Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Denominations are good things.

Last week, I said I was no longer comfortable with the Evangelical label as understood by the vast majority of American Christians. The main reason is that it isn’t helpful. It doesn’t tell me anything about what the person really believes on matters of faith and doctrine or what they find as important Biblical stances. Is this just me being a church hater? No, it is actually me being a church lover.

I would want to advocate that there should be more of an emphasis on denominational labels. Why? Because they help me know to whom I am accountable, to whom I should submit, to how leaders are selected, to what I hold as a creed and from what stream . The word “Evangelical” doesn’t do that. If everyone from Benny Hinn to John MacArthur can call him or herself an Evangelical, then why use it? If it’s just a synonym for Christian, then just use Christian. At least that word is a label in the Bible for those of “The Way”. So if Evangelical is not a Biblical adjective, then why can't other ones with a better historical track record be used?

The first thing all of these terms (like Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, Quaker, Anglican/Episcopal, Reformed, Methodist, Eastern Orthodox, Congregational etc.) have some history so I can look to that to see how they are to be used both in the past and around the world. There is a little more perspective and context. The term Evangelical is less than 100 years old and it has been primarily used in the USA. This is not to say that a Vineyard, a Church of God or a Calvary Chapel couldn't be this is in the future. All of these other labels originated in it's own time and place as well. There is just more data to how these words are used in the everyday language of the church. Either way, whether a lot of history or a little history, I can get some context that Evangelical doesn't give me.

This leads to the second thing. These terms actually speak to something that actually represents beliefs. Presbyterian, Quaker/Friends Church, Congregational and Anglican.Episcopal speaks to the way the church is organized. Baptist speaks to a emphasis on baptism by immersion as acceptance into the church. Reformed and Lutheran speaks to reformation heritage against Roman Catholicism. Same with Eastern Orthodox against the Western Church. Most of these labels were formed around a secondary issue that showed HOW they would dispense grace.Granted, there is more to these labels then Church governance but at least it is a start at understand what makes people differ in Christian understanding.

With this knowledge, I can know how to relate to a fellow Christian. Are they friends, foes or acquaintances theologically? I can know where the authority structure so if I see a Christian with questions, I can refer them to the right place. If they are in need of discipline, I know to whom they need to answer. I know if they are paedo-baptists or creado-baptist. I know views of communion. I know if they are more pietistic or  confessional. Dispensational or Amill. How gifts of the Spirit are doled out. All of these things help with understanding my fellow Christian and helps me to learn what the Bible says.

This strengthens the Church because then I can hold you (and you me) accountable if you believe something different than what your church professes and it helps me to see to whom I can partner with in advancing the Gospel. People can hold an evangelistic rally together but when a convert comes forward to be baptized and one brings a cup and one brings a tub what happens? If one denomination allows female priest/elder and one does not, would that be a problem? But some will say, why can't we focus on what is common between all of the denominations and the most important which are the morals/how we live. My question is can these things really less important than the ordo salutus or the sovereignty of God?  This is a probably why associations are popping up more and more. It allows people to do things together without the accountability structure and "fake" the common ground enough to get things done.

This is why we have last names as a family. When my son is around other kids, people will know for whom I am responsible. People will know we are together and for what purpose. People will know where we live and what we are about. If he or I would start to act contrary to what it would mean to be Staifer, things could be address. Someone else could adopt me and I could change my last name. Now I'm beholden to a new standard. If evangelicalism has its way, we would be a bunch a first name orphans roam aimlessly waiting for someone to give us more purpose and identity for which we are actually longing.

So when I am asked what I am, I say I am a Christian who is currently worshiping in the Presbyterian tradition (a term I stole from Chaplain Mike Mercer). Is this a perfect model? No. There are liberal Reformed Baptist Churches and Conservative PCUSA churches. There are Wesleyan Churches that act liturgical and LCMS churches acting like a Purpose Driven Church (which should just call itself a Denomination since it acts like one). So while there is a push for nondenominational movements and ecumenical gatherings, let remember not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Denominations help the church, not hinder them.

Note: This discussion really challenged my thinking on denominations.  

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