Friday, January 07, 2022

Too Hot to Handle: Good Reasons to be Non-Denominational

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

I was just poking through the archives and realized that last year we did a post together called “Bad Reasons to be Non-Denominational”. It was all about the recent trend toward non-denominational Christian gathering that doesn’t always have a whole lot in the way of specifics and convictions.

Tom: We agreed that wasn’t our preferred way to go, IC. But now I’m wondering if you can think of any good reasons to meet together with Christians without a lot of the historical baggage that goes with a well-established, well-known bloc of believers — like, say, the Southern Baptists.

An Argument an Inch Deep

Immanuel Can: As it happens, I was just talking with a friend about this. He thinks very little of anyone who has a Christianity that does not identify with a “tradition”. His argument is that it is an act of consummate arrogance to presume to criticize things that have been worked over by what he sees as ‘godly’ men from earlier times. What we are obligated to do, he thinks, is to bow to their superior judgment, and not to interpret for ourselves what they have already exposited on our behalf.

Tom: Well, that certainly seems like a reasonable position on the face of it, not least because of its apparent security. You can point to large numbers of people on your side saying the same thing. It’s comfortable to imagine the major issues of scripture are all settled for you, and no personal commitment or re-study is required. It sounds humble and gracious and modest and … quite lovely, really.

However, scrutinize that argument past maybe an inch deep, and you’ll see that there are vast numbers of what we might reasonably call ‘godly’ men on both sides of every major scriptural divide. For every Martin Luther there’s a pope somewhere with more bodies on his side of the argument, and both sides can legitimately lay claim to centuries of history and vast numbers of followers. So which ones are right? If the answer is ‘the church with the biggest numbers of adherents’, well, where do we stop? You could make an argument for the validity of Islam over Christianity on the basis of sheer numbers.

Godly Men Differ

IC: Well, Islam is still behind Christianity statistically, so I guess you’d have to make that argument only locally. But yes, if Islam ever did become the biggest religion, then that would imply it was right simply because it was big: and that’s obviously irrational. As for my friend, ironically, he’s a big admirer of Martin Luther. It would be hard to find a clearer case of one-man-against-the-whole-tradition than that. So really, I guess it’s just his own tradition that my friend wants maintained.

Tom: That’s usually the case, and let’s at least give him points for loyalty even if we can’t swallow his argument.

Let’s stipulate this: godly men differ. We’ve made that argument elsewhere, and I think it’s ironclad. But since each of us will give an account of himself to God, I don’t think there’s any reasonable way we can escape the responsibility of making choices according to the light we have received from God in our day. If that takes us into territory that is (comparatively) less traveled, that should not be a stopper unless we believe the church is a democracy.

IC: Yes. His seems to me to be a case of humility-gone-mad. When you get so “humble” you can’t even trust your own judgment under the leading of the Holy Spirit, and have to defer to men (however august their reputations) then I think you’ve lost confidence in the Word and in the Lord himself, really.

First Century Churches were Non-Denominational

Tom: Right then. So assuming we concede that we have a responsibility to the Lord to make choices about where we fellowship with other believers on some basis other than popularity or our feelings, we might observe a couple of things about the New Testament church. One is that it was non-denominational — or at very least we would say PRE-denominational. There might have been people saying, “I follow Paul” and “I follow Apollos”, but those (mostly hypothetical) doctrinal positions had not yet been fully institutionalized, and in fact the apostle Paul condemns them.

IC: My pal actually insisted that that passage doesn’t apply. His explanation was obscure to me, so I can’t really help you understand his case. He seems to feel that claiming to follow Paul or Apollos was wrong, but claiming to follow Calvin, Luther or the SBC is just fine … necessary, in fact.

Tom: I’m perfectly fine with letting his argument stand without comment, since I don’t think it will make a lick of sense to anyone unbiased. The scripture says what it says.

First Century Churches were Independent

Okay. The second thing about first century churches is that they were independent, meaning that there was no overseeing, governing body that determined what any particular group of churches believed and how they practiced it. Each local church had to figure that out. There was a definite standard as far as teaching was concerned (phrases like “as in all the churches”, “in every church”, “in every place”, and rhetorical questions like “Was it from you the word of God came?” crop up regularly), but each local church had the last word on how they applied the teaching of the apostles in their own context.

IC: There’s a real strength to that. It allows linguistic transmission, cultural sensitivity, and adjustment to the particulars of local need, so long as no principle of scripture itself is violated. That’s a strength no synod, creed or convention can reproduce.

A Nice, Concise Package

But what if, like my buddy, people say, “Well, our creed IS scriptural, but it gives us the theology in a nice, concise package that we can repeat and teach, and to which we all can subscribe”?

Tom: I guess you’d have to examine each clause of their creed individually to determine whether they’ve formulated their convictions in a way that is actually biblical. But at the end of the day, even if you find they have stated something in a way that seems perfectly appropriate to its generation and absolutely impervious to any future heretical modifications, it remains at least one remove from the word of God itself. I’d rather have the original.

Further, any time you make something “nice” and “concise” out of what the Holy Spirit gave us, you automatically lose something, even if it’s “only” context. Not a word of Old Testament or New was provided to us casually or at no cost. What you’re saying when you distill it to make it more useful to people is, in effect, that your formulation is more effective than God’s. I call shenanigans on that.

Also, John Piper’s is going to be different from yours.

IC: Mr. Piper and I don’t agree on some basics. I think the scriptures will have to arbitrate that difference; because his creed won’t be authoritative for anyone but himself.

Tom: That’s my point. Writing a creed might be useful if it helps you put the word of God in contemporary English so you know you really understand what the Holy Spirit is saying. But the moment you try to use your creed as the bottom line instead of the scripture, you’ve taken a significant step away from truth.

Repeat and Simplify

IC: Speaking of creedal statements, what are they, really? At their best, they are only human attempts to repeat and simplify what scripture says. If they succeed in accurately reproducing something from scripture, then really, they’re redundant; we have the scriptures, and God always says it better. If they fail to repeat the scriptures accurately, they are at most misguided, and at worst, false teaching. So not only are creeds not an improvement on scripture, they actually open a doorway for error or heresy to invade our thinking.

Tom: Absolutely.

IC: And don’t think it can’t happen. For example, the old “begotten not created” distinction, which has long confused some people into thinking of Christ as having an origin point is a product of nothing more than a glaring fault in the Nicene Creed. The word translated is monogenes, meaning “unique” or “only one of a kind”: it neither indicates a point of “begetting” nor one of “being created”. Bad Christology thus flows out of believing a creed instead of checking human ideas against the Word.

Tom: Yes, that particular departure is notorious.

Statements of Faith

But even non-denominational churches write and circulate statements of faith. Do you make a distinction between a local church’s written testimony about what they believe and a denominational “bottom line” like a creed?

IC: Yes, I would. There’s no reason a church’s mission statement has to be treated as an ironclad and permanent fixture. It could be a kind of guideline to priorities, composed of items negotiable (present practices) and non-negotiable (actual scriptural truth); one adopted to help focus efforts, but one that is to be reviewed periodically. That’s something less than a creed, isn’t it? But a local church’s statement of faith can become a kind of creed, just as deficient as any other, if it is not reviewed by the light of scripture as applied to the present realities of obedience on an ongoing basis. When such a statement becomes an absolute law for a congregation, then I think it’s passed over into being a creed, with all the attendant flaws.

Tom: I think that’s fair.

Levels of Government

Here’s a question that’s bound to come up, if not from your denominational friend, then from any reasonable person inclined to play devil’s advocate: What about Acts 15? Doesn’t that suggest there can be a legitimate, God-given governing authority bigger than that of the elders in a local church?

IC: I think that’s a good example of what I’m talking about, actually. The “creed” in question was nothing less than the traditional Jewish interpretation of the Mosaic Law itself. The upstart view was a thing called “The New Covenant”. The situation had changed, giving rise to a debate about what would come to constitute obedience to scripture and to the Spirit of God in the new circumstances.

So why was it safe to re-examine such an old, august creed? Because there, the new apostolic revelation was used to help to illuminate and interpret the received tradition of scripture. By doing this, the believers got things right.

Authority is Authority

Tom: As you say, the believers who did the interpreting and applying in Acts 15 had apostolic authority in their corner. Is that a level of authority we can translate or even allegorize into the modern era?

IC: Sure … for anyone who has both personally seen and been commissioned as an apostle by the risen Lord. However, I’m reliably informed that those are in short supply these days.

Tom: Further, that Acts 15 verdict of the church in Jerusalem: (i) was not initiated by the leadership there, but came in response to a request for their opinion from the believers in Antioch; (ii) is about as brief and non-intrusive as it could possibly have been; and (iii) comes across more as fraternal advice rather than ecclesiastical dogma (“If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well”). And there is no record in Acts or beyond that other doctrinal or practical questions were settled this way, or that the churches had any such expectation. And of course, after the Romans trashed Jerusalem in AD70 and Jewish believers scattered all over the Empire, you’d have had a difficult time finding a church in Jerusalem to which to appeal.

So does that mean … [gulp] … we’re all on our lonesome?

IC: Well, we don’t have apostolic authority to reveal new truth. But we all individually have the responsibility to conform our beliefs and behavior to the will of God. This is one work of the Spirit of God, who doesn’t merely indwell the collective, but indwells each believer.

But at the end of the day, nobody accompanies you to the judgment seat of Christ. There, men answer individually, with their own lips. (As John Locke argued, that’s what makes freedom of conscience a basic right.) Meanwhile, the writers of creed statements are not going to answer for us to the Lord. So that leaves each of us as responsible to read, know, and interpret the scripture, and then to obey. That duty simply cannot be sloughed off on any collective. And it can’t be secured by whole-package acceptance of any creed.

1 comment :

  1. Chesterton refers to tradition - the collection of old established ideas - as the "democracy of the dead". I like that phrase and that idea, the notion of giving an intellectual "vote" to those who have gone before and have given deep consideration to scripture. There's much to learn there and we - to paraphrase Newton - are often 'standing on the shoulders of giants' as we seek to understand more of the truths of scripture.

    But democracy implies a vote of more than one party. So I'm all for giving a vote to the weight of tradition and the insight of previous generations, but it is not the sole determining factor; new insight / understanding is certainly possible. Each should seek for himself but with caution and grace - and with a nod to what has gone before too.