A few years ago, my friend and former student Jacob Riggs asked me to participate in a panel discussion on denominational identity. He sent me a list of possible questions, to which I typed out some rough answers (most of which I never introduced into the discussion). Below are some of those questions, and some of the notes I made. I would encourage my readers to send me feedback by clicking on the “Contact” link above.
Some younger Christians have trouble with understanding why local church membership is important, much less denominational involvement. Why is it important to be a part of a denomination?
Free Will Baptists have historically seen conferences or associations or general assemblies as God’s way of bringing churches together for the protection of sound doctrine, mutual accountability, the ordination of church officers, and the joint support of missions and Christian education. Even though such general assemblies on the state and national level would not ordain ministers, they have been seen as important for maintaining the other aims I just mentioned.
The bottom line on this is really a concept I call confessional community. We confess what we believe to be biblical faith and practice—apostolic faith and practice—and we constitute churches and ordain ministers to confess the apostolic faith and practice. What is the natural response if we think Scripture teaches that churches should covenant together for the protection of sound doctrine, mutual accountability, and the joint support of missions and Christian educational institutions that also confess apostolic faith and practice? It is to have confessional solidarity with those of apostolic faith and practice throughout our nation and the world.
One concern about denominations is that they can appear to be divisive among the universal Church. Is this true? Why or why not?
It’s helpful to keep in mind confessional or theological commitments rather than division. This is a positive designation rather than a negative one. Natural divisions occur when people disagree about significant matters. But that doesn’t mean that those people have to be divisive or uncharitable in the negative sense.
I have some very good friends who are Calvinists and paedobaptists. Let’s say I start a church and a conservative Presbyterian friend joins the church. I preach a sermon one Sunday from Hebrews 6:4-6, and his eleven-year-old son gets confused, saying that the sermon contradicted what his father taught him clearly a few weeks earlier—that true believers can never lose their salvation. Several months later, my friend’s wife gives birth to their new baby daughter. They come to me and request baptism for the infant. I gently deny it, lovingly and respectfully saying, “The Bible teaches that only believers should be baptized.”
Now, if I really believe that the Bible teaches the possibility of apostasy and believer’s baptism, and my friend really believes in eternal security and infant baptism, then we have a real, practical problem on our hands. It’s not just a theoretical, pie-in-the-sky problem where we’re making something like the timing of the Great Tribulation into a test of fellowship.
We’re talking about actual, practical problems where we simply can’t go forward because he believes the Bible is demanding that he have his covenant child baptized and feels compelled by Holy Scripture to go forward with that baptism, and I believe the Bible prohibits the baptism of infants.
What are our options? We have to part ways amicably. This is all denominationalism really is.
What’s ironic is that most non-denominational people today don’t sprinkle infants if it’s requested either. And most of them take a clear position on whether or not one can lose his salvation. This is just to use two examples. So most non-denom churches are really baptistic, once-saved-always-saved churches, though many are pretending to be cool on these divisive issues but really aren’t.
What about the Willow Creek Association? Presumably, high-church Episcopalians will not be comfortable in the Willow Creek Association. Does that mean that the Willow Creek Association, non-denominational as it is, is divisive? Of course not. My point is that every group of believers, no matter how denominational or non-denominational they claim to be, have specific beliefs and practices that make it impossible for others to be a part of them and to raise their family in that church group
In a sense, if being different from others is divisive, then everybody’s divisive. Even so-called “interdenominational” churches, in the end, can’t work. They have a shallow view of denominational differences. You can’t have a church that is Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox, high church-low church, liturgical-non-liturgical, tongues-speaking-non-tongues speaking, baptistic-paedobaptistic, etc.
The only way you can pull this off is if you arbitrarily agree that certain things are “off-limits” for discussion, that things like whether you can lose your salvation or not, whether you should have your infant baptized or not, whether you should have archbishops or not, whether your worship should be liturgical or not, whether the major decisions are made by an elder board or the congregation are just things that the Bible doesn’t cover—they’re out of bounds for discussion.
If you can get enough people together who all happen to believe that these sorts of things are not covered in the New Testament, then I guess denominations or confessional groups would not be necessary. But, in the end, I think serious, theologically grounded people of all persuasions are going to find non-denominationalism impossible.
Are there any potential dangers in being a part of a denomination? If so, what are they, and how can we avoid these?
There are no potential dangers to being a part of a certain confessional community per se, of being a part of a church that confesses apostolic faith and practice per se. The potential danger is of being human and being contentious and uncharitable, not recognizing that the universal church is made up of people who may be in error on certain key points that don’t compromise orthodoxy. But this isn’t a danger inherent in being a part of a denomination.
I’ve known self-consciously non-denominational people who are just as contentious on questions of end-times eschatology or Bible translations or elder rule or any number of things who would never dream of being a part of a denomination, but they are much more contentious and uncharitable toward other parts of the wider church than some denominational people I know.
What would be a situation where you would see it as appropriate to leave our denomination?
I believe it would be appropriate for an individual to leave our denomination if it denied an article of faith and practice that Free Will Baptists have historically considered biblically binding (e.g., Arminian theology, the ordinances, self-government of churches, interdependence of churches, Christian moral teaching)
For various reasons, there are some younger leaders who end up leaving our movement and do ministry with other groups. What can our movement do to encourage those who are on the fringes to stay?
I think the best way to keep people loyal to confessional commitments is to get them to fall in love with biblical exegesis, systematic theology, and the Christian tradition. There’s no question that the young people in our movement who are the most saturated in serious Bible exegesis, theology, and a love for the saints and martyrs of the Christian past have no desire to leave our denomination. And the very few of this type of young people who do end up leaving for other serious theological groups do so because of a genuine change in their doctrinal convictions.
We have a great heritage, but we also have some examples of division. How can we recover from times of division and maintain unity and identity?
I wrote an article one time on Free Will Baptist controversies for the Encyclopedia of Religious Controversies in the United States and had the opportunity to give serious thought to this issue of controversies and splits and divisions among Free Will Baptists. What I concluded after my research was that almost every split and controversy in Free Will Baptist history has come about because we were not satisfied to be Free Will Baptists but became wannabes. We imported faith and practice from other denominational or non-denominational groups because we were embarrassed by our own commitments as Free Will Baptists. If we had had the self-confidence and courage to stand by our principles and be confident in our scripturally grounded identity, and had not had an inferiority complex about who we are, we would not have experienced the divisions and splits we have experienced.