The Importance of Denominational Connection
As we process all of these considerations through discernment and theological wrestling about where the Methodist movement is headed in the foreseeable future, many of us may think, is it even worth joining a denomination? Should we become a non-denominational church like many in our country are? Is there any value in affiliating with a denomination?
I will attempt to answer this through personal experience, scripture, and our Methodist doctrine.
Before working for Christ Church, I was a part of a beautiful expression of the Body of Christ in BCS through a small house church. We were an offshoot of a local congregation in town, and what the Lord did through our flexible structure, humility, and hunger was incredible. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. Not only was it a healthy experience, but I would also say it was absolutely a great, non-denominational church.
God operated in some incredible ways during those seven years. Due to the simple nature of our gatherings and the lack of typical “red tape” of a larger congregation attached to a denomination and overhead of facilities or denominational apportionments we had lots of freedom in the ways we could work in the Kingdom. However, the task we had as church leaders over the theological interpretation and teaching was overwhelming at times. Our leadership was comprised of only those in the congregation. While many of us had a variety of backgrounds, upbringing, education, and spiritual experience (like we see within Christ Church), we sought a theological basis where we majored in the major things and minored in the minor things. We had a foundational framework of what we all agreed upon that was crucial to our faith as followers of Christ. The remaining theological nuance was left to discussion, refinement, and an openness to research and seek out the theology of others.
Many of us thought this was both biblical and healthy. We weren’t subscribing to a truth that we hadn’t processed for ourselves. But what this did was it created a significant burden on our leadership to research and process everything. It was as if we were reinventing the theological wheel. Maybe not the wheel, but at least assembling a wheelbarrow from scratch by looking at pictures of wheelbarrows. When someone would come in and share something that seemed out of what we understood as truth, who was to say how we were to respond? It was contingent on us as individual leaders to justify truth based on our own personal walks with Christ and interpretation of scripture as opposed to standing on the shoulders of many generations of pastoral leadership and discernment through the history, order, doctrine, discipline, and liturgy of God’s Church.
Was this bad? No. It was extremely refining for me and the other leaders who were tasked with this responsibility.
But was it worth the risk? This is a question that I have had a hard time answering without making a pros and cons list. The real risk we were teetering on was that we were teaching through a lens of doctrine that we were still leaving with open debate and research. And while this type of critical thinking can be helpful and essential for theology, it can be confusing for the congregation while it is being worked out.
It also is not a very long-term strategy. Our house church lasted for 7 years, and although we had multiple leaders, we decided that it was unsustainable given the burden on the leadership.
I could unpack more reasons as to why it is a better strategy for an already existing congregation that owns property to affiliate with a denomination as opposed to being non-denominational. The primary reason is longevity. I will support this concept of longevity via denomination by using scripture.
Denominations provide a structure for counsel, wisdom, safety, and success.
Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. (Proverbs 11:14 ESV)
Without counsel, plans fail, but with many advisers, they succeed. (Proverbs 15:22 ESV)
A non-denominational church does not have a “covering” or a larger grouping of counsel to provide direction. When we set course as a local congregation, we are stabilized within a larger denomination by making sure we are not moving in a direction that would be foolish. And even if we make a decision that is foolish as a local congregation, the greater plan and counsel of the denomination provides a safety net and instruction for growth, whereas a non-denominational local congregation could be decimated by a foolish decision.
The early church was a denominational structure, much like the episcopal structure that the Methodist Church is ordered in.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV).
This section of scripture is describing a multitude and plurality of leaders. The beginning of this passage is describing what is known as the five-fold ministry: apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. We could say that all of these could exist within a non-denominational congregation, but what then is an apostle? The meaning of the word apostle is “one who is sent out.” But with what purpose? If we think an apostle is one who is sent out to share the gospel, what then is an evangelist? If we think an evangelist would be someone preaching to a congregation rather than being sent out, what then would be the shepherds and teachers? An apostle is sent out to establish and empower other leaders and congregations. The closest thing that we have to apostles in the Methodist Church are Bishops and District Superintendents. This structure of hierarchy is not to provide red tape but to have a support structure for local congregations. If we don’t think this is biblical, we should question the majority of the purpose of the New Testament, which is comprised of letters written by the Apostle Paul who is providing leadership and direction for local congregations in different cities across the Middle East and Europe.
The mission of the Church becomes attainable through God-ordained economies of scale.
For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand (Luke 14:18-31 ESV)?
This scripture is greatly purposed for counting the cost of following Jesus, but the principle within it still stands. If we are carrying the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, it would be both self-centered and an unrealistic expectation to believe that as a non-denominational local church we would achieve economies of scale to take our part in reaching the nations with the Gospel. We would almost necessarily need to focus on reaching our city, with no strategy or plan for a larger scale attempt of making disciples of those outside of our country. Within denominations, we have a collective effort to plant new churches with resources, infrastructure, and clergy, as well as greater missions efforts to bring the Gospel to unreached places in the world,
provide large-scale relief efforts, create spiritual retreat centers and hospitals, etc. as we have seen through the Methodist denomination.
Denominations provide doctrinal framework and a vetting process for worship, theology, leadership, and order.
Within the Methodist Church, we believe that the sacrament of Baptism is a means of grace offered and established by God. The power of the Spirit in baptism does not depend upon the mode by which water is administered, the age or psychological disposition of the baptized person, or the character of the minister. It is God’s grace that makes the sacrament whole. This is why we do not re-baptize those who have had a Christian baptism.
In a non-denominational church, what would keep a local congregation from changing this belief? We already know that as Methodists, many other denominations and non-denominational churches do not practice infant baptism and re-baptism of people according to professions of faith and/or change in denominational status.
This is one of the primary risks of a non-denominational church; the doctrine shifts with the clergy as opposed to the denomination providing replacement clergies who align with doctrine consistent with what everyone has agreed to believe and uphold. (This is also the primary cause of the current reason why we are in Discernment; many clergies are not currently upholding the current doctrine of the UMC).
Without the structure of a denomination, it places the entirety of responsibility on the congregation and the pastoral leadership to ensure we have vetted our theology. If we need a new pastor, how do we determine whether a leader is of a theological alignment that we hold? We see the example of one of the largest non-denominational churches in the world that is only 2 hours away from us: Lakewood Church in Houston. Many who knew John Osteen, founder of Lakewood Baptist Church, would agree that the doctrinal differences between John and his son, Joel, the current leader of that church; the former being Southern Baptist who became non-denominational and the latter exemplifying prosperity gospel and the word of faith movement. Who is to say what will become of Lakewood Church beyond Joel Osteen. In its current state, it is easy to see that it has vastly gone astray from its Southern Baptist origin. Their doctrine and messaging are not rooted in a theological discipline but are contingent on the theological interpretation of one individual leader.
Our opinion on denominational affiliation should hold strong if we are considering the generations beyond ourselves. In our discernment of affiliation, we would most certainly be “throwing out the baby with the bath water” if we disaffiliated from the UMC to become non-denominational. A denomination provides a structure for wisdom in the counsel of many, a model similar to the Apostolic Age, economies of scale for the Great Commission, and a vetting process for our doctrine and leadership.