Friday, May 30, 2008

FAITH QUESTIONS: Is it wrong to use denominational titles?

ASK THE PASTOR: Is it wrong to identify yourself by denominational names like Baptist or Presbyterian?

If not, what name would you use? "Christian"? Before you decide, it might be helpful to remember where the title "Christian" originated. Believers were first called 'Christians' by the citizens of Antioch (Acts 11:26). Antioch was the third largest city in the world during the era of the New Testament. It was diverse, and constituted many different religions and people groups. When non-believers heard about the teachings of Jesus Christ, they mistook the title "Christ" for a name. Roman citizens had three names: the praemomen (first name), nomen (family name), and cognomen (surname). Generally Romans went by their cognomen. For example, the name of one eminent Roman statesman was Marcus Tullius Cicero, though he was generally known as Cicero. Most likely, the non-Christians at Antioch mistook the title "Christ" for a cognomen, and hence called the followers of Christ Christianoi, "Christ's people". Thus, the very name "Christian" resulted from a misunderstanding of pagans and was not a name given to us by Christ. This is not to say that it is wrong to use this title, but it does suggest that absolute dedication to it is unwarranted.

Now, however, we seem to be plagued with many "sub-names" that appear to dis-unify the body of Christ. Some four hundred years ago John Bunyan, the author of the Pilgrim's Progress, wrote that the "titles of Anabaptist, Independents, Presbyterians, or the like...came...from Hell and Babylon; for they naturally lead to divisions." [1]. As we survey the Christian landscape, it is easy to understand Bunyan's point. Schisms and factions plague Christ's Church. Why, then, would we continue to identify ourselves by denominational names and titles? Isn't it better simply to go by the title "Christian"?

The Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians preciously because of "denominational schisms" [2]. Paul writes, "For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." Is Christ divided?" (I Cor 1:11-13a ESV). Many see in these words an apostolic disdain for using titles of differentiation. I disagree. In this passage Paul is not condemning reliance upon a human leader or theological stance. The early Christians were not monolithic in their theological understandings. Some (like Paul) had more Hellenistic leanings, others (like James) had more Hebrew leanings. If Paul was forbidden following leadership why would he tell the Corinthians "Therefore, I urge you to follow me" (1 Cor 4:16)? The problem Paul is addressing isn't their identification into various groupings but rather the quarreling that was taking place.

I believe that denominational titles are important for the following reasons:

1. Denominationalism allows Christians to be proud of their denominational heritage. As Paul demonstrates, there is nothing wrong with following the example of human leaders. A Wesleyan is simply someone who recognizes the teaching influence John Wesley. Non-denominationalism tends to lead to a chronological snobbery: "only the present is of value". It ignores the centuries of tradition, debates, discussions, and reflection upon the great theological doctrines of the church.

2. Denominationalism stimulates mature, reflective theological thinking. Denominationalism keeps alive the respective theological peculiarities of a specific group. If forces the worldwide Body of Christ to constantly ponder the doctrines of the faith, pushing us all to a deeper understanding of God's word. Issues like baptism, salvation, justification, spiritual gifts, the role of the holy spirit, church government, and original sin are not shoved under the rug. Instead, they are continually debated and discussed. Non-denominationalism tends to minimize the importance of most doctrines, which eventually creates a doctrinally illiterate membership.

3. There is no escape from it. Frankly, it is silly to think we can escape labels or divisive attitudes. Groups such as the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and the Plymouth Brethren all eschew denominationalism--but have only succeeded in creating more denominations. Christians who say they are not part of a denomination but only follow "Christ" are still condemned by 1 Cor 1:11-13 as Paul also includes the label "of Christ". Trying to run from denominationalism only increases it.

4. Denominationalism is honest. A denominational label like Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist leaves little doubt regarding the theological stance of a church. For example, I should not be surprised to hear an arminian-sounding sermon in a Methodist church. Nor should I be surprised to find infant baptism taking place in a Presbyterian church. Non-denominational churches sometimes hide their theological positions and one only discovers them once he or she is well within the labyrinth.

Of course, these are reason why denominational labels are permissible to use. None of these arguments constitute a requirement. To be honest, I think denominational labels cause as much harm as good. However, I do not see how non-denominationalism solves the problem, and frankly I believe it only exasperates it. Denominationalism in and of itself is not the problem. The problem is the quarrelling that occurs between the denominations. For someone to declare themselves non-denominational, and then to criticize the denominations, only seems to increase the quarrelling.

As for John Bunyan, it seems he realized one could not ultimately escape such labels. In his book The Heavenly Footman Bunyan exhorts his readers to “have a care of Quakers, Ranters, Freewillers (Arminians); also do not have much company with some Anabaptists, though I go under that name myself”.

Don't be afraid of being part of a specific denomination (I would, of course, urge you become a Baptist!). But remember that the Bride of Christ is a kaleidoscope of colors, and dazzling as it is, your denomination is only one of them.

Principles and True, John Bunyan Online Library, (accessed November 16, 2007) p 10.
[2] Readers are asked to forgive this obvious anachronism.
[3] John Bunyan, “The Heavenly Footman”, 1894. In vol. 3 of The Works of John Bunyan, ed. George Offor (Edinburg: Banner of Truth, 1999), p. 383.

Questions for Pastor Josh can be submitted via Email. "Ask the Pastor" is a feature in the monthly newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.

1 comment:

  1. And this received no comments? I am surprised. Your analysis seems to me to have presented the very argument Paul did on the issue. There must be factions among you, he said, so the good may be approved. Now if you would only see that the Presbyterian way is the "good" of which he spoke everything would be well ... (yes, I am kidding) :)

    On the matter of the pagans misunderstanding the use of Christ - it would be well for us to remember that when we use the words "Lord, Jesus Christ" we are using two titles and one name. He is the Lord (in Hebrew thinking the word is Adonai and applied whenever they run into the name of God) Jesus (actually in Hebrew Joshua = "God saves us") Christ (or, in Hebrew, "Messiah" since Christos is Greek for anointed as is "Messiah"). So it would appear that in our era the Antiochene view is still prevalent. And, yes, I am sure you covered this but I haven't read far enough to find it yet :)