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- Publisher: Crossway Books (30 Jun. 2013)
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Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity Kindle Edition
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Thankfully, there is a new book that helps us reflect on these questions while focusing on the unity and differences that evangelicals hold. Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity, edited by Anthony L. Chute, Christopher W. Morgan, and Robert A. Peterson attempts to tackle this provocative subject.
The book's introduction starts us off towards thinking through both the negative and positive aspects of denominationalism. As many people will testify, the concept of denominations does not always bring fond thoughts or pleasant experiences. However, we read,
"In spite of the perennial predictions of the death of denominations, the fact remains that evangelical Christians typically have core beliefs that lead them to identify with other like-minded Christians. Given the plausibility of continued division, is there a way in which evangelical Christians can maintain their distinctive doctrinal beliefs while communicating to the church and the world that they have much more in common? We believe there is, and such is the purpose of this book." (p.15)
So the authors believe that there's a positive way to view denominations while also maintaining the tension between having differences and commonality. This is a worthy goal in itself, I think.
After the introduction, Why We Belong offers two chapters setting the foundational tone: Morgan's "Toward a Theology of the Unity of the Church" and Chute's "One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions: Denominations and Their Stories." Both chapters are quite interesting and, as far as I'm concerned, help lead readers into the subject matter both biblically, theologically, and pastorally.
Morgan's essay should be read by all pastors because it lays out an extremely well argued case for the unity of the Church. Much of his discussion centers on how Church unity is a way of showcasing or displaying certain concepts, characteristics, and qualities that people can tie back to God. For example, he writes how the unity of the church showcases God's purposes of cosmic unity and how unity of the church displays the unity of God. He writes how unity of the church is both a current characteristic and a perennial pursuit as well as how unity of the church fosters and is itself fostered by love and humility. Finally, he writes how the unity of the church is both an important doctrine and an important praxis. One of the ideas that Morgan writes that demands much reflection is when he writes that "church unity is a meaningful concept only in terms of genuine Christianity" (p.33). When we begin discussing "genuine Christianity," we must begin to ask questions related to just what exactly is "genuine Christianity"? And how can we determine what is orthodoxy? I'm inclined to refer readers to G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy but also believe this issue to be rather important when discussing how we're united. In my reading, I think Morgan does a good job of laying out what true Christian unity is and what it isn't or what it shouldn't be.
Chute's brief, and I do mean brief (28 pages!), lays out a simple "history" of church denominations, specifically those that are featured in this book (Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian). It'd be a great chapter to discuss with advocates of these Christian traditions because it, generally speaking, creates some gracious talking points. Interestingly, throughout the brief histories, one walks away sensing the tension between unity and diversity as we read about how even within these traditions, there are differences! For example, there are differences historically between Pentecostals on issues related to Spirit baptism and glossolalia (speaking on tongues), Presbyterians on certain aspects of the Lord's Supper, and Baptists on free-will and predestination (Arminianism and Calvinism). Yet, as is obvious, there's still unity.
The next six chapters are written from different authors covering their respective tradition. Gerald Bray writes on Anglicanism, Timothy George writes on Baptists, Douglas Sweeney writes on being Lutheran, Timothy Tennent writes on being a Methodist, Byron Klaus writes on being Pentecostal, and Bryan Chappell writes on being Presbyterian. Informed readers will recognize all of these names as being excellent picks to represent their denominational traditions. There were also some helpful challenges offered by different authors to their fellow evangelicals that I found interesting. Each lays out a case as to why they share unity in evangelical identity as well as diversity as they differ on certain doctrinal and practical matters. I'm not going to provide detailed interaction with these chapters, but will suggest that readers give each a fair read. You might walk away having a bit more respect for a tradition than you had before. In my case, I enjoyed Tennent's chapter on Methodism, especially his discussion on "sanctifying reorientation of the heart." I was left with the impression that there still are some very "evangelical" Methodists out there, despite what I have experienced in past discussions. This was encouraging, to say the least!
Finally, the book ends with a chapter by David Dockery, "Denominationalism: Historical Developments, Contemporary Challenges, and Global Opportunities." This chapter presented some keen observations and also left me hopeful of the future of denominations working together and, most importantly, continuing the Missio Dei.
What I liked about this book is that it is pretty comprehensive for a single work. I'm hard pressed to imagine that representatives of any of denominations discussed will feel misrepresented or frustrated by how they are identified. In fact, even though my own denominational affiliation didn't have a chapter (Vineyard), Klaus' chapter on Pentecostalism mentions it and does a good job of laying out some of the differences. This was true of all of the chapters.
In the end, I'd recommend this book to anyone who is thinking through issues related to evangelical identity, Church unity, and denominational distinctiveness.
Gerald L. Bray (Anglican)
Timothy F. George (Baptist)
Douglas A. Sweeney (Lutheran)
Timothy C. Tennent (Methodist)
Byron D. Klaus (Pentecostal)
Bryan Chapell (Presbyterian)
There were, however, other contributors for the preface, first two chapters, and final chapter. The table of contents was as follows:
Preface: Are Denominations Dead? Should They Be? (Anthony L. Chute)
1. Toward a Theology of the Unity of the Church (Christopher W. Morgan)
2. One Lord, One Faith, but Many Expressions: Denominations and Their Stories (Anthony L. Chute)
3. Why I Am an Evangelical and an Anglican (Gerald L. Bray)
4. Why I Am an Evangelical and a Baptist (Timothy F. George)
5. Why I Am and Evangelical and a Lutheran (Douglas A. Sweeney)
6. Why I Am an Evangelical and a Methodist (Timothy C. Tennent)
7. Why I Am an Evangelical and a Pentecostal (Byron D. Klaus)
8. Why I Am an Evangelical and a Presbyterian (Bryan Chapell)
9. Denominationalism: Historical Developments, Contemporary Challenges, and Global Opportunities (David S. Dockery)
You'll note that each chapter begins with "Why I Am an Evangelical...", followed by the denominational tradition. These denominational distinctives were clearly articulated as meaningful yet subordinate to Evangelicalism. The preface and first couple chapters really established the core principles of unity as the body of Christ and a condensed history of the traditions represented. Dockery's backend contribution was helpful as a summary and analysis of current trends and the path forward.
Christopher W. Morgan certainly laid the foundation with a faithful exposition of the church and its ecclesiastical reality as a witness of the new creation:
"And what is striking is that the apostle Paul asserts that God's new creation is already under way - in the church! The church is the firstfruits of the ultimate new creation that is still to come; as the firstfruits, we are both the genuine reality of the new creation and the foretaste of more to come. Thus, as the church, we are the new humanity, new society, new temple - a new creation. We are a foretaste of heaven on earth, a genuine embodiment of the kingdom, a glimpse of the way things are supposed to be, and a glimpse of the way the cosmos ultimately will be; we are a showcase of God's eternal plan of cosmic unity." (25)
He later adds:
"...unity does not emerge through theological vagueness, theological minimalism, or a lack of doctrinal conviction. Rather, church unity is built upon the theological foundations of the one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one faith, and so forth. And Paul's emphases on love, humility, and patience do not point to an epistemic uncertainty about core components of the Christian faith. Instead, Paul clarifies that such unity simultaneously requires both doctrinal truth and love." (31)
Morgan offers a beautiful portrait of how the church is to reflect the unity of God on a cosmic, macro level, and how this also informs the praxis of the believing community in the more micro levels of marriage, family, and vocation. The church is to make visible the unity of God in all of our institutions.
One of the more humorous comments (and also refreshingly candid and honest) from the volume came from Anthony Chute, where he said the following:
"I am a Christian and a Baptist. I became a Christian by faith, following Christ to the cross. I became a Baptist by sight, following a Baptist girl to a Baptist church." (37)
The rest of the volume certainly represents faithful and humble adherents of the traditions represented. I was pleased with every presentation. You won't find dogmatic polemics that rails against the other traditions - in fact, many of the contributors migrated to their respective traditions via some of the other traditions. One tradition that wasn't represented was the independent non-denominational church - which only makes sense in light of the fact that this was about denominations. The thing is that non-denominational churches are on the rise and they're very difficult to nail down as far as identity because the diversity is more varied than even the denominations covered in this volume.
As a pastor of one of the those independent non-denominational churches, I couldn't help but feel insecure at times while reading this volume; I'm an orphan. I identify as an Evangelical and am probably more Baptist than anything else - which does believe in the autonomy of the local church - but still think there's much to be gained by way of visible catholicity by being part of some tradition. I tell folks that I'm not anti-denominational lest they think we're something entirely new and will rail against the "institutional" church. I'm grateful that we have many traditions represented in our church and that we can maintain unity around an Evangelical core. We're probably more interdenominational in spirit than being some undefined glob. I say all this to note that I appreciated every contributor from the book and think it would be foolish to ignore the strengths that everyone offers - yes, the Methodists included. We should all read Luther, Calvin, and Wesley. We should all find some beauty in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer. You get what I'm saying - there's something to be had from each tradition. I would even add that each tradition adds a distinct flavor within the whole which makes the body of Christ all the more beautiful. Rather than seeing denominations as a cutting away at the body of Christ, I prefer to see them each as different parts of the church universal.
I recommend you read this book, especially if you're not all that familiar with some of the denominations represented. It will broaden your understanding of church history and deepen your appreciation for God's work through the faithful adherents of each tradition. Thanks to Crossway for sending me this review copy.
Though I am not a Presbyterian, Bryan Chappell’s presentation was inspirational. He wrote as a true elder and father within the body of Christ: honestly, ecumenically, wisely and with nuanced thoughts shaped by years of experience. He showed a willingness to humbly state his doctrinal positions, give liberty for other persuasions, and leave the reader with the impression that he was open to learning from others outside his denomination.
Each author had a similar story: temperament, gift mix, positive and negative personal circumstances, personal calling and doctrinal preferences on secondary issues … that brought them to the current denominational setting – a place where they currently have found a fit and are joyfully flourishing.
Within today’s American church though people still consider a denomination when “picking” a church, they also factor in location, friends who go there, what’s going on at that particular church, how it affects their kids, etc. And, as per the theme of this book, that’s okay. Why? Of greater importance is that people are in an accountable, healthy Christian community of faith – where Jesus is confessed as both Lord and Savior – one composed of old and young, mature and immature, leaders and followers, teachers and learners … disciples making disciples: a place where a person can fit and flourish.