This past week, the prominent Southern Baptist minister, Beth Moore, announced she was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. Beth Moore’s departure is welcome by many of her critics, yet for many others, it is cause for grief. Some have said that her departure should serve as a wake-up call for the denomination, which has seen several prominent leaders leave in the last couple of years, as it battles over controversies regarding politics, race, sexual abuse, and the role of women within their churches.
This controversy has me thinking about how partisan and tribal we can be in Christianity. Our history is filled with people picking sides, forming their own little tribes and clans, and battling with one another over whatever the controversial issue of the day has been. We love forming denominations around our favorite pope type figures, heroes of the faith, and theological thought leaders. And, Beth Moore leaving the Southern Baptist Convention is but another of a million such stories of Christians going their separate ways because of denominational tensions.
We Love Our Sects
There are an estimated 2.6 billion Christians in the world today. It is no surprise that there are divisions among us. As an old joke goes, wherever you have 2 rabbi’s, you’ll have 3 opinions. Christians have proved to be no different in our mindsets.
Among these billions of people, Christianity can be broken down into primarily 3 different groups: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. From these three branches there are roughly 40 different other major organizational schools of thought, that further splinter off into many other hundreds, if not thousands of sub-groups. .
Denominational organizations form around these groups. And that’s not always a bad thing. Denominations can be useful in the sense they provide a network of churches with similar theological convictions and practices with a means of associating and collaborating with one another. These concerns often arise out of very pragmatic issues. No church wants to feel like they are going at it alone, and as they look to expand their particular flavor of Christianity, they wish to organize with other like minded individuals so that they can accomplish more, together. “A cord of three strands is not easily broken,” and good and fruitful things often happen as a result of these joint efforts.
But it’s not all pie in the sky. Things can turn sour, and unhealthy and destructive mindsets can be created.
Where things become unhealthy is when individuals within those denominations start to form tribal like identities that pit their particular branch of Christianity against other branches of Christianity. They become unhealthy when Christians start making war against other Christians, as they begin to draw lines in the sand, and “earnestly contend for the faith” against one another. Often, instead of trying to win lost souls, they try to win each other to their particular denomination. Petty fights break out, factions form, unkind words are exchanged (especially on social media), and before you know it, people start jumping ship.
From this mess, new alliances are often formed, pet doctrines become codified, new churches are established, and the process repeats itself over and over again. This is in essence the history of Christianity for the past 2,000 years.
Is God Even There?
A brief story from my life…
One Pentecostal denomination I was involved with for several years, and went to Bible college for, had much of this tribalistic mentality.
The denomination was pretty new as far as denominations go. It had only been around about 100 years. And as such, there were members within those churches who could trace their spiritual and biological heritage back to the origins of the denomination. Some would say rather proudly, “I am third generation church of God!” Sometimes this was said out of genuine joy and celebration over their family and the rich spiritual heritage passed on to them by their families.
But, there were others who wore that badge as it were a royal scepter, to be used to knight or smite whomever they pleased. For these individuals that claim was used to establish a hierarchy and social pecking order within the church. And for Johnny-Come-Lately’s like me, it soon became abundantly clear that there wasn’t much room for me within the ranks.
I can recall this time I went with my former fiancee to a church down the street from her. It was from a rival sister denomination, that more or less had 99% of the same theological convictions and practices our denomination had. She had never been to this church. And she was hesitant to go, because she wondered “Will God even be there?” when we meet. She was “2nd generation” Church of God, and she had spent her entire life within her particular denomination. As funny as this may sound, she was as serious as a heart attack. She really thought there was the chance that God would not be at this particular church we looked to visit simply because it was a slightly different denomination from the one she grew up in.
So we went. And to her surprise, she felt God present at that church.
I Just Want To Be A Christian
Ever since I became a Christian in my late teenage years, I’ve always looked for a place to belong in the church. I found out though, that at times, that can be a pretty rough road to travel. Not everyone is interested in you belonging.
I remember a time when my wife and I were looking for a new church shortly after we got married. We visited around to several churches, and had mostly good experiences. But, I do recall this one church we went to in which the pastor “warmly” welcomed us. After service was over, the pastor pulled us aside into his office to talk. He wanted us to make it crystal clear to us that his church was a Southern Baptist Church, and that from within that denomination, they ascribed to a certain theological persuasion within that denomination (they were Southern Baptists of the dispensational school of thought, not the Reformed). And that was pretty much the essence of our conversation.
Needless to say, we never went back.
Such can be a pretty heartbreaking thing to experience. And as one untimely born, I’ve just never been able to understand it. While I don’t mind the church organizing itself into larger umbrella organizations and networks outside of the local church, I’ve just never been able to buy into the entire denominational thing. And by that, I don’t mean I’m over here rooting for “non-denomination denomination.”
I just don’t get the rampant tribalism. I know it’s a story as old as Christianity itself. Even in the apostle Paul’s day, there were factions forming, with some saying they were of Paul, Barnabas, or Cephas. Some even claimed to follow a group of “Super Apostles,” as if the apostles Paul, Barnabas, and Cephas weren’t quite spectacular enough in their own right.
There’s always been Christians who want to only be associated with other types of Christians.
I just can’t do that. I don’t want to have my identity tethered to a certain denomination or sect within Christianity.
I am not a denomination. I simply want to be a Christian wherever other Christians are. And why? Because I find Jesus in them all. And if the Spirit of God can richly dwell within the heart of someone else that just so happens to have a different sign outside their church door, I’m happy to join them in loving fellowship. For it is the bond we have in the Spirit of God that ultimately unites us.
We have one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. And, we often forget that.
This entire issue with Beth Moore leaving the Southern Baptist Convention makes me realize how much forgetting we often do.