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The Death of Denominationalism

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     I recently read this quote by Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow: "In the past century, denominationalism was … a very large part of what it meant to be Christian….now people belong to the Presbyterian church, not because of deep loyalty to the denomination at large, but because they like the pastor, they feel comfortable with the people, the building fits their architectural tastes, the church is not too far way, and it provides activities for their family." What Wuthnow says is consistent with what I’m hearing from many sources and what I’m observing with my own eyes – the increasing irrelevance of denominations among in the eyes of American Christians. Not only are believers generally uninformed about the differences between Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Methodists (let alone the myriads of splinter denominations in each of those categories), they really don’t care.

     There are some good and noble reasons for this disdain for ecclesiastical labels. In the past, many people have cloaked their attitudes of pride and judgmentalism in the guise of pursuing and preserving doctrinal purity in their denominations. Also, many of the divisions over doctrinal differences were unnecessary and unhealthy. And the existence of thousands of separate denominations has greatly blinded the Church of Jesus Christ to its essential unity and strength, and has damaged the testimony of the church before the world. Jesus prayed for those who would believe in Him, “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in Me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent Me.” (John 17:21).

     But I fear that the motivation for disregarding denominational labels is actually more worldly than spiritual. I think the tolerance for denominational differences today is due more to weak Biblical knowledge and theological wishy-washyness than to a deeper love and spirituality. Recent generations in the church have become lazy and distracted by prosperity, and have not been willing to teach or learn the deeper truths of God’s Word. It is not a noble thing in the sight of our God to be indifferent about whether or not we should baptize infants; or how to reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility; or whether women should be Pastors or Elders. The Lord expects us to work hard for unity in the church, but not at the expense of truth.

     Also, as you can see in the quote at the beginning of this article, one of the major reasons that Christians disregard denominational and doctrinal differences is their misplaced priorities. It’s not surprising in this comfortable, self-centered culture that Christians tend to care more about the likeability of the pastor than his faithfulness to the Scriptures; or that they care more the friendliness of the congregation than level of their commitment to the Kingdom; or that they care more about the proximity of the church to their house than they do about how close it is to God and truth; or that they care more about activities for their kids than they do about in-depth training in truth and discipleship for their kids.

     It is ironic that, in the cause of breaking down barriers and pursuing unity among believers, so many are rejecting denominations and flocking to independent congregations. Is it not obvious that “independent” is not a complement for a local congregation? We are to be seeking to join with other believers on as large a scale as possible, to work toward dependence on other portions of the Body of Christ. In a good Biblical denomination (like the Presbyterian Church in America), this is exactly the goal, and I praise God that we are organizationally connected to other like-minded churches throughout the world.  

Membership Dues

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     I was once heard a sermon on the fourth chapter of Ephesians, and the preacher made this challenging comment: “I think that, when we pass the offering plates, many of you aren’t worshiping with your tithes or giving to the work of the Kingdom at all. You’re really paying your ‘membership dues’ – the fee that is required to have access to the services of the church.” Ouch…

     If we pay membership dues to a local gym or swimming pool, we gain access to a variety of privileges and services. Is that what we’re expecting from our offerings? I once belonged to a local gym and regularly paid my membership dues. But then I saved money to buy exercise equipment to use at home, thus saving me the time and money required to drive to the gym three or four times a week, and I stopped paying my dues. I know some people who consider their membership dues to the gym to be a bargain, because they make use of the swimming pool, classes, and childcare, thereby making it worth the cost to them. These are reasonable decisions when considering the privileges and services of a gym compared to your needs.

     Is this what membership in a church is all about? There are certainly privileges and services available to the members of our church, but those blessings aren’t the focus of membership. Here is the way that the Apostle Paul described the Church: “[Christ] gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to perfect a man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11-13). According to Paul, the first words that should come to mind when we think of membership should be “ministry”, “edification”, “unity”, and “Christlikeness”. Being a member of the body of Christ means that your purpose is to minister and edify one another, with the goal of becoming one in Christ, like Him in every way. It is a commitment to other sinners like yourself, based upon what God has enabled you to do for them, not what they will do for you.

     Church membership is about serving others and being accountable to them. In their book, The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshall and Tony Payne challenge us to be a congregation made up of “disciple-making disciples”. In their own words: “The call to discipleship is the same for all. Jesus says, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it’ (Mark 8:34,35). There are not two sorts of disciples – the inner core who really serve Jesus and His Gospel, and the rest… The Great Commission, in other words, is not just for the Eleven. It’s the basic agenda for all disciples. To be a disciple is to be a disciple-maker.” We need to re-discover this central purpose of our church, so that each of us can embrace our responsibilities as members – to disciple one another, to serve and edify one another that we might become one in Christ. Then our tithes and offerings will be what they’re supposed to be – expressions of thankfulness and worship to God.

Posted by Rev. Dan Kiehl with