Monday, November 21, 2011

The Assumption of Non-Denominational Neutrality

Does non-denominational equal neutral?
As with many of the common Protestant beliefs that now seem obviously silly to me, this is something I once believed myself. I grew up with a kind of non-denominational Evangelicalism. I considered myself, “Just a Christian,” a “Generic Christian,” or we might say, a believer in “Mere Christianity.” In a similar way of speaking, I commonly hear people say things like, “I don't believe in denominations,” or “our group is a mix of Catholic and Evangelical, so let us study a 'regular' Christian book together,” or worse, “My wife was raised Baptist, I was raised Lutheran, so we go to a non-denominational church to avoid the divisions.”

In this way of thinking, non-denominational churches form a kind of middle ground, they avoid the divisions that have long caused conflict between denominations, they cut out the unnecessary additions that might impede the ability of Christians to unite on a simple Bible Faith.

There seems to be a willingness among many people to quickly buy into such ideas, and accept them without question. I think a great deal of this is just due to the terms being used. These groups avoid the language of division, and make claims of a simple faith, and people take them at their word. This mindset also draws upon sketchy ideas of Catholicism's “additions,” and vague knowledge of the battles fought between different denominations following the Reformation.

But this view that avoiding traditional denominations makes your church a kind of purified middle ground is generally just fallen into, and not really thought out. When it is examined, it is clearly false.

There is a similar situation in American politics, where we have two major parties, and many “third parties,” one of these is the American Independent Party. Using the term, “Independent,” they could easily be seen as a non-divisive middle ground, but upon inspection, their policies are clearly Conservative, and they have much in common with certain parts of the Republican Party, but very little in common with any parts of the Democratic Party.

Let's take a specific group as an example: Calvary Chapel is one of the largest associations of non-denominational churches. Their numbers likely exceed those of many denominations, and their structure is no more loose than what is found in some denominational associations, so it is already clear that there is an issue of word-preference in play here. Now Calvary Chapel can certainly claim to be less denomination-based than the Catholic Church, or mainstream Protestant branches, but they aren't structurally any less of a denomination than some Evangelical groups which do consider themselves “denominations.”

Of course I would argue that a “denomination” can be as small as a single church, or even a single person. Really, a denomination can be most clearly defined by who is recognized as its highest visible authority. As such, attempts to avoid being a denomination are really just avoiding the word “denomination,” not the reality expressed by that word.

But moving beyond the “denomination” name games, are non-denominational churches non-divisive? Are they a pure, agreeable middle ground, devoid of unnecessary divisive beliefs?

Calvary Chapel states, "We are not a denominational church, nor are we opposed to denominations as such, only their over-emphasis of the doctrinal differences that have led to the division of the Body of Christ." And they often try to strike a middle ground. For example, like Pentecostals, they believe in the modern gift of speaking in tongues, but like most non-Pentecostal groups, they generally do not believe speaking in tongues is meant to figure prominently in church services. This places them fairly near to Catholics on this issue. But it is clearly not all-accepting. It is in fact a rejection of the Pentecostal idea that speaking in tongues should be a prominent part of worship services, and it is also a rejection of the idea held by some other Protestants that the Holy Spirit no longer gives the gift of tongues to believers.

Many differences with the Catholic Church are even more pronounced. Calvary Chapel does not believe in the efficacy of Sacraments. They believe that baptism is only an outward sign of an inward reality in an informed believer, and that it conveys no grace. Thus they reject infant baptism. Likewise, they hold that communion is symbolic, and reject any notion of the Real Presence of Christ and the re-presentation of our Lord's sacrifice on Calvary. First, this shows that only Catholic chapels can claim full connection with Calvary, but more to the point, we see not a position of acceptance and common ground, but a position that requires rejection as much as any “divisive denominational church.”

Their most notable differences from most Protestant groups are perhaps their dispensational and pretribulational beliefs, but I think it's clear enough that they do indeed have divisive beliefs, and you cannot accept Calvary Chapel beliefs without rejecting various beliefs of most other Christian groups.

What exact beliefs you'll find in any of the varied non-denominational churches will certainly vary somewhat from those in the example of Calvary Chapel, but they cannot escape the reality of division or the necessary rejection of opposing beliefs.

It is completely unreasonable to expect Catholics to cede the default, the neutral, or the middle ground to non-denominational Christians based on their claims of simplicity and non-divisiveness. It is in fact far more reasonable for Christians to be Catholic by default, for Protestantism is a rebellion against a Catholic Christian past, and Protestants do not even know what they are rejecting or why, and it is only in Catholicism that Christianity has ever been united.

When it comes to inter-denominational dialogue, I am not arguing that we should fall back into inappropriately divisive patterns of prejudice and name-calling, but it is certainly not fair to claim "denominations" are being divisive while obviously holding mutually exclusive positions yourself.

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