(c) David Parker

published with minor variations in New Life 13 June 2002

A reflection on a seminar presented by the Dr D. Loder, General Superintendent, Baptist Union of Queensland, at the Annual Baptist Convention, 2001, Brisbane


Post-Christian, Post-Colonial, Post-modern -- these are common words today - even post-Christmas sales! But do they mean anything or are they simply jargon? Perhaps many are, but one of them, "post-denominational," is credited with being the idea behind the new look to Baptist life in Queensland. This word was defined by the Queensland Baptist General Superintendent, Dr David Loder, at the 2001 Convention as a "mindset" that focuses on "exploration, extending the barriers, and experimentation" This results in people changing church allegiance regularly, or even going to various "churches on rotation rather than sticking with one". In short, he said, it seems that "the 'old rules' are out the window and 'new rules' are being formulated."

According to Dr Loder, churches used to grow from people marrying into them, from the children of members and newcomers to the community. People would choose a church that seemed small and intimate, and was within walking distance. Now, however, people choose a church that for the quality of its ministry, relevance to their personal spiritual journey and has credibility.

At the denominational level, the new approach means that the structures and principles which were established a hundred years or so ago are now being discarded as "God re-invents the organism" of the church once again, as He has done regularly since biblical times." The vertical lines of authority and a focus on institutions typical of mediaeval European tradition are out of favour, says Dr Loder. Instead, there is a horizontal or relational authority which places reliance in people and concentrates on ministry and missional goals.

In this new pattern which is embodied in the changes to the Baptist Union made at recent Assemblies, the churches do not exist to serve the denominational program. On the contrary, the denomination exists to resource the local congregations so that they can become what God wants them to be and do what God what wants them to do. In other words, the denomination is now a para-church organisation, like the many other such bodies that have existed for many years, even if this does sound like a contradiction in terms.

At the 2001 Convention, Dr John Sweetman, now Principal of the Queensland Baptist College, described these changes as the difference between the "old paradigm" and the "new paradigm" of church life. Other seminar speakers reflected the same perspective.

It is not something which is unique to Queensland - reports from the rest of Australia, North America and Britain suggest that is a common to find people are no longer very interested in denominational life or think that denominational distinctives are important. As a result, denominations are struggling for financial support and are looking for new directions and programs.

Generational and cultural changes are generally regarded as the reasons for this sudden turn around, but perhaps it also reflects the quality of leadership and discipleship in the past. It is certainly a long way from the convictions of our founding fathers who saw the denomination as a dynamic centre and expression of unity and a source of spiritual strength for the churches.

But what does it all mean and where is it leading? We need to take a broader view to get it into perspective because it does not pay to have short memory when it comes to understanding the church.

Denominations have a long history. Even in New Testament times there were structures and authority systems, each with their own particular beliefs and ways of doing things - if that is what is meant by "denominationalism." Over the years, many of the alternative ways were squashed and one basic way soon dominated throughout Christendom. Then at the end of the 1st millennium there was a split between the Catholic church in western Europe and the Orthodox churches in the eastern areas.

After the Protestant Reformation in 16th century, denominational divisions proliferated. Many factors caused this, but doctrinal beliefs were very important as people took seriously what they understood to be the teaching of Scripture. Some of key issues were salvation, worship and especially the structure and leadership of the church. These views were taught vigorously in pulpits and spread widely throughout the world by successful home and foreign mission programs.

The desire to base church life directly on the explicit teaching of Scripture was admirable, but eventually people realised that disunity in the body of Christ was a grave problem. Some attempted to achieve re-union through doctrinal reconciliation based on better biblical scholarship and through understanding the historical causes of denominationalism. Others vainly tried to establish church movements that were "non-denominational" while some tried to go independent with perhaps some form of loose association. A popular option was spiritual unity and practical cooperation on the basis of a few commonly held basic beliefs, agreeing to treat other matters (like church structure and baptism) as only secondary. Yet others minimised the differences and, emphasising other aspects of church life on which they agreed on especially social welfare, hoped for the best.

It seems some people today ignore, even deny, the significance of the doctrinal beliefs and spiritual practices that have distinguished denominations over many generations as they set up generic program-oriented churches under entrepreneurial leadership that appeal to the consumerist sentiment. Denominationalism is seen primarily as an organisational and social matter with mainly negative connotations. Certainly it is true that rigidity and entrenched power have been a blight on church life at times. Honesty requires us to acknowledge that Baptists in Queensland are not exempt from this tendency, and to realise that it has been led by some strong minded people over the years.

It is perhaps not surprising then that there is an untested assumption that it is possible by a process of refocusing and restructuring to move beyond the past into a new post-denominational era of progress and vitality. But this is easier said than done!

It is obvious that the present circumstances are very different from the times when the denominations first came into existence. Baptists, for example, in the early 17th century, arose to stand for freedom of conscience to worship according to what we believed the Bible to be saying about salvation and nature of the church over against the entrenched power of Church of England as established by the State. A century or more later, Methodists witnessed to the importance of personal experience of the gospel as result of evangelistic preaching and practical holiness of life in the midst of a decadent state church.

Today, there is no doubt a need for re-positioning ourselves as other Christians come to see the truth of some of our core beliefs and we in turn fill some of our blind spots by learning from others. So there is hope that the old negative divisions can be overcome. But despite idealistic hopes that all Christians can find a single common spirituality and practice or at least exist in harmony, all differences are not going to disappear, at least in the short term.

In fact, the traditional denominational positions seem to be settling down to three or four distinct streams - Catholic with the emphasis on episcopal leadership and the sacraments; mainstream Protestant with a broad view of the church, faith and social involvement; Evangelical, basing its beliefs directly on the Bible and focusing on personal salvation through faith in Christ; and Pentecostal centring on the immediate experience of God's presence in worship, charismatic gifts and apostolic leadership.

In years gone by, the details of church structure and governance were strongly considered to have explicit biblical teaching to support them. But now only Catholics and Pentecostals seem to follow that view, often quite literalistically insisting on particular forms of church life. For the others, there is room to contextualise and adapt structures for different circumstances, although sometimes it appears biblical guidelines that evangelicals support are in danger of being voided. Under potential threat are such important matters as servant leadership, believer's baptism, the priesthood of all believers, the stewardship of spiritual gifts and spiritual integrity in the lives of both church members and leaders.

So just what is "post-denominationalism"? At best, this jaw-breaker seems to mean new forms for the church. After all, it is naïve to think that we can avoid structures altogether (and their potential for abuse of power and rigidity). The New Testament not only recognizes this, laying down guidelines for church life, but it shows that unity and associations between congregations are intrinsic to the true church. So in this sense, "denominationalism" will always be with us. As Steve Stookey, of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, USA says, "Postdenominationalism doesn't mean denominations are going to die; they're just changing. We're talking about a transition."

So this raises question of exactly what a "denomination" is. With our local church government and autonomy, Baptists are not a normal denomination, but are more an association of churches. Already new ad hoc networks are being set up which are in essence not unlike early Baptist groupings. Some people however are talking about a "new apostolic reformation" based on very large churches with self-appointed authoritarian leaders networking loosely with each other - rather like large business corporations linked in a cartel for their mutual advantage. This does not sound like the New Testament at all. But even so, it could be argued that recent trends in Baptist life put more power into the hands of fewer people than ever before, with less accountability, and poorer access by the people to information and reliable communication.

In the present situation we have seen that the emphasis is on the "ministry and missional goals" of local churches, with the denominational structure as a service bureau in the background. This undercuts the role of the denomination and at the same time places a premium on large well resourced churches to the disadvantage of smaller ones.

But more seriously it focuses on only a small segment of the multi-faceted picture of the church in the New Testament. It emphasises the church as an entrepreneurial organisation with programs, goals and dominant leaders, whereas the church is essentially a living body indwelt by Christ the Head (Eph. 4:16) and as a priesthood of believers (1 Pet 2:9). Biblically, being in Christ as the people of God is just as important as doing things for God. In the New Testament we see a pilgrim church with a humble servant ministry, not a triumphalist one with organisational power and impressive presence in the world.

Obviously many factors need to be considered in re-shaping the church for the present generation, but as Baptists, our heritage shows that above all we need to discern biblical principles through open discussion, fellowship and integrity. We need to take account of sound historical and statistical information and avoid stereotypes so we can evaluate current trends, realizing that denominationalism has been the source of much evangelism, outreach and fellowship in the past, despite its obvious problems.
So although we may want to "explore, extend the barriers and experiment" for today's world, the most prominent characteristic of the church must always be the Lordship of Christ and the fellowship created by the Spirit.

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