Calling oneself nondenominational is en vogue, but what does it mean exactly to be nondenominational? I doubt many have given it much thought. Yet, as I have talked to those who use this term for themselves or for their church, I find that they believe that there’s something magnanimous about not being part of a denomination — that it’s primitive and all Jesus-like to just call yourself a Christian and not be so sectarian as to be denominational. The term’s appeal is that it gives those who use it a feeling of being a pure Christian, but is that feeling reflective of what it means to be nondenominational? Here’s where the trouble comes in. I can’t get a meaningful answer to this question from those who use it. This is because it is an entirely meaningless term. It is meaningless in the sense that there is no group to which it can refer. This makes the use of the term is worse than useless, it makes it misleading and inaccurate. Strictly speaking, no group of Christians is non-denominational.
Do you or your church have a view on baptism? Do you baptize only those who can articulate their faith and only after they have confessed their faith? Or do you baptize infants? Is Baptism a unique means of grace or is it only a public confession? What is the Lord’s Supper? Is it the physical body of Christ? Is it a visual symbol by which we act in obedience to Christ when we eat it? Is Christ only spiritually present in it?
There are of course other important questions along which denominational lines are drawn but these questions suffice to show that nondenominationalism isn’t really an option. I know of no church that doesn’t have an opinion on these doctrinal issues. But even should your church have no opinion about these matters it wouldn’t get around the denominational question. Without answering these kinds of questions, it would eliminate your church as a Christian church since Christians are regard these matters and who treat Baptism and the Lord’s Supper with seriousness, and even if you think a church could count as Christian without answering these questions it still wouldn’t be nondenominational since indifference is still a view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (among other things) which would define the church denominationally over against those who do practice it and regard it with seriousness. Not having an opinion on matters of baptism and the Lord’s Supper constitutes a stance toward those issues and a denomination-making stance at that.
But this consideration is really just a hypothetical extreme. In the real world, churches clearly have views about the issues that divide them into denominations. Most (but not all) churches that call themselves nondenominational are really just Baptist churches who refuse to openly acknowledge this fact. Maybe they don’t want to be part of a denomination, but we don’t always get what we want. Some may not like belonging to a denomination by virtue of what doctrines they hold to, but their wishes are really irrelevant for g them in their religious grouping. There’s nothing new under the sun; all the available doctrinal options have already been covered, and like it or not we all fit into one of these groups. You didn’t just pop up on the screen of church history. You have roots. You come from somewhere and that tells us a lot about who you are and who you are is denominational.
Still, sometimes people use “nondenominational” a little differently than how I’m using it here. I’m using the term in reference to what doctrine a particular group confesses. It is sometimes used to mean not belonging to some organized conglomerate church body like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, etc. But it’s easy to see that this isn’t nondenominationalism.
First, this has not been the meaning of a “denomination” historically. Doctrine has historically defined denominations rather than a denomination being defined according to what ecclesiastical infrastructure one is apart of (especially since there have been denominational groups without much infrastructure).
Second, a church may be independent of an organized denominational group, but that doesn’t make it any less denominational. At best it makes the church an independent Baptist or an independent Presbyterian or an independent Penecostal church, etc., but it is still a Baptist or Presbyterian or Penecostal church.The issue of nondenominationalism is different than the issue of an organized cooperation of churches. Furthermore, the issue of nondenominationalism is different than whether your church has discloses its denomination in the church name or title. Some churches leave their denomination out of the title but don’t claim to be nondenominational. While there may be good and bad reasons for leaving the denomination out of the title, it isn’t necessarily connected to the church’s belief about their denominational status. I personally prefer that we be upfront about who and what we are. To quote a friend on this matter, from a time when I claimed to be “nondenominational”: “I like labels; they let me know what I’m eating.” This is true, of course, only on the condition that the label is true to the content. There are many churches who claim to belong to a denomination but have long since departed from the doctrine of that denomination. While these are often self-described liberal or mainline churches, there are many evangelical churches that have done this too. For example, despite being considered conservative, most Southern Baptist churches and specifically it’s denominational confession, the Baptist Faith and Message
, have departed from what Baptists historically have confessed about the Lord’s Supper in Second London Baptist Confession of 1689
.As I said above, those who call themselves “nondenominational” are nearly invariably Baptists. I don’t propose to have an explanation for this phenomenon. Is it embarrassment about being Baptist? Is it some deceptive evangelism tactic that’s to blame? Whatever the reason, claiming nondenominationalism isn’t accurate. But it is more than just a minor quibble about labels and the meaning of the word “nondenominational.”
To claim nondenominationalism is, whether intentional or unintentional, deceptive and arrogant. Deceptive because it claims to be something that it isn’t. Arrogant because those who claim nondenominationalism think they are above the fray of those who are hung up on what denomination they’re part of. I’ve been around enough of it. Someone asks, “What denomination are you?” The response: “Oh! We’re not part of a denomination. We’re just Christians. We don’t get into those debates. We just want to love Jesus here.” Sounds nice, but the church goes on to articulate views that are without doubt denominational (as I say, usually Baptist) all the while claiming this is the Christian view. The implicit claim is that those who don’t hold such views aren’t Christians. If a church claims to be nondenominational and claims to have the “Christian” view of things, then by implication, there is a claim that churches who don’t believe like they do on these matters aren’t Christian or at least aren’t fully Christian. This is clearly both deceptive and arrogant, again, even if unintentional. Furthermore, I don’t think the unchurched people that nondenominationalists are trying to reach really buy the line that they’re just these primitive, pure-doctrine Christians somehow floating above the fray of all those who want to divide the church and complicate things with denominationalism. It’s certainly hard to buy that claim when you’re sitting in a multi-million dollar complex, with a food court, and your “worship” involves lasers, smoke, spotlights, a praise band with electric guitars, late twentieth-century music, and a pastor who sits on a stool as a cultural cliche of emo glasses and a soul patch. Really? This is pure Christianity that’s just about loving Jesus?
The last point I wish to make is that the claim we’ve been evaluating (namely, that nondenominational churches are simply “Christian” churches who just want to love Jesus without getting caught up in denominational divides), is also a claim that being a Christian, loving and following Jesus has nothing to do with obeying what Scripture teaches about baptism, the Lord’s Supper, church government, and various other doctrinal matters. But Christ told us that if we love him we will keep his commandments (Jn 14:15
). Obedience on these matters is quite relevant to what it means to love Christ and follow him. You can’t truly claim to love Jesus, while pretending that matters of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are irrelevant for the validity of your claim to love Jesus.
As Lutherans know better than almost any, you rarely get to chose your own labels. Beliefs have consequences for defining you relative to those holding other beliefs. Own who you are and where you fit in the landscape. Telling us all that you’re “just a Christian” is just an exercise in deception and manipulation, no matter what your intentions are.