I finally have a name for my correct Christian denomination–I’m a mutt. I am a mixture of Christian traditions and am not full-blooded anything.
I was raised Southern Protestant but in different churches. We started as Baptists, became Presbyterians, then Methodists, then Presbyterian again. When I came to personal faith about the age of fifteen, it was while I was a Methodist, but I began almost immediately working in Southern Baptist churches. I went to Methodist college, where I became involved with Charismatics, but somehow emerged a Presbyterian again.
After graduation, I worked for a summer with the Salvation Army before taking a job with the ARP’s, a conservative Calvinist denomination, and have stayed with them for forty years. Since retirement, we have been attending mainly at a Lutheran church. Along the way, I have spent time in Catholic monasteries and Episcopal and non-denominational churches. I teach in a Seminary run by Baptists which caters to African-Americans and internationals. No wonder I’m so mixed up!
I’m not alone. Most Protestant Christians I know are mutts. There are very few who grew up exclusively within one church or even one kind of church. Those who are solely within one group usually tell me of being influenced by preachers or Christian music that comes from elsewhere. Today, we’ve all been affected by a variety of Christian streams.
Being a mutt is sometimes a blessing. We get to sample the greatness of God in many ways. But it’s also a problem, especially if you respect Christian tradition, as I do. You’re in a fellowship but somehow never fully part of it. There’s always a tension between what’s “normal” for your breed and what you really are. Part of you is still an outsider.
How do churches deal with mutts? It’s a problem. Mutts bring different presuppositions and assumptions and are not happy about surrendering them all to conform to the norm. If they can’t wholly conform, the church has to change to accommodate them. That can threaten our assumptions about purity of doctrine or behavior. The heritage we have as Baptists, Episcopalians or Presbyterians is precious, so how can we let in people who are different?
One solution is to cast off denominationalism as dangerous for the Body of Christ. After all, didn’t Jesus call us to be one, as He and the Father are one? Church division has often been the result of pride and sin.
But I disagree with those who look at denominations as bad. Having a variety of traditions and denominations allows us the freedom to worship God in many different ways. Some prefer improvisational, Spirit-led worship. Others prefer the carefully scripted liturgical drama of high church, while still others prefer the solemn scholasticism of Reformed worship.
The only way for us to be organically one, to worship together all the time, is to cast off all differences and be the same. The thought of a church where everyone worships in the same way all the time is, well, boring.
It is beautiful to see the whole church gather together merely as Christians. But eventually, churches need to express their own individuality. I believe that God delights in all the praises of His people whether they sing those praises in liturgical chants, bluegrass country, classical organ, jazz, rock, or rap. But to do them all at the same time is probably not going to please anybody. Every form of worship has its own beauty, but not always at the same time and to everyone. We need space between us to appreciate the beauty of each tradition.
Jesus does call the church to be one, though. But how?
One way is to adopt the approach the Roman Catholics have taken. It’s a “top-down” approach. Catholics are homogeneous but are often composed of many different cultures, practices, and beliefs. The only thing that holds them together is a belief in apostolic doctrine, secured by apostolic authority, emanating from the Pope and the bishops. As long as they are loyal to the Pope and the central tenets of the Faith, they are one.
The same idea was briefly pursued in the sixties by the Protestant Ecumenical movement. Many Protestant leaders thought to join together in one super-denomination. This approach not only failed, it also divided the church even further and led to more membership losses to those churches that attempted it.
This top-down approach won’t work for us mutts. I can’t be a Catholic or an Ecumenist, because there are some essential beliefs and beloved practices I am just not ready to surrender to centralized control.
When Jesus called us to be one, He didn’t have in mind a single power structure, worship style, or set of traditions. Neither did He mean we should agree on every doctrine or Scriptural interpretation. He had another kind of unity in mind–the agreement of love.
Love doesn’t unite us by uniformity or conformity, but by empathy and freedom. Having many churches does not offend God, but the failure of churches to love each other does.
Protestant Christian churches see Christians unite by faith alone, not by conformity. Faith must be free to survive since we come to God freely. Our submission is to God alone, not to human authority or majority. Take away the freedom for each group to behave and believe as they choose and we do damage to salvation by faith.
There is another way that churches can come together–through the “bottom up” unity of mutual love and respect. Bottom-up unity starts when folks respect and appreciate each other as God’s gifts to the world. We don’t have to agree, but we can celebrate our differences without having to change each other, without arguing, by viewing diversity as a strength, not a weakness.
Fear is the root of most division in the church–fear of losing the institutions we love. Mutts are feared as outsiders. Our body naturally rejects foreign matter as a defense mechanism. The church refuses people who are different for fear of losing precious traditions. It may not be right, but it is natural. Those who have labored long to keep a church going are not quick to surrender it to people who behave like strangers.
If we are in a church and can no longer support its beliefs or practices, we should leave without fuss or judgment. Don’t try to change them, but give them space to be themselves. To stay in a church that we cannot support does not help the church our ourselves. To pretend we are happy with the doctrines of a church when we are not is not the way of peace or unity, but delays a schism that needs to come. Ecclesiastical unity is not spiritual unity.
Divine unity is a matter of the heart. When the time comes for brothers and sisters in Christ to separate, it should be with mutual respect and without judgment. Bottom-up unity begins with honesty and respect.
Another way of building bottom-up unity is by avoiding criticism of other groups. I have been in churches where critical statements about different believers started with the opening welcome in the service! An atmosphere of blame and contention makes it hard for mutts like myself who wonder what part of their upbringing they should be rejecting.
Instead of criticizing other Christians, try making them part of your prayer. Does your prayer list include Christians of other denominations and local churches in your community? Or do you treat other denominational groups as rivals or, even worse, as heretics? Instead of criticizing other groups, study them. Try to look at the Christian life from their perspective. Before judging other churches, try to understand them. Try to find out what God might be saying to you through them.
Dallas Willard was a firm believer in bottom-up unity among churches. He believed that all the churches in the community were actually one church, one body with different buildings and different leaders. The only way that God’s unity could be established among local believers was for church leaders, especially pastors, to meet together. When they came together, the first thing they should all say was, “I might be wrong.” Humility, not pride, is the beginning of bottom-up unity.
One of the reasons I am building this Faith Matrix website is to promote this kind of unity. The Faith Matrix is a place where we can share resources that reflect what is best in our own traditions, not for the purpose of argument or conversion, but to share perspectives on growth into the fullness of Christ.
The Faith Matrix is a series of balances in approach to the Christian faith: head and heart, submission and action, self and community, past and future. These four balances are variations in the way Christians connect to Christ.
If you don’t want to explore different approaches, you don’t have to. God certainly doesn’t require it. But if we stay within our own narrow perspectives, we miss some of the richness of a whole-life approach to faith.
Differences don’t have to scare us. They can excite us if we take them in love and respect what is best in all. We don’t have to seek a bottom-up unity, but we are free to explore it. I pray God will give each of us a fresh perspective on faith.