One in Christ: Why We Should Reject Denominational Snobbery

One of my favorite Christian jokes goes something like this:

A guy dies and immediately is brought before St. Peter, who, after checking the guy in, gives him a walking tour of heaven. They pass a group of people singing and dancing and shaking tambourines, and St. Peter explains that they’re Pentecostals. Presently, they pass another group of people solemnly reading Psalms in unison from little books; St. Peter explains that these are Lutherans. As they approach a third group – this one sitting in a large circle and praying in turns – St. Peter whispers to the new arrival, “Ssh, those are the Baptists. They think they’re the only ones here.”

Here’s the funny thing (Baptists, stay with me here): this sense of superiority is hardly limited to one denomination. Born to parents from the Free Methodist church, raised in a Presbyterian church, currently attending a Baptist church, and sister to members of Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, I’ve had a fair amount of exposure to different denominations. While I’m far from being an expert on the doctrinal minutiae of each one, I do feel qualified to make some sweeping gross generalizations — specifically as pertaining to how members of various denominations regard the others. Here’s how it breaks down, as I see it:

  • Baptists: “We have obeyed the Lord by following Him in believer’s baptism. Anybody who believes in infant baptism clearly doesn’t love Jesus and is probably not a Christian.”
  • Presbyterians: “We have captured the essence of Scripture in our creeds and in the Five Points of Calvinism, and we know what we believe and why. Nobody else has a proper reverence for God.”
  • Lutherans: “Our services are immersed in Scripture, and our prayers consist of carefully-considered words instead of the chance ramblings of the flawed human leading the congregation. Those other people don’t really take the Bible or worship very seriously.”
  • Free Methodists: “We believe that salvation is evident from the fruit in a person’s life, and a lack of fruit means you should probably get saved again. Most denominations believe in cheap grace.”

On one hand, I get it. After all, the various denominations wouldn’t exist in the first place if their founders — and adherents — didn’t feel strongly about certain interpretations of the Bible. On the other hand…I get a bit tired of the lack of grace extended across denominational lines. Okay: very tired of it.

It was over three hundred years ago that German theologian Rupertus Meldenius proposed the following principle:

In essentials unity;

In non-essentials liberty;

In all things charity.

Frankly, I don’t see that last phrase applied very often…and I suspect it’s due to confusion over the first two phrases. What are the essentials? From what I’ve seen, it seems that certain devout members of varying denominations consider everything to be essential. It reminds me of this cartoon:

We live in the era of “progressive Christianity.” Its adherents are legion; they talk at length — especially in political contexts — about what Jesus would do and what He taught. However, as Dwight Longenecker explains in the article linked above, “their religion is a historical accident of circumstances and people…Jesus Christ is, at best, a divinely inspired teacher…the Scriptures are flawed human documents influenced by paganism [and] the church is a body of spiritually minded people who wish to bring peace and justice to all and make the world a better place.”

With Christianity becoming widely understood as consisting of the nebulous characteristics described above, I believe it’s crucial that members of various denominations acknowledge that they do, in fact, agree on the essentials. While a treatise on the exact nature of divine inspiration, the basis for our biblical canon, and the development of the theology of historical Christianity is WAY beyond the scope of one blog post, I will posit the major points here (and welcome further discussion if you are interested in learning more). In her book Keeping Your Kids on God’s Side, Natasha Crain delineates the following five biblically-based essential Christian doctrines:

  1. One God: “To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides Him” (Deut. 4:35; see also 6:4; Ex. 20:3; Is. 43:10; 44:6).
  2. The Deity of Jesus: “Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58; see also Ex. 3:14; John 10:30; 20:28; Phil. 2:5-8; Col. 2:9).
  3. The Resurrection: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14, see also 15:17; John 2:19-21).
  4. Salvation by Grace: “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9; see also Rom. 3:20; Gal. 2:21; 5:4).
  5. The Gospel: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4; see also Gal. 1:8-9).

Each of these doctrines, of course, can be espoused only if one accepts as truth the words of II Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

Although some churches within every denomination have chosen to downplay Scripture and consequently minimize or deny one or more of the aforementioned doctrines, plenty of churches — within various denominations — are still committed to faithfully interpreting and proclaiming God’s revealed Word. Given the tumultuous nature of our times, I find it just plain silly (at best) to look askance at brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with us on what we must acknowledge to be non-essentials. We are one body (Rom. 12:3-5, I Cor. 12), and we should behave as such.

Here’s the truth: I know and love quite a few people who are not Baptists, yet DO love Jesus and ARE Christians. I know and love quite a few non-Presbyterians who revere God and know what they believe. I know and love plenty of non-Lutherans who take worship seriously. And scads of non-Free Methodists who understand that true salvation will produce fruit in a believer’s life.

It’s fine to draw conclusions — based on prayer, study, and the desire to honor God — about what set of non-essential doctrines seems to make the most sense. After all, if we go to any church, it will be one that falls in line with a certain denomination (even if it shies away from saying so). But it’s NOT fine to then look out the window at everybody else and look down on them because they’ve landed somewhere else.

Friends, remember the essentials. Proclaim them fervently. And if we admit that the other things are non-essentials, then we truly will be displaying the unity that should characterize the body of Christ.

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To Share Jesus with Millennials, Let’s Start by Not Mocking Them

If there’s anything people enjoy these days more than watching cat videos, it’s making fun of Millennials.

And why not? Decrying the foibles of the upcoming generation is a time-honored tradition, and with Millennials, it would seem that there’s more low-hanging fruit than ever. How can we not poke fun at an entire generation of people who spend every waking hour staring at expensive black rectangles which enable them to remotely interact with faraway “friends” who have painstakingly edited their online lives before posting them on their own shiny black rectangles?

It is pretty hard to resist. And I’ve seen some pretty clever satire out there…and “LOL’ed,” as the kids say nowadays.

Increasingly, though, a question has been nagging me: As a Christian whose mandate – and deepest desire – is to share Christ’s love with others, is it truly God-honoring for me to deride many of those very people I hope to reach?

The answer, I hope, is so obvious as to be superfluous.

SEEKING TO UNDERSTAND

In writing to the Corinthian church, Paul instructs his readers regarding how they ought to commune with various groups of people:

Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of the many, so that they may be saved. (I Cor. 10:32-33)

For missionaries traveling overseas, this is only natural. If I am a missionary who wants to share the Gospel with, for example, a remote tribe in Papua New Guinea, I will first seek to understand its culture. Are they reserved or gregarious? Are they task-oriented or people-oriented? What does family life look like? All these questions, and more, will inform my approach to telling them the good news of the Bible.

And yet somehow, we have trouble applying this to the culture that surrounds us here and now. While we wouldn’t dream of joining a missions organization, planting ourselves in a foreign land, then proceeding to mock the people there for their worldviews, cultural norms, and cherished values, we feel perfectly free to do exactly that with the culture in which most of us live. Instead of giving no offense, as Paul instructs us, we ridicule an entire generation for its apparently unconscionable quirks…then wonder why they don’t want to hear about Jesus.

Christian friends, we can – we must – do better than this.

QUENCHING THE THIRST

In the fourth chapter of John, Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman who has come to draw water from a well. In the course of their conversation, He tells her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I give him shall never thirst” (John 4:13-14). When she eagerly responds that it would be great to never have to come draw water again, He explains that what He offers is living water — the gift of new life through Himself. His words echo those of the prophet Isaiah:

Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;

And you who have no money come, buy and eat.

…Why do you spend money for what is not bread,

And your wages for what does not satisfy?

…Incline your ear and come to me.

Listen, that you may live.

(Isaiah 55:1-3)

In every generation, in every part of the world, people are seeking fulfillment. Some have sought it in athletic achievement; some, through financial success; others, through acceptance by peers…the list could go on, of course, but what we always find is that none of these things ultimately satisfies, and as long as we expect them to do so, we must keep going back to the well.

Today, the well is shallower than ever…but, in the short term, more immediately satisfying than ever. As Simon Sinek points out in the video below (which is well worth the fifteen minutes, in case you’re wondering), the generation we call “Millennials” is heavily influenced by the self-esteem movement, which — news flash — was NOT initiated by Millennials. As children, “they were told that they were special — all the time — and that they could have anything they want in life — just because they want it!”

Conveniently, their transition into adulthood coincided perfectly with the advent of social media…which, used carefully, reinforces that childhood feeling of being special with comments and “likes.” The feeling produced by social media notifications is caused by a chemical in our brains called dopamine — the “exact same chemical that makes us feel good when we smoke, and when we drink, and when we gamble; in other words, it’s highly, highly addictive.”

At the end of the day, however, most people will admit that this constant gratification — one that must be fueled by diligently crafted posts on Facebook, Instagram, and so on — fails to provide what we truly need.

“Everything you want, you can have instantaneously — everything you want, instant gratification – except job satisfaction and strength of relationships; there ain’t no app for that. They are slow, meandering, uncomfortable, messy processes,” says Sinek. Because of this dearth of deeply fulfilling relationships and sense of purpose, depression and suicide have increased alarmingly; and of those who don’t fall into these worst-case scenarios, many will still find themselves “growing up and going through life and never really finding joy.”

Jesus harshly rebuked the self-righteous religious leaders of His day, but He wept for the lost. Should we not do the same?

Millennials are no different from the woman at the well…or from the nations of Israel and Judah…or from anyone who has ever sought fulfillment and found that every earthly pleasure was, in the end, fleeting.

Let us heed the words of Paul, and the example of Christ, and meet people where they are.

Let us see not a generation, but individuals.

Let us seek to understand what individuals are looking for.

And let us lovingly, graciously show them that Jesus is the only One who can truly satisfy their thirst.