Book Review: Why We Belong, multiple authors
Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson, eds. Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity. Crossway, 2013. 256 pages. $18.99.
In today’s Christian world, there seem to be two streams of thought regarding denominations. There’s the card-carrying “denominationalist,” for whom it seems the scope of Christianity is coextensive with his own denomination, and for whom a conversion from, for example, Methodist to Southern Baptist is on par with a conversion from Islam or Mormonism. On the other hand, there’s the “mere Christian,” for whom denominations represent the worst of Satan’s ploys, undermining the very unity which Christ purchased by his blood, and who count it a sin to list anything more specific than “Christian” under Facebook’s “Religious Views” heading. I’m exaggerating slightly, but you catch my drift.
Why We Belong offers a middle path. The authors promote a high esteem for the real unity between all Christians everywhere, represented in this volume by the “evangelical” banner. And they also demonstrate high esteem for deep and serious denominational commitments. Are these two commitments laudable yet incompatible? Or the way of wisdom in our present world?
Why We Belong was written to demonstrate the real possibility for Christians to maintain their distinctive doctrinal beliefs through denominations while at the same time giving real expression to our cross-denominational unity, which runs even deeper (15). The book is prefaced by a brief but robust primer on ecclesiology (Ch. 1, with special attention given to church unity). An introduction to the historical development of denominations follows (Ch. 2, with 2-3 page summaries of the historical background to each). And the book concludes with another chapter on denominational issues we must presently consider (Ch. 9).
These three chapters alone are probably worth the price of the book. In the middle are six chapters written by representatives of six denominations, each making the case for his “dual-citizenship” in both evangelicalism as a movement and his denomination.
Gerald Bray’s chapter on Anglicanism is fascinating. Instead of making a theological case for the denomination’s distinctives as codified in its Thirty-Nine Articles, Bray was content to offer a pragmatic defense of Anglicanism’s unique ability to “house” a wide array of people and opinions, a necessary evil in our fallen world (76).
Timothy George’s chapter on Baptists is informative from a historical standpoint, but again less of a theological defense. For instance, he made no case for believer’s baptism, or congregational church government.
Doug Sweeney’s and Timothy Tennant’s chapters on Lutheranism and Methodism, respectively, are both wonderfully helpful introductions to each denomination, including both historical developments and clear defenses of doctrinal distinctives.
Bryan Chapell’s chapter on Presbyterianism worshipfully tackles the tensions between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and offers a balanced and humble defense of the regulative principle. The chapter is well worth reading for its own sake, as well as its contribution to this denominational discussion.
Finally, Byron Klaus writes on behalf of Pentecostalism. I was most excited to read this chapter. The denomination is so large and globally expansive, and yet so heavily criticized on theological grounds from so many directions. I couldn’t wait to read one who I presume is a faithful and theologically able adherent.
I found this chapter enlightening and at times sobering. Of all the contributors, Klaus understandably had more of a defensive posture. That said, I finished the chapter somewhat dissatisfied on two counts. First, Klaus briefly expresses his belief in the continuation of miraculous healings (citing healings that he has seen throughout his life, 154). But he doesn’t address, much less defend, whether or not such healing is related to Christ’s atonement. Believing in the continuation of a gift is one thing, but rooting that gift in Christ’s atonement is another, as it leans toward prosperity theology and changes the nature of the atonement itself.
Secondly, Klaus was finally dismissive (169) of the common charge that Pentecostals undermine the sole authority and sufficiency of Scripture by their emphasis on ongoing revelations (tongues, prophecy, and so on). And yet, in the very same chapter, Klaus cites with apparent approval his mother, who preached and served as a co-pastor with his father: “My mom, defending her place as an ordained woman minister, never included any type of angry polemic. She simply said that God had called her; who was she to reject God’s call?” (154-55). Even granting that interpreters come to different conclusions on the biblical data related to an issue such as gender-roles, it was hard not to see this as a case-in-point example of some revelation beyond Scripture (in this case, God’s “calling”) ultimately trumping the testimony of Scripture itself.
David Bebbington’s well-known “quadrilateral” was used throughout the book, identifying evangelicalism along the four lines of conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. I would have loved more clarification of Pentecostalism’s understanding of those two final identity markers.
A RIGHT TENSION
Denominations give fuller expression to doctrinal belief and practice, and are necessary in a fallen world where all Christians will never finally agree about what the Bible means and how it’s applied. You can put a credobaptist and a paedobaptist in the same church, of the same denomination, if you’d like—but somebody’s conscience is going to be seared. Denominations can protect consciences and encourage doctrinal depth. So I’m happy to be a card-carrying denominationalist.
But Christ’s church is in reality bigger than one’s own denomination. Cooperation with other evangelical believers allows us to give some expression to our cross-denominational unity with all of the saints. This is why I’m happy to be an “evangelical” too.
Evangelicalism without denominationalism tends towards vagueness, and would only flourish through events and organizations. It could never survive the grind of church life, where doctrine has to be fleshed out and practiced. But denominationalism without evangelicalism tends towards isolationism, and even exclusivism. We don’t have to choose, and indeed should choose both—it’s a healthy tension to live in.
I remember hearing a Roman Catholic apologist citing the thousands of Protestant denominations as clear evidence of a factitious spirit which has plagued us from the start. Jesus prayed for his followers to be “one” (John 17:20-23). There is one Catholic Church. And there are something like 33,000 Protestant denominations (and counting). Enough said!
Hardly. Surely some Protestant groups warrant the allegations of factitiousness. But unity has more than one expression. When my wife left her parents’ guardianship to marry me, she wasn’t rupturing her family bonds. Unity can be found across households, and it can be found across denominations. Why We Belong explains that well, and I recommend you read it.