24 November 2022

Nondenominational churches and the liberal narrative

This month Christianity Today reports that ‘Nondenominational’ Is Now the Largest Segment of American Protestants. Although I have no memory of being part of such a nondenominational congregation, my parents had me dedicated as an infant at the Wheaton Bible Church in Wheaton, Illinois, although a year and a half later I would be baptized in an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation near Chicago. Back in the day, WBC was a flourishing congregation just north of downtown. Although the man who presided at my parents' wedding was an ordained Presbyterian minister, he attended this church along with his family. Decades later it is a nondenominational megachurch, having attracted members from other neighbouring congregations, one of which recently closed.

At one time, the old Protestant mainline denominations were home to the largest proportion of church-goers in the United States. These included such bodies as the northern and southern Presbyterian Churches, the various Methodist churches, ethnically-based Lutheran denominations, the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the Baptists, the Mennonites, and so on. These churches had long traditions extending back centuries to the British Isles and continental Europe. Each had its own identity rooted in these traditions as manifested in distinctive liturgies, polities, and even architecture. Vaulted ceilings, gothic arches, stained glass windows, and organs were ubiquitous in their buildings. Members identified with one of these denominational labels, even if they did not always understand the doctrinal distinctives that kept, say, Reformed and Lutherans apart. Public ecumenical services at Christmas and Easter might bring them together temporarily, but then they would return to their own congregations.

In this world of long ago, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics were the outliers, inhabiting their own network of parishes, parochial schools, monasteries, hospitals, and charitable organizations, while hastening to assure their Protestant neighbours that they were patriotic Americans. The Orthodox were hopelessly ethnic, living in urban enclaves transplanted from the Old World.

This religious fabric began to unravel more than a century ago, although the overall structure remained in place into the conventionally religious post-war era, when fear of godless communism helped to spark something of a religious revival temporarily filling the churches. During the 1960s, the decline accelerated, as the baby boomers began reaching maturity and widespread cynicism over once respected institutions took hold, affecting, not only the churches, but government, the press, marriage, and family.

The decline was already occurring around the turn of the 20th century as a phenomenon that would come to be known as liberal Protestantism started to infiltrate the churches, beginning in the seminaries, then making its way into the pulpits, and finally capturing the denominational machinery. Probably the best account and analysis of this phenomenon is John Gresham Machen's classic Christianity and Liberalism, published in 1923.

Under the influence of this liberalism, the old mainline churches largely ceased to offer anything distinctive and by the 1960s were parroting the programmes of the larger society, as they increasingly followed the dictum, "let the world set the agenda for the church." The gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ and the new life in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit were increasingly replaced by a redemptive narrative revolving around social and political schemes by which humanity would save itself. In its earliest form, this came to be called the Social Gospel, which placed its faith, less in the saving power of Jesus Christ, and more in social policies ostensibly derived from his teachings.

This is not, of course, to say that everything the old Social Gospellers proposed was bad. Far from it. The Christian faith does have genuine political implications that we ignore at our peril. The Bible calls us to do justice. and we dare not forsake that call. However, we should be under no illusions that in so doing we are ushering in or building God's kingdom. Only Jesus Christ can redeem a fallen human race, and our ultimate allegiance is to him.

This is what the old mainline churches increasingly lost sight of, despite pockets of genuine vitality continuing in many congregations within these bodies. As these churches proclaimed from the pulpit a message that could just as easily be heard in the media and social service agencies, they made themselves largely redundant, with many parishioners opting instead to stay home and sleep late on the Lord's Day.

But not everyone. Many Protestants who felt spiritually starved by pulpit ministries replicating the world's agenda moved to other, more orthodox ecclesiastical bodies. Some of these were obvious breakaways from the old denominations, retaining their distinctives and maintaining the integrity of the gospel message. These included the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Wesleyan and Free Methodist Churches, and eventually the Presbyterian Church in America and the continuing Anglicans who would amalgamate into the Anglican Church in North America. This phenomenon was explored by Dean M. Kelly in his important 1972 book, Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion.

But other Christians moved into independent congregations that eschewed denominational labels. Seeing the abuses of authority within their former denominations, the founders of such churches thought it best to retain their independence, which, among other things, would allow them to own and control their own buildings without having to fear losing them to a presbytery or diocese seemingly bent on vindicating Neuhaus's Law: "Where orthodoxy becomes optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed." That they would take this route is understandable. If, as the Belgic Confession holds, discipline is one of the marks of the true church, then the abuse of such discipline in an ecclesiastical body risks calling into question its very status as church.

Such congregations have a variety of names that make it difficult, if not impossible, to identify the tradition from which they have come. It could be a bible church, a community church, a gospel fellowship, or even something leaving us unaware it is a church at all. Whatever the names by which they go, they tend to have much in common. In leaving behind denominational affiliations, they have often relinquished the traditions that once marked them as distinctive. Such congregations typically embrace a voluntarist ecclesiology in which believer's baptism and a memorialist understanding of the Lord's Supper become normative, irrespective of the teachings of the denominations that once nurtured their members. Their liturgies are generically Protestant and increasingly dominated by the praise bands which have become ubiquitous in so many congregations today. With a few notable exceptions, they do not sing the Psalms or even the traditional corpus of Protestant hymnographers such as Martin Luther, Paul Gerhart, Isaac Watts, the Wesleys, and so many more. They claim fidelity to the Bible, which is a very good thing of course. But they have often cut themselves off from the historic interpretations of Scripture in the Church Fathers and the Reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries.

We need to bear this in mind as we read that this exceedingly loose network of congregations now constitutes the majority of Protestant Christians in the United States. This amounts to a remaking of Protestant America which will have long-term consequences for the larger church. Here I will make two observations, one concerning these congregations' relationship to the historic church, and a second concerning their relationship with the larger society.

First, if nondenominational churches have relinquished much of the distinctiveness of their former traditions, they have also in effect lost much that characterized the larger church catholic for close to two millennia. In the average American independent congregation, one is unlikely to hear a confession of sin and assurance of pardon, the reading of the Ten Commandments, recitation or singing of the ecumenical creeds, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Gloria Patri, the sursum corda, or a eucharistic prayer. They may so de-emphasize the sacraments—or, more likely, ordinances—that few will actually seek to be baptized and may come to view the Lord's Supper as little more than a once-a-month (or less frequent) add-on to the "regular" service to be gotten out of the way as quickly as possible. One hates to stray into cliché territory, but reinventing the wheel would seem to describe what such churches do with respect to liturgy, polity, and discipline (if there is any at all) once they have severed themselves from their former traditions.

John Locke
Second, the proliferation of such congregations and the loose parachurch networks they inhabit appear to represent a typical voluntarist conception of the church as a mere association of like-minded believers. This conforms rather nicely to John Locke's ecclesiology:

A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls (emphasis mine).

Within such an ecclesiology, the church lacks an institutional character and possesses no intrinsic authority over its members. It is little more than a gathering of similarly-believing individuals. From Locke's perspective, this gathered church community is based on the same principle as that of the state: the voluntary contract. Because all communities can be reduced to voluntary associations of individuals, this classical liberal approach leaves us with few resources to distinguish one type of community from another. This Lockean ecclesiology effectively eviscerates the biblical notion of church as the covenant community of those called by the grace of God to union with Christ.

It is ironic that the nondenominational churches, fleeing the empty platitudes of liberal Protestantism, would effectively embrace a more pervasive liberalism depriving the church of its institutional character and reducing it to something indistinguishable from the Rotary Club or a bird-watching society. As such, it is doubtful that the networks of independent congregations now constituting American Protestantism could have arisen in any other age than in what I have labelled the choice-enhancement state and others expressive individualism.

I wish I could offer a solution to the current deracinated and fragmented condition of Protestantism in the United States. This late in the day it seems impossible to reconstitute the denominational machinery that once bound large numbers of Christians together within a single communion, although there are many, such as several confessional Reformed bodies, that carry on at a smaller scale while remaining in communion with similar denominations.

If I could offer one piece of advice to the congregation where I was dedicated and to the huge number of nondenominational churches, it would be to study church history intensively, imbibing the early ecumenical councils, the Reformation confessions, and the historic liturgies of the churches. Do not try to improvise or create anew what your forebears already developed centuries ago. Above all, do not deprive the visible institutional church of its authority to bind and loose on earth (Matthew 18:18). Only in this way are you likely to break with the liberal narrative that would prevent the church being the church.


Jim Smirch said...

Let me say, first, Dr. Koyzis, that I've read and appreciated your two books.

As for your blog post, I think your analysis and concluding advice to nondenominational churches are exactly right. (I wonder, though, if the last two paragraphs point to some kind of nondenominational historic catholic Christianity and if that's even possible.)

But what would your advice be to individual Christians who want to be faithful to little "c" catholic Christianity and have nothing available to them but those nondenominational churches?

Should they work to reform the nondenominational church they're in? That's not likely, since that church is already giving the majority of its members what it wants.

Should they form some sort of group within the nondenominational church or start another church? That would only seem to result in more fragmentation.

Should they look for the nearest confessional church? That's fine unless it's a Lutheran church, say, and the individual Christians deny the doctrine of the real presence. (This example suggests [to me, at least] that a solution may require some confessional churches to shift their focus from what's secondary to what's primary.)

Christians may not have the luxury of enjoying this fragmentation for long.

David Koyzis said...

Jim, this is something with which I have struggled for a long time. I wish I had ready answers to your questions, but the fragmentation of Protestantism presents us with huge dilemmas that seem nearly intractable. And, yes, you are right: individual Christians dissatisfied with the current available ecclesiastical options in their communities too often succumb to the temptation to, well, start something else, which frequently turns out to be unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons and only exacerbates the larger problem. I would almost think that we need an ecumenical council, along the lines of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Constantinople.

This touches me personally, because I am currently between churches, trying against rather long odds to find a community that is at once deeply confessional (Reformed), vitally evangelical, and coherently liturgical. A tall order in the not heavily churched community where we live. All I can say at this point is: Lord have mercy!

Jim Smirch said...

It's personal for us as well, Dr. Koyzis; none of the questions I posed was purely hypothetical.

We live in a small rural town in the western U.S. Practically all of the orthodox Protestant churches in the town are nondenominational as you've described it. So for several years now we've been attending a Lutheran church (LCMS) in a nearby town, even though we don't subscribe to the Lutheran confessions. It preaches an objective gospel, and its liturgy is fully scriptural and explicitly Trinitarian. It's the only alternative, so we thank the Lord for what's he's provided and will make the best of it. That's really all any of us can do, isn't it?

Something you didn't mention about independent nondenominational churches is that they're prone to common ethical lapses. There's no denominational oversight or higher authority to appeal to, and decisions are often justified by appealing to the direct leading of the Holy Spirit.

You mentioned finding a community that is deeply confessional. There was a time when I would have said the same thing. Churches need more than the brief doctrinal statements that nondenominational churches usually have. But I'm beginning to wonder if confessions sometimes enshrine positions that aren't helpful or even biblical. I wonder if Protestant churches especially shouldn't strive harder for unity if they agree on the content of the ecumenical creeds and the Solas of the Reformation.

David Koyzis said...

Jim, you are correct, of course, about what you euphemistically call "common ethical lapses." In some cases, they are worse than that. Lack of oversight is a frequent failing of independent congregations.

Why don't you write me privately. Let's take this off line. Write me at dtkoyzis at gmail dot com.

Unknown said...

Dr. Koyzis:Is an underlying question not: How and where is the believer being fed? By faith we are a living member of the family of God. The social environment we find ourselves in is our mission field. We gather on Sunday for worship and instruction but we also organize a fellowship gathering at our home once a week. For Sunday worship we attend at 3 different congregations rotating weekly: Reformed, Baptist and a Bible church but are a registered member at one of them. We reach out in our neighbourhood individually building relationships and participate in para church organizations.
This approach later in life is helping us to get a broader picture of The Church instead of just one congregation. Developing personal habits in Christian living gives 'church with its set traditions' a different feel, don't you agree? I wonder what you, Dr. Koyzis and others think of this change in approach.

David Koyzis said...

At the outset I will say that there is something profoundly attractive about the model you are following here, although I should think it would get rather exhausting trying to keep up with three congregations in three different traditions. Let me pose a few questions to you in response:

1. Are you and your family accountable to the authority of a particular gathered faith community? If one or more of you stray from the path, are there clear lines of authority able to call you to account?

2. If you and your family suffer adversity or come upon hard economic times, are you embedded in a support network constituted by the local church? To which of these congregations would you go on such occasions?

3. Which of these congregations is responsible for catechizing your children? And does it matter to you which one it is?

4. Who exactly is your pastor? And what is your relationship to this person?

Yes, the issue of being fed is certainly important, but I would be reluctant to hang loose, as it were, and keep my options open when it comes to specific feed troughs. We need to sit down at a particular table and eat with our fellow believers.

Getting "a broader picture of The Church" is a good thing, but as human beings rooted in specific places and communities, I wonder whether your approach can really do justice to our need for quite specific communities. After all, we are members of specific families, citizens of specific states, husbands to specific wives, wives to specific husbands, and so forth.

I feel as though I am the last person to be offering anyone advice on this issue, but these are at least some of the questions to consider.


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