Do denominations really matter? Should we look forward to a twenty-first century in which they cease to be important? Anthony Chute writes in his introduction that
For most outside the church, and increasingly many inside the church, denominational differences are viewed as nothing more than petty disagreements between strong-willed religious partisans. (p. 13)
But the brute fact remains that evangelical Christians have clear doctrinal beliefs that unite us as well as denominational distinctives of our own. In light of this, asks Chute,
…is there a way in which evangelical Christians can maintain their distinctive doctrinal beliefs while communicating to the church and the world that they have much more in common? (p. 15)
Six evangelicals each offer an apologia for their own denominational affiliation as Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian. The editors supply essays on church unity, diversity, and the future of denominations.
The strengths of this work are two fold:
- It takes denominational identity seriously without making it ultimate. Those of us in denominations must wrestle with the question of identity whenever we need to contend for unity in the truth within our communion (ie all the time).
- Each ‘apology’ presents their denominational identity at its best because (so we believe) evangelical belief is Christianity at its best. It is notable that each also contains a considerable element of personal testimony. Anthony Chute even opens his essay on denominations and their stories by observing that he became a Christian by faith (in following Christ to his cross) and a Baptist by sight (by following a Baptist girl to a Baptist Church)!
I want to comment briefly on just two chapters
Anglicanism – Gerald Bray
Gerald Bray’s chapter “Why I am an evangelical and an Anglican” explains that while some churches root their identity in a structure (Roman Catholicism and the Pope), most Protestant churches define themselves by a confession of faith. He is a little cheeky about Baptists when he says
A Lutheran will be expected to share the beliefs contained in the Formula of Concord, Presbyterians subscribe to the westminster Confession of Faith or one of its derivatives, Baptists reject infant baptism, and so on (p. 65)
While both confession and constitution are important to Anglicans, neither is definitive on its own. Our identity is a matter of tradition and ethos, which he expounds in a masterful historical and theological survey. His analysis is really first-class and leads to two observations about the nature of theological engagement:
- Anglicans are, more than others, open to receiving truth from other theological traditions. In other words in order to say that we are right, we don’t feel the need to say that everyone else must be wrong. There are still theological boundaries given by the primacy of scripture interpreted by reason, tradition and experience. There is a serious weakness in Bray’s essay when he appears to defend an uncritical tolerance of diversity on the basis that errorists such as Bishops John Robinson, John Spong and David Jenkins have disappeared into the night. I disagree because the damage they caused remains in the church. They have indeed ruined whole households (Titus 1.11).
- The Church of England (more than any other Anglican communion, and over against the other denominations mentioned in the book) experiences the debate about human sexuality as an internal debate, and this reflects the Anglican way of engaging with society. That is not to say that Bray or any other evangelical Anglican believes this internal debate is a recipe for long term denominational health – far from it. Rather it is to observe that this is a consequence of our stance of engagement in society that is not shared by other state churches. For instance the Lutheran Churches are so much more strongly state-controlled that the debate on this matter was settled for them by their parliament.
Bryan Chapell’s article is notable also for two features. First, he acknowledges that some bible-based arguments for Presbyterian polity are proof texts and in his testimony I am glad that leans on exegetically more sound texts which leave a focus on grace and the marks of a church.
Second, he is more tentative than others in advocating his preferred form of church government:
Such texts will often show that our present practices are a plausible or reasonable application of biblical principles for church government without necessarily proving that all differing practices are wrong, or that this practice is always right. (196).
I look forward to reading the essays on unity and diversity, and the future of denominations. Maybe more of this later.
Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity
Anthony L. Chute (Editor), Christopher W. Morgan (Editor), Robert A. Peterson (Editor), Gerald Bray (Contributor), Bryan Chapell (Contributor), David S. Dockery (Contributor), Timothy George (Contributor), Bryan D. Klaus (Contributor), Douglas A. Sweeney (Contributor), Timothy C. Tennent (Contributor)
Full disclosure: this book was a gift of Robert Peterson to the class I am taking at Covenant Theological Seminary in St Louis, MO.