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Non-Denominational Denominations and Other Contradictions

By David Bennett

This article is designed to make us think a little more about how we use language, and primarily to make us all critically examine the claims of language, especially those made regularly by Christians. If you are looking for a definition of non-denominational, please read this article. Unfortunately, many Christians can become accustomed to using words and phrases ad nauseum (meaning "to nausea," i.e. repeating something so as to engender disgust) without ever thinking about what they are saying, or analyzing what their words actually mean. We snicker when someone totally misuses a word, but often many of us do the same thing, only with more subtlety. Ultimately language is just as liquid and malleable as anything else in life. Meanings often change and can become more technical over time. This is why someone who knows modern demotic Greek does not necessarily know ancient Greek, although the two are similar. One example I can think of for the liquidity of language is the word "gay." Just twenty years ago the term primarily meant "happy" to the average person. Now very few people use the term in its original, non-technical sense, and if you did, you might encounter snickers from the younger generation! Thus I recognize that language changes and is often subjective. Keep this in mind as you read the essay. I will look at a handful of religious words and phrases, and explain why in reality the words and phrases are often contradictory.

Non-Denominational

If you spend much time on Christian websites and chat rooms on the internet, or simply take a look at the churches in your town, you have probably encountered "non-denominational" churches. In fact, you may be surprised at how many non-denominational churches have sprung up over the last twenty years. Why are they so popular? Well, many people pride themselves in being "non-denominational." "We don't belong to any (fill in put-down here, such as "man-made," "hierarchical," etc.) denomination," they will say. Then they insist that they joined a non-denominational church to get away from the idea of denomination, and some will even imply that by going non-denominational, they have found a holier, more exciting religious experience than available in denominations. Some even go so far as to imply that the whole concept of an organized denomination is "corrupt" and counter to biblical Christianity. However, in trying to escape being in a "denomination," they have really found themselves in the same situation. Let me explain.

If you look at the basic meaning of the word denomination, you will find it simply means "designation" or "categorization." Thus, by definition, "non" denominational would mean not designating or not categorizing. The reality is that it is very hard to avoid designation, because even the title non-denominational is itself a clear designation, designed to distinguish a church body from other groups. The same case is true if we define denomination as categorization. Many feel that by leaving a large, organized, Christian body, they are, "breaking away from the spirit of denominationalism," i.e. freeing themselves from categories and divisions. However, upon examination it is clear that whenever a non-denominational church is started, rather than eliminating the spirit of category, a new category has simply been started. Thus, whenever a non-denominational church is started, a new category is also created, and a new denomination has been formed. With thousands of Christian denominations in the United States alone, one thing we do not need is another denomination, whether it be named, or whether it is a "non-denominational" denomination.

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Non-Traditional (We Don't Follow Tradition...Darn-it!)

We all have met people who claim to be non-traditional. They are in essence the rebels in life and within Christianity. However, rebellion has its own tradition. Let me explain further.

Our word tradition comes from the Latin word traditio, meaning simply to hand down. The Greek word paradosis means the same thing. So anytime knowledge, practice, or belief is handed down, i.e. passed on, tradition exists. Thus "tradition" is any practice or belief that we inherit from someone else. Anytime a minister speaks, or a Sunday school teacher teaches, knowledge is handed down. When a parent tells a child about God, or someone reads a book about morals, knowledge is inherited. By the general definition of tradition, everyone is traditional. The Bible itself is a piece of tradition, a written handing down of Christian teachings. In fact, Paul himself even says to hold fast to the traditions he has given, both oral and written (1 Cor. 11:2, 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6). In ancient times, tradition was especially valued.

Believe it or not, abhorrence of tradition has become a tradition itself. In many churches and Universities, a general hatred of tradition is taught and "handed down" on a regular basis. Next time a professor or pastor tells you not to trust tradition, tell him or her, "in that case, then your recommendation to distrust tradition cannot be trusted, because you have just passed down tradition to me!" The only way someone can truly be a non-traditionalist is for him or her to have been born and grown up in a cave with no contact with outside information. Then he or she could step out into the world tradition-free (and rather angry and dirty I suspect). Unfortunately, the phrase, "Don't trust tradition," is oft-repeated, despite the fact that "Don't trust tradition" is itself a tradition, and now, a long-held one at that.

Non-Institutional

It was (and probably still is) in-vogue to criticize institution. Many endlessly criticize "organized religion" or "institutional religion," preferring perhaps disorganized religion, or a religion that won't last very long. Who knows? This may be a function of our individualistic society, but nonetheless, I believe that in the 21st century, there is more likely to be an uncritical dislike of institutions than an uncritical allegiance to them.

Anyway, the basic definitions of institution are "a custom important to a group of people for a period of time," "established custom or method," and "an enactment." It seems to me that institution is a bit hard to fully avoid. For instance, how many so-called "non-institutional" churches have been teaching their beliefs about "non-institution" for so long that they themselves are institutions. Being non-institutional can (and often is) itself be an established custom or method, and thus can be institutional. If a group of people gathers "informally" for long enough, then they become an institution. I guess they would have to gather informally one year and formally the next in order not to be institutional, and even then the alternating of years could become institutionalized.

Non-Ritualistic (We Only Worship Spontaneously)

Many have prided themselves that their actions are spontaneous, i.e. unplanned. In Christianity, spontaneity is often lauded as the most pious form of worship. In some churches, the gospel message seems to be "do something new every week" as opposed to "preach the timeless gospel of Jesus Christ," which as we know is very old and not a new or spontaneous thing.

Even spontaneity has its problems. To be truly spontaneous, planning, and any outside motivation must be avoided. To be truly spontaneous, people cannot even gather together unless each individually randomly comes to the conclusion that it is a good time to meet, and happens to decide to go to the same place at the same time. Also, once people have all decided to drop what they are doing and meet (not planned mind you), then they must only do unplanned things. So if these individuals gather at the same time each week, sing the same types of songs, have the same type of program, i.e. sermon and prayers, then they are no longer spontaneous. Spontaneity is another term that is thrown around very often without being fully considered. It seems that many are more ritualistic, or work within a regular framework of fixed patterns and structures, than they would like to admit, which of course, is not a bad thing at all.

Non-Creedal (We Don't Believe in Creeds!)

All Christians have met another Christian who says, "we don't have creeds," or "we don't believe in creeds." Some who have this belief direct hostility to those who do have creeds, believing them to be constraining or non-biblical. The problem is that we all have creeds.

Creed comes from the Latin credo, i.e. "to believe." So any time a group of people (or an individual) believes something, they technically have a creed. Even the phrase "we don't believe in creeds," is itself a kind of creed. And just by observing the words, the worship, and other commonalities of a person or church, it becomes apparent that all indeed do have many defined beliefs. I do not wish to be offensive, but the only people without creeds are individuals with totally diminished mental capacity. If one is capable of belief, he or she technically has a creed.

Catholic

I have to include this, because it hits home to me and the website I am writing for. It is not fair to only criticize the language that others often use, and not examine the language that I often use. So here goes.

Catholic in its general sense just means, "according to the whole" i.e. "universal." In a more Christian sense it means the universal church, i.e. both ancient and modern. The opposite of universal is "particular," or "according to the individual," or in the Christian sense, "congregational." Congregational means that each individual local church is its own self-contained unit. This is contrary to ancient Christianity where each body was a part of a larger, worldwide entity. However, many who use the word Catholic in their name are actually congregational. For instance, some groups have recently broken off from the larger Catholic Church to form new churches, claiming the Catholic Church (and all churches but them) is now heretical. I see these churches as quite particular, and not universal, since they believe that the Catholic Church has erred and only the few schismatics are correct. It is rather ironic to see a group of 5,000 members confined to a few states within the United States claiming to be the "Catholic" Church. Nonetheless, it happens.

Also, other groups have laid claim to the Catholic label, even when acting very congregational. One example is the Episcopal church (also called "Anglican"), who recently consecrated a practicing gay man as bishop. Despite the fact that many leaders of this denomination claim to be "catholic," this action is certainly not "according to the whole" and goes against years of Tradition, not to mention the opinion of most others in the Anglican Church. Thus, despite claiming to be "catholic," they have acted in an extremely congregational fashion.

Concluding Remarks

So in the end, we have many "non-denominational" denominations, "anti-tradition" traditionalists, "anti-institutional" institutions, "spontaneous" ritualists, "non-creedal" creed believers, and non-catholic "catholics." As I said before language is fluid, and I am not going to take away the right of individuals to focus in on a more technical definition of a word, e.g. where denomination means "a historical, large, body of churches." However, just as people have the right to a definition, so do we have the right to examine each word and phrase. Unfortunately, critically analyzing the use of words can be troublesome at times. At a recent Vestry meeting, the treasurer said an expense was part of non-categorized expenses. I laughed to myself, thinking, "but 'non-categorized' is itself a category." Fortunately for the sake of getting us home in less than three hours, I kept my mouth shut. (updated 5-19-05)

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