A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending HeavenFest, a huge outdoor rock festival in Denver where some of the best contemporary Christian bands perform on multiple stages. During an intermission period between bands, a representative from a church planting organization took the microphone and promoted their missionary efforts. For a monthly pledge, this group was giving folks the opportunity to financially support active church planing throughout the country and around the world. It sounded like a great ministry. I must confess to being partially distracted from his appeal due to the incredible heat on that day and the fact that my cell phone battery had just died – not a good thing when trying to coordinate with a bunch of teenagers. However, one little sentence said in passing caused my eyes to refocus back on the stage. I looked around to see if anyone else was a surprised by the statement, but most everyone else looked perturbed about the heat as well. Here is what he said:
“We prepare the pastors of our church plants by providing them with thorough training in non-denominational theology.”
I’m a little curious as to what “non-denominational theology” looks like.
Now, I’m not naive. This was a huge gathering of Christian music fans from all walks of denominational life. If nothing else, a statement like “non-denominational theology” points to the organization’s desire to accept pledges from Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and any other group that is willing to swipe a credit card. And yet, smart marketing speech during a sales pitch for a church planting ministry goes beyond just trying to secure another donation. This money goes to the real work of planting a church – a church that will presumably preach the Word, perform the Sacraments, and lead their flock in the things of God. These things will partly be influenced by the way the church leaders are trained by this organization. Yet, this representative was implying, or I guess you could say outright pronouncing, that their churches would be acting and ministering based on non-denominational theology, so that no denomination would be specifically represented and no denomination would be excluded. One little problem. It’s impossible.
There is much I appreciate about the ideal of what is represented in the phrase “non-denominational theology.” After all, one day every tribe, tongue, and nation will sing praises to Christ as the risen Lord. On that day, denominations and varying interpretations of Scripture will be no more; as the old hymn says, “we will understand it better by and by.” But we aint there yet. And in the meantime, Christ has called His church to faithfully follow Him and “rightly divide the word of truth.” This means that churches must make interpretive decisions on things which are clearly important to God. Things such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, miraculous gifts, and even the definition of the Gospel must be issues of great importance for a biblically minded and faithful church. I suppose a church could write such things off as unimportant, but that would take quite an argument to assert that God does not think getting baptism right is important, etc. So how do we teach a “non-denominational” approach to baptism? Remember, this is for church planting. Just a symbol with no saving grace? Ok, that sounds fine. Except you just excluded the Church of Christ (we will ignore for a moment they consider themselves non-denominational) and a host of other devoted groups. Baptism isn’t for babies? Sounds great. Except you just excluded virtually every major denomination that has existed since the 1700’s.
By citing the phrase “non-denominational”, all one can ultimately say is that they aren’t associating with an established group of church goers who hold to certain interpretations of Scripture and “do church” in a similar way. Non-denominational churches are still making judgment calls. They are still excluding certain interpretations. They are still creating boundaries as to what is and isn’t appropriate for the church. I am intrigued by folks, usually young adults, who believe that by attending a non-denominational church they are somehow stepping outside the lines of denominational thinking.
Now, a church absolutely has the right to define itself from the ground up based on their convictions of Scripture and choose not to associate with a denomination. But in doing so, the whole point is that they are independent, setting their own interpretive choices as to how their church operates. By its very definition, “non-denominational” can never be used to promote a consistent set of beliefs and practices since the whole point is to not associate with a group that has a central set of beliefs and practices! (That isn’t to say that non-denominational churches can never have clear similarities and standards to other non-denominational churches). So, when someone says, “we are planting churches based on non-denominational theology”, it makes no sense. Line up 5 non-denominational churches and they may have all kinds of theological differences, from polity to an understanding of the Sacraments. Which one do you choose to establish “non-denominational theology?”
Russell Moore, Dean of Students for the School of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently wrote an article on “closed communion.” I found his closing remarks to be helpful:
“This doesn’t mean we don’t receive each other in Christ. It doesn’t mean
we make ultimate our differences. It means we take the church
seriously. And it means we long for the day when we know, face-to-face,
what Jesus means when he says the word “baptize.” We hope patiently for
the glad eternal morning when we’re seated at one table with one Lord
and one communion, and where there isn’t a fence in sight.”
In other words, as we grow and become more faithful to Christ, we must take increasingly serious what He takes serious. That means making interpretations that will place us in disagreement on certain points with other folks. That isn’t “evil.” In fact, it can be healthy.
I have no problem with evangelism efforts centered on the essentials of Christianity with no denominational teaching (even then it is difficult). But when we are talking about planting churches that will be doing the work of a church, there simply is no such thing as “non-denominational theology.”