Non-Denominationalism and Epistemology: Why Some Things Can’t Be Learned by Simple Study

For the last couple of weeks, my reading has been dominated by discussions of denominationalism. It all started when Nathan discussed the “feeling” of a doctrine. The key sentence, in my estimation, is this one:

Non-denominationalists might condemn denominations because they alienate real Christians, but I condemn non-denominationalism because it gets rid of history and tradition while opening people to unconscious shifts in theology, and some of that is my gut feeling about non-denominationalism.

This led to some backlash, privately if not publicly. Multiple people contacted both myself and Nathan regarding the post; this seemed like a strong attack on something many Christians believe is the best way to go about things. Non-denominationlists tend to believe that they are simply advocating unity over division, rather than attempting to avoid any controversial topics in their own personal belief structure.

Readers were right, in this case, and Nathan agreed. He spent a little time reminding readers (and, I suspect, himself) about the virtues of non-denominationalism. He wasn’t finished telling us of the problems, however:

 For the accomplishment of specific goals, I believe non-denominationalism is a very useful way to work. As a normal way of running church, I believe that it produces some ill effects and has subtle weaknesses that denominational structures help to prevent.

Most recently, Kevin White joined the conversation. He did so by chance–this wasn’t a direct response to Nathan–but it was appreciated nonetheless. Kevin is one of my favorite writers, full stop. Here’s the relevant passage to our discussion today:

You cannot find a generic human being.  People are not abstractions; they are startlingly concrete and specific. Families, likewise, exist in the world of experience, not the realm of the Platonic Forms. Yes, we can describe and explain families through abstraction and general concepts. But Motherhood can’t call you on the phone, only Mom can.

And the church is the same way. We don’t need abstract teachers, but concrete, specific ones. That is why Paul calls for churches to be led by overseers who “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9, ESV)

The implicit argument in each of these posts, perhaps made most explicit in that last one, is that there are certain ways that we learn that are limited when we refuse to commit to a particular denomination or way of thinking. It’s tempting for us to assume that all knowledge is equally accessible, with only the right sort of research required, but this is not the case. There might just be certain bits of knowledge that could never make sense to us, unless we actually lived within specific and particular traditions.

If Christianity is a stumbling block to the Gentiles, how do we ever convert anyone? It must not be through rational discourse, at least not all of the time. Perhaps this is where the ‘feeling’ of a doctrine comes into play, but I suspect there’s something else going on.

It may sound cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: Christianity takes a leap of faith. You’ve got to, sometimes, dive into Christianity head first before it all makes sense. A professor of mine once used this as an evangelism technique: he’d participate in debates where mostly atheists would show up. He would challenge those who were interested in Christianity to attempt to live it out for 30 days. Go to a regular Bible study, read the Bible every day, seek to live out the commands of Scripture to the best of your knowledge, etc. What he found was that anyone who attempted this and stuck it out either converted or was extremely sympathetic to the belief system; suddenly, parts that hadn’t made sense became comprehensible.

There’s a lot of value in that sort of exercise, and the main reminder is simple: some beliefs only make sense in certain contexts, no matter how true the belief is. You may be right when you say that premarital sex is sinful, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense if you don’t also believe a lot of other things about marriage. Research can only go so far: at some point, some nested beliefs will be outside of what can make sense to you.

Back to the discussion of non-denominationalism, I think nested beliefs are the core of the arguments Nathan and Kevin worked through above: sometimes, abstractions cannot be our teachers. In the same way, neither can arguments devoid of any tradition or context. The ontological argument may be the best example of this, especially when read directly from Anselm. He seems to be speaking absurdly when he says he can prove God by simple word-play. But without understanding the cultural background, especially the philosophical assumptions of the day, you can’t actually understand why his argument even could make sense.

It’s a small leap from lack of cultural knowledge to lack of cultural experience. We say today that you cannot know something unless you’ve experienced it, which is a half-truth. Some things you can know by research, and others you can only know by experience. Perhaps some doctrines require some sort of experience.

Published by

J.F. Arnold

James received his MA in Philosophy of Religion at Talbot School of Theology in 2013. He holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Biola University, and is a graduate and perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James blogs on a number of subjects, including technology, theology, and hip-hop. He has written for Biola’s Center for Christianity, Culture, & the Arts, The Gospel Coalition, and he is an editor for Mere Orthodoxy. You can also keep up with him on Twitter (@jamesfarnold).

  • Mackman

    Per our previous conversation:

    If being non-denominational means that you WILL miss out (or, at least, are highly likely to miss out) on good, true doctrines, due to a lack of experience in the corresponding tradition, surely that necessitates that EVERY tradition then misses out on certain good, true doctrines that other traditions hold?

    And indeed, how could it be otherwise? If a Lutheran can grasp the the same doctrines that a Calvinist, a Catholic, an Orthodox, and a Baptist can all grasp…then why can’t a non-denominational person grasp those same doctrines, when the non-denominationalist is surely less removed from each particular tradition than they are?

    You’re missing out on doctrine either way, unless you want to go all the way and say that all doctrines are locked to specific traditions, which I don’t think you will. So both lose out on doctrine: The traditionalist gains the experience of being a traditionalist, but at the same time the non-denominationalist gains the experience of being a non-denominationalist.

    Six in one, half a dozen in the other?

  • jamesfarnold

    There’s some merit to non-denominationalism, as Nathan argued in his second post. There’s something to be said for the freedom it offers.

    The purpose of my post, if boiled down (which I perhaps did not accomplish), is simply to point out that some beliefs are nested such that they are unavailable without other such beliefs.

    Perhaps the best example, and one I wish I’d come up with when writing the post, of a nested belief (outside of religious thought) is the way that we view relationships. When we are in a romantic relationship, we can see and understand someone in a very different way than when we aren’t. This is true whether or not we knew them extremely well before; something about the intimacy of a relationship shifts the way that we view them. But the flip-side is true, which is what I think you’re getting at. Sometimes you’ve got to get out of the relationship before you can see all of the problems with it.

    And that’s difficult, to be frank. It’s a tricky thing, belief.

    You’re right to say that non-denominationalists, if they miss out on doctrine, aren’t alone in that. I’ll concede that.

  • Matt Jenson

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this conversation, James. Sorry to arrive late to the conversation. I’m in broad agreement with you here, though with reference to Kevin’s comment, I’d want to underscore that non-denominational churches are no less abstract than denominational churches. “Non-denominational” is not a punt to abstraction, but a concrete instantiation of the principle that local congregations best go about their work (and, according to some, best align with Scripture) without formal, enduring, structural affiliation. It’s possible that non-denominational churches veer in the direction of being less historically-minded; on that, I think Nathan’s point is better substantiated. But correlation isn’t causation. I’m eager to see some robust experiments in history-drenched, future-oriented, presently-placed non-denominational congregations. One more thing: Just because a congregation is non-denominational needn’t imply it is non-connectional. Evangelicalism as a movement has heaps of non-denominational churches, and it’s also one of the most connectional movements around.

  • jamesfarnold


    This is a helpful corrective. The comments on this post–both privately and publicly–have been far more valuable to me than the post ever will be to anyone else. I’ve got to give some serious thought to the non-denominational who is historically-drenched, to borrow your phrase.

    Thanks for the pushback. I’ll need to spend some more time working through the issue, but I do wonder about the question of accessibility of knowledge, especially in regards to denominationalism.

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  • Walter Bjorck

    This is quite an interesting discussion. As a former Presbyterian minister with an undergraduate major in philosophy, I find all parts of the discussion including that about epistemology intriguing.

    I would love to start a Church of Mere Christianity at some point based solely on the original Nicene Creed, with all doctrinal issues not nailed down in that creed considered discussable intramurally.

  • Will Goodwin

    Great conversation. Having grown up in a non-denominational church, I was never educated in Church history and the varying traditions and theological positions that people took over the course of Christian history. In my opinion, while as good-intended as it is to get back to a fundamental understanding of the bible, non-denominational-ism is in itself a gross oversimplification of the way people have come to understand God’s Word over the years. Non denominational fundamentalism aims to exclude itself from the rest of “theologically biased” Christianity and a return to “pure” Christianity. There would not be “non-denominationalism” had there not been denominations in the first place; hence, we are all from the same church in the first place.