Nondenominational Christianity (Mar-Apr 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Ken Johnson
March – April, 2001

Invention of the printing press triggered five hundred divisive years for the body of Christ. As printed Bibles appeared, large numbers of believers could individually study the text. Soon, persons of persuasive talent, sometimes well educated and sometimes not, began shaping communities with a variety of theology. The result, highly visible to Christian and pagan, is today’s familiar Christian landscape with hundreds of denominations, each having a unique set of religious views and practices.

The seeds of denominationalism seem older than scripture. I Corinthians 1:10-13, Romans 14:1-6, and Acts 15:1-21 reveal various leadership influences within the early church. Inescapably, readers of scripture acknowledge that individual Christians are free to practice under some difference in theological understanding. Yet, scripture consistently argues against division in the Body.

Grouping without division

Given physical constraints, Christians cannot all worship under one roof. As Christians choose where and how to worship, almost inevitably inter-group differences will emerge, i.e., the Gentile Meat Eating Christians assemble on 1st Street, the Generic Jewish Circumcised Believers assemble separately on 25th Street, and the Highly Educated Affluent Jewish Church assembles on 50th Street. “Separate when different” is a natural result of sociological forces related to gender, age, personality, education, affluence, race, culture, religious background, and Biblical understanding.

Yet, there is one remarkable situation where, at least theoretically, no inter-group differences exist, namely, when all assembled groups potentially possess the same intra-group differences, i.e., the Christians (Gentile and Jewish, highly educated and not so well educated) meet on 1st Street, on 25th Street, and on 50th Street, with all Christians genuinely free to circulate and fully participate at any of the three places. This theoretical ideal would allow an unlimited number of groups, all of which would be one in spirit.

Rise of nondenominational emphasis

Separation and division within the Body seem to occur when sub-groups of believers (i.e., denominations) design formal creedal statements, manuals of worship, clerical restrictions, etc. Surely, such material is not written for the purpose of dividing, but that has been the frequent historical reality. Christians who do not favor such documents are often said to espouse a “nondenominational” approach to Christianity. The modern concept of nondenominational Christianity took strong root in frontier America among believers who desired to practice their faith “independent” from the denominations. The most successful proponents were adherents to a movement known in the 1800s as the Disciples.

The Disciples were networked by a few religious journals espousing their “independent” approach to congregational life, and by itinerant evangelists who carried the “independent” message to places the journals did not reach. Though without any overall organizational structure, with a few million adherents by the early 1900s, these Disciples became the largest group of Christians ascribed to American organizational roots.

The Disciples

The Disciples found success on the strength of the commoners’ exposure to scripture. Disciples’ journals and evangelists capably revealed that denominational practices were not always supported by objective reading of scripture. Flowing out of that conviction, the Disciples’ primary call was for Christians to abandon man-made creeds and creed-demanding organizations, and to follow Christ independently.

The intention of the Disciples’ movement was to be “Christians only,” emphasizing their avoidance of “branding” themselves denominationally, such as Baptists, Methodists, or Presbyterians. Interestingly, almost immediately their nondenominational movement became anti-denominational. Soon, their appeal for others to become “Christians only” birthed an internal belief that the Disciples were the “only Christians.”

Though adamantly non-creedal, over time the Disciples methodically defined a set of acceptable doctrines and practices. Gradually, Disciples adherents were forced to accept certain understandings or be marginalized within the fellowship. Driven by second and third generation leaders whose persuasive power was strong and whose theology was shaped as much by what scripture does not say as by what it says, after about one hundred years (circa 1900) the Disciples split in two.

For a century thereafter, the movement experienced additional divisions until today Disciples’ descendants comprise several distinct fellowship groups generally worshipping under the names Church of Christ, Christian Church, or Disciples of Christ. Disciples’ descendants outside the original movement are now at the core of new, highly successful nondenominational efforts in many communities. Painfully, descendants within the Disciples movement, especially those who have a separatist approach to fellowship, are now having to resist charges from within and from without that their movement no longer reflects a nondenominational approach.(1)

Post-denominational culture

Current American culture, though reflecting a “herd mentality,” often delusters national organizations. Illustrative would be the decline of labor unions. It is not that Americans are not interested in the goals of organized labor and other down-sizing national organizations. It is, rather, that Americans are pursuing the goals with different means.

Persons seeking a faith relationship with Jesus are taking their search outside the bounds of historic religious structures, fueling today’s growth of nondenominational Christianity. This movement is so dramatic that the Christian world is now said to be in a post-denominational era.

Rise of nondenominational mega churches

American post-denominational culture reflects a generation of believers who want spiritual vitality in a diverse church known for its Christian unity. They are vocally opposed to the argumentative posture of the denominational era, especially by harsh judgments against others whose lives reflect the fruit of the Spirit.

United by their commitment to Christ and by a spirit of firmness on certain core issues, these Christians are bonding together in community churches that are springing up all over North America, spawning a fresh use of the term nondenominational. Typically, these community churches reflect conservative characteristics. Yet, given the diverse roots of their membership, they practice theological accommodation reminiscent of that reported in the early stages of the Disciples movement.(2)

Abandonment of denominational-looking names

This new movement not only impacts descendants of the Disciples but also impacts other “independent” groups such as Baptists and Pentecostals. The most visible evidence of impact on independent groups may be name changes. Today, by reading a church name, it is impossible to tell the theological background of some congregations. Representative new names are Northridge Community Church, Oakland Christian Church, and Oak Tree Church, each identifying a group that would formerly have been identified as Baptist, Pentecostal, and Church of Christ, respectively.

Abandonment of denominational ties

Another visible impact of post-denominational culture is the disassociation of renamed “community churches” from their historic denomination. From Lutherans to Presbyterians, local groups are removing from public view, or fully discontinuing, their membership in synods and associations. These choices reflect the statement of Barton Stone and his colleagues early in the Disciples movement, “We will that this body [the Springfield Presbytery] die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large: for there is but one body.”(3)

The past is prologue

When Jesus said “Make disciples in every nation,” he clearly envisioned a multicultural Body. By the grace of God and by the Holy Spirit, scripture not only connects in every culture, but it remains relevant through cultural change. Nondenominational, autonomous congregations have the freedom to change as rapidly as culture changes. They are also free to resist change. Their charge is to be faithful and effective at communicating the Message revealed in scripture. The tests are faithful and effective.

Throughout Christian history, many have wanted to be Biblical, “just Christians,” without the trappings of highly organized, multi-congregational church structures. Leaders of free church movements have often lived long enough to see their followers change to become doctrinally proscriptive and highly controlling. Long before the twentieth century ended, even descendants of the Disciples adopted normative denominators: a common name, a common creed (though unwritten), and common practices required if a congregation was to be reckoned within their group.

If Christians within the various branches of the Disciples are to maximize their influence in this post-denominational era, they must avoid the narrowness that has been the hallmark of the denominational world, i.e., required form of congregational name, required congregational practices driven as much by tradition as by scripture, and fellowship restricted to a small set of believers. Failing that, they may find their youth pursuing a new Christian culture that the youth perceive to be as Biblical and more nondenominational than their experiences within their Disciples heritage.


Notes and more resources on nondenominational Christianity and the Disciples’ movement

1) The whole discussion “from sect to denomination,” though sociologically relevant, clouds the nondenominational heart of the Disciples’ movement.

2) Joseph Thomas observed that followers of Barton W. Stone in Kentucky in 1810-1811 “do not divide and contend . . . but they continue upon the plan they set out upon—to let nothing divide them but Sin, and all search the scriptures for themselves, and act according to their understanding in the fear of God.” The Travels and Gospel Labors of Joseph Thomas (Winchester, VA: J. Foster, 1812), 88.

Focused histories reveal much variation among Disciples in the breadth of theological accommodation in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Specific insights can be gained from works like these: M. Eugene Boring, Disciples and the Bible (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1997); C. Leonard Allen, Distant Voices (Abilene: ACU Press, 1993); Richard T. Hughes, Reviving the Ancient Faith: The Story of Churches of Christ in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996); S. D. Eckstein, History of the Churches of Christ in Texas 1824-1950 (Austin, TX: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1963).

Generally, the community churches revere the Bible as the divinely inspired Word of God, seek deeply felt personal experience with God, encourage traditional moral values, regard as Christian anyone who has trusted Jesus to be his/her personal savior, allow a variety of religious thought and conviction within the congregation, are immersionist, either as a required mode or as an optional mode for believers baptism, and have no denominational superstructure.

3) The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, June 28, 1804, reprinted at http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/esmith/hgl1808/LWT.HTM (December 21, 2001)New Wineskins

Ken Johnson

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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