What the world really needs is not more churches but a Church.Shane Claiborne, Irresistible Revolution (2016), p.136
My entire life I have been told that the church is not a denomination. I was trained to answer the question “why are there so many churches?” by pointing out theological differences and varying styles of worship, all of which came from a lack of respect, ignorance, or intentional misuse of the Bible, or so I was told.
And so I was trained to be non-denominational… in theory. By “non-denominational,” I meant restoring the church of the New Testament by teaching and doing exactly what they did. Since the Catholics had messed everything up, someone needed to clean things up, and that’s where my movement came in.
But as I got older and began to interact with people from different splits (or denominations) within my movement, I began to realize that we were just as divided as everyone else, if not more so. The people who didn’t have fellowship halls had nothing to do with the people who did. The people who used one cup in their communion believed those who used multiple cups were going to burn in hell. And the people who didn’t use a praise team often condemned those who did.
Thank God I was born into the fracture of our movement that had everything right!
We are a mess.
So as the reality of the splits and factions of the movement in which I was raised came to light, I had to rediscover for myself what it means to be non-denominational.
I now think that the reason why there are so many churches is not because of differences of beliefs and methods but because we have demanded uniformity instead of unity. That is, the number of different churches in our world do not exist because others don’t take the Bible as seriously as we do, but because we do not take Jesus as seriously as we should.
The secret to unity is not convincing others of our beliefs and preferences, but it is convincing ourselves that Jesus wants us to have a relationship with them regardless of our differences.
Restoring Christian unity starts with us, not them (Ephesians 4:1-3). We love because God has first loved us. Jesus emptied himself to face death. And we, who must have this same mind, must empty ourselves for our brothers and sisters. This doesn’t mean conforming to their doctrines or methods but loving them where they are.
How can this be? If every church has a sign out front with a different name, how can we have unity? If people prefer different styles of worship, then how can we come together? If we use different titles, organize our congregations differently, and believe different things, how can we be one church?
There is Only One Church
The church of Jesus is, by its very nature, only one. Shane Claiborne quoted one preacher as saying, “We’ve got to unite ourselves as one body. Because Jesus is coming back, and he’s coming back for a bride, not a harem” (p. 135). I hope you can appreciate that quote regardless of your eschatology.
There is one bride. There is one body. There is one church.
This is one of the things I appreciate about my heritage, and it is why I still consider myself a member of the Churches of Christ. (I talk about this in my paper “In Opinions, Liberty”)
Jesus said in Matthew 16:18 that he would build his church. Paul said there is one body in Ephesians 4:4-6. And Paul urged that the church at Corinth should have no divisions among them (1 Corinthians 1:10).
So when we talk about different churches, we are talking about something never envisioned by the first followers of Jesus, but I think that when we call for unity in conformity, as my heritage eventually did, we are also missing the point of what it means to be non-denominational.
Being non-denominational is about our mindset, not about what church we attend. I have a friend who preaches at a Bible church in New York. I have another friend who is a retired pastor from the DC area. And just the other day I collaborated with an Episcopal priest who just moved to our town. Being non-denominational is about affirming that there is one church and that the labels we create for ourselves do not exclude us from that one body.
But I believe this is more than a mushy feeling of unity which discourages serious Bible study, discussions of theology, and ever talking about our differences. Instead, I think we can boldly be ourselves while simultaneously working with others who are boldly themselves. We can debate, discuss, disagree, and walk away from the table hand in hand, laughing together, and worshipping with each other because we are all one church.
In fact, I would argue that unity or non-denominationalism based upon apathy towards doctrine is actually a recipe for failure. As Rob Bell once said, “Eschatology shapes ethics.” That is, since doctrine shapes our ethics, and one might argue that the reverse is true, what we believe does matter. The vision of Christian unity I have is not based upon uniformity in doctrine or apathy towards doctrine; it’s instead based upon emptying ourselves as Jesus did (Philippians 2).
If we follow that path, then the doctrine will work itself out as we live a life of love for God and relentless love for each other. In fact, if we start with unity in diversity and agree to discuss doctrine in light of that, then it actually creates an environment where doctrine can be more fully discussed without the threat of disfellowship or condemnation.
When we discuss doctrine or methods with the idea that lack of conformity leads to the impossibility of unity, it goes from a joint effort in discovering who God is to a winner-takes-all fist fight.
What About Our DENOMINATIONS?
You attend a Baptist Church. You attend a Church of Christ. You attend a Methodist Church.
Do you have to take your sign down to be non-denominational?
Perhaps. It could be that your church, like what the SBC is experiencing now, has a lot of negativity associated with it because of sexual predators who were covered up by church officials. Or perhaps your church, like some within the Churches of Christ, struggles with evangelism because assumptions are made about you because of your denominational association that aren’t necessarily true.
So for your situation, being non-denominational may mean stepping away from your denomination if your association with them makes it impossible to be the “one church” of Jesus.
But it could also be the case, as it is with me, that you wish to honor your heritage. Perhaps it can be redeemed. Perhaps reformation is possible. And perhaps stepping away, as much as you might like to, would mean hurting your friends who believe that reformation is still possible. I talk about this in my article “Do I Stay Church of Christ.”
So how your church proceeds is up to its leaders, and their final answer should be based on what would be best for the kingdom of God in their city. Regardless of their love for their heritage, if ties to it hinder their ability to spread the gospel, work with other believers, and serve the world, then they must empty themselves for the sake of the kingdom and distance themselves from their heritage.
The important thing, though, is the mindset. We can’t make membership in our particular group necessary for citizenship in the kingdom of God. We must work and fellowship with our brothers and sisters in other groups with the understanding that we are all one body. We have to come to grips with the fact that different people will come to different conclusions, and while there are things that are objectively true, we can still have unity even if we disagree.
As the quote said at the beginning of the article, the world needs a Church. Going back to my roots in the Stone-Campbell movement, here’s a quote from Jesus that was widely used by the early reformers in my heritage: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:23).
Maintaining the Spirit’s unity starts with you. Empty yourself. Fully depend upon God, not upon your knowledge. And live a life of love and understanding towards all.