Friday, May 11, 2007

Denominations and Traditions: Some Initial Comments

I came across an interesting article by Dan Philips on the subject of denominations a couple of days ago. As I was reading and pondering upon his post, I was wondering how many Christians like myself had joined a church, developed spiritually and grown in that church, and subsequently (had to) moved on because of differing doctrinal convictions or related issues.

Allow me to begin with an excerpt from Dan Philips’ post:

“Even within sound denominations, denominational unity can be a two-edged sword, can't it? If the denominational stance is not very specific, there is room for a lot of mischief; if it is quite specific, there isn't much room for personal growth, and the panorama is more of a microrama.

Let's say (forgive my generalizing) that I have a pastor-friend in Denomination X, who agrees with their stance on Z. (Imagine Z as something consequential, but not Heaven/Hell essential.) I have a different conviction. So I talk with him, study the Word with him, and have a friendly debate. Let's say that he becomes convinced that the Scriptures teach otherwise than he has held. Otherwise than Denomination X

What have I done for him? Well, whatever else you can say about his personal growth, one thing I've done is I've lost him his job. He'll have to resign. His denomination isn't going to change their stance on Z just because he has done so. If he tried to make them do so, he would be a schismatic.”
Yes, it is true. Your denomination is not going to change their doctrinal stance just because your pastor or the session has done so. And who are you to discuss or re-evaluate the denominational stance? When the pastor of a church changes his doctrinal view, he can choose the following courses of actions. 1) Keep his convictions to himself, grit his teeth, and continue to interpret the Bible with his denominational glasses; 2) Influence other pastors with his viewpoint with the hope of contributing to the denomination’s doctrinal development; 3) Nevertheless, church history has shown that it is almost inevitable for one with differing convictions to leave the denomination and perhaps start his own independent church. Perchance he can join another denomination and reenact the entire scenario.

This is a sobering thought. I can more or less understand what Dan Phillips meant by his post. You see, I am reflecting upon this issue from a Reformed perspective, and by this I mean the five Solas, and especially, Sola Scriptura. After I was converted on Street Damascus in a little concrete village of Singapore, I decided it was best for me to join my friends from Campus Crusade for Christ in a Brethren church, tucked away in an inconspicuous corner of Serangoon. Trained as a Dispensationalist from this brethren church, I moved on quickly to catch the Second (or was it the Third) Wave which was waving right at me from Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC). FCBC appeared to be an apostolic church, or at the very least, she was pastored by an apostle from the apostolic movement led by Apostle Rev (Dr) C. Peter Wagner. I can almost recall hearing Apostle Lawrence Kwong preaching to me, “Remember, Vincent, this is the year of a great harvest.”

But despite the “great harvest,” my heart was hungry, and I fed my soul with my own reading of what is commonly perceived as New Evangelical doctrinal hodgepodge. By divine providence, I was led to a good fundamental Baptist church in Ireland where I had my medical training. And indeed, this was a time of great harvest for my soul. I began to better understand the great fundamental doctrines of the Bible, and I started to comprehend divine sovereignty - all these within an Arminian church! No, the pastor did not teach divine election, but I believed the Bible did. Soon, the only systematic theology that made sense was Reformed theology. I eventually had to say goodbye to my independent, fundamental, Baptist church in the Irish Republic.

I was back in Singapore in year 2000. I joined what I believed was a Reformed denomination - the Bible Presbyterian Movement. And the rest was history. Those who know me know that I have much to say about the Bible Presbyterian’s adherence to the sine qua non of Dispensationalism. It took me sometime to realize that this was actually Dispensationalism in Reformed garb. Yes, the Bible Presbyterian’s church polity was Presbyterian, but the rest of its doctrinal distinctives are definitely opened to further query.

Most of the churches I had attended had distinct doctrinal stances that set them apart from the other denominations. There are often sets of doctrinal “rules” if I may say which we are required to embrace unquestioningly. In churches with strong doctrinal development and history, it is not uncommon to see every “I” dotted and every “T” crossed theologically. There are little areas for us to explore, and we would be expected to follow the denomination’s teachings on most issues. Unlike Star Trek, we cannot go where no man has gone before. We follow men, and these men had gone before us. We not only follow them, we had to follow them. As Dan Phillips had written in his post:

"For one thing, name me one Christian denomination more than fifty years old that hasn't either drifted, or plummeted, left, or marched inexorably towards the faux-"right" of hidebound traditionalism. The Southern Baptists are notable because they are an exception to the former. However, I think all SB's who comment here will agree that, even there, all is not completely placid and united on the true essentials. And then there's the alcohol thing. ...”
I am not saying that it is not good to follow those faithful men who had gone before us. But is it necessary to follow them in every issue and every point? Is there the remotest possibility that they may have erred in a certain area of doctrine or practice?

When a Christian studies and develops his understanding of the Word of God, two possible results follow: He either agrees with the denominational stance, or he doesn’t. It doesn’t take an atomic scientist to figure that out, right? So, when a Christian is aspiring to serve in the capacity of a church leader or teacher, he most certainly has to agree with the denomination’s doctrinal stance. The third possibility is that he had never studied those issues before, and he couldn’t care less about them.

Things are a little different with certain denominations. In some churches, anything and everything goes. But just you remember not to be too dogmatic about what you believe, and don’t use the word “conviction.” In those churches, love is all around, and this love is manifested by its apparent indifference to biblical teachings and doctrines. An epicene figure rules the pulpit ministry, and families are built base upon egalitarian principles - that is, either the husband or wife can be the maker at home.

Perhaps it all boils down to this: do we have a place to serve, a place where we can have a clear conscience in both doctrine and practice? Or do we choose to stifle our own convictions concerning certain salient issues, and just follow the men that had gone before us? Of course, we may be wrong. Worse, we may be very wrong. But what if we are right and they are wrong? Could that be a possibility? And what about Sola Scriptura? Do we follow what the Scripture clearly says, or do we parrot what denominational tradition has always taught?

Finally, beware, my friends. Debates and discussions can generate convictions, and doctrinal convictions are sometimes the key to losing your pastorate in certain denominations. Or perhaps you can choose to keep mum. It is, after all, your own free will and choice.


Jeff Barrett said...

I recently left a prominent church in my city over doctrinal differences. It was sad because the church is very influential in Portland, and I wanted to use the platform it provided to speak the truth. However, the more I advanced in leadership and contributed through writing and teaching, the more I became a force of division. I could not with a clear conscience lead a discussion on the pastor's sermon without letting it be known that I hated it. Rather than remain a divisive presence, I chose to leave. It's a tough, tough choice.

You can read the open letter I wrote to the church's elders here. I also wrote a follow up article here explaining my reasoning for making the letter public.

Jeff Barrett

Jenson said...

Even amongst those who profess to adhere to the WCF or the 3 forms of Unity, there are many shades of opinions regarding this-and-that (e.g. how many still believe that the Pope is the Antichrist? How many still believe in honouring the Lord's Day?).

I did not realise that you were at FCBC. I know of 2 medical doctors who are there, surnamed Khor. They were trained in London.

So you studied in Ireland? UCD or Oueens Uni at Belfast? Did you attend one of Paisley's churches?

Anyway, thanks for sharing that piece of personal history with us.

Owen said...

Thanks for the post. You said that you joined a "Reformed denomination", then found out about its dispensational belief which was, I gather, not Reformed in your asessment.

Please share your thougts on what would consitute a Reformed denomination.

Specifically, I hope you can share your thoughts on whether Calvinistic Methodism and congregational churches who adopt the Savoy Declaration are considered as Reformed denominations.

vincit omnia veritas said...

Hi Owen (is this your real name?),

Do you have a blog of your own? It will be nice if you can reveal your identity.

BTW, read my previous post on this issue of "reformed vs dispensational" here:

I will explore this topic further in future posts.

Yours truly,
Vincent Chia

The Hedonese said...

Owen is in Scotland? Google for Conventicles :)

Thought you may like this: