A friend of mine recently preached a sermon on Denominationalism (mp3), and it got me thinking about some misgivings I have often had. He and I both seem to have an aversion to people identifying strongly with a denomination. Of course it would help to define “denominationalism,” but we’ll leave that be for the moment.
Sometimes I see people identify more strongly with a denomination than with truth, so that they are not willing to carefully examine the Bible if they think it might contradict what they’ve been taught. How absurd is that! Of course when they say, “No, no, I’m just a Christian, plain and true,” but in fact their words and actions betray them.
But where does it leave us? Denominations are like a measurement. I can say that everyone should be the same height, and I can measure people and see that they are not, but to say I do not like “length” because people are different heights is misdirecting the frustration.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12 NAS95)
I am sad that we do not all have perfect understanding, but that is unavoidable this side of the resurrection. To say, “Just believe what the Bible says,” is missing the point, because legitimate disagreements arise with Bible-believing, God-honoring people who are doing just that.
There are a couple of errors I can fall into when bemoaning the state of denominations.
I might take the approach that when denominations write their beliefs down as creeds that they have crossed the line because now they are looking to something beyond the Bible as truth. My friend quoted someone named Benjamin Franklin (not the famous inventor):
First, any creed containing more than the Bible is objectionable, because it does contain more than the Bible. Second, any creed containing less than the Bible is objectionable, because it does contain less than the Bible. Third, any creed differing from the Bible is objectionable, because it does differ from the Bible. Fourth, any creed precisely like the Bible is useless, because we have the Bible. -Benjamin Franklin (19th century pastor)
Frankly those words chill me. He was not the first to speak them, and they have been the impetus for bloody persecution and censorship in the past.
But Pastor Franklin’s argument is self-defeating. His words are either more, less, different, or redundant to the Bible, so I should not listen to what he has to say, by his reasoning. Furthermore why should I listen to any author, pastor, friend, or mentor since they are not the Bible, by his reasoning? How can this main claim that I should not read Augustine or Knox or Spurgeon or the Nycene Creed but that I should listen to his explanations of the Word instead?
My friend, if I may put words in his mouth, suggests that what is meant by creeds is not just “religious writings” (like this pitiful blog post) but formal systems of belief to which one takes an oath, either explicitly or implicitly. I guess I never treated creeds that seriously; they always carry disclaimers as far as I am concerned.
Everything that’s not the Bible has a disclaimer, so if I suggest to someone that they listen to Paul Washer or R.C. Sproul or read Josh McDowell or Frank Viola, of course there are caveats that go with that. Of course you and I might not agree with everything they say, maybe even by a lot. I can use Origin of the Species as part of the discipleship of my children—just not in the way the author intended (and remembering 1 Cor 14:20).
We have a nice example in Acts 4:24-30 of what amounts to a creed (except this one’s actually in the Bible):
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said,
“O Lord, it is You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS? THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE LORD AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST.’
“For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur. And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bondservants may speak Your word with all confidence, while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.” (Acts 4:24–30 NAS95)
This is next on our list of family memorization passages.
Another error I might make is to say that every true believer should come to the same conclusion regarding various issues that have been raised in the past: election, baptism, communion, head coverings, diet, tithing, spiritual gifts, etc. I might say that since God gives us the truth (and the truth will set me free) that to say there is confusion about a point is to impugn the character of God, but I don’t think that connection is legitimate.
We have the benefit of having God’s Word—in no small quantity—available to us, but that has not always been the case. Does it impugn God’s character that the Israelites did not have as much special revelation as we have? Noah had even less. They did not understand everything (some day I would like to learn about their understanding of sheol and the afterlife). Often they did not even understand what God did give them.
I would caution believers against identifying too strongly with a denomination, yet I cannot deny that denominations, even non- and pre-denominations, are a communication tool that tell you something about how someone understands the Bible and what they think they know about God.