Nondenominational obsession over identity suggests a longing for something perhaps only heritage and name can provide. Many nondenominational pastors are convinced that depth of fellowship depends, in significant measure, upon shared conviction, and that real belonging is always built upon authentic relationships. But what do they mean by “authentic?”
“Authentic” may serve as a catch-all phrase referencing some antidote to relational deprivations suffered disproportionately first by Gen Xers and now by millennials. The first generation of nondenominational leaders are the children of the baby boomer parents who divorced one another at unprecedented rates. These same Gen Xers also experienced the dislocations attending an increasingly more mobile populace grappling with an economy demanding more and more travel and rewarding frequent moves. Throw in the many isolating effects of increased use of mobile technologies and the hunger for relationship and community hardly seems surprising.
Tim Keller says the millennial generation may well articulate deeper longing for authentic, lasting relationship than any ever seen. But, he cautions, they may also perhaps be, as a generation, especially ill-equipped for the establishing and maintaining of such relationships. Inability to trust and commit thwart and cripple their pursuit of what they say they especially desire—sustained authentic relationships in community.
Many nondenominational pastors and elders exhibit strong susceptibility to embrace of an historically embedded comprehension of identity. Some admit, despite their nondenominational status, an unrequited desire for a genuine, historically locatable and trackable lineage within the body of Christ. They seek out and find historic teachers, mentors and models with impressive energy and consistency. From the Cappadocians and Augustine to Luther and Calvin, Edwards and Spurgeon, Packer and Piper, Stott and Keller, they periodically snuggle up to various Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Anglicans and yes, Baptists, too.
Yet no name attaching to the historically embedded, locatable and traceable ecclesial traditions of their teachers is allowed to materialize in concreto and apply to them. If the word “Baptist” is visible near their worship spaces it will cry out "Unwelcome" from ineffaceable letters etched in the stone facade of an old Baptist church they now inhabit.
Rather than burden themselves with the historically “authentic” name of an historical and thus an “authentic” tradition, even their own, they choose names that seem to offer escape from that historical morass—names that seem able to soar above the historical fray. Names drawn from the Bible—Christ, Redeemer, Sojourn—or names attempting to capture some feature of true discipleship or ecclesial aspiration—Mosaic, Community, Journey. Wonderful names all. But do they not signal an attenuation of, if not a retreat from, authenticity?
What sullied the word Baptist? What rendered it repugnant? What secured its achievement of stumbling-block status in the popular mind? Partly, it was the same combination of the same two factors that tend to tarnish most words taken as names: people and time. Attach a name to locatable clusters of actual people over time, people eaten-up with sin and, in this case, sinners entangled in a 400-year-old global history, and the name-besmirching baggage tends to pile up. Many years and spreading space offer plenteous opportunity to do wrong as well as right. Baptists took full opportunity for both. So the name suffered.
But its authenticity remains undeniable. Authenticity and historical baggage go together in marriage, in friendship and in communities of faith. Ultimately, attempted gnostic flights away from the vicissitudes and exigencies of history prove not only futile but harmful, especially as they diminish authenticity. Where the most mature, authentic, Christian fellowship flourishes, attempts at history-devoid snuggle-ups with “just Jesus” are recognized as unnecessary and inauthentic mirages. Have not the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition already dirtied the name “Christian” and “Church” and even “Christ”? Should we dispense with these as well?
Angelina Jolie disowned Jon Voight, the biological father who abandoned her. She refused to take his name, refused to see him for years. But nothing she could do could undo the unique bequeathment biological parentage alone delivers—the innumerable and indelible earmarks of family, some blatant and obvious, others subtle but all the more telling for being so. When the all but irrepressible urge of adopted children to find their birth parents erupts, it is usually driven by a hunger for self-discovery and belonging of a sort biological parents and the ancestral home alone can provide.
However indelible is the biological inheritance that shapes us as human beings who belong to Jesus Christ, it cannot compete with our adoption into this spiritual family tree. This one alone is permanent. Here we meet our eternal siblings, all of us the adopted children of the same eternal Father. Here alone we find the place where the deepest, most authentic relationships in community are formed and thrive.
How should we assess attempts to transcend the Christian tradition, sub-fusing and obscuring the numerous and nameable and so historically authentic branches of which it consists? Are the sub-traditions properly reducible to one big, generic Christian Tradition? Would such a lumping together serve Christian unity? Or might such a historically disinterested conceptual maneuver involve an act of self-deception? Do we, according to God’s providence, actually belong to real, historically locatable and traceable branches of the family tree the triune God planted? Is it not along particular branches that we receive life-giving water coming up from the trunk? And is it not actually along particular and distinct branches that the photosynthesized nutrients of leaves spread down that branch and feed the other branches and the tree as a whole?
The history denying, new-name concocting features of denominationalism need a re-think if authentic relationship and community remain central aspirations of these growing communities of faith.
Mark DeVine joined the Beeson Divinity School faculty in 2008 and teaches church history and doctrine.