In defense of nondenominationalism (and a joint call to theological depth)

This piece is a response to “Against nondenominationalism: A call to doctrinal arms.” To read that piece in full, visit

In last week’s edition of Chimes, a fellow author argued against nondenominationalism — that is, Christians and churches who choose not to identify with a specific Christian denomination. He believes that this movement within the American church contributes to the overall theological decline of students at Calvin.

As a nondenominational (often abbreviated nondenom) Christian myself, I disagree. Although I cannot speak for all of the movement, I can speak from my own upbringing and the churches and individuals that have played a role in my own faith formation. From these experiences, I will offer an alternative view.

First, the author expresses a misconception of what being nondenom is. Choosing to practice faith apart from the structure of a denomination does not entail being insulated from, nor discarding, the richness of church history and Christian thought.

I grew up reading Reformed authors and listening to Baptist preachers. The pastors I have heard in nondenom churches consistently draw on commentaries ranging from the modern-day all the way back to thinkers from the Reformation, like Luther and Calvin. The result is not a weakened theological framework, but a robust one — centered on the message of Christ — that holds a high view of Scripture.

Second, the previous author argues that knowing the terms of doctrine is requisite to engaging in inter-tradition dialogue for the purposes of mutual edification. However, a nondenominational background is not necessarily lacking in theological perspectives, nor is its lack of a single tradition a detriment to these discussions — rather, it is a strength.

When I first began worshiping alongside the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), I quickly found that not only had I stepped into a different theological framework but also into a subculture. Denominations share many similarities with cultures. Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, admirable traits and hidden faults. Often, it takes an outside perspective — such as someone who is part of, or at least influenced by, multiple cultures — to see the implicit biases more clearly.

I suspect that the hidden biases and group identity involved in being part of a denomination may actually hurt, not facilitate, the kind of inter-tradition dialogue which the previous author advocates. For example, when my family talks about their decision to send my little sister to a Baptist high school, we have been met with a negative, almost gut-level response from many CRC Christians.

Are Christians that adhere to a faith tradition less likely to listen to viewpoints from other traditions? I hope not, and I’m thankful to know many individuals who are very willing to have conversations with Christians from all kinds of backgrounds. Nondenom Christians are by no means free from our own implicit biases. But when our theological beliefs are tied down to Scripture more than a church body or sense of group identity, we are actually better prepared to converse with traditions that we disagree with.

Finally, I see and lament the doctrinal “slippage” that the previous author points out. Many Calvin students place more emphasis on attending Friday chapel than taking the initiative to dive into the Word regularly and see how it speaks to their lives.

However, when the author blames all the nondenom churches in America for this phenomenon, he is taking his argument too far. Theological formation happens more on the level of the individual and their immediate community. A Christian may know all the jargon of their denomination yet never be changed by the gospel; likewise, someone who does not belong to a faith tradition may lack depth in their reading of Scripture.

But of course, there will be churches and Christians on both sides that do this wonderfully. My father, a huge influence on my own faith, read up on his theology — without a denomination, Christian parents or even a seminary degree — and served in cross-cultural ministry for 17 years. He took it upon himself to learn doctrine and teach us simply because he believed it was important. Although doctrine is no replacement for genuine faith and renewal coming from the Holy Spirit, I also think it is too vital to ignore. It is my hope that every Calvin student finds themselves rooted and growing in a community where they can dig deep into everything Scripture and Christian thought have to offer — in a denomination or otherwise.