Against nondenominationalism: A short call to (doctrinal) arms

Calvin students are far too agreeable on matters of faith. Agreeable is perhaps the wrong word; it implies a conversation is happening. There are those that would defend this state, saying it is preferable to the bickering that comes with tribalism. I would point to historical examples of a true excess of bickering (see the Thirty Years War, which claimed casualties in the millions). 

Let’s find some context. Consider a continuum on which all possible approaches to Christian dialogue can be located. If doctrinal conflicts that result in the loss of life exist on the farthest possible end of this spectrum, what shall we find on the other end? If the violent end of the spectrum represents a mode of dialogue with ultimate stakes, does the other extreme not represent a mode in which there are no stakes? In conversations on campus, I have found great resistance and disinterest in discussing doctrinal matters.

It is apparent that one end of the spectrum results in Christians killing Christians, but the path that Calvin is on has awful consequences too. The effects of our changing dialogue seem to be more aligned with the trajectory of European Christianity. 

Following nearly two millennia of awe-inspiring history, the hulking cathedrals that produced the highest art, philosophy, music, liturgy and sacred prose now stand cold and hollow, converted to nightclubs, skate parks or government offices.

Our churches still have congregants; the near majority of Americans hold membership in a church, but the signs of slippage have begun to appear. Perhaps the most recognizable is the advent of “nondenominationalism” — churches that do not place themselves in a faith tradition. 

Some will defend the right of a church not to align themselves with a Christian tradition or navigate the bureaucracy of the mainline denominations. But to get sucked into the matter of church politics is to miss the underlying problem: doctrinal decline. It should be noted that it is possible to maintain doctrine while separating oneself from a swollen bureaucracy, (see the Anglican nonconformists, of whom  Puritans are a part).

When Christians believe they can operate without tradition, doctrine decays. When I say doctrine, the collected advice of a grandparent or some similar figure should come to mind. Somebody who has lived many decades, taken all the wisdom they have gathered from their life and their predecessors and entrusted this body of knowledge to others so that they might do the same.

Those whose faith is formed in nondenominational churches, more often than not, never receive this knowledge. When they come to Christian higher education and encounter a difficult problem (like a group of biblical literalists tabling about gender and sexuality), there is no doctrine to fall back on, no common terms with which to debate. Those without doctrine must start from the beginning, relying on their own, or a pastor’s, reading of scripture. 

To educate oneself in a tradition is to employ the wisdom of centuries in difficult conversations, to develop terms with which to understand God and His world. The tradition you choose is mostly arbitrary. Christian traditions have developed in contradistinction to each other; to understand the general shape of one is to understand the outline of another. It matters not where you scatter your seeds, just that roots grow.

If we are in agreement that we will not take up swords but also agree that ignoring theological distinction is just as problematic, what are we aiming for? Imagine a nondenominational Christian attending a bible study filled with recent acquaintances. The verses being read discuss the doctrine of election. Immediately after the reading someone asks that person to discuss predestination. Could the nondenominational Christian confidently articulate their view? Does that person even have a view to articulate?

I envision a conversation in which a Methodist can learn about Calvinism’s tremendous vision of the absolute sovereignty of God and a Calvinist can learn about Methodism’s treatment of the mercy of God with their vision of his all-pervasive grace. Has not God made Methodists to edify Calvinists and vice versa? Surely we would be better off if we knew the terms of doctrine and could use them to talk to one another.