Multiple Denominations, Common Evangelicalism

Published on June 29, 2016 by Joshua Centanni

Crossway, 2013 | 256 pages

A Guest Blog from Anthony Chute, Chris Morgan, and Robert Peterson

For most outside the church, and increasingly many inside the church, denominational differences are viewed as nothing more than petty disagreements among strong-willed religious partisans. Opposition to denominations ranges anywhere from the sophisticated to the simple, yet the negative feelings are generally the same.

Richard Niebuhr argued that denominations were a moral failure of Christianity since they were based on ethnic, class and racial divisions more than theological or other principled matters. On a lighter note, yet somewhat of a confirmation of Niebuhr’s concern, humorist Garrison Keillor explained his Lutheran conclave as follows: “We sit in the pew where we always sit, and we do not shout ‘Amen.’ And if anyone yells or waves their hands, they’re not invited back again.”

And yet, we seldom think of denominational divisiveness when we read a book by Gerald Bray, attend a conference where Timothy George is the speaker, or take a class under Doug Sweeney. We think of them primarily as evangelicals even though they belong to and worship in different churches with different belief systems stemming from different traditions.

Have you ever wondered why leading evangelicals chose to belong to certain denominations? Why is Gerald Bray an Anglican? Why is Timothy George a Baptist? Why is Doug Sweeney a Lutheran?

We asked these and other leading evangelicals to tell us why they chose their denominations, to simply tell us their stories. Here is a summary of what they wrote (from Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity):

 

From Gerald Bray (pp. 86-87)

“So why am I still an Anglican? It is not because I have considered the alternatives, decided that each of them has its problems, and concluded that I might as well stay where I am. I am neither a dyed-in-the-wool Anglican, incapable of going elsewhere, nor a particularly strong critic of other churches. . . . But having said that, I remain an Anglican for a number of positive reasons . . . [one of which is as follows]:

Anglicanism’s glory is that it strives to be “basic” or “mere” Christianity. It is no accident that two of the best-selling popular Christian books of the last century have borne precisely those titles, nor that both have been written by Anglicans—John Stott’s Basic Christianity and C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. . . . Interestingly enough, neither Lewis not Stott has been branded as a “fundamentalist” in spite of the fact that both were uncompromisingly orthodox in their theology and recognized the liberalism of their time as the greatest enemy they had to face. Somehow, the way they engaged in controversy and defended their faith made it difficult to pin the fundamentalist label on them. They were too reasonable, too willing to take their opponents seriously, too gracious in replying to them, for such a negative description to stick. They were, in a word, too Anglican—too open to other ideas and influences, too willing to compromise on nonessentials, too interested in life beyond the narrow confines of theological controversy.”

 

From Timothy George (pp. 108-109)

So why am I a Baptist? I am a Baptist because it was through the witness of a small Baptist church that I first heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Many of the things I still believe in I first learned in that modest Baptist community of faith: that Jesus loves me and died on the cross for my sins; that the Bible is the totally true and trustworthy Word of God; that all human beings are made in the image of God and are infinitely precious in his sight. Through the loving nurture I received from that congregation, I confessed my personal faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord of my life. I was then baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When I was called to preach the gospel, it was in a Baptist church that I was set apart and ordained as a minister of the divine Word.

It is important to say that all of this came to me as a gift from beyond myself. It is not as though I had studied carefully and weighed objectively every religious possibility before committing myself to the Baptist cause. My experience was rather of a person who finds himself standing, wading, and eventually swimming in a flowing mountain stream. The Baptist formation I received as a young Christian was a gift, unbidden and undeserved, for which I can claim no credit. Later as I studied the Bible more deeply and became aware of many other church traditions, doctrines, and denominations, my Baptist convictions grew stronger. I gradually came to understand the meaning of what I believed: Fides quaerens intellectum. What at first I had intuitively grasped or only dimly glimpsed, I came to own with greater clarity and confidence. I came to see that being a Baptist was for me the most faithful way of being an evangelical, a Protestant, and a Christian.

 

From Doug Sweeney (p. 119)

The main attraction for me has always been the Lutheran stress upon God’s real, objective, reliable, durable presence in the world—and availability to us— most importantly in the person of Christ, the Bible, and the sacraments. That sentence may not mean much yet to non-theologians. I hope that it will be clarified for you as you read on, because this emphasis upon the objectivity of the Lord’s work in the world, and in our lives, really is the most compelling thing to know about Lutheranism—especially for sensitive, introspective evangelicals.

As one who had often assumed that saving faith was mainly subjective, that saving grace was available only insofar as I asked for it with motives strong and pure, and that my piety was genuine only when my heart was stirred, I found this classical Lutheran emphasis a key to the gospel itself. It freed me from the fear that I had not done what I had to do to seal the deal with God. It released me from the urge to custom build my own faith, work it up within my soul by means of strenuous mental effort. It helped me see that God had come to me for real, from without, giving me faith as well as the longing I had felt to live for him. He did so long before I knew it. He had been present all the time, extending grace to me objectively in Word and sacrament. That grace was powerful and effective, independent of my effort to make it feel more real inside. God wanted me to appropriate the faith in a personal way, but this is not what made it saving – or even secured it – in the first place.

 

From Tim Tennent (p. 134)

On a personal note, although I am a direct descendent of William Tennent, who is famous in Presbyterian circles for his founding of the Log College, I was born and raised in a United Methodist church in Atlanta, Georgia, known for its biblical preaching and solid evangelical message. I have studied at many of the great institutions which, broadly speaking, stand in the Reformed tradition, including Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I later taught missions at Gordon-Conwell for eleven years. Throughout my entire spiritual journey I grew to appreciate many of the great emphases in Reformed theology. However, I was always drawn to the deep roots of my Methodist upbringing. Today, I serve as the president of Asbury Theological Seminary, the largest seminary in the world within the Methodist/Wesleyan tradition. My sojourn for so many years with brothers and sisters from different traditions helped me simultaneously to appreciate the deep richness and texture of the Christian faith, but also what it is that is distinctive in the Methodist tradition. For me, Methodism did not lose any of the great themes of Reformed theology, but it seemed to bring to the table so much that has often been neglected in the church.

 

From Byron Klaus (pp. 159-160)

I am much less conscious today of the novelty of being a Pentecostal, but I am also aware that there exists an incredible lack of understanding on the part of many Christians as to who we Pentecostals really are. Our tradition is just now entering its second century, but even the most informed persons can still fixate on glossolalia, speaking in tongues, as the sole characteristic around which we are categorized. I must sadly admit that we Pentecostals have, all too often, contributed to that fractured understanding of our tradition. The visibility of Pentecostals in Christian media does hinder the way that many Christians view Pentecostals. The mistakes made by Pentecostals, all too often, are carried out with grand style and, all too frequently, grab headlines. The self-righteous posture of some Pentecostals that conveys an insider track to God is unfortunate. I guess I would simply say that all of us have members of our own family or organizations whom we would not choose to be the sole example by which our entire family or organization is evaluated. The embarrassing members are part of the group, but there is more to any group or family than its most “novel” members or traits.

I remember this latent frustration of ongoing misunderstanding boiling to the surface in a scholarly meeting attended by a broad spectrum of Christian scholars where the focus was the contribution of Pentecostals to global mission. I still can hear a Pentecostal colleague who boldly queried how many Pentecostals there needed to be worldwide before we were taken seriously? It got pretty quiet in the room, but I must admit that I resonated with that outburst. I am part of a Christian family that is more than a curious oddity to be studied. Truth be told, we will never be understood by looking at our doctrines alone, or even our most visible faith and practices. To understand the Pentecostal world, one needs to analyze the basic conscious and unconscious assumptions about reality and God’s interaction with created order. Pentecostal ideological identity is really shaped by what Max Weber called “affective action.” To Pentecostals, the affective domain is viewed as central to the shaping of reality. To the question of causality that is critical to worldview construction, divine initiative is not just an ideal category but a powerful reality for Pentecostalism. The sacred/secular dichotomy which epitomizes modernity is rejected and replaced with an affirmation of the immediate availability of God’s power and presence. We see the world through a reality construct in which God is near at hand and provides clear evidence of his powerful presence through his church. Simply put, when Pentecostals approach the exegesis of biblical texts, theological reflection, or ministry activity, we do not necessarily have a Pentecostal way of doing things. Rather, we enter into those tasks that are common to all Christian traditions with a particular set of assumptions that do dynamically and directly shape the activities we initiative and participate in.

 

From Bryan Chapell (pp. 179-180)

My willingness to consider Presbyterianism ultimately hinged on the church’s willingness to be ruled by Scripture. I had the dual blessings of being raised with the simple understanding that the Bible is true and being so taught by men and women too intelligent not to address sophisticated challenges to that understanding. As a consequence, I was not sorely tempted in high school or college by arguments against the trustworthiness of Scripture. I had already seen that those who pick and choose their way through teachings of the Bible ultimately create a book reflective of their own thought rather than revelatory of God’s. They inevitably were manipulated by the human perspectives in vogue instead of being led by God’s Word.

As a result of these experiences and observations, I recognized that the veracity of the Word was a combination of the credibility of its reasonable interpretation and the willingness of the hearer to submit to its authority. As a believer, I wanted to be guided by God’s Word, and I recognized in the Bible-believing Presbyterians with whom I began to associate a similar desire with a willingness to address the hard questions about the Bible. These dual commitments won my respect, and ultimately my loyalty. I was particularly impressed that the Presbyterians were careful to formulate their doctrines based on the teaching of Scripture (rather than on church tradition), and at the same time were willing to say that the only infallible rule of faith and practice was the Bible instead of their formulations. They were willing to be informed by their history, but ruled only by Scripture. That struck me as both intelligent and humble.

 

Click here to read our review of this book.

 

Buy the books

WHY WE BELONG: EVANGELICAL UNITY AND DENOMINATIONAL DIVERSITY

Crossway, 2013 | 256 pages