Monday, January 14, 2008

Why would I suggest non-denominationalism is unhealthy? I know this question has been burning with so many of you…so allow me to bring some comfort to you today.

But (as is the case with many of my articles) a qualification must be first established before we proceed. Understand, I’m using the term “denomination” in the most generic and un-technical context possible. Probably the best term is “independent” rather than “non-denominational”. The reason for this will be developed more next time when I deal with “denominationalism” and the unhealthiness of it. The reality is that, for example, Southern Baptists are all “non-denominational” churches because the Southern Baptist Convention is not a denomination…as is denoted in the name…it’s a “convention”. But I’ll tease this distinction up more next time.

So for now I’ll say “independent” or “non-denominational” interchangeably because both terms in common usage amount to the same thing. I’m talking about local churches who are not accountable to any other body of like minded believers. They may be isolationists who have, literally, nothing at all to do with any other evangelical church or organization or they may view themselves as very ecumenical and participate in para-church movements such as local town ministerial associations, Promise Keepers, Acts29 Network, 9 Marks, Acquire the Fire or regional Moody Conferences (just as examples) but yet they are not held accountable to any such group. They are kingdoms unto themselves…for whatever reason.

The unsubmissive flare found in the more vocal “non-denominational” or “independent” proponents is symptomatic of deeper spiritual problems. Obviously there are independent congregations which have no clue as to why they are independent…many such local churches are what they are and nobody remembers exactly why. I’m not hammering on those folks (too severely)…I’m hammering those congregations which splash INDEPENDENT on their signs or congregations which will bring in a new pastor who then arbitrarily pulls the church out from such accountability and cooperation for reasons which careful observers usually find obvious.

The first and foremost reason why churches ought not to be “independent” is missions. Of course nearly every evangelical church gives to missions…the problem is how drastically inefficient individual churches giving independently from other churches is for missionaries “on the ground”. In Southern Baptist circles we have a phrase which repeatedly reminds us why we cooperate “we can do more together…” It’s true…more is accomplished with churches of like faith when they pull their resources together for the purposes of missions than if the same bunch of churches gave the same portion to missions independently of one another. The cooperation model eliminates a TREMENDOUS amount of administrative duplication which obviously exists in the independent models. The streamlining of (the much needed) administrative work that missions must have for practical purposes insures that more funds make it to the actual field and into the budget of the actual missionary. If every church worked independently the administrative costs alone would double or triple…or worse. The bottom line is that FAR LESS mission dollars actually reach the field when individual churches do not cooperate in missions.

Of course there are non-denominational mission agencies which are working to assist “non-denominational” churches make a more effecient impact on the field by helping to reduce the amount of administrative duplication independent churches face. These agencies attempt to pull various “non-denominational” churches together for the sake of missions and that’s fine and well as far as that goes. In reality most independent/non-denominational church still work independently in missions and deal with one or maybe two missionaries at the most…but these mission organizations are on the right track. I pray, for the sake of missions, that more independent churches would at least consider that kind of cooperative effort. Having these independent missionaries running all over the place trying to raise funds from all these independent churches is just incredibly inefficient…and stupid…and insulting (missionaries should not be begging for support!)

But even if an independent church is working with a missions organization that only deals with one of the problems with “non-denominationalism”. There is the looming issue of accountability. Where is the protection of God’s people from the possible abuse of heterodox or heretical teaching, immorality within the eldership or the misuse of church finances or resources? There are not many options in dealing with such things in the independent/non-denominational model…this is more and more true the smaller the congregation is (and the vast majority of congregations in the US run less than 100 in Sunday worship attendance, across the board). Every church must have some form of a constitution wherein guidelines are legally laid out regarding the governance of the church. Certainly issues such as embezzlement or flagrant contradiction of the legal documents can be dealt with in the legal system…a lovely option. But when it comes to moral issues or theological issues the courts are not usually much help. And even in the event where a church has language in its legal documents outlining moral misconduct or the ability of the congregation to remove an elder by vote…if the situation is bad enough…the courts would need to make a ruling. Again…this “nuclear option” is on the short list in the independent structure. Do not be mistaken for a minute…this kind of spiritual immaturity is not unheard of. Camps can and are formed within churches and even as a young man in the ministry I have already casually worked with a split church at legal war with one another. It’s ridiculous. So the people of God within an independent church have only two options before them if the eldership ever abused its power. They can sue or leave the church. Wow…great options. Most of course choose the latter, sadly. In the church hopping age this latter option doesn’t seem as upsetting, but it should be. The tares are the ones that should be leaving...not the wheat, after all. Plus, our local church is our spiritual family…it is where we are married and buried. It's where we or our children where baptized (or came to faith!) It’s where our family is…leaving is a painful option and is one of only two if an independent congregation has “run away” elders. No congregation installs a trouble maker or ordains a screw ball…they emerge once they are established. Obviously the independent church can work out it's own issues and usually will...but what happens when they can't or won't? Then what?

Of course, “denominational” churches (or as Southern Baptists say, cooperating churches) can and do go to legal war at times. It’s great fun and brings so much glory to the Lord…why…look at all publicity these battles bring! The thing to understand…the “nuclear option” is generally WAY down on the list of options in churches who are connected by either denomination or convention. There is a “protocol” which usually deals with divisions as effectively as is possible (there is no earthly cure for spiritual immaturity). In the cooperation/convention/denomination models there is someone to call when problems erupt…and that someone is not a lawyer. Each “denomination” is set up differently…but the bottom line is that if the pastor begins to push a doctrine not held by that congregation and a controversy erupts, there is a spiritual man of God who can and will come in to mediate and bring correction to wherever the source of the problem lies (either within the eldership, congregation...or both). Some “denominations” place greater authority within the office of this type of overseer than do others. But the point is that the people of God in a congregation can go “over the head” of their elders in some form or fashion if real or perceived abuse is felt. There is no such influence within a non-denominational church and imbalance is always a reality, again, this is more and more true in smaller congregations. Even with a cooperating or denominational church lawsuits erupt or people end up leaving…but those things almost always happen after a long series of other options have run their course. “Denominations” are usually able to put out fires way before they get out of hand. You never hear about these potentially destructive “wars” in the papers…because the fire gets put out before bombs are launched, duh! For 4,000 to 5,000 years congregations of God’s people have cooperated and held one another accountable…”non-denominationalism” is a very new thing in comparison.

A congregation not being accountable to other congregations of like faith is neither Biblical nor historical. The hyper-independent streak in modern (and western) evangelicalism is generally an over-reaction to the type of “denominationalism” that I’m about target and blow up next time.

To be clear…I firmly believe that congregations ought to be connected with, cooperate with and be held accountable (in some form or fashion) to other like minded congregations in their area or region. This promotes a more efficient missions effort and will serve to bring balance within the life of the church through the Godly influence of other congregations. It also provides the pastor opportunities to seek council in his personal life or for church related issues from Godly and wise men without the fear of confidence being broken (which would certainly serve as a distraction in the life of the congregation). Also, such cooperation not only goes to serve missions and the issues within the particular church very well…but provides an avenue by which the congregation may bless, encourage, lift up or bring correction to a struggling sister congregation also. The idea of genuine partnership is the best way for congregations to reach their cultures with the gospel. It allows diversity of thought pertaining to secondary theological issues yet maintains order, cooperation and when needed…discipline. There is not a better balanced system this side of glory and has served the Reformed tradition well.

Next time I’m going to hammer on “denominationalism” and then end with a post on why I’m planting Southern Baptist churches. There are certainly more than one system that can be discussed. Some systems allow more local church autonomy than others…if you are a “non-denominational” pastor or elder I would encourage you to look into various ‘groups’ and link up with the one you are in most harmony with. They are certainly not all set up the same, so do your homework and please don’t lump every group together. I know within the SBC local church autonomy is of pristine value…you REALLY have to be heterodox or heretical for the convention to even attempt to bring discipline to a local congregation…

Denominationalism is NEXT!

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved." And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the brothers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, "It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses." The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will." And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, "Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, "'After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.' Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood. For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues." Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsabbas, and Silas, leading men among the brothers, with the following letter: "The brothers, both the apostles and the elders, to the brothers who are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia, greetings. Since we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions, it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have risked their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth. For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell." So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch, and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words. And after they had spent some time, they were sent off in peace by the brothers to those who had sent them. But Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. Acts 15:1-35 ESV

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