The Dead End of Non-Denominationalism
by Fr. John Whiteford
In the summer of 1988 my wife and I were married in the Chinese Baptist Church that she had been attending in Houston. Due to the efforts of my very frugal wife, we were able to have a nice wedding, a reception, a honeymoon, and to move her stuff to Oklahoma, all for about $1,000.00. That following school year, I thought I had found what I was looking for. There was a non-denominational Church that had been started in the Bethany area, which consisted mostly of former Nazarenes with charismatic tendencies, and the pastor had been a Nazarene music evangelist (he and his wife would sing at revivals around the country). He was even a graduate of Nazarene Theological Seminary, but I discovered that while he was a nice and sincere man, he was not very theologically inclined. In fact, when I began attending there, he asked me to take over their adult Sunday School class, and also to write up a doctrinal statement for their Church. He had started a study of the book of Hebrews, and so I continued where he had left off, and enjoyed digging into the book of Hebrews and laying out what it meant for the class.
I also took up the challenge to write a doctrinal statement, and using the Nazarene Articles of Faith as the starting point (which were printed in what is known as “The Nazarene Manual”, which originated out of the Methodist Book of Discipline, and was sort of a doctrinal statement of the denomination, combined with the rules that govern the Nazarene Church on its various levels, and also provided standards of Christian behavior that Nazarenes were expected to adhere to), supplementing that with a few things from the Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine (which is similar in scope), and throwing in a few things about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, I came up with a text, and presented it to the pastor. His reaction was
“Man… this is so negative! There’s all this stuff about sin! It sounds like the Nazarene Manual!”
I responded that it was in fact based on the Nazarene Manual’s Articles of Faith, and then we began discussing the question of whether doctrine should be rooted in anything from the past. He told me “God has a “Now” word for the Church,” and that basically we didn’t need to worry about what a bunch of dead people thought about doctrine. I asked him whether he thought God had spoken through men like John Wesley. He said that he believed He had. So I asked, if God did speak through men like John Wesley, wouldn’t that message be something that we would want to know and understand? He didn’t have a satisfying answer. But that text did not become the doctrinal statement of that Church… nor did anything else.
I noticed over time that this pastor would preach based on whatever he happened to be reading at the time. For a while he was preaching sermons based on a Christian novel about spiritual warfare entitled “This Present Darkness.” Then he started preaching from Watchman Nee’s book “Spiritual Authority.” It began to seem like that church’s doctrine hinged on what he had eaten the night before. I increasingly began to see the folly of non-denominational Churches that have no accountability to anyone or anything beyond the whim of the pastors who head them.
Things came to a head one Sunday when, because I was teaching on the book of Hebrews, I taught about the question of whether or not one could lose their salvation (an issue raised by Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-27). I had no reason to think that this was going to be a controversial issue, because Nazarenes believe that you can lose your salvation. However a number of the people who had joined this church were from a Southern Baptist background, where “Eternal Security” is the prevailing doctrine. While I was teaching this class, there was one guy I had not seen before who kept arguing with the points that I was making, but I thought I was batting his objections out of the park pretty handily. Then after the class, I had a women from a Baptist background, who was so upset that she was shaking. She had never heard eternal security challenged before, and didn’t know how anyone could believe anyone could be saved, if eternal security were not true. I tried my best to calm her down.
Then the main service began, and as it turned out, the guest speaker that Sunday was the guy who had been taking shots at me in the class. During the sermon, the tables were turned, but unlike a Sunday school class, it is not generally accepted behavior to challenge a man giving a sermon during the service. He didn’t call me out by name in that sermon, but anyone in the class knew who he was talking about. After the service, the pastor called me aside, because he had heard that some people were upset by what I said in the Sunday School class. He told me that I needed to “get off of that doctrine stuff”, because doctrine “divides”. I pointed out to him that he was the one who had picked the book of Hebrews to study, and asked him what I was supposed to do when I came to passages that clearly taught that salvation was not guaranteed, just because you had once made a profession of faith. Again, I didn’t get a good answer, and that was my last Sunday at that Church.
I soon went back to one of the new Nazarene churches in the area, and from that point forward had a new appreciation for doctrine, Church authority, and Tradition.