Consumerism has hit Christianity in the United States, and brand loyalty is fast eroding. I wrote about this last week, and while it is fashionable for commentators on Christianity to bemoan the way that consumerism has hurt the church and diluted its message, I want to assert, without denying the corrosive effects, that there are some positive trends that we are seeing in the landscape of Christianity that are a direct result of this consumerist attitude that people are bringing to the church. Just off the top of my head, I see these things happening:
· As denominational distinctives get blurred, denominational walls get torn down
· As denominational walls get torn down, denominational theology becomes more democratic
· As theology becomes more democratic, Christians from different backgrounds and points of view talk to and learn from each other.
· As Christians talk to and learn from each other, we learn to respect and admire the totality of the 2000 year history of Christianity.
· As we re-claim all of Christian history, we enter into dialogue with Christians from different ages and epochs.
All of these are positive developments, and need to be more fully explored. Let me tackle the first one. Historically, each denomination has some key elements that distinguish it from other denominations. Presbyterians, for instance, are the spiritual descendants of John Calvin and hold to some form of Calvinism—the total depravity of humans, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. In other words, God chooses who He wants to save, and there’s not much we can do about it. Methodists, on the other hand, believe that humans are free to accept or reject God’s call or election to salvation, but that is really not the thing that historically has distinguished Methodists from other denominations, but rather their belief that the Christian is to pursue holiness or perfection as our chief object, and this through the method (hence the name) of small accountability groups. This, of course, is an over-simplification; both Presbyterians and Methodists would point to other aspects as distinctives as well. For Baptists, this issue of predestination vs. free will is not distinctive; there are Calvinist Baptists and free-will Baptists—right in our congregation. Historically, Baptist distinctives are as follows: Believer’s Baptism by immersion—it’s in our name, after all; soul competency—the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply Scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit ; the priesthood of all believers—the freedom and responsibility of every person to relate directly to God without imposition of creed or control of clergy or government; the autonomy of the local Baptist church—that Baptist churches are free, under the Lordship of Christ, to determine their membership and leadership, to order their worship and work, to ordain whomever they perceive as gifted for ministry, and to participate as they deem appropriate in the larger Body of Christ; and religious freedom—the principle of separation of church and state.
The thing is—these things aren’t that distinctive anymore. There are other Christian denominations that are strong advocates for religious freedom in the way that Baptists have historically advocated. Similarly, there are more and more denominations that practice Believer’s Baptism by immersion, more and more that believe in soul competency, the priesthood of believers. Similarly, we are all learning from the Methodist’s emphasis on holiness through accountability, and the Presbyterian emphasis on God’s sovereignty, the Pentecostal emphasis that the Holy Spirit is active in visible ways in the lives of believers, the Orthodox Church’s emphasis on the mystery and beauty of God, etc. As the lines between denomination get blurred, the walls between believers get torn down. Actually, to be honest, the denominational institutions still insist on their distinctives. The institutional walls still exist; it’s just that individual believer’s no longer pay much attention to them. And that’s a good thing. Jesus never intended that his followers would rebuild new walls to replace the wall between Jew and Gentile that he tore down. Disciples of Jesus build bridges, not walls.
That’s our distinctive.