On Non-denominationalism and Tradition

Last week I wrote a post about doctrines that people feel to be wrong, and I included non-denominational churches as an example of something that I did not feel right about. A reader indicated that I took a very broad swipe at non-denominationalism and that my language was unduly harsh. I agree with that reader’s assessment. I wish to apologize for the unfairly general attack that I made on non-denominational Christianity and more carefully give my views on non-denominationalism and its relationship to theological tradition.

Non-denominationalism, which overlaps extensively with evangelicalism, plays up core points of Christian beliefs and looks to get free of denominational constraints for pragmatic ministry arrangements or a preference for local church autonomy. Many Christian universities are non-denominational. Their seminaries provide theological education while providing a basis for denominations to dialogue with one another, hopefully easing interdenominational cooperation. Some churches are non-denominational because they believe in local church autonomy, although they might band together with other non-denominational churches for mutual support and accountability. 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.

One area of non-denominational ministry is the production and distribution of church educational resources. Willow Creek Community Church and Mars Hill Church are two non-denominational churches that put out a lot of resources, and The Gospel Coalition has a ministry that it refers to as “theological famine relief for the global church”. In a training session that I took once, I came to appreciate the value of resource ministries: the resources they put out might not be absolutely up to date and the number one best out there, but most people do not have the time and energy to write the resources they need. One person might have the capacity to write something awesome, but that is not everybody, and everybody is still waiting for something to start with. The tricky thing about non-denominational resources is also a tricky thing about non-denominational churches: where did they come from and what is the history of their doctrines?

I have two principal issues with non-denominationalism as a way of doing church:

  1. There is not much of an explicit sense of tradition.
  2. Because they are denominationally unmoored, they are more open to influence from evangelical “war chiefs”.

There is no explicit sense of tradition. In non-denominational churches, how do they trace the history of their church’s beliefs and influential individuals in the spiritual life of their congregations? An important part of faith is continuing to believe even when proof seems to break down. Whether or not you like the Catholic idea of authoritative Tradition, “because the Church says so” provides a definite starting place. The Church of Jesus Christ plays a long game, and in Christ, we aim to win eternally and not just in this year or in the next. We do not start an Inquisition or play simpering renditions of Cumbayah just because of opposition. We are required to give up neither our hearts nor our spines for the sake of peace. Is in necessary to surrender theological history just because some of our predecessors were bad men?

Because they are denominationally unmoored, they are more open to influence from evangelical “war chiefs”. I once wrote a post about evangelical “war chiefs” like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, and David Platt. Where denominations have a center (or centers) of authority, non-denominational churches do not have authoritative leaders above the local church level who can speak on doctrinal drift. Furthermore, what should non-denominational Christians do if they want to go deeper than “mere” Christianity and find literature that elaborates upon the Nicene Creed—once they find it? Popular authors and speakers are usually faithful Christians who produce deep theology and good teachings. However, they are often members of denominations and represent particular theological traditions. John Piper is a Calvinist and a member of the Baptist General Conference. John MacArthur is non-denominational but also a Calvinist. David Platt is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention. If a church abjures all theological tradition in favor of officially being “mere Christianity” Christians, then they lose the map that they might use to locate and track the state of their beliefs.

Churches choose to go non-denominational for a variety of reasons. Perhaps they do not like denominational squabbling and so they sever ties with a denomination. Alternatively, when denomination splits happen because of liberal theology, the little splinter groups have very difficult choices to make about their views on how church should be done, the meaning of Christian unity, and relating to the people they divided from. Perhaps they will take local autonomy as the ideal and go non-denominational. Perhaps they will affiliate more closely with foreign branches of their denomination. Perhaps they will condemn the other side as heretics, sinners, and schismatics. Perhaps they will use language like “unfortunate”, “not ideal”, and “regrettable” while hoping and praying for continued dialogue. For one reason or another, individual churches drop their denominations and ministers start churches apart from any denominational affiliation.

In the Arian controversy that plagued the Church in the fourth century, St. Athanasius’ resistance to the Arian line that Jesus was a created being inspired the line “Athanasius contra mundum”—Athanasius against the world. Although local church autonomy makes it easier to stand against denominational abuses and liberalizing theology, it breaks down the machinery for later church unity. Athanasius repeatedly went into and returned from exile, so while he defied the Church’s slide into Arianism, he retained a vision of the Church’s fundamental unity. Although he was “against the world”, he saw the unity of the Body of Christ as something that could be recaptured. Although non-denominationalism is very useful for getting ministry done here and now and it provides a basis for future dialogue between denominations, non-denominationalism as a way of doing church rubs out the marks on the map of theology and tradition that tell where a particular congregation is. If non-denominational Christians encounter believers with a strong sense of tradition, they may forget the left turn at Albuquerque that divided them and thus be hurt when they do not want to have Communion together.

If I have any spiritual maturity, I owe it in large part to the work of non-denominational Christians. I cannot deny the truth and validity of their faith. I believe in denominational pluralism as an arrangement for the sake of living together in peace and the work of the Holy Spirit as a unifying thing beyond permission to share in the same celebration of Communion. Even so, denominations are critically important for tracing spiritual heritage and allowing the Church Triumphant to exert its proper influence on the Church Militant alive on earth today. Thank God for the souls saved through the work of non-denominational institutions and churches, but may they also find their place on the map of Christian tradition. If you are lost in the woods, it is helpful to know at least that wolves roam there and not the board of elders. Whether you are on the run from a flange of baboons or the College of Cardinals, at least you knew ahead of time what you were dealing with.

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  • Walter Bjorck

    Very well-argued. However, perhaps non-denominationalism could have a valid reply. 1. There is not much of an explicit sense of tradition. A response might be that prior to the East West split there was tradition without denominations, and prior to the Reformation there was tradition with just two “denominations”, east and west.
    2.Because they are denominationally unmoored, they are more open to influence from evangelical “war chiefs”. Any such influence is often counter-balanced by the stifling influence of denominational shiboleths which can stifle open inquiry.
    I speak as a former Presbyterian minister now firmly committed to “mere Christianity”.

  • Gary

    The Evangelical’s Rosary:

    (Arminian) Evangelical Christianity teaches that my salvation is dependent on MY decision to accept Christ, and my assurance of salvation is dependent on MY feelings of his continued presence in my heart.

    But what happens during times of hardship and trial when I don’t
    feel saved? Answer: I repeat my born again experience again and again until I finally feel absolutely certain that I am saved!

    Thousands, maybe millions, of Evangelical Christians struggle with doubts and fears regarding their salvation and eternal destiny due to this faulty theology. They have no sure assurance of salvation! They are praying the Sinner’s Prayer again and again as if it were a Rosary.

    The Sinner’s Prayer:

    “Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for
    Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen.”