OUT TO SEA, Swimming in the abyss of NonDenominationalism
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If you are looking for a church that has virtually no leadership accountability, various views of doctrine and freedom from church discipline, then attending a non-denominational church is for you! Having swam in the ocean of non-denominationalism for 10 years, I can say with utmost certainty that not being part of a mainline Christian denomination is more frightening than you might think.
Don’t get me wrong – the concept of being an autonomous local assembly (i.e.; non-denominational) has a positive side. Some would say that a non-denominational church is a true mirror of the early church. No Pope, or president of the Southern Baptist Convention breathing down their necks; no general conferences or yearly mission statements. Just church for church’s sake. Simple, no frills – basic.
Denominations get a bad rap, from inside and outside the church. If you argue with an atheist regarding the truth claims of Christianity, he/she will undoubtedly bring up the fact that there are over 30,000 Christian denominations, which to them obviously points to a crack in the validity of our faith. How can there be so many different views? Which one is right? Pursuing this discussion will send you down a rabbit trail of epic proportions. Don’t go there. Trust me.
While it’s true that there ARE over 30,000 Christian denominations in existence today, most of them agree on the basic tenet of Christianity – salvation by grace through faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Another common thread that most all denominations share is a hierarchal structure, and accountability at all levels. Everyone has to answer to somebody, because as Christians, we are not a law unto ourselves. (Romans 2:14)
After spending 10+ years in a Baptist church, our family took a leap of faith and became charter members of a non-denominational church. This ‘new birth’ was actually the result of a church split, which plays out countless times here in the Bible belt. One group gets mad at the other and somewhere in the heat of the battle, a new church gets formed. The new church promises to be a ground-breaking fellowship, rooted in basic bible theology and grass-roots management. “We won’t have to ANSWER to anyone except God!” That is the creedo of the classic non-denominational church.
I’ll admit, we were very excited to be part of a new church. There were no secrets hiding or cliques yet formed. We felt as though we had been transported back to the 1st century church, perhaps the church at Ephesus. Preaching a simple Gospel to simple people and experiencing complete freedom in the process. Isn’t that what everyone wants, freedom to worship and serve God as they please? A religious utopia, if you will.
Non-denominational churches come in all shapes and sizes. You have the quakerish gatherings where all the women wear nothing but dresses and welcome a new addition every 18 months or so. Then there are the charismatic churches that get your blood pumping with exciting worship music and exuberant preaching. Somewhere in between you have the Baptist-like clones that encourage raised hands, but frown on break dancing in the aisles. The majority of non-denominational churches come in this flavor, and the surest way to tell one from the other is to ask to see a copy of their statement of faith. We were the in-betweeners.
We plugged along for years in this church, watching many come to salvation and others experience explosive growth in their Christian walk, I being one of them. I was learning the bible at an exponential rate, while at the same time gaining a reputation of being somewhat of a ‘bible scholar’. I truly believed that this was church at its finest, purest form. I had found where I belonged.
Red flags typically signal a warning of some type. We use this term to symbolize a gut feeling or occurrence that doesn’t seem ‘right’ to us. For some reason the red flags that should have been waving in front our faces, did not. Early on there were biblical inconsistencies within our church, but because the whole experience was so exhilarating, we ignored them or did not see them at all. The ‘leadership’ was quick to find a seemingly appropriate loophole to justify a biblical requirement. We happily accepted it.
Before we knew it, there were so many loopholes in the leadership that you could have crocheted an afghan. If you questioned them, a quick pat answer of justification was given to pacify. It’s a classic case of weighing the pro’s and con’s. ‘Is this issue more important than the overall mission of the church?’ That was the justification we used to make us feel better about any doubts we had.
My husband was the wiser one. He picked up on a lot of things that I didn’t. He tried to make me see things that were clearly an issue for him. I would brush him off or argue him into staying at our church. Didn’t he want our children to learn the bible? Why would he want to pull us away from our ministry and the many friends we had made? He wanted to please me, so we stayed. This would result in the mother of all regrets.
Two months ago, we left the church. I won’t go into the details surrounding the sudden exit, because I would not want to hurt innocent people in the process. Let’s just say that God brought everything into light (and perspective), and we are in the process of healing from a very devastating event. Want to know the culprit? Leadership.
For the most part, denominations have it right. There is accountability, especially for leadership. The pastor of the local church DOES have to answer to someone. When you give a pastor the job of ‘watching out for your soul’, he had better have someone that HE is accountable to. (Hebrews 13:17) Otherwise, he can distort the leadership requirements of himself and those who work under him. Consider that red flag #1.
One thing that challenges my faith in the law enforcement community is when a cop is busted for a crime. Not something as trivial as a traffic violation, but more serious, like theft, drug use, rape or murder. It shakes all of our foundations in the justice system. A law enforcement officer has been trained to know the law and to carry out the requirements of the law. Not only that, he/she should be the ultimate example of a law-abiding citizen. When we are in trouble, who do we call? THE COPS!
In the same way, leadership in the local church should meet similar requirements. Appropriate training in the scriptures and a life that exemplifies the requirements of their calling and position. If your pastor and assistant pastors do not completely fulfill the requirements of an elder (pastor) in I Timothy 3:1-7, run! Run as fast as you can! Consider that red flag #2.
What about deacons? They must meet the same requirements as pastors. Not all churches have deacons, but most do. These are men that generally serve directly under the pastor and may have authority in some church matters. Because qualifications are everything, and God is a God of order, (I Corinthians 14:33) accept no less in regards to deacon requirements. In some way, you will be submitting to these men. Red flag #3.
Our church had a board of ministry leaders. This title was chosen carefully, because it was not mentioned in the bible. Yes, you read that right. Because it was NOT mentioned in the bible. Why? Because 95% of the men who were elected to this post in our church could not fulfill the requirement of an elder, and thus be called a ‘board of elders’. In my opinion, this was the most creative loophole of all. The church was told that these men handled the ‘business’ of the church, especially in the area of finances. This freed up the pastors to not concern themselves with money. That way they wouldn’t ‘cater’ to the big givers, because they had no idea who gave what. That sounded good to us, because money-hungry preachers are a dime a dozen. We were also told that these men held no authority in spiritual matters of the church. This was a lie. Red flag #4.
In the span of 10 years, our church saw thousands of people come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. This is where the math gets fuzzy. For some reason the church wasn’t growing. From the time it started until now, membership had only increased from 200 members to around 300, with heavy turnover. Only 100 members gained in 10 years? Where were all these people that were reached? If we had such a fabulous church with state of the art preaching, why wouldn’t at least a fraction of these people attend the church? A church that is not growing signifies a problem. Red flag #5.
The proverbial straw that broke the camels back for us was leadership. When the leadership isn’t right, it will undoubtedly affect everyone underneath that leadership (Proverbs 29:2). When the sole person in authority is accountable to no one, or to men that are not qualified to discern spiritual matters, dysfunction will ensue. People will suffer for it. It is a possible unfortunate side-effect of being in an autonomous,non-denominational church. Limited accountability.
We have now found ourselves back in a Baptist church. Ironically, we feel more free in this church than we ever did in our non-denominational one. Proverbs 11:14 says, “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” When men in leadership are being held accountable for their actions, the people under them are safe. When leadership makes up the rules as they go along and surreptitiously convince you to go along with them, you remove that safe covering from yourself. God will not honor it.
I will not say that we wasted the last 10 years of our lives by attending that non-denominational church. We learned a lot (good and bad) and have taken away many positive experiences and blessings from it. In the end, however, we have to ask ourselves – would we do it all the same again? I would honestly have to say no. The benefits did not outweigh the unbelievable emotional impact and devastation that we have endured. I would rather have stayed in spiritual infancy than to allow what happened to our family to occur. Hindsight is 20/20, they say.
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This is an excellent article!!! Having been baptized as a Lutheran, Catholic, and Baptist and also having been a member of a Methodist church, I no longer identify myself as a Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic or Baptist. I am a Christian. I'm currently a member of a Baptist church. A non-denominational church in concept sounds appealing. To counterbalance that, I've seen what can happen when a new church splits off from an existing church. I've seen all the problems as an outsider. It's good to see my suspicions confirmed by an "insider" who made a sincere attempt to find a more meaningful way to worship. On a Sunday to Sunday basis, the doctrinal differences between denominations aren't all that noticeable. They are certainly less of an issue than the lack of accountability in some non-denominational churchs. (I have to believe that some non-denominational churches are very good.) The scriptural readings come from the same bible, depending on the translation used, and the message is rarely "denominational." When people ask me what denomination I am I say "Christian" and it confuses them greatly. It's as if you can't just be a Christian; you have to choose a denomination. I find value in all Christian denominations, but I identify myself with Christ, not a church. Thanks for writing and posting this!
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