What's The Lowest Common Denomination?

As the recent Presbymeme revealed, I have little idea of what it means to really be Presbyterian.

I mean, I know Presbyterians hail from the Reformed tradition (Calvin, in particular), practice infant baptism, and love order and polity. I also know that they value scholarship, wrestle with inclusiveness, and appreciate (really appreciate) tradition. They value scholarship and speak highly of God, but in my observation, less of Jesus and even less of the Holy Spirit. Not a bad thing, just an emphasis noted. No mention of the devil here though, so you charismaniacs can move right along.

And I appreciate the seminary community of which I am a part of, which is associated with the PCUSA. But I have yet to really be convinced that I should commit to this denomination or any other, for that matter. Oh sure, I understand that denomination matters when it comes to benefits, ordination, licensing, financing, accountability, resources, networking, and all that. But I just don’t understand how denomination really matters. (disclaimer: I say this openly, not dismissively. I also stand to be corrected and educated. so I do acknowledge my ignorance and humbly ask that you be gentle and clear if you want to blast me in the comments.)

In a conversation one day, I heard Tommy Yi, a friend here in seminary with me, say to someone else, “If the denomination makes it so I minimize my personal risks so that I can serve in a church (of their denomination) by giving me benefits and resources and whatnot, how do I know that I’m really following Jesus?” This could be said of any denomination. And Tommy’s right – as much as I want to believe that the institution is seeking and acting according to God’s will at every instance, there are times where we must ask, am I following a man-made thing to protect or serve myself? or am I really following God?

Which makes it a little hard to commit, because as much as we like to work things out in our (Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, UCC, Pentecostal…fill in the blank) ways, the starting point should be that God is God and God does what God wants and we can’t know or stop or predict what God can, should, or will do. Even when we have prophecies in the Bible, we aren’t sure. So how in the world do you select a denomination to be a part of? I think it was Peter Rollins (in How (Not) To Speak of God – which if you don’t have, you should go out and buy right this very minute) who mentioned that the origin of denominations prove that God worked in the past among that community, but the continued existence of that denomination doesn’t prove that God is still present. Even if you criticize post-denominationalists for being slippery in their commitment, you have to admit, the denomination does place a degree of separation between us and God, which seems to me one of the very liberating facets of the Christian faith to begin with.

And I understand the argument for authority, community, and tradition, but I also want to create space for a Moses, an Elijah, an Amos, or even Jesus in our midst! There must be some consensus that consensus is not always required. I understand its danger, but it is a necessary one.

I realize this may be too loosey-goosey, but in my mind, it sounds every bit as logical as love. Love is extremely vulnerable to betrayal and disappointment, because it involves trust – trust that is open to another denomination that claims our God of love. I believe that often we prevent love from arising because our denominational ties and agenda inclines us to operate from a deficit of love, in order to protect ourselves or our loved ones from leaving us. We assume that other denominations are not as trustworthy as we might be. But I do not see that fear reflected in the heart of God. I do not see how freedom given to others threatens God and I do not see how it should threaten God’s children on earth. Denominations are great connections and windows into what God has done, but are they good lenses to see what God can and will do in our churches?

I will not give any denomination more allegiance than that I have for Christ. And if none of them are against him, and they all for him, then I am for them all. I do not wish to be remembered as a good Baptist or a reformed Presbyterian, a devout Catholic or a hardworking Methodist – only as a faithful follower of Christ. He is my lowest common denomination.

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Comments

  1. mrpages says:

    Bravo.

  2. Good post and thoughtful questions as always. I guess one response is that I think the very nature of denominations is changing as the world is changes. Denominations, affiliations, associates, etc. are merely structural responses to common affinity. This could be governance, geography, theology, etc. but I would doubt any would ever say that a person/community should lift up loyalty to a denomination over and about their call to follow Christ.

    I really think that we are all part of some “denomination” when it comes to church and whether or not it is formalized, but what is clear is that the “mainline” denomination are at a crossroads.

    If you care to know about my own journey about this here are a couple of posts i did last year.

    Why I should leave the PC(USA)
    http://www.reyes-chow.com/2007/05/why_i_am_leavin.html

    Why I will stay
    http://www.reyes-chow.com/2007/05/top_10_reasons_.html

  3. anakainosis says:

    I have signed onto a way of thinking that was put forth by Vern Poythress (NT Professor at Westminster, of all places) that maybe truth about God is not a single melody, but perhaps, it is a symphony. http://www.wtsbooks.com/product-exec/product_id/1348/nm/Symphonic_Theology_The_Validity_of_Multiple_Perspectives_in_Theology

    John Franke has signed onto this line of thinking. In the class of his that I took and I think in his work “The Character of Theology”, he would often note that a diversity of doctrine within an orthodoxy centered on Christ and the Spirit bears witness to the infinity of God. Does it not make sense that God shouldn’t make perfect sense? Isn’t it really not about going back to the theologians of yester-century and studying them really really hard, since they apparently figured it all out already? Shouldn’t the mystery of God bear fruit to a symphony of seemingly paradoxical theological views, and shouldn’t we seek and embrace those differences with worship in our hearts?

    And since my heart is always missions, here’s a relevant quote from another Westminsteran, the late great Harvie Conn:

    Seeing theology as an essentializing science and the creeds as the products of that kind of theological reflection inhibits us as well from facing up to our own contemporary missiological task and its risk. We assign all the problems of contextualization to distant, exotic places and worry about how others will avoid syncretism with this view of theology. We assume that such risks and challenges are absent, or at least less pressing, in the West. We let our theologizing slip into a naive sort of idealistic pride in “our” model. We become less aware of the rosy presuppositional glasses with which we look at our rosy theological world. And our theology loses its evangelistic edge.

  4. David Park says:

    Interesting point Daniel, although I’m not sure that nondenominational churches were designed or intended for non-Christians. And I’m not sure that nondenominational churches come about because doctrine is unimportant either. A nondenominational church that I was a member of some years ago, came out of a denomination where the theology said there was no such thing as the gifts of the Spirit, so when the pastor experienced a move of the Holy Spirit himself, he had a dilemma, do I subscribe to what I’ve been trained to think about the Holy Spirit, or do I acknowledge that as I was seeking the Lord, I felt the Holy Spirit move in ways that I did not think possible? Well, he went with the latter and carefully, respectfully tried to leave the denomination. Did the denomination not have a backbone? No, not necessarily. They stuck with their theology, and so did the pastor, albeit a slightly different theology now. This wasn’t a strategically thought-out evangelistic move. It was him acknowledging he encountered something outside the box of his denomination. This wasn’t a postmodern thing, this was back in the ’70s and the Jesus movement. His church isn’t a weird rattlesnake-toting, arsenic-sipping loony bin, nor are they doctrinally void or ignorant. This wasn’t done to convince others to come to his church. in fact, it was politically and congregationally foolish at the time for him to think he could step outside the bounds of his denomination and expect to continue in ministry.

    But, all that to say, I think there are many people and churches out there who feel that a denomination, and usually its accompanying theology, may not be fair to the whole of scripture. rather, denominationalists are rooted in a historical episode of church history that colors their denominational and theological ties. i’m not saying that’s a bad thing, nor am i vouching for nebulous, amorphous, unaccountable, cult-of-personality Christianity. i just want to keep these tensions alive between the “One” and the “Many,” because at least for me, it’s clear that if we hold either one too tightly, we could miss out on what God is doing.

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