I’m Not Dead Yet (Or Why Denominations Still Matter)

headstoneWhile recently visiting a church member in a nursing home, I struck up a conversation with an old veteran in a wheelchair playing solitaire. I began with one of my stock questions: “Do you go to church anywhere in town?” Immediately dropping his cards to the table, he squinted at the ceiling through coke-bottle glasses – seemingly deep in thought – and started counting on his fingers.

“Well … Let’s see … I grew up at the Church of Christ … Then I went to the Methodist church for a while … Then I started going to the Latter Day Saints church … Then I got mad and started going to another small little Christian church that I can’t remember … I’m thinking about going back to the Church of Christ … Or maybe the Mormons again.”

After I picked my flabbergasted jaw up off the floor, I spent the next thirty minutes attempting to explain why none of these churches were the same and what they actually believed. Over the course of our discussion, he repeatedly recoiled: “The Mormons don’t actually believe that!” … “The Church of Christ doesn’t believe that!” … “You’re wrong!!!” In the end, talking to the deck of solitaire cards may have produced better results. Remaining unconvinced, the old veteran finally wheezed out a sigh and proclaimed: “Oh well … All churches are the same, really.” Then he began plopping his cards down again in regimented order.

Herein lies an extreme case of the “que sera sera” attitude of post-denominational America. Christians are boldly hop-scotching across denominational lines would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. I have a good friend who has meandered from Southern Baptist to Catholic to Lutheran over the past ten years without batting an eye. Another set of friends have jumped from Southern Baptist to United Methodist even though they have openly disagreed with their pastors on major points of church doctrine; their church is just full of “good people.” Being fundamental, evangelical, progressive or no religious affiliation now means more than actual affiliation with a denomination, such as Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist or – even – Catholic.

As America grows increasingly more post-denominational, the Christian blogosphere is ready to throw dirt on the grave while the body’s still warm. And the denominations cry out like the “dead man” from Monty Python and The Holy Grail: “I’m not dead yet!” Case in point A is the recent Relevant Magazine article about ending denominations because they are confusing and distract believers from the Great Commission. I’m going to swim against the proverbial stream here, and argue that denominations still matter for one major reason: Because sound doctrine still matters. 

Before we go any further, please answer the following questions:

  • Who is Jesus?
  • What is the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit?
  • What happens to people when they die?

If you were able to give an answer to any of the questions listed above, then -congratulations (and maybe surprise) – you’ve got personal doctrinal convictions. “Doctrine” has turned into the scary boogeyman giving every post-modern Christian south of Rob Bell cold sweaty nightmares. The pious shadowboxing and hand-wringing over the “dangers” of doctrine is a colossal snipe hunt. On it’s basest level, all “doctrine” really means is that you have a set of principles or positions that you hold. If you have more than one belief about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church or salvation, then – again, congratulations – you have “doctrine.” The boogeyman is really just a reflection.

While it may be true that Jesus never spoke about denominations, Jesus spoke boldly about doctrine at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount:

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:15-23)

In Paul’s final charges to his proteges Timothy and Titus, Paul mentions the need for “sound” doctrine seven times (1 Timothy 1:3, 10; 4:6; 6:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1, 10). The need for the local church to adhere to “sound” doctrine is the pervasive warning of the pastoral epistles. Why? Because wolves are trying to devour the sheep. Because false teachers with unsound doctrine are attempting to harm the flock. Both Jesus and Paul warn about the unfortunate reality that the presence of unsound doctrine and false teachers necessitates sound doctrine and spiritually mature teachers. As the wolves are seeking to devour, the sheep need to draw nearer to the protection of the Shepherd. “Sound” doctrine protects the church. And sheep that wander from the Shepherd become a tasty snack for the wolves.

Here’s where the post-modern argument typically jumps the shark better than the Fonz. Many progressives hear all of this talk of doctrine and believe that evangelicals are asking every church member to write a 12,162 page Volume 2 of Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Not so. Having “sound” doctrine does not mean that you’ve got every nuance of theology right. Having “sound” doctrine does not mean that any man will figure every detail about theology correct … Or that all Christians must agree with every detail or be cast out of the tribe Survivor-style. Having “sound” doctrine simply means that core points of orthodoxy exist: That there is one God in three persons … That Jesus was fully God and fully man … That salvation is by the grace of God alone through faith alone … Major league etc.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that many of the issues that divide churches today are horrifically mundane and inexcusable reasons for division – particularly traditional vs. contemporary worship style or whether (coffee/tattoos/revealing outfits/”funny-looking” people/mullets) (pick one) are permitted in the worship center. We should be horrified when deacon Joe Bob and 13 other church members split their local church simply because they don’t like the pastor’s preaching style. We should weep when sister Sally Mae decides to quit her church because it’s just not contemporary enough. We should be angry when believers scream and point menacing fingers at one another because the church organ is exchanged for a drum set. Non-doctrinal issues of personal preference should not divide our churches. When our churches focus downward on petty and pathetic pity-parties, the high elevation of the Great Commission summit gets lost beyond sight.

On the other hand, you can’t just stick your fingers in your ears, cover your eyes, sing “na-na-na-na-na” like a toddler and pretend that the last 500 years of church history never happened. During the Reformation, real and meaningful divisions in the big “C” Church occurred based on the role of faith vs. works in salvation, the authority of church leadership and the role of church ordinances. These divisions are still present and unresolved today. We should not naive enough to believe that every denominational divide is merely based on trivial matters of personal preference. Core Gospel issues are at stake. Critical questions such as “Are we saved by faith alone?” and “Should infants be baptized?” really do matter and have implications for how the church conducts itself. Like it or not, the repercussions of the Reformation still resonate today.

On top of those Reformation issues, there are other legitimate doctrinal questions that emerge anew:

  • Are those that do not speak in tongues saved?
  • Are those that have not been baptized saved?
  • Should believers be baptized in the name of “Jesus only”?
  • Does God really know the future? Is the future “open” to different possibilities?
  • Can you be fully perfect in this lifetime and stop sinning altogether while on earth?
  • Does Hell exist? Will everyone on earth be universally saved by Jesus in the end?

You simply can’t argue that such questions are irrelevant. Weighty questions demand clarity from the church instead of sticking our collective heads in the sand and singing “Kumbaya” on matters of sound doctrine.

Denominations are important because each denomination places a flag in the sand staking out matters of sound doctrine. A church’s concern for sound doctrine does not amount to fiddling while Rome is burning. A denomination’s statement of faith etches out the boundaries of sound doctrine and protects local churches from the wolves. Of course, the concern over doctrine will lead to inevitable inter-denominational skirmishes and “family” squabbles about the boundaries of doctrine, but we argue because we are resoundingly convicted about what we believe. But you might object at point: Non-denominational churches have statements of faith too! Yes, that’s the whole point. The double standard is palpable. Every church believes something but denominations get razzed for their conformity to doctrine.

To come full circle, there is fresh danger when people join churches without diligently investigating their church’s doctrine whatsoever. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone has expressed to me their finger-pointing, red-faced and whole-body-quivering disdain upon learning about their church’s official position on women in ministry, homosexuality, pastoral leadership or – my personal favorite – church governance. I can almost hear brother John Doe screaming outside the business meeting: “Who gave the pastor so much authority?!? The (deacons / elders / backsliders) (pick one) should be running the church!” Ironically, most churches aren’t hiding their doctrine whatsoever … It’s right there on that “boring” statement of belief portion of the church website that everyone ignores.

In the absence of concern for doctrine, the sad fact of the matter is that many will choose their church based on whether the worship band is good, whether the preacher isn’t boring, whether the nursery is safe and whether the bathrooms aren’t cramped and gross. And then they quickly hit the bricks to the next church when the worship service “no longer speaks to me” (whatever that means). It’s consumer-driven Burger King church culture, where people choose to “have church their way” by checking off a list of personal preferences. Friends, this trend is not good.

I wholeheartedly agree that the splintering of the local church based on small-minded concerns is dangerous … But the fast food horizon where churches sweep doctrine under the rug in order to cater to the consumer is even more bleak. Should you overlook the heresies of baptismal regeneration or modalism just because the pastor’s got a tattoo, the worship band plays the new hit Chris Tomlin song and there’s a coffee bar next to the worship center? Is having a good “worship experience” more important than outright lies and falsehoods being perpetrated about Jesus? Is it better to choose a church affiliation based on convictions or coolness? Are believers being trained to chase fads or follow Christ?

Worship style, preaching, nursery, facilities and a million other issues might be important to church health, but a church’s doctrine is exceedingly more important. The church cannot afford to get Jesus wrong. That’s why denominations are not dead yet.

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Ruby Red Slippers (Or Why You Can’t “Handle” Suffering)

The ruby slippersIn my community of friends, it’s been a summer of things falling apart. Marriages ending. Relationships failing. Employment lost. Secret affairs uncovered. Uncertainty ahead. The tornadoes of suffering have been awfully destructive lately, rocking loose foundations and shattering fragile lives. I’ve sat in my orange “counseling” chair in my cramped church office and listened dumbfounded as person after person has tearfully shared the absolute horror going on their lives. As they weep and mourn, my heart has been broken, and I’ve been weeping and mourning alongside of them. I seldom question when the dark clouds of life pour rain on top of me, but seeing the pain sweep away the lives of those that I love has been particularly brutal. In the midst of the unrelenting flood waters of sorrow, I also find that people are looking for whatever life raft to which they can cling: A new job … a new house … a new life partner … a change of scenery … a new mission statement … a new life, period. Across the valley of suffering, hope always seems to extend past the horizon line.

One of my friends, who has been abandoned by his spouse, recently quoted of this line of reassurance in passing: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” With his burdened fake smile and teary eyes, I could tell that utterance was more of a word of re-assurance to himself.

Will God really not give you more than you can handle?

I’ve been pondering that notion what we can or cannot “handle” lately. I imagine that common Christianese catchphrase is actually a misquotation of 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” The verse is actually an encouragement from the apostle Paul in the midst of a shockingly stern warning to the Corinthians church. While Paul strongly warns the Corinthians church about the temptations of idolatry, grumbling and sexual immorality (see 1 Corinthians 10:6-10), Paul also reassures the church that the temptations of this world are “common to man.” Everyone should expect to be tempted by the pitfalls of the world and the snares of the flesh. Every school, job site, store and home in this world is abundant with traps and snares that could lead us astray from worshipping God. Temptation should be expected, because all men face temptation.

Amidst the temptations, there is hope: God is faithful. Even through the times where it seems like we’re drowning in our worldly desires, the strong arms of God will not let us go. Through every mistake, fault, flaw and abject failure, He walks alongside of us like the cheesy “Footprints” poem. In addition, we won’t be tempted beyond our “ability.” God will either give the believer proportionate strength to endure the trial or give us the ability to wrestle against them. In addition to strength, God will provide the believer with a “way of escape.” Our temptations may be lurking in plain sight, but the power of God has defeated sin’s domineering grip over our lives. God’s power allows our escape from sin. The great commentator Matthew Henry states: “There is no valley so dark but he can find a way through it, no affliction so grievous but he can prevent, or remove, or enable us to support it, and in the end overrule it to our advantage.” If the Father has truly set us free from the bondage of sin, He will not leave us as orphans to succumb to our vices again.

Notice the context of 1 Corinthians 10:13: Temptation. The passage is talking about the sinful desire to surrender to the lusts of the flesh and the vain hopelessness of the world. The passage is NOT talking about trials and sufferings. Throughout the New Testament, believers are continually promised that they will face trial and suffering (see John 16:33; 1 Peter 4:12-19; James 1:2-4, 12). In this life, believers are guaranteed to face numerous problems, such as illness, broken relationships, financial ruin, joblessness and (unless Jesus returns soon) death. If we are genuinely following Christ, we will also suffer persecution for the sake of His name (Matthew 10:22; Luke 9:23; John 15:21). Eventually, Christ will return and all pain and suffering on this earth will cease (Revelation 21:1-8) … But that day has not come yet.

So to recap: God has defeated sin’s power over the believer, and, therefore, God promises the believer with a “way of escape” from temptation. God has not yet completed the process of subjugating the entirety of creation underneath His rule, and, therefore, God promises the believer will face trails and sufferings in this life. God provides the believer with an “escape” from temptation … But the believer cannot always “escape” from trials and sufferings.

There’s the scene at the end of the “Wizard of Oz” (spoiler alert?) where Dorothy realizes that the method of escape from the torments of Oz has been there all along. All she needs to do is click her ruby red slippers and chant: “There’s no place like home.” Annnnnnd … *POOF!* … She’s safely back in the comforts of home again. There is tremendous danger of thinking of God as a pair of ruby red slippers that will carry us out of danger to the comforts of home at our beck and call. We can’t just click our heels in ruby red slippers and expect that God will immediately pluck us out the tornado. Sometimes the house gets dropped on our heads instead.

For those battered by the storms of life, there is tremendous spiritual honesty and truth in exchanging the ruby red slippers for some hip waders. Even in Christ, sometimes you’re going have to patiently endure the mess. When your wife walks out on you or your doctor shocks you with a surprise diagnosis, your confidence might be shaken to the core, but it doesn’t mean that God has lost his love for you. Unfortunately, many believers will gather around the sick and wounded like Job’s awful “friends” and chant “curse God and die,” falsely believing that suffering only happens to the unchaste. Like hyenas gathered around a corpse, the last remnants of hope are slowly picked away.

There’s tremendous damage perpetrated by the false notion that Christians can “man up” and “handle” anything. What does the term “handle” mean anyway? That God won’t allow us to have a nervous breakdown? That God won’t put us out homeless begging on the street? That God doesn’t want to make you mad or stressed out? That God won’t hurt your feelings or make you uncomfortable? That God won’t take your favorite stuff away? Whenever someone quotes the phrase “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” the real meaning generally is “I can handle this.” The phrase means that we are able to handle the storms in life without the help of God, thank you very much. It means that He’s given me all that I need to handle everything, so I don’t need to lean on Christ. It’s contradictory of the foundation of the Gospel itself, because, in order to surrender to Christ, we must understand that we cannot save ourselves.

God routinely gives us more than we can “handle” to demonstrate that only He can “handle” the problems of life. God may permit the thorn in our flesh if we understand that only His grace is sufficient for our every need (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). God will allow trial to bring us to our knees if it ultimately brings us running into His arms. The “ability” endure anything in this life comes God – not from within ourselves. The fact of the matter is that we can handle very little in life on our own. Some have been so ravaged by the evils of this world that they cannot get out of bed in the morning except by the grace of God alone. It’s only when we discover our own mortality, weakness, sorrow and hopelessness that we find Christ’s life, strength, joy and hope. It’s no wonder that moments of trial and suffering drive lapsed “Christians” of all varieties to instinctively darken the door of the church again, becoming comforted by the knowledge of the holy and the all-consuming love of Christ.

So here’s the whole point … Once you find yourself resting on dry land at the end of the world-shattering deluge in your life, our first inclination should be to thank God and trust Him more. If we find ourselves patting our own backs while screaming “attaboy” … If we start writing a Godless self-help novel … Or if we completely ignore God’s part in our salvation, that’s plain wrong. We need to treat Christ as the one walking alongside of us through the trials and sufferings of life. And if we don’t get to the other side of trial without trusting God more, then that trial has been completely wasted. The great temptation of suffering is to gleefully wallow in the mud to call attention to our self-destruction instead of rejoicing as Jesus carries us through the mud to reach the safety of the other side.

In the midst of trial, too many Christians turn into the functional equivalent of a spiritual personal trainer, screaming alongside of us as we grit our teeth through every uphill climb: “You can do all things! You can do it!” If the Bible is nothing more than a self-help slogan, then we’re all tragically lost. Instead, God’s Word points us to the Christ, the one who the author of our salvation. Our hope is the glorious power of Christ to save us – not our frailty, timidity and weakness.

To all of my friends going through trial and suffering: You can’t do it. You can’t handle it. That’s why we need to wholly lean on the power of Christ. He is strong in the midst of our weakness.