Saturday, June 19, 2010

Beyond Denominations?

Over the past twenty years, a remarkable shift has taken place in American religion. While most of the large Christian denominations in the US went into decline, "nondenominational" Christianity - typified by megachurches like Lakewood, Saddleback, and Willow Creek - experienced an explosion of growth. Nondenominational churches grew from less than 200,000 adherents in 1990 to over 8,000,000 today. When grouped together with those who identify only as "Christian" or as "Evangelical", this group comprises 11.8% of the US population.

Part of the success of nondenominational churches has been their ability to harness the shifting winds toward postmodernism in American society. In a culture that chafes at authority, tradition, and establishment, any sign of "your grandmother's church" has to go. In the place of stained glass, hymns, pews, and robes, nondenominational congregations have embraced nondescript buildings, rock music, theater seating, and jeans in an effort to attract religious "seekers". Instead of conforming to the catechisms and creeds of a single dominant tradition like "Calvinism" or "Lutheranism" - nondenominational churches provide individuals who are frustrated with denominational divisions with the freedom to draw from a variety of Christian beliefs and practices.

In spite of their disillusionment with Christian denominationalism, these independent congregations see no reason to insist on visible unity. A national or worldwide structure over all the churches conflicts with a postmodern vision of the Church as a decentralized network of Spirit-led and Bible-listening believers.

So, then, is the nondenominational movement the answer to the scandal of denominations? Are we moving into a new age of post-denominational unity? While the culture may be moving toward a “post-denominational” future, I believe that denominations continue to have an important role to play in the quest for Christian unity.

First off, they confront the reality that the Christian Church is sadly but visibly divided. I am glad that so many Christians are eager to move past our denominational divisions – but if all local congregations drop their denominational labels and become “Grace Church” or “Bible Church,” this division does not go away – in fact, it is amplified (from 10 denominations to 1000 congregations)! Without a common history and tradition, people tend to create their own personal version of Christianity (or their pastor's version) – and any overarching unity that exists seems to resemble the surrounding culture more than Christianity.

Denominations provide a history, a language, a tradition in which to live out the Christian faith. Each denomination brings its own gifts to the larger body of Christ. In order for the Church to truly move toward a visible undivided (nondenominational) church, we must first listen to “the grace given to you in Christ” in our brothers and sisters who are committed to different traditions from our own. Then, we can struggle together to find creative ways of building common ground while remaining faithful to our own own tradition. This is difficult ecumenical work, but I believe it is the best way to take each of our denominations beautiful and unique voices and blend them into a unified, harmonious chorus.

Lastly, while postmodernism includes many positive developments - including the humility that is essential for Christian unity - more and more people are feeling adrift, isolated, and disconnected. It’s hard to devote your life to something when all truth is relative, when everything is ultimately meaningless. This is why I know many friends my age who are finding peace and rest in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which claim historical apostolic authority. In my own experience, I feel deeply committed to my own Methodist tradition – and yet still realize that my denomination is only one small part of the Christian Church and that we are called to “be one".

The way to work toward healing the divisions of the Reformation (and beyond) is by understanding and appreciating the differences of the denominational traditions – not pretending they do not exist.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

There Already is One Church (It's Mine)

Growing up a fundamentalist Baptist, I was taught that ecumenism is a bad thing - that it threatened to water down the truth by uniting with false teaching. The roots of this conviction hail back to the beginning of the 20th century, when conservative Christians who were alarmed at rising modernistic trends in the churches (e.g., Darwinism, higher criticism, denial of the miraculous) reaffirmed traditional Protestant theology by staking out certain "fundamental" tenants of the Christian faith. These fundamentals included the inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, and atonement for sin through Christ's death on the cross.

As the century progressed, this original fundamentalist movement split into those who remained engaged in the world (present-day "evangelicals") and those who withdrew from the world in an effort to maintain purity (present-day "fundamentalists"). Within the second group, the list of fundamentals expanded beyond the initial understanding of what you believe to include things like what kind of Christian music you listen to, what Bible translation you read, and what clothes you wear. Furthermore, many fundamentalists began advocating what they called "secondary separation" - meaning that churches should not only separate from those they disagreed with, but also from like-minded Christians who had not adequately separated from those they disagreed with. As a result, for these fundamentalist Protestants, the "true Church" ended up consisting of their own local congregations (and perhaps a handful of other people who happened to agree with them on everything).

Key to understanding this fundamentalist separatist impulse is the connection between "the inspiration of Scripture" and "my church's interpretation of Scripture." Thus, other Christians could affirm the entire Nicene and Apostles' Creeds and still be labeled "apostate" because of their method of baptism or preferred Bible translation. In such an atmosphere, ecumenism is next to impossible because there are few to no other Christians left to unite with! In order to achieve true unity, fundamentalists insist that all other Christians must assimilate to the entirety of their congregation's particular interpretation of Scripture.

Although I have focused on fundamentalist Protestants, this model of Christian unity is held by most of the world's Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well. The list of non-negotiable "fundamentals" required for Christian unity is merely substituted for another. Pope Benedict caused a media firestorm in 2007 when he re-released a statement clarifying that Protestants cannot be true churches (in the proper sense) because they lack apostolic succession - ordination at the hands of bishops who are in unbroken unity with the first apostles of Jesus (see: Because of this defect, Protestant pastors lack valid ordination and therefore cannot perform valid sacraments. In order to achieve true unity, all other Christians must submit to the apostolic authority of the pope and accept re-ordination at the hands of Catholic bishops (which, at least at this point, would include assimilating to the entirety of Catholic doctrine). Similarly, the Orthodox insist on re-ordination at the hands of their bishops and complete submission to their doctrinal tradition.

Most Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants will concede that people can be true Christians even if they are outside the true Church. In the Vatican II document Unitatis Redintegratio, the Catholic Church clarified that those “who believe in Christ and have been rightly baptized” exist “in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Catholic Church” where their “sacred Christian rites...can truly engender a life of grace and give access to the communion of salvation.” Additionally, these communities have “by no means been deprived of meaning and importance in the mystery of salvation,” for “the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.” In other words, there is sufficient overlap with the doctrine of the "one true Church" (be it Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant) to acknowledge that those in other communities can be "Christian" or "saved." However, more is needed - full doctrinal assimilation - in order to achieve Christian unity. In the meantime, there remains one true Church along with many Christians who have not yet fully assimilated to the truth of what it means to be the "Church."

Positively, this approach to Christian unity refuses to be satisfied with a cheap unity that waters down important doctrinal differences. However, if our differences are not essential to what it means to be "Christian," then why should they be essential to what it means to be united as "Church"? After all, to be baptized into Christ is to be a member of Christ's body, the Church. The picture that emerges from the assimilation model is a divided, disfigured Body of Christ - the true Church - with sundry lopped off parts of Christ's Body lying on the ground (Christians, perhaps, but not fully united to the Church). Ironically, such a gory image should provide the needed impetus for Christian unity that other models have failed to achieve.

Catholics, fundamentalists - what are your thoughts? Admittedly, this post is tainted by my own biases as a mainline Protestant. What would you offer as correctives to my analysis? How might you imagine a way forward that is faithful to your understanding of what it means to be Church?