Sunday, March 26, 2006

Denominationalism

Many times, we can discuss matters with those who have a different opinion than us, and never make any headway, because there are underlying presuppositions which cause each one to see the matter at hand from different perspectives. In such a case, it may be futile to discuss the surface, up-front, issues, without first dealing openly with the deeper root issues which undergird them.

In my opinion, one such "root issue" for us as Southern Baptists is the question of denominationalism. There is plenty written on why we believe we as Baptists have a more biblical understanding of various doctrinal questions than other denominations. That is not the issue I am talking about. What I am talking about is the whole question of why do we as 21st century Christians organize ourselves as denominations in the first place. What purpose does our denominational affiliation play in our Christian service and discipleship?

While I have some opinions of my own on this issue, I would love for various of you "theological thinkers" out there to give some input on this issue by adding your comments to this post. In order to "get the ball rolling", I am including several quotes which I think are very relevant in regard to these questions...

First off, let's start with the Apostle Paul. 1 Corinthians 1.10-17...

Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.

Next, I would like for you to carefully consider an article in the Elwell Evangelical Dictionary, by D. G. Tinder, entitled "Denominationalism". It would perhaps be more "user-friendly" for me to copy the entire text here, but to avoid any complications with copyright questions, I invite you to click on this link, read the article, and then return to our discussion here.
Next, several important quotes from various writers included in the book Why I am a Baptist, edited by Tom J. Nettles and Russell D. Moore.

On pp. 150-51, Al Meredith, in his article "A Baptist-Tested by Fire", says:

I am a Baptist by conviction and by choice. But there is a higher, deeper conviction than that which claims my loyalty. By a miraculous working of God I have been born again into the family of faith, the church universal, the Redeemed from every kindred, tribe, nation, and generation. God has a wonderful fascination with diversity. If you doubt that, consider the untold trillions of snowflakes, each with its unique design. And the body of Christ, though all redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, is wondrous in its incredible diversity...

Here is unsettling news. Southern Baptists, for all their resources and organizational power, will never reach the world for Christ. Neither will the Pentecostals or the Methodists, or any other particular corner of the kingdom. If any one of us could do the job, we would have to remove John 17 from the canon of Scripture. No, if and when the world is won to Christ, it will happen when believers of all denominations lay aside (not forget) their differences and bond together under the banner of all those who trust in Christ alone and seek to follow him.

As long as we emphasize our differences and use them as issues for censorship and division, a watching world will scoff at our claims for the King of Love. As long as we speak out to a secular media in condemnation of our brothers in Christ, the world will conclude that Christianity is just another man-made contrivance to inflict misery on others in order to advance personal agendas. I am a Southern Baptist by choice and conviction. I am committed to our doctrine and ministry. But I am also a member of the wider family of God, the body of Christ universal. All who have turned from their sin and trusted Christ as Savior and Lord are my brothers. And though we may disagree on certain particulars, we are family.

Can we not, here and now, purpose in our hearts never publicly to criticize a brother in Christ? Can we not commit ourselves to finding issues of commonality with those of like faith but different denominations? Can we not work together selflessly with all those who name the name of Jesus as Savior and Lord to reach an unbelieving world? The lateness of the hour demands it. The desperation of our generation compels it. The prayer of our Savior himself dictates it. So be it.
On pp. 173-74, Douglas Blount, in his article, "A Mere Christian, and a Baptist Too", says:
After all, in the preface to Mere Christianity, [C. S.] Lewis himself writes: "I hope no reader will suppose that 'mere' Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions - as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable."

Of course, it seems obviously important that one not confuse one's own denominational context with the church, as if no one outside it belongs to Christ. But it also seems important - though perhaps less obviously so - that those who remain in the merely Christian hall cut themselves off from the very fellowship which my friend desired to promote. For fellowship comes within community, and Christian communities are located within Lewis's rooms, not his hall. Nowhere else can one find the warmth, rest, and nourishment which come within those rooms, within those "existing communions."
On pp. 211-12, Carl F. H. Henry, in his article, "Fifty Year a Baptist", written in 1958, says:
All Protestant groups today, including the Baptist denominations, face a common problem. Can individuality of missionary enterprise be maintained in the totality of Christian onslaught against paganism? Can Baptists vindicate their uniqueness without discrediting the legitimate Christian status of other denominational groups? Must they grant the validity of all other denominations in order to share passionately in the ecumenical conflict with non-Christian religions? Can Baptist distinctive be preserved and promulgated without endangering the larger unity of Christian witness? Will the broader perspective reduce the Baptist focus?

Anyone profoundly loyal to Baptist convictions but who also grieves over the spirit of fragmentation that has ailed Protestantism since the Reformation (which the Baptists claim to antedate) must reach some decision. A continuing deferment of solution to these problems from one generation to the next can only lessen confidence and respect for parental status and authority.

As I see it, Baptists are not so much interested in promoting the Baptist denomination as such in the world as in advancing the one church that Christ heads through the Baptist witness. But we should not feel that to realize this purpose require surrender either of Baptist distinctives or of denominational fervor. While the Baptist tradition if for us the preferred medium to communicate the life of Christ in his church, we do not on that accord deny that some measure of genuine Christian status attached to other traditions, even as we are quick to admit that something less than full Christian status often intrudes into our own!

We decry homicidal competition in Christian enterprise. But we do not consider a one-denominational monopoly that virtually cancels Protestant free enterprise the means to an ideal religious climate. We believe that denominationalism can serve as a unitive rather than as a divisive factor. In other words, I do not think that Baptist and ecumencial interests necessarily conflict.
On p. 225, C. Ben Mitchell, in his article "So What's a Nice Southern Baptist like me Doing in a Place like This?" says:

In my own view, Southern Baptists are uniquely indebted to their non-Southern Baptist evangelical kin. We have a huge membership, plentiful resources, and growing respect. Southern Baptists need to come alongside their evangelical brethren, many of whom struggle daily for financial and other resources, to assist them as together we bring the glorious gospel of the risen Christ, and its social and ethical implications, to new generations. If I'm right that evangelicals "carried the water" for Southern Baptists early in the resurgence, then Southern Baptists should work harder out of respect and gratitude to build intentional partnerships with our evangelical comrades.

Hopefully, the future is bright for Southern Baptists. We face a number of important challenges in the twenty-first century. Our size, which is in so many ways a blessing, can become a liability if we fail to equip, mobilize, and get our arms around this gentle giant known as the Southern Baptist Convention. Frankly, we don't have a history of playing well with others. In the face of the cultural pressures that we feel, there is a tendency for us to move toward isolationism and separation. Instead, we must build new bridges with evangelicals and other non-Baptists who share our basic world-view. At the same time, we must affirm wholeheartedly that which makes us Baptists. The way ahead is not easy, but by God's grace, it will be exciting and fruitful.
What do you say?

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I say you really said a mouthful! We as life-long Southern Baptists need to pay attention.

GuyMuse said...

I would estimate that 99.8% of the people living in the South American country where we serve have never heard of the "Southern Baptist Convention". While the word "Baptist" may be a word they have heard, it is a term which has little to no meaning for them. Quite often it is often confused with Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, JWs, etc. The world has a hard time figuring out what all these labels mean, and really don't seem to care.

However "evangelical" gets people's attention. When I tell people I am a Baptist Missionary it is usually received with a blank stare. I will quickly interject the word that Baptists are "evangelicos" (evangelicals) and their faces will immediately light up with some degree of recognition since everyone knows that term. This is a much broader term but instantly in their minds separates us from the traditional religion of the country (RCs).

Denominationalism is not nearly as strong here as it is in the USA. There is almost a free exchange of people from all sorts of GCC churches intermingling with one another. The prefix "Bro/Sis" is sufficient to let people know they are of the "Body of Christ" and that is usually enough for them. It doesn't seem to be as important to them to be identified with a denomination as it is to be identified with the Body of Christ.

As an IMB M I find myself having as much contact with non-Baptists as I do our own Baptist people. It is not necessarily by choice, but that is just the way the landscape is. There is a lot more interaction between the various expressions of the Church than there is in the USA. When we have Baptist meetings, there will be as many non-Baptists present as there are Baptists. The same holds true when other GCC evangelical groups hold their specials events.

John Stickley said...

Interestingly, I find myself in the position your post describes, David... working with brothers in Christ from a number of denominations in a common missional purpose (I'm a chaplain with Baseball Chapel, a non-denominational, evangelical Christian ministry focused on reaching those affiliated with professional baseball).

I just returned from my first training conference this weekend, and I have to say that it was very much evident that Christ is not the monopoly of any particular denomination. In a room full of complete strangers, we quickly found that "strangers" was certainly an inaccurate term... we were really brothers that had just never met before. Our common faith in Christ transcended all barriers... denominational issues were the least of our concerns.

I guess what my experience (limited as it is) leads me to believe is that we need to set aside denominational barriers when it comes to missions. When the lost come to know Christ, they don't immediately become Baptists, AOG's, Methodists, etc... they become believers. Denominational identification seems to come later, as new Christians come to believe in the differing doctrines that make us distinct. In that light, uniting in our missions effort seems most logical... win folks for Christ, not for the convention (or any other entity).

Clif Cummings said...

I say "amen" and "amen". Having just returned from Central Asia with a team from our church I am convinced that you are exactly correct. Not because it "sounds right" but because of what I have seen!
In HIS Grace,
Clif

Matt said...

I think many American Christians are afraid of this message...we are too comfortable in our lifestyles and too tied to our traditions to see the bigger picture. It is encouraging for me to see the posts from IMB workers who feel the same way as David! I am reminded of my Christian brothers in China who have testified that when we were just sending in Bibles, the Chinese church was growing at an amazing pace...but when we started attaching other books and study materials from different denominations and putting that at equal importance, we saw the first major divisions in the Chinese church! If we are going to reach the rest of the world, it is going to take all believers, regardless of denomination to not only work side by side, but to FINANCIALLY SUPPORT EACH OTHER. I only hope our trustees at the IMB will realize this. I was rasied in a SBC and still am an active member at a SBC but I went to a Pentacostal (Church of God) University and my wife went to a Presbyterian High School, and some of our greatest friends and heroes of the faith are Mennonite M's!!! I am proud to say that I am a "Christian" (who just happends to atttend an SBC church), not just a "Baptist."

blampp@juno.com said...

Just a couple of reminders from an "Old Salt"......
to denominate, simply put, is "to name"! Most of us have one.... either "given" or "applied"! Through the years I've found myself to be far more effective when I have allowed someone else to do that! Second, I thought as people of "the Book" we were fastidious in our efforts to properly "divide" or exegete the "Word"! Yet, most of the scholarly works that David quotes uses the term "Church" almost exclusively..... Jesus seems to have only used it a couple of times, and/or alluded to it a few other times..... also the scholarly reflections don't seem represent the useage found in Paul's writings? I personally feel the term "Kingdom" as used in the New Testament better fills that role! I think it also represents the longings I hear reflected in the "comments".
Please check the statistical make up of the congregations which constitute what we call the SBC! I think you'll be amazed at the diversity of "tongues" (dilectos) and cultures! I've had the privilege of serving pastoral roles in single and multi staff situations which included many sizes and most were multicultural!
Most have been in Metro area's or resort focused, and I've found my SBC Brothers and Sisters have been much involved with other "evangelicals"! Many of us have worked by functional participation involving even non-christian religious communities with projects that have been beneficial for the entire region! Sure, some of the "Brethren" have made derogatory remarks.... but, it is more about HIM than "them"!

Jason in Central Asia said...

we currently worship the lord w/the following 'types' of disciples in a central asian country: non-denominational, mennonite, harvest background, anglican, and us sb's. and, i couldn't be more happy. i am challenged by their convicitons, encouraged by their spirit-filled worship, humbled by their servants heart.

it's interesting to me that i'm probably the only one there who thinks about denominational differences, at least at the beginning; to explain, i was eager to ask, 'what denomination are you all?' 'what tradition are you all from?' and i asked some. but you know, no one asked me those questions. i wonder why? i understood that i was much more interested in denominational affiliation than them. just an observation.