A recent, intense elder discussion has led me to seek to clarify what I think it means to be a “nondenominational” evangelical church.
Why were “non-denom” churches created?
Independent nondenominational churches—or as the young people say, “Non-denom”—tend to be those that are not connected to a denominational superstructure and that cannot be easily identified by denominational criteria.
There are basically two reasons why churches are independent and non-denominational—structural and doctrinal.
Denominations tend toward becoming bureaucratic and eventually rigidly unresponsive. This inability to adapt promotes mediocrity, rewards politicization and power-seeking, and loses the original vision that created the movement’s vitality. On the other hand, a movement’s spontaneous vitality ultimately leads to chaos. So a proverbial “trellis” is created for this new vine to grow upon—giving it structure. If the vine gets ahead of the structure, there is continued chaos. But if the structure gets ahead of the vine it tends to stunted growth. Having a well-organized, spiritually vital movement is very difficult to hold in long-term tension. And the larger the organization, the more difficult it is to recognize the growth of bureaucratic inflexibility, growing dysfunctional leadership, and the more difficult it is to correct.
Churches seek to be independent by disconnecting themselves from this larger structure. Generally speaking, the more decentralized and local a denomination structure is, the healthier it has remained organizationally and theologically. By arranging themselves in loose organizations, churches can gain some of the benefits of cooperation, while forcing the responsibility of the individual churches’ health on those churches themselves. This means that rigidity and dysfunction in one church in an independent movement has a more difficult time of spreading to other churches. It also keeps infections that have infiltrated denominational elites from gaining privilege strength over the leadership of local churches. So by becoming non-denominational in the sense of being independent, churches sought to extract themselves from the inherent dangers and predictable decline of centralized denominations.
Non-denominational can also mean a change in the distinctiveness of doctrine. For example, Methodists are fairly specific about sanctification and church leadership. Roman Catholics believe in the sacraments, the Pope, purgatory and transubstantiation, and so on. These distinctions are seen by denominations as an important part of their strengths. Contrarily, those who are said to be “doctrinally non-denominational” are those who believe that it is not these distinctions, but a full emphasis on “primary” doctrines of the faith that promotes church vitality. Therefore, they seek to build a church that purely focuses on the proportional truths in the Gospel and Bible, while aiming for the profound unity Jesus prayed for in John 17.
Living in Tension
There has, however, always been a difficulty in the great strength and weakness of doctrinal non-denominationalism. If the goal is to foster unity by being no more doctrinally specific than necessary, then just how doctrinally specific should one be? What actually counts as a “primary” issue? Is it true that the more general we are, the stronger we are? Are our practices of baptism and communion so secondary that they can be treated as only marginally relevant? How do we prioritize our view on cultural multi-ethnicity, the relation of the church to government, divorce, and so on?
To face this difficult choice of just how “non-denominational” they should be, some churches take as few definite stances on doctrinal truth as possible. Yet the clear theological teachings of the Christian faith are relevant to the entire, specific life of human beings. Non-denominational churches are striving for a broad unity, and yet discipleship must be specific. You have to teach concrete things in specific areas; some areas of theology require views that would invalidate other views. Therefore all non-denominational churches find themselves living in the tension of exactly how specific to get.
Every independent non-denominational church has two major questions to face:
1. How are we going to relate to churches outside of our local church and exist as a part of the whole body of Christ?
2. Exactly how theologically open does “non-denominational” meant to us?
In any non-denominational church, someone can ask, why these doctrines? Why did you choose to get specific here? Why is this the hill on which we die? It’s my view that those questions will always be asked in every non-denominational church that has people who are theologically educated. Every church has to make these decisions. Most non-denominational churches will accept that churches that have other practices and doctrine in certain areas and that are not a denial of the Gospel are true churches in which Christ is working. But they will not lay down their own practices because of this conviction. Churches must take action, and whenever you take action, you are choosing one thing and not another. In many cases, you are choosing one thing against another.
Where does this put High Point Church?
For High Point Church, we refer to ourselves as a “non-denominational evangelical church.” Our doctrinal statement intentionally includes traditional Arminian and Calvinist doctrinal points—especially in the paragraph about salvation. It excludes evolutionary views of human origins. It is avowedly pre-tribulation and pre-millennial in its eschatology—the final events and destiny of humanity. Yet in baptism, it explicitly takes a credo Baptist and immersion view.
Both of these independent nondenominational questions will come up again in the life of High Point Church. What connections will we have? Perhaps the more difficult question, how specific will we get in our theology, while seeking unity?
My view as a pastor is that there is no golden mean of perfect balance. To disciple people you must get specific. And that specificity will naturally rule out other views by conviction and practice. I do not think it can be avoided, but this should be done temperately, prudently, and advisedly.