The Non-Denominational Denomination

In the first installment in this series, I addressed “what is in a label,” ending with the unavoidable conclusion that, like it or not, we all have particular histories behind our labels, names, and communal stories that cannot be shed, despite the impulse to succumb to the generic individualism of our times. I concluded that if churches are determined to shed their denominational labels, we should recognize such work as engaging in plastic surgery, not practicing internal medicine. Here, I will go one step further and say this impulse to “shed the label” can also be somewhat disingenuous … a form of false advertising so to speak.

Take the recent growth of non-denominational churches. Here is label-shedding taken to the extreme. On the face of it, these churches seem to clear the air and level the playing field, shaking off the cumbersome, top-heavy institutional baggage of churches that bear names like Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Catholic, and Baptist. I say “seem” because the makeover is not permanent and does not penetrate much below the surface. People often make the transition to “non-denominational” churches because they are discontent with divisions in larger communions. The irony is that the remedy they seek for division only results in further division, not prayer and work that serves unity.

I am not just picking on my non-denominational friends here (division seems to be something all Christians are too adept at), but I do have some questions regarding label-shedding that seems to come to the forefront in this context. Does a “non-denominational” church have no doctrine? No hierarchy? No conflict? No pope (or person with spiritual authority)? No administrative wheels for operation and maintenance? I believe the clear answer is yes, they have all of these things, though perhaps in a smaller and more localized form. It is a denomination of one church, or in the case of a mega-church, it may include a church’s satellite ministries and church plant offspring.

But doesn’t all this talk about labels just distract us from the truth? Shouldn’t we be willing to shuck the labels so we can focus on Christ and our relationship with him? Can’t we agree that institutions are a thing of the past, relics from a Christianity that has been long dead but that refuses to acknowledge the truth about itself? It is precisely these questions that led to divisions in the body of Christ in the first place. I have yet to study the founding of a new church or denomination that didn’t start because its founders were convinced that their path, their direction, their convictions and their doctrine was the path of true righteousness – one that could lead committed believers out of the quagmire of dissension, division, and error.

The American religious landscape is littered with the Christ’s body parts, strewn in every direction: a Baptist hand here; a Methodist eye over there; a Catholic heart here; a non-denominational foot over there. When it comes to division, we Christians are practiced experts, indeed it seems we know little else. The only thing we are more prolific in is our justifications for why we do it.

One of those justifications is that Christianity is really about “me and my personal relationship with Jesus.” I am all for personal relationships with Jesus, but any account of faith in Jesus that fails to take the Catholic Church (little “c” AND big “C”) seriously is deficient. As Steve Long has said (in a chapter entitled “God is not Nice”): “Don’t be fooled by all this talk of nonjudgmental evangelism [and I would add “spirituality”]. It is pious language that stands on the false assumption that the purpose of the Christian faith is to give our lives ‘meaning’ and to satisfy our individual souls.”

Jesus was the incarnate Son of God, a flesh and blood person who was at once human and divine. The Church is also human and divine, not an invisible reality that no one can see, but a visible body of believers that includes sinners like you and me – sinners who often succumb to in-fighting, power plays, and division, even as we are simultaneously invited to bear the fruit of patience, kindness, and suffering love. The answer to the sinful divisions that persist among the baptized is not to found new churches that ignore or deny such divisions, but to roll up our sleeves and dirty our knees in the hard work and endless prayer that aches for Christ’s high priestly prayer to be fulfilled.

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