Why We Must Go Beyond “Mere Christianity” With Apologetics Ministries
Apologetics ministries are a dime and dozen these days, and they tend to be split down the line of denominational Christianity (which seeks to advance the theological and ethical commitments of a particular tradition) or non-denominational Christianity (which focuses on the theological and ethical commitments that are ecumenical). In the great “Mere Christianity” tradition of C.S. Lewis, non-denominational apologetics ministries style themselves as such because accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior is not a decision which requires any particular denominational doctrines to adopt. In other words, one can be a Christian merely by professing faith in Christ, receiving a baptism, and then pursuing a life of discipleship. So why bother with any talk of denominations while doing apologetics?
Well, if you have been following Christ for any length of time, then as a disciple of his teachings you are habitually studying the Gospels in order to deepen your understanding of Christ so that you can live your life like he lived his. It is clear that even with a cursory reading of the Gospels that a central idea in the teachings of Jesus was something he called the Kingdom of God. Many parables were offered to explain what the Kingdom of God is like, but in my oversimplified summation it seems to be about how saving grace is going to be offered to the world, and how people communally living into that grace ought to bring others into it as well. Of course, Jesus taught on other things too — such as prayer, instituting the Lord’s Supper, and commissioning his disciples to go and make new disciples and baptize them. But when you take ALL of what Jesus taught, then what you have is a theological system made up of a bunch of different principles, virtues, propositions, and imperatives.
The theological system that Jesus conveyed to us cannot be condensed into a mere version of itself. Just take the Nicene Creed for example, which every major Christian denomination and tradition looks to in order to define the bounds of orthodoxy. Does it capture all of the nuances of what it means to follow Christ? Of course not. The creed was never developed for that express purpose, because if it was then it should have included something about the Kingdom of Heaven, but it does not. This is odd, considering Jesus spent so much time preaching on it! My point is that there are aspects to Christianity which lend themselves to condensation, but Christianity as a whole cannot be condensed.
You might be thinking — well wait, in Matthew 25 didn’t Jesus condense the Law and the Prophets to Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18? And to that I say yes! But merely keeping those two greatest commandments (which we might call “Mere Judaism”) does not make one a Jew. There are feasts and other rituals such as getting circumcised, keeping the Sabbath holy, the Passover feast, and Yom Kippur that must be observed if one is serious about practicing Judaism (regardless of which specific tradition like Orthodox, Reformed, or Messianic). When one condenses an entire theological system into a single proposition (or two or three), one runs the risk of allowing other theological systems to pick things up where those propositions leave off. This is precisely why in Matthew 25 that Jesus called the rich young ruler to sell his possessions and to come follow him. There was more to the theological picture than keeping “Mere Judaism” that Jesus was trying to fill in—more must be done to round out one’s religious practice.
But why would we need denominations for that?
The strength of denominations is that they can offer you a complete theological system. Sure, denominational differences exist. Denominational polemic exists. Strong denominational disagreements persist. But despite these things, a given denomination can provide training wheels as you explore your commitment to Christ and study the Bible. We were never supposed to be maverick Christians — independently following Him without being connected to a congregational body — we were always supposed to live in community with one another. Denominations have a way of providing that community and a shared theological system to complement living your faith.
But I can get Christian community at a non-denominational church.
Absolutely! But as it turns out most non-denominational churches (in America at least) tend to skew Reformed in their theological and polity commitments (in that they do not have a pope, or bishop; rather a pastor and some leadership council or a full-on congregationalist polity). So, even a non-denominational church is not completely disassociated from denominational traditions.
But denominational apologetics undermines the oneness and catholicity of the Church, whereas “Mere Christianity” underlines it.
Is that so? In reality, do Catholics, Orthodox, Coptic, Protestants, Pentecostals, and non-denominational Christians all consider each other heretics who are not following Christ? No! Interdenominational relations have never been better than they are today, precisely because denominational leaders want to affirm the oneness and catholicity of the Church. It is up to each of us now to extend the love of Christ to those outside of the denomination we prefer, because (believe it or not) they too love Christ. The joy in doing this is that we will get to discover and celebrate the diversity of orthopraxis in the Church, perhaps even learning things from each other that goes beyond the basics we share with “Mere Christianity.”
But denominational apologetics is arrogant.
Is it really arrogant to articulate what specific theological commitments you believe when you are defending your faith against the challenges of a skeptic? Or when having a conversation with somebody who is open to exploring theological commitments of their own? It seems unfair to restrict apologetics to just “Mere Christianity” when there are so many different topics to discuss regarding different doctrines. Consider a mere belief of Christianity: that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24, NIV). Even a mere belief like that one invites serious dialogue about what the nature and extent of sin is, what the glory of God is, what justification is, what grace and redemption is, etc. These are all concepts that require presenting one’s theological commitments in order to unpack. And that’s OK! It’s not arrogant at all. It’s normal.
So now what?
If you are subscribed to or supporting a denominational apologetics ministry that you think should go non-denominational, then let me ask you this: if as a Protestant or Orthodox bro, would it really be the worst thing if a non-believer you were dialoguing with decided to join the Catholic Church? If not, then what is the problem? If people are being led to Christ, then they are being led to Christ. It should not matter which denomination they accept afterwards, especially if as a “Mere Christianity” bro you don’t even want to deal with denominations. Let the denominational apologetics ministries do their thing. We’re all in this together.