draw our lines, but God sometimes colors outside of them. I've come to the conclusion that God doesn't like to be boxed in. He's much bigger than our systematic categorizing of Him.

I've had my eyes open over this journey. I realized I was being a Pharisee over the issue of denominations, and doctrinal differences in general. Coming into the Reformed world later in life, it was at first exhilerating. But over time, I slowly started looking down my nose at other Christians who: weren't Calvinists, were non-denom, were Baptists, you name it, the list goes on...

I would not have admitted this a while back, but I would rather be a part of a body that has the right focus (Christ, His gospel and His church) in which I disagreed with on secondary issues, rather than be at the "100% correct" church in doctrine that was dead. Jesus warns the church of Ephesus in Revelation for this.

I feel I've lived on "both sides of the street" as it were in this regard. Praise God it has cured me of my slow pattern of pride in this regard - not that I'm perfect now; far from it, but I have a greater love and acceptance of all believers, be they Presbyterian Christians or Such-and-such bible church Christians. The emphasis is on "Christians" now.

- Brian