Monday, October 14, 2013

Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity: A Review by David Lindberg

Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity (Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson, eds., Crossway: Wheaton, 2013)

According to Anthony Chute, those looking at the church from the outside and even those involved in the church often view the denominational differences which divide American Christians as “nothing more than petty disagreements between strong-willed religious partisans ” (p. 13) In the pluralistic culture of the west this can have a negative effect in at least two ways: First, denominational diversity can fuel sectarian pride among confessing Christians; division becomes more than simply personal conviction regarding the finer points of theology- it becomes personal.  Second, denominational diversity, especially where sectarian pride exists, can communicate to those outside the church that Christians cannot even agree on “the truth” they expect others to embrace and, in their minds, confirms the suspicion that religion is just about grabbing power.

So what should we, as theologians, pastors and laypersons, do with the external and internal division that exists within American Evangelicalism?  In the introduction editor Anthony Chute suggests that the “proposed solution to such divisions [has typically been] more visible unity, but historically speaking, attempts at establishing visible unity have failed” (p. 14). Chute puts forth the doctrinal disagreement between Whitefield and Wesley, despite the lip service the former gave to unity, as an example of how difficult such unity can be even among those who fervently desire it. Thus Why We Belong seeks to address “how denominational affiliation can be natural without being negative, and how evangelical identity can help rather than hinder Christian unity” – a tough task for anyone immersed, or sprinkled, in the waters of American Evangelicalism (15).

At this point a brief comment is warranted regarding the book’s focus on the American church. One potential weakness of this book is the fact that the discussion is focused primarily on the American church. Even the perspective of an Anglican and Pentecostal didn’t really satisfy any attempt to bring the global voice into the discussion. The book was short enough that this could have been done with more than the nod it receives in the last chapter. Even so, it is clear that the editors and authors are not blind to the “catholic church” or to the need to hear the voice of fellow Christians around the globe.  

In pursuing the main task of Why We Belong, which is to aid Christian unity while positively maintaining denominational affiliations, the editors take a unique approach. Rather than having each contributor present doctrinal defenses for their tradition – an exercise that often gets abstract as if members of other traditions are ignorant of the relevant counter arguments and Scripture passages (see p. 16) – Why We Belong gives six church leaders the opportunity to present the personal narratives behind why they belong to their particular tradition. These authors are: Gerald Bray (Anglican), Timothy George (Baptist), Douglas Sweeney (Lutheran), Timothy Tennent (Methodist), Byron Klaus (Pentecostal), and Bryan Chapell (Presbyterian).

This approach does not seek to minimize the doctrinal convictions that led each author to their particular tradition; indeed, the chapters are replete in doctrinal considerations.  Rather, the purpose is to put the human element before us as we consider the way forward in the Evangelical pursuit of ecclesiastical unity. This personal approach certainly has its advantages as each author offers something that brings the discussion to a human level. Further, each chapter gives good reason to view the church through a wider lens. In this regard the intended outcome is achieved. However, I am not convinced that the personal approach adds all that much to the overall discussion of Evangelical unity and denominational diversity. Some of my hesitation has to do with the subjectivity of the approach –arguments were not really made so much as personal convictions were presented. Therefore, if you can only read a couple of chapters I highly commend chapters one (Christopher Morgan) and nine (David Dockery), which together offer practical steps toward evangelical unity. Chapters  two through eight are mostly helpful if you know nothing about and have no friends within the represented traditions (note: Anthony Chute also offers an overview of each denomination’s storied histories in chapter two).

The major payoff of the book comes in chapter nine when David Dockery finally asks the type of question that needs to be asked. Having generally described the distinctives of the major branches of Christianity (from Rome to Pennsylvania) Dockery asks: “Can we say that these” – all these different groups with their various distinctions – “are all true to the words of Ephesians 4 that proclaim there is ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’?”( p. 214). Ephesians 4 is a key passage when considering the subject of “Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity.” I think this is especially true when considering what took place soon after the Protestant separation from Rome. During the time of the Reformation Protestants almost immediately divided over at least some of the things that are supposed to demonstrate our unity, namely the sacraments. As I am sure most are aware, in the case of Luther and Zwingli the division was over Communion, while later the Anabaptists and Reformed divided over Baptism (p. 212).

The book’s contributors, convinced of the importance of Ephesians 4 and like passages, are rightly concerned that Evangelicals pursue unity without sacrificing doctrinal precision rooted in a shared commitment to Scripture while still having the freedom to practice and apply differing convictions on the interpretation and application of the same Word of God. Personally, I think this is impossible without the existence of a basic Protestant Ecclesiology (after all, Evangelicalism is a movement and not a church and visible unity remains an uphill battle as long as there is not some form of a visible structure binding churches together).

The fact of the matter is that Evangelical Protestants, like the reformers themselves, divide primarily over things that are supposed to unite (specifically Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). However, Dockery offers some thoughts that push us in the right direction when he talks about reclaiming “a model of dynamic orthodoxy.” He states:

A commitment to…confessional integrity will help us recover a call to the unity of the Christian faith in accord with the Nicene affirmation that the church is one, holy, universal, and apostolic. All of us in this changing twenty-first-century world must recommit ourselves afresh to the oneness and universality of the church. This recommitment must also be supported by the right sort of virtues: a oneness that calls for humility and gentleness, patience, forbearance of one another, a love and diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace… [So that we can] hold hands with brothers and sisters [with whom we] disagree on secondary and tertiary matters of theology and [while working] together for the common good to extend the work of the gospel and the kingdom of God on this earth… (p. 230)[1]

Therefore, what makes Why We Belong a valuable read (particularly the chapters highlighted) is that it pushes the Protestant/Evangelical pastor, theologian and layperson to consider ways of developing and maintaining a model of mutually confessed orthodoxy (what I envision as a basic Protestant Ecclesiology). If we can formally come together around what we agree upon – the first five councils of the Church and the basic tenants of the Reformation – then we should be able to learn from one another, minister alongside one another, and communicate internally and externally a unity in the Lord that, despite our still very important differences, reflects the visible unity for which Jesus himself prayed (John 17).  Further, this would communicate a genuine love for one another as we in unity proclaim the message that Jesus is Lord and apart from him there is no salvation from sin and hope of eternal life. It is my prayer that the Spirit of God moves us in such a direction.

[1] I should mention that Bryan Chapell offers some very helpful thoughts regarding how “the Word rightly preached…the sacraments rightly administered…[and] discipline rightly enforced” can remain the marks of a true church even if individual denominations differ on the exact application of each mark (p. 183).  

Rev. David Lindberg (MDiv '10)
Ass. Pastor,  ChristChurch Presbyterian
Atlanta, GA


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