It’s been a statement I’ve heard often repeated over the past few years, “Christians should learn Church history!”. As an individual formally trained as a historian, my first response is generally an elated “hear, hear!”. A study of Church history, after all, helps to solidify our faith by tying us back to the teachings of previous generations of Christians. It provides a basis in which we can bounce ideas off to see if our own thoughts are consistent with the great tradition of catholic Christianity. It helps us to identify heterodoxical, or heretical, beliefs (As the saying goes, there’s no such thing as a ‘new’ teaching, just old heresies with new names.) And, it is immensely useful in helping us avoid culturally, or socially, eisegising passages unintentionally. For those in ministry, particularly, it is absolutely imperative that they learn Church history. As Church historian, Justo Gonzalez, rightly states: “every renewal of the church, every great age in its history, has been grounded on a renewed reading of history.[1]Justo L. Gonzalez, “The Story of Christianity” Volume I (HarperOne, 2010) pg. 4 Church history matters.

Yet, as much as I love history, I feel that one thing is, by all means, much more crucial – and that is the teaching of theology. We’ve entered a period of theological decrepitness in Australia, where many people sitting in the pews of mainstream churches cannot articulate the beliefs of their particular denomination – or if they can, they are unsure as to why their churches actually hold those beliefs. Indeed, what I’ve seen instead is the moulding of a vague evangelical sameness, where individuals may attend different denominational churches, and while they may notice ecclesiological and baptismal differences; they, for the most part, don’t hold any major denominational convictions. This theological illiteracy has meant that to these individuals, these differences become nothing other than mere tradition.

This, I fear, is one of the greatest errors that we’ve allowed to happen within our churches – the promotion of ambivalence towards denominational distinctives. This has possibly been driven by societal conformity – we don’t want to ‘push’ our beliefs onto others, after all – but is likely driven also by pragmatism; denominational distinctives aren’t a salvation issue, right? However, this laissez-faire attitude has led to a flurry of individuals, either in ministry or seeking to be, who are more than happy to easily jump the denominational divide. Individuals who hold no set convictions, or are willing to put them aside for a position at a church which holds stances completely at odds with their own.[2]Anecdotally, I have met individuals who were Anglican-trained and raised who are looking to enter the Baptist ministry because it is apparently easier to get a position; Individuals who are in Baptist ministry, looking to eventually go to the Anglican system, and individuals who are in denominations which hold contrary positions to their own.

The unfortunate by-product of this approach is twofold. First, it devalues legitimate attempts to comprehend scripture. Denominational distinctives represent how various individuals, reformers, and puritans honestly grappled with scripture, and tried to articulate the whole counsel of God. They demonstrate a clear attempt to take all of God’s word seriously. And they did this because they believed such whole-Bible comprehension is vital for the health of God’s church – even if such attempts lead to honest disagreements between Godly people.

Secondly, it can lead to theological divisiveness. Denominations have confessions which articulate the beliefs which characterise that family of churches (as well as the beliefs which they share with other churches). Denominational confessions thereby helpfully lift debates about these issues above the authority of any person or group of people, to the level of the character of the church family we belong to. A church which does not hold to denominational distinctives will find itself constantly warring about its beliefs – even over what we would call ‘secondary’ issues, like church polity, baptism, women in ministry, or ‘worship’ style (read music preference). In contrast, churches that consciously hold to and teach denominational distinctives can use centuries of interpretative tradition to explain why they hold those beliefs. Any individual is entitled to disagree with those beliefs – we are Protestants, after all, we believe that any individual’s conscience is fundamentally responsible to God, not any human being or tradition. But if they disagree with a denominational distinctive, they need to know they’re not just going up against the minister, nor even the leadership team, but against the character of their whole church family.

A corollary of this second point is: denominational distinctives actually aid the unity of the wider church. When we understand the difference between core Christian beliefs which all denominations share, and particular convictions which shape our particular denomination, we can appropriately rejoice in what we share in common, and deal knowledgeably and courteously with what we disagree with – knowing that these disagreements, while genuine, are ‘second-order’ issues. Indeed, one of the greatest blessings that I have had with Thinking of God is the ability of working alongside those who hold differing positions to my own on a number of topics – yet through discussions, I am constantly sharpened in my own understanding of what scripture states and why I hold to what I hold.

So when I say ‘be denominational’, I’m not saying that if you’re in an independent, non-denominational, church, you have to join a denomination. Even ‘independence’ is a ‘denomination’ in the sense that the theology of congregational independence has a long history, including such heroes as John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. I’m saying that whatever church you’re in, take the time to discover the theological issues that underpin the particular form of church you’re in, and the other churches that your church is associated with. Compare those denominational convictions with what you are convinced the Bible teaches. If your church holds a position which is contrary to your convictions, then consider going to a church which does hold what you believe.

If you’re a ministry leader, take the time to teach your congregants what your denomination believes. Consider reclaiming the long-lost tradition of adult Sunday school. Mark Dever, of Capitol Hill Baptist and 9Marks, runs something akin to this in his church’s weekly ‘core seminars’ which seek to further equip and disciple individuals in their understanding of God. They have resources which you may be able to adapt in your own ministry context.

The teaching of theology and denominational distinctives in churches is something we must reclaim. It encourages individuals to seriously grapple with their Bibles, coming to grips with some of the manifold riches of God’s word, and strengthening the unity of the church by shoring up theological understanding.  It must not be something which is outsourced to colleges for a select few, but needs to be the responsibility of the church to all of its members.[3]This is not at all denying the usefulness of such colleges, but rather emphasising the importance of the church to step up in this way.

References   [ + ]

1.Justo L. Gonzalez, “The Story of Christianity” Volume I (HarperOne, 2010) pg. 4
2.Anecdotally, I have met individuals who were Anglican-trained and raised who are looking to enter the Baptist ministry because it is apparently easier to get a position; Individuals who are in Baptist ministry, looking to eventually go to the Anglican system, and individuals who are in denominations which hold contrary positions to their own.
3.This is not at all denying the usefulness of such colleges, but rather emphasising the importance of the church to step up in this way.