A breaking point within nondenominationalism

As a nondenominational Christian of 19 years who has since converted to Catholicism, I have always felt as though nondenominationalism failed to provide an intellectually sustainable model for theological thinking. This article is my attempt to hash out why that is and to relay my knowledge from the inside as an argument against this form of Christianity.

For me, the key to understanding nondenominational Christianity is to first understand what it is not. The prefix “non” refers to an emptying of or departure from a given denomination. This principle could be traced to the work of Enlightenment philosopher René Descartes, who was known for his isolated method of doing philosophy. Descartes was set on reconsidering past ideas and structures of thinking.

As a result, he committed to this project of deconstruction in isolation. He thought he would be a better knower once he was free from the web of previous philosophical traditions. Similarly, I believe this line of thinking is foundational to understanding nondenominationalism, as it is antithetical in this movement to ride in tandem with similar groups — whether by name, creed or shared confession. This makes them impossible to criticize in detail apart from the values that make a congregation nondenominational in the first place.

This is why I address the ideas commonly held by roughly all nondenom churches, and not particular ones. Further, I write this article out of fear that the ideological underpinnings that have caused nondenominationalism to come into being have led these churches to embrace a shared disposition in their approach to doing the intellectual work of theology. I believe this has contributed to the issues faced by individuals within the movement in their own attempts at doing good theology as nondenom Christians. But first, here is a positive definition of nondenominationalism to follow the negative one.

The primary goal of nondenominationalism, from my experience, is to live out first-century Christianity in the modern world with reference to scripture alone. Nondenominational Christians see themselves as the inheritors of biblical teaching set apart from particular traditions and denominations, so as to be guided by the orthopraxy of the apostles and be uncorrupted by secondhand mediators of Scripture. This method of abstraction from theological structure and isolation from ecumenical attachment is consistent with Descartes in terms of method, as already referenced.

This lack of theological structure leaves nondenominational Christians with few orthodox Christian beliefs, such as the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, as these beliefs are the inheritance of denominations since departed. And because nondenominational Christians do not find their theological identity in a larger tradition, they are left to find one within polemical arguments like free will versus sovereign will, faith versus works and dispensational versus covenant theology. The point is this: If someone finds their identity outside of a theological tradition, they are left to fight over a fine point on one or multiple sides of the previous list. This is what has happened in many nondenominational communities.

However, the consequence of being committed to this project of self-catechesis can sometimes be just as harmful as having never begun. For instance, it is not clear from a simple and uneducated reading of scripture and the church fathers that one must reject Arianism. But if someone knows neither what Arius was on about nor the very tradition which struggled to define the deity of Christ, the claim that Jesus is God will quickly cease to make sense on a non-polemical level, especially once that person finds themselves outside of a tradition or theological structure that can bear the weight of the claim that God became an uncreated human.

In other words, if someone wants to hold a high and complex view of Christ apart from preexisting theological structures, they will have to reinvent the wheel by reading lots of old books and throwing some (more) rocks at ol’ Arius — all this without accidentally toppling the stool beneath their own intellectual footing on other related metaphysical issues.

Nondenominational Christians, though they profess orthodox beliefs, lack the structure to argue for them either because they lack the theological vocabulary or a set of coherent parallel doctrines which would keep the metaphorical footstool on which they stand comfortably beneath them.

The worst outcome for a nondenominational community is that individuals, if not entire church bodies, will implicitly begin to accept early heresies without knowing they have done so. In my experience, Manichaeism (salvation of the soul by knowledge apart from the body) is almost a necessity if someone wants to be considered a “Bible-believer” within many nondenominational communities, as shown by common notions such as the rapture and floaty-soul heaven. Bad theology doesn’t come out of nowhere: It has existed for some time. And I am afraid nondenominationalism is structurally unprepared to defend against it and to produce capable players who can thoughtfully engage theological conversations already occurring in several preexisting Christian traditions and denominations.