The Name on the Sign - May mean less than you think.
I grew up as a “Big-B Baptist”. I heard my pastor say, “Baptist born and Baptist bred and when I die, I’ll be Baptist dead.” Another one said, “Someone once asked me if I wasn’t a Baptist, what would I be? I said, ‘Ashamed! That’s what I’d be. Ashamed’!” Now, much of this was done in jest and all of us would have clearly said that before we were “Baptists” we were “Christians” and saw ourselves as the Family of God first and foremost. But make no mistake, we drew lines of denominational demarcation – clearly and loudly.
Several years ago, during a time of significant transition in my life, I moved to a non-denominational context. The reaction of some was quite interesting. For some, I had “left the fold” – whatever that means. For others, they assumed I was in some sort of spiritual identity crisis and perhaps a sign that I was losing my theological moorings. Others still cynically proposed that I was “going liberal” and they didn’t mean that as a compliment. I had to resign from a position I held in an institution because I was no longer part of the Baptist denomination in one case.
I have respect for denominations. In my head, I align as surely with historic Baptist doctrine and faith today as I have ever – perhaps more so. I know and understand the basic stances of most of the historical denominations and there are some where I am in significant alignment and others where I could not join in worship at virtually any level. I’m not ashamed in the least of my Baptist identity and upbringing.
In the years since I “strayed” into the land of those who want to worship and minister free of a denominational title, I have learned a great deal. I’m in no way trying to convince anyone that they should follow my path and abandon their denominational ties. I am sharing my own journey so that you might understand.
I have learned that working and worshipping in a non-denominational context has not only allowed me to be more effective in reaching others for Christ -- it has given me greater voice than when I spoke within the intellectual and spiritual vacuum in which I previously ministered. It also allowed me to see easier some of the flawed theology that was in my former context (legalism, cheap grace, lack of repentance in salvation and a watered down easy-believism posing as the gospel, for examples) and to be more objective about my personal blind spots. I still, on occasion, have important and spirited conversations with my friends from non-Baptist backgrounds on issues like predestination, election, eschatology, signs/wonders and once-saved-always-saved vs. never-saved-thought-they-were-saved vs once-saved-hope-to-stay-saved among others. Disagree in my non-denominational setting and we continue the dialogue and keep studying -- together. Disagree in my former context and someone often would categorize you as “drifting theologically” or “moving away from the faith” or, on occasion, would even feel compelled to warn others in stark and threatening terms which would lead to shunning and back-biting. Even asking an honest question, admitting that you were struggling with a theological point or reading or citing the wrong person could subject you to damaging speculation and ostracization (known as 'separation.')
In my current context, I love frequently being the most conservative guy in a room filled with people who love to study and converse about theology and with none of us speaking in absolute terms about non-absolute doctrines. I have learned more theologically in my years in a non-denominational context, than in all my years in my former circle....and yet, my core beliefs are fundamentally unchanged from those days. If my beliefs, doctrine and philosophy are so unsound that I cannot associate with, fellowship with, discuss matters with others who love Jesus and His Word, but have reached somewhat different conclusions, then I need to rethink where I am spiritually in my own walk.
It was recently suggested to me that denominational labels are very important so that people know what kind of church they are getting into when they attend. But times have changed. I live in Charlotte, NC -- the very heart of the Bible Belt. You can pull up to one of our over 1,000 churches with a denominational label on the sign in our fair city and literally get any color in the rainbow. For example, Myers Park Baptist will quite literally have THE rainbow in their church as they endorse homosexuality, female pastors, universalism and many other false and flawed teachings and yet, they have the word ‘Baptist’ on their sign just like Westborough Baptist Church in Kansas known for disrupting funerals with demonstration against gays. Up the road is the Central Church of God many think of as "charismatic", however, they do not practice the gifts of the Spirit there as we would think of in a church that has their name or identity and their pastor is one of the most gifted Gospel preachers I've EVER heard and is a clarion call for repentance and holiness in our city. We have Methodists where the Gospel is preached each week and Methodists where they could not tell you the way to heaven with a gun to their head. There are many Baptists in town – Southern, Independent, National, American, Cooperative, Conservative…to name a few. If there's 30 flavors of "Baptists" in our city, there are 31 flavors of Presbyterians -- reformed, USA, PCA, Independent, Cumberland, associate reformed (ARP), etc... Some of the best Presbyterian churches in town do not even have the word “Presbyterian” in their name. In some denominational churches you will get the gospel -- in others you won't. I could go on, but I think you get my gist -- today, traditional labels that once meant something for definition, mean absolutely nothing in these parts. So, most have had to learn to check them out before committing -- either by reviewing the website, talking to someone they know, sending an email or getting in touch with their leadership some other way. I actually think that might be a good thing -- it forces people to dig deeper in their investigation of a church and to assume less.
I’ve seen internet flame wars break out repeatedly over those who don’t put their denominational affiliation out front and in their name or on their sign. I’ve heard it preached about in conferences. I’ve personally felt the backlash – both directions – from those who feel strong one way or the other on denominational labels (I don’t feel that strongly about the matter personally.) Sadly, too often it just becomes one more division among us when the only division that will really matter in 100 years is between those who are genuinely part of the Family of God and those who aren’t….and that is going to have very little to do with the denominational label they put in our obituaries.
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