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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.  

Content with Church

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BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     I had lunch one day with a friend of mine who is the senior pastor of a large church.  His church had just finished a major building expansion, which has provided them with a huge, gorgeous worship and education facility.  I was anxious to hear about how much my friend was enjoying the new building and the ministry opportunities that came with it.  But, much to my surprise, he had only negative things to say about the building.  After listing complaint after complaint for several minutes, he finished by saying, “Congregations that don’t have a building should be thankful.  If I had my choice, I’d sell our building and have our church meeting in rented facilities until the Lord returns!”

     I may have just caught my friend on a bad day – maybe his congregation is experiencing conflict over the color of the carpeting in the sanctuary, or the size of the nursery, or the wattage of the light bulbs.  But it was a good reminder to me that, even when it comes to our churches, it is very easy to find yourself looking enviously at the greener grass on the other side of the fence.  

     Are you content with your church?  The Apostle Paul once said that “there is great gain in godliness with contentment” (I Timothy 6:6).  Contentment is a fruit of the Spirit that drives out envy, resentment, and frustration.  We usually think of contentment in terms of our money and possessions, but I think that we are just as likely to be discontent with our church and envious of other churches.  We find ourselves saying, “If only we had the youth ministry that church has…”, or, “If only we had musicians that other church has…”, or, “If only we had the educational programs that my friend’s church has…”.  A seed of discontentment takes root in our hearts, and, if it’s fed with constant sprinklings of envy, it blossoms into frustration and disdain for your own church family.

     I think that this kind of discontentment with church has been intensified in our mobile and media-saturated culture.  Through travel, television, radio, and the internet we are exposed to thousands of other churches, ministries, and preachers – something that Christians a century ago couldn’t have imagined.  This is certainly a blessing in many respects, but it also gives our restless souls many opportunities to look longingly at the green grass beyond our ecclesiastical fences.  The problem is that you can’t really know a church from a distance.  If you get close and get involved, you’re going to find that sinners saved by grace are the same “works in process” no matter where you go.  

     So how do we find contentment in our own church setting?  Paul was ministering in a Roman prison when he wrote, “…I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13).  He wasn’t content because of his circumstances – he was content with Christ no matter what his circumstances happened to be.  And He believed that Christ would meet his spiritual needs and enable him to be faithful no matter how easy or difficult his ministry context happened to be.

     Being content with your church doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to the strengths of other churches or to the weaknesses and failings of your own church, and it doesn’t mean just accepting the problems of your church.  But it does require that you intentionally focus upon the blessings that the Lord has given to your own church and thank Him for them.  It also requires you to accept the Lord’s will regarding the current state of your church, believing that He has supplied everything that your church needs – in terms of spiritual gifts, leadership, workers, and material resources – to do all that He is calling your church to do right now.  It also requires a commitment on your part to be part of the solution to the problems that you see in your church, at least through the means of prayer.  And it requires that you trust that the Lord will provide all that is needed in the future to become the church He has designed.

     The promise of our Good Shepherd to provide green pastures for us is both for the present and the future.  You will not be totally satisfied in this life, but if He has provided you with a church family where the Word of God is faithfully taught and proclaimed and the people of God love each other with the love of Christ, then He intends for you to rest, be fed, and be content there.  If you’re feeling spiritually discontent and unfulfilled, maybe it’s because you’re spending too much time looking over the fence!