Friday, July 16, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Bad Reasons to be Nondenominational

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Christianity Today reports that about one in six Christians now refer to themselves as “nondenominational”, which is about double the number who did so as recently as the turn of the century.

Tom: Gallup says:

“Increasingly, Christian Americans … prefer to either identify themselves simply as Christians or attend the increasing number of nondenominational churches that have no formal allegiance to a broader religious structure.”

What do you think about that, IC? It’s not all good news, is it?

Immanuel Can: No, probably not. Some of it is.

No Dawning Realization

Tom: I take it you don’t think it’s primarily a product of a dawning realization among Protestants that sectarianism is carnal and violates the spirit of New Testament Christian faith?

IC: I wish it were all born simply of a conviction of the unity of the Body of Christ. But I think it’s also possibly reflective of our social ethos of knee-jerk individualism; or alternately, that it’s expressive of a general (and justified) disenchantment with where traditional churches have tended to be going.

Tom: Roger Olson, who is a professor of theology at Baylor, agrees with you that the change is not an unmitigated positive. He says:

“There is a trend toward what I call ‘generic Christianity’ that is very feeling-centered and pragmatic and somewhat anti-intellectual. As denominational particularities are ignored or hidden, what’s often left is a ‘lowest common denominator’ spirituality that is often little more than ‘worship’ and ‘discipleship’ devoid of cognitive content. The result is often folk religion rather than historic, classic, biblical Christianity.”

If Olson’s right, then put bluntly, most of these new “nondenominational” Christians know so little about the Bible that they couldn’t coherently articulate a disagreement about doctrine even if they had one, or else they just plain don’t care.

A Deplorable Decline

IC: Well, I have to admit that locally I’ve seen a deplorable decline in Christian knowledge, coupled with the rise of a very bland, uncritical and theologically-vague kind of belief. But I didn’t really know how general my observation was. What’s your impression of Olson’s claim, Tom?

Tom: As you know, I grew up circulating among nondenominational churches. When I was in my teens, it was a very big point in those circles not to use a divisive, sectarian name, and those who did so were quickly called out for it. Today, what used to be a generic identifier of convenience is capitalized more often than not, most people view those churches as just another denomination, and many in their younger generation take for granted that this is perfectly acceptable. So they’re kind of bucking the trend Gallup is observing.

Now, within those churches, there are some young believers who are still very well taught indeed, and you can have a deep discussion with them on many different aspects of scripture. There are others, I fear, where Olson’s “lowest common denominator spirituality” would be a pretty accurate description. But I think the general trajectory is not encouraging.

Testing, Testing

IC: I once had the idea of testing this. I thought it would be illuminating to design a quiz to see whether Christians knew more about their Bibles or other stuff. In each question, you could choose to answer either a question from the Bible or from something else. So one question read something like, “Name either: a) five disciples, or b) five members of the Simpson family.”

Tom: Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie … and I’ve never watched a single Simpsons episode. Way too easy. Disciples? Peter, James, John, Judas, Nathanael, Simon the Zealot … okay, okay, I should be able to get more of these in a few seconds without going to the Gospels.

IC: You win. I guess I was wrong.

Tom: No, I see your point, but do trivia quizzes really give us any kind of idea of how much we know about the word of God? Is it THAT kind of knowledge we need to be testing? Might it not be more useful to ask “What is 1 Thessalonians about?” or “What is the great theme of Galatians?” or “Where would I go to find teaching about how to conduct meetings of the church?” or “Name five ways John’s gospel differs from Matthew’s”?

IC: Well, it’s true that trivia is … well, trivial. But isn’t it interesting that we don’t even know the very simple things? I wouldn’t be surprised to find that a Christian had no explanation of the numerology of the Torah; but maybe we should be worried if the very simple and easy things in the New Testament are stumpers, and the minutiae of pop culture are readily at hand.

A Case of Relative Exposure

Tom: It certainly tells us something about our relative exposure to each, doesn’t it? I readily admit I seem to have inadvertently memorized more Elvis Costello lyrics than comparable-length passages of scripture, and that probably doesn’t speak well of me. Then again, I also don’t read Elvis in five different translations, and I don’t memorize scripture set to catchy pop tunes. Maybe I should.

Perhaps what we’re saying here, then, is that most of us who grew up in Christian homes are not our father’s sons to the extent we should be, and that those of us in our generation who have failed to live up to the level of teaching we received have also failed to pass on that teaching to our children and to those who have been saved and come into our churches in the interval. As a result, while today we are more likely to identify as generic ‘Christians’ rather than Christians of a specific theological stripe, this not because we are more agreeable and unified than our grandparents, or because we have solved outstanding problems of theology, but rather it is because we don’t know or care enough about the things of God to fight over them.

Would that be fair?

IC: I wish it weren’t — but yes, it is.

Welcome to Laodicea, Have a Seat Right in the Back There

Tom: Well, then, in addition to this sort of individually shabby behavior and decrepit corporate condition having tons of precedent in the Old Testament, I suppose there is also a prescription somewhere in scripture for precisely our sort of malaise, isn’t there? I’m thinking of what the Head of the Church had to say to a sad little group of Laodiceans:

“I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

If, doctrinally, we are “wretched, poor, pitiable, blind and naked”, there is an answer out there to be had.

IC: Indeed. The remedy exists. But who will realize it? After all, the Laodiceans saw themselves as rich and in need of nothing. They would have been very surprised to be told they were poor and naked and blind … I’m sure they believed quite the opposite.

Opening the Door

Tom: You’re quite right, but that’s why I included the “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” part. There seems to be in that final word to the churches the expectation that some will not be zealous and repent — perhaps a very large number will not, such that Christ himself is depicted outside Christendom. So maybe denominations and large churches cannot be reformed in our day; I can’t speak to that. But the offer of individual fellowship remains open, and I think the Lord is expecting more than a few of us to open the door.

IC: Okay, let’s be practical: how do we “open the door”?

Tom: Well, a knock requires a response, which involves obedience. You can always ignore the knock if you are determined to. But if we want to be in fellowship with the Head of the Church, we need to start with the same view of ourselves that he has. If he says “poor, naked and blind”, that’s what we are. Then he says three things, the first of which is “buy from me gold refined by fire”. Sounds to me like it has something to do with reorienting our spiritual priorities toward the things which are of a high value in God’s economy, not the world’s.

Do you want to try to unpack that metaphor a bit?

The Cost of Truth

IC: Well, the source of the gold is “from me”, so it’s something we get from the Lord himself. It has to be “bought”, which means there’s a price attached. And the gold is something that has been “refined by fire”, which means purified by a process of heating and testing. And maybe that’s a key point: the Laodiceans had it easy. They’d paid no price, and had something that convinced them they were “rich”. But whatever they had, it was not the real deal, obviously; because it had left them spiritually poor, naked and blind.

Actually, they needed three things: true “gold”, “white clothes” that would actually cover them, and “salve” that would restore their sight … and all from God.

Tom: I think this is probably more applicable to the current evangelical environment than we’d like to admit.

IC: I’d put this together this way: the truth is going to be costly. And only that which has been obtained and endured by sacrifice, testing and proving is going to make us truly “rich” Christians. The more worldly you are, the more “naked” your shame is when seen through spiritual eyes. But you don’t see that if you don’t have God’s perspective. The Laodiceans had ceased to see this truth because they had become self-satisfied. They believed they were affluent (blessed by God), dignified (they had covered everything) and clear-eyed (seeing things as they really are). And there was reason for their confidence, because from the earthly perspective, they were doing exceedingly well.

Ironically, from God’s perspective they were a total mess. Note that the metaphor here is that of a high-ranking nobleman contrasted with the picture of a blind street beggar.

Tom: With no clothes to boot.

The Cost of Fellowship with Christ

IC: In short, we have to judge ourselves — our wealth, our achievements and our status as a church — with spiritual sight. And doing that is going to cost us. But the price of not doing it is going to leave us ashamed and empty-handed before God. So we’ve got to “man up” and judge ourselves rightly, by the standards of the Lord, and see whether or not we’ve got anything worth having.

Tom: Amen.

IC: Notice that the Lord only “advises” here. He does not say, “I will give you this, or force it upon you, even if you don’t care or if you choose not to have it.” You have to want it, seek it and choose it, or else you just don’t get it.

Tom: Yes, because he’s looking for fellowship: “I will come in to him and eat with him”. You can’t coerce fellowship. Fellowship presumes a common goal and shared experience in pursuing it. There’s a mutuality required. So when he talks about the kingdom, our heart’s instinctive response must be “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” That’s the only way it works, because you can’t have a warm, collegial discussion about your common objectives with someone who is too immature to know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Nor can you have one with someone who is entirely focused on themselves. And it’s even less likely you can have one with somebody who doesn’t know you well enough or trust you enough to let you in the door when you knock.

Riding the Average

IC: Here’s the point: those of us who want genuine fellowship with God cannot attain it by riding the average. We can’t look around at other Christians and say, “Well, so long as I keep to the centre of the pack, I’ll be okay.” That’s tempting, because it requires nothing of us, and reassures us that we can continue our present lives. But what we really need is a radical departure — not just from the world, but from “Christendom”, if I can use that word. We need to see the difference between how God sees our state and how others do; and we need to choose to believe that God is right, and men — even “Christian” men, have gone savagely wrong. They’ve succeeded in this world, but lost for the next.

So, it’s up to us, now, as individuals. As Revelation says, “if anyone” hears that call, it’s time to “open the door”. And I think that means to provide himself or herself as the conduit of Christ back into the local church. Because right now, whether we want to know it or not, he’s probably outside.


  1. Thank you. Your post is something I read everyday, early. Today was an exception because I was scheduled for a colonoscopy at 8:30. However, it is particularly appropriate. I pray for you "boys" every day.

    1. That's the sort of appointment with which I'm all too familiar. Trust the investigation was uneventful! The prayers are greatly appreciated.

    2. Everything was good; according to the doctor.