Evangelical Denominations and Their Chieftains

Who is the chief of the evangelicals? Is it John Piper? Mark Driscoll? Joel Osteen? Rob Bell? All of the above are marked as evangelicals in one place or another. Two are Calvinists and two very clearly are not. In anthropology, we see two different kinds of chiefs, the war chief and the paramount chief: the war chief rules through charisma and persuasion to unite tribes for war, and his authority dissipates when the war is over or he dies; the paramount chief is the chief because of tradition, and his son or relative will inherit his authority when he dies. Denominations have paramount chiefs, but congregations may not know who they are. Evangelicals have war chiefs, but who is the paramount chief?

Yes, Christ is the head of the Church, but he went back to heaven. He sent the Holy Spirit, but even Spirit-filled people quarrel and fight about power and authority. As much as I disagree with papal claims of authority over all the Church, the Roman Catholic ability to hold up one man as the chief and the long centuries of tradition supporting the Pope’s position are a formidable part of Roman Catholic Christianity. If the Pope dies, they can elect a new one and roll right on. Local churches have local autonomy, but they also have a chain of command to follow so that they can replace a priest who goes off his rocker. The Reformation happened because of abuse of authority and political problems crippled the Pope’s ability to address Martin Luther’s list of abuses and so allowed the Reformation to develop, and so Protestantism broke with the Roman Catholic Church but retained confessional unity.

The Reformation’s fallout includes the multiplication of Christian denominations. The we-don’t-want-to-be-Catholics in one country started their own denomination, while the we-don’t-want-to-be-Catholics-either in another country did the same thing. When they came to America, the blurring, blending, and emulsification of ethnic boundaries and the creation of American denominations and theological development intensely complicated an already complex scene. As the American national identity developed, American Christians started talking to each other, evangelists took to the lecture circuit, and a countrywide Christian scene developed. Non-denominationalism became a practical workaround for people who wanted to do ministry but avoid entanglements with denominational lines of authority. Enter: the war chiefs.

In American evangelicalism, war chiefs are preachers and authors who build a large following outside their respective churches, crossing multiple denominational lines. John Piper is one such war chief. There is also a missionary preacher named Paul Washer, whose YouTube sermons are quite popular in certain circles. There are also Francis Chan and David Platt, respectively authors of Crazy Love and Radical, books immensely popular in my home church. They may have denominational affiliations, but their books and their sermons are widely popular in the broader evangelical sphere. If one disappears, another will rise from somewhere. John Macarthur is widely respected in Christian circles, but he has no denomination. The war chiefs make theological pronouncements, and the average pastor or Christian in the pew is left to decide who is more authoritative on what issue. Calvinism is a theological unifier for some, but Calvinist theology has done a Linux and been ported to many different kinds of devices by many different manufacturers so that there is no one Calvinist denomination. Who is to mediate between war chiefs if they disagree?

By the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit, evangelicalism is broadly unified around core theological convictions. Evangelicalism is an organizational nightmare, but it is a phenomenon and not an organization. If evangelicals had a paramount chief–and some evangelical denominations have them–then there would be an arbiter in theological dispute. With the war chiefs, however, they operate by persuasion to move evangelicals to address issues inside or outside of the Church. They are not all powerful, so if they declare turnips to be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit and uncover a fourth member of the Trinity, other war chiefs will put them to the sword, burn their dwellings, and scatter salt over their fields. Or the polemical equivalent. However, there is no absolute evangelical orthodoxy, so no one war chief can define evangelicalism without cutting certain denominations out of the picture. Calvinist theology bothers me in this regard because it is a version of orthodoxy without a central authority with the right to apply it to all of evangelicalism.

Denominations are incredibly important because they have the authority to moderate the influence of a far off war chief through the actions of a local paramount chief–someone with established authority over a given set of people can address the teachings of a popular author or speaker. Baptists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans can all be Calvinists, and Calvinist ministers can float between different denominations that do not explicitly hold to Calvinism. They are likely to be evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are Calvinists. Suppose there is a fight between John Piper groupies and a local Arminian pastor: who can fight against John Piper? It is one thing to get help from outside when there is insurmountable abuse at home, but it is quite another to replace an ordained minister with the dregs of the ministry of another. As awesome as John Piper’s books and sermons may be, they are processed food and the life of the local church–including the minister–is vitally irreplaceable. No local church exists in isolation, so it is key for them to have healthy, natural relationships with other churches in their area and within their denominations.

Non-denominationalism is a useful workaround for Christian institutions like universities and seminaries that want to aid the Church as a whole, but non-denominationalism is no decent representative of “basic” Christianity. In seeking to imitate the early Church in belief and practice, they cut themselves off from historical Christianity while unconsciously carrying on historical influences. They may have connections with other non-denominational churches, but they do not have something like a family connection to the beginning of a denomination, rejecting that as though it is automatically a channel for abuse. They carry forward the divisive “I see abuse in the Church so I will separate myself” mentality of the Reformation without having Luther’s capacity to confessionally unite and ensure proper uniformity of belief. Some non-denominational churches could be charismatic and others hard core cessationist without having a clear idea why, and this rootlessness in historical theology opens them to the influence of an evangelical war chief without the moderation of a denominational paramount chief.

Denominational churches have at the very least search terms that interested parties could use to look into the history of their church and the evolution of its beliefs and practices. In my home church, I at least knew the name Baptist General Conference and something about Swedish people. In college, I went to a Christian and Missionary Alliance church, so I had that denominational name to look up. Denominations have leadership beyond the local church and they can hold their ministers accountable for what they preach. Denominational leadership should exercise pastoral and theological care for ministers and congregations as a whole to keep them moving forward in their commitment to Christ while also addressing what evangelical war chiefs are saying and writing, possibly even curtailing what they say and write when they exert hegemonic authority. The president of the denomination should be someone to listen to by virtue of his position and not just be an administrative ringmaster in the denominational circus. As good as it is for pastors to be the ones to receive wide attention in Christian circles, they can exert undue influence by virtue of their popularity and their popularity can keep people from raising legitimate questions about what they say. To challenge a war chief, another war chief has to contradict him, or there has to be a paramount chief has to rein him in.

One of the strengths of evangelicalism is the freedom for individual ministers to experiment and try new things. In theology, however, there is no freedom to experiment. Not everyone can be Martin Luther to declare a Reformation, and while the gospel of Jesus Christ is as exciting as a revolutionary pamphlet, it also has the gravity of its two millennia of age. Surely we must have our war chiefs, but please, bring back the paramount chiefs. They are there, but we have to listen to them.

  • David Nilsen

    Great thoughts. I especially agree that a “rock star” pastor (like Piper or Tim Keller) can be no substitute for the local church and one’s own pastor. Here is a great discussion panel from last year’s T4G conference, in which Carl Truman warns of the dangers of such “celebrity pastors”:


    Also, on the topic of “evangelical orthodoxy”, I agree that there isn’t really such a thing, but that’s because the label “evangelical” has itself become sort of meaningless. If John Piper and Rob Bell can both be “evangelicals”, then the term has lost any practical or objective value, in my opinion. Coincidentally, this is the topic I discussed in my very first article for the EO back in 2009. I’d love your thoughts:


  • Descriptive Grace

    “Evangelical” never had any meaning, except maybe Calvinists and those stupid enough to tolerate them or try to cooperate with them.

  • Nathan Bennett

    I loved your post. Yours plus mine and we can take on the world together! I will leave a comment on it with more detail.

    On “evangelical” being meaningless: when I first heard my mom throwing the word around as though it meant something, I wanted to know what it meant. I also asked Dr. Sanders about it, and I think he did not have a precise definition either. It seems to mean everything from “really a Christian” to “I go to a megachurch”.

  • Pingback: On Non-denominationalism and Tradition -- Evangelical OutpostEvangelical Outpost()

  • Samantha

    I really enjoyed your perspective on the modern leaders of churches. As someone who is trying to aggregate information on the modern church (and not just the Christian church, but other religions as well), leadership knowledge is key. The “rock star” pastor actually fits in with blog topic on how churches are modernizing and should utilize social media to give themselves a “brand.”


  • Nathan Bennett

    How would you say leadership knowledge is key? Leadership in thinking, leadership in administrative matters, or everything all together?

  • Samantha

    In the case of my blog, it is the argument for why religious organizations should utilize social media. If the church leaders do not embrace something, the congregation is likely to follow. I think church leaders need to look for new ways to think about their church, even if it is out of their comfort zone.

  • Nathan Bennett

    Ok. I see now. I heard of a case where an African restaurant in London got lots and lots of business when it alone of all the African restaurants had an online presence and there was some conference that needed African food. Although word of mouth is still very important, the internet is very much filling in for gaps in social networks. Once I visited a church that was far away but had good internet information instead of a closer one with no internet information.

    Do you see social media as a thing to level the playing field between megachurches and smaller congregations? Not every pastor is going to get a mega-congregation, but being searchable on the internet can definitely put them on the map for people looking for something other than a megachurch.

  • Samantha

    I do think social media could level the playing field for small churches. I really appreciate your comment, and I tried to address your questions this week on my blog. I still have a long way to go, but I enjoyed researching the mega-church.