Tag Archives: Confessionalism

On C.S. Lewis and Denominational Survival

Matthew Pinson

(This post originally appeared at matthewpinson.com)

I recently read an address C. S. Lewis gave to a group of Anglican priests and youth leaders in 1945. It reminded me of what many of us in the Free Will Baptist Church have been thinking lately: Falling all over ourselves to de-emphasize our Free Will Baptist confessional beliefs and practices is probably the surest strategy for denominational extinction we could devise. Let me make a few general observations about denominational identity and survival, and then we’ll look more closely at what Lewis can teach us.

The First Strategy for Denominational Survival

There seem to be two competing strategies for denominational survival vying for prominence in the Free Will Baptist Church (as in all denominations). The first is this: If we want to keep from dying, we must become as much as possible like the non-denominational, consumer-oriented megachurch. This, among other things will mean de-emphasizing strange doctrinal beliefs and practices like the possibility of apostasy, the pedilavium, or requiring immersion for new members transferring from non-immersionist churches. It will mean not teaching distinctive Free Will Baptist doctrine from the pulpit. It will require making it as hard as possible for people to discover that our congregation is Free Will Baptist, based on its publications and communications.

The Second Strategy for Denominational Survival

The second is this: If we want to keep from dying, we must fulfill the Great Commission mandate of evangelizing people and teaching those we evangelize everything Jesus and his deputies, the inspired apostles, taught. This means we must teach and preach doctrine, like the apostles in the New Testament said to do, and we must practice what we believe the New Testament teaches, even if it seems strange to people outside our confessional tradition. This includes distinctive Free Will Baptist doctrine and practice. If we don’t carefully inculcate the scriptural doctrines our confessional tradition has affirmed, and if we don’t emphasize distinctive biblical practices our tradition has extolled, and if we do our dead-level best to cover up the fact that we’re Free Will Baptists, within a generation we will be assimilated into the non-denominational matrix and will go out of existence as a separate denomination.

These two strategies are mutually exclusive. If one is right, the other is dead wrong. You can’t have a hybrid of these two strategies.

The Last Thing We Need is Another Denomination

Please understand: I do not think, as I know C. S. Lewis did not think, that we need more denominations. That we need more schism. If it’s not necessary to have a separate Free Will Baptist denomination because it is our conviction that the Bible teaches what our Church affirms, then it’s really wrong to have another denomination. It’s schismatic. It’s divisive. And we need to join another denomination. I think Lewis, good Anglican that he was, would agree with me on this.

There’s something that breaks my heart—and I think breaks the heart of God—about the proliferation of all the different denominations out there that basically believe the same thing but are separated because of squabbles they have had that are not about the doctrine and practice they believe the Bible entails. A denomination is not a “network.” It is a fellowship of churches that believe that their affirmation of certain scriptural—apostolic—doctrines and practices necessitates having a separate denomination.

The last thing we need is another denomination. If there are other conservative Arminian Baptist denominations that believe that the washing of the saints’ feet is a divine ordinance that must be practiced liturgically—and other beliefs in our Treatise that we believe necessitate our Church’s existence—by all means let’s join up! Let’s not be schismatic because of our preferences, or because we’re used to seeing each other and going golfing or eating sushi together at the Annual Session of the National Association each July.

If we’re going to fall all over ourselves finding more efficient ways to bury our Free Will Baptist identity, doctrine, and practice, why go to the trouble of having a separate denomination? Why not just join the Southern Baptists or become non-denominational?

Are “Missional” and “Confessional” in Opposition?

These are things a lot of us have been talking about in the Free Will Baptist Church of late. We’re trying to figure out what it means to be who we are, with integrity, in a mission field in our secular age in the West.

We’re in a rapidly secularizing culture. We must be missional. And when new believers on the mission field in majority-world countries are converted, they want you to level with them about what’s true and what’s false. They’re hungering and thirsting for knowledge. They want to know what all these things they come across in the Bible really mean:

What does the Bible mean when it says that you will receive the crown of life only “if you continue”? What does it mean when it says you can fall away and not be renewed to repentance? Is affusion (sprinkling) okay in baptism, or is infant baptism okay? Or do I have to be immersed as a convert to follow Jesus in baptism? Do we—literally, physically—need to observe the Lord’s supper liturgically, or was that just a spiritual lesson? Do we—literally, physically—need to wash people’s feet liturgically, or was that just a spiritual lesson?

That’s why the people who are opposing Protestant liberalism most in the mainline denominations are from the global South and from the mission field. It’s people in the consumeristic modern West who want to de-emphasize theological precision and biblical doctrine and practice—who seem to want to do anything but teach and preach—and sing—doctrine.

These are the sorts of conversations that are happening among many Free Will Baptists—especially those in the ministry who are in their twenties. They are taking part in a new mentality to which David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group, called them when he said, “After countless interviews and conversations, I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs.”

Now to What C. S. Lewis Said

So, in light of these exciting conversations that are taking place, especially among Free Will Baptists in their twenties, I loved what I read recently from C. S. Lewis. Again, remember he’s talking to Anglicans in England in the 1940s:

“Some of you are priests and some are leaders of youth organizations. . . . And here at the outset I must deal with an unpleasant business. It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. . . . It is not, of course, for me to define to you what Anglican Christianity is—I am your pupil, not your teacher. But I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines must exist, beyond which your doctrine will cease either to be Anglican or to be Christian: and I suggest also that the lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priests think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your own minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession.

“This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. . . . Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defense of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held; what we complain of is your continuing your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of another.

“Even when we have thus ruled out teaching which is in direct contradiction to our profession, we must define our task still further. We are to defend Christianity itself—the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers. . . .” [1]

Lewis and Denominations

C. S. Lewis was speaking here as an Anglican to Anglican clergy, and he was doing what he did in so many other places when he talks about confessional doctrine and not just “mere Christianity.” In his writings, Lewis talked about the virgin birth, but also about lesser doctrines such as the Anglican doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper. Some people only read Lewis’s wonderful book Mere Christianity, and they think that is all Lewis was interested in—a sort of amorphous, non-denominational Christianity.

But they forgot to read the preface to Mere Christianity, in which Lewis said that “mere Christianity” is like the central hall of a great house which leads to distinctive rooms, and he did not want his appropriate discussion of mere Christianity, which unites Christians in the different distinctive “rooms”—denominations or confessional traditions—to discourage people from going into those rooms and exploring them and enjoying them.

Lewis said that his silence in Mere Christianity about his Anglican distinctives of doctrine and practice should not be interpreted that he is “sitting on the fence” about doctrines and practices that distinguish one denomination from another, nor that he thinks them unimportant:

“I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. . . . When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. . . . When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong, they need your prayers the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.” [3]

Moving from Entry-Level Christianity to Unabridged Christianity

Oh what need we are in of this sort of time-honored wisdom in our own day of an evangelicalism that is so unsure of itself, so intimated by the spirit of the age. We need what we see throughout Lewis’s writings, and throughout the writings of the great saints and martyrs throughout the church’s past: We need to be ourselves.

We need to be, un-self-consciously, with integrity, what the Scriptures call us to be. We need to be teaching what the Scriptures teach, practicing the simple practices the Scriptures enjoin us to practice. We need to be zealously evangelizing the lost and then just as zealously teaching them to observe everything Jesus and his deputies, the inspired apostles, teach and command and enjoin in the New Testament—not just the core, not just what it takes to be saved, but everything.

Leroy Forlines says it this way: The part of the Great Commission that says we must teach people to observe everything Jesus teaches and commands means He won’t allow us just to teach “entry-level” Christianity. His Great Commission to us demands we teach “unabridged Christianity” [4].

This is what has, historically, happened on the mission field. New Christians rescued from the grip of sin and its devastation on their life, and fitted for glory, usually don’t want to stay at the “entry level”—in the hall. They want to know more. They want honest, direct answers to the questions that come to their minds when they’re reading the Bible.

That’s what we need to do. If we believe that the Free Will Baptist confession of faith and practice is biblical, we need to teach it and preach it and practice it with gusto—not to be ashamed of it. This, we’ll find, is not only a recipe for survival as a small, theologically distinctive denomination. It’s also just a common-sense playing out of the Great Commission—an honest, authentic attempt to teach people everything that Jesus and his apostles have put forward for his church. And it’s this kind of full-throated, confident discipleship in Christian truth that will lead mature disciples to make other disciples of Christ and bring growth and replication and renewal to our churches in our increasingly secular age.

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[1] C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).

[2] Ibid., 89–90.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 6–12.

[4] See Forlines’s classic essay, “A Plea for Unabridged Christianity,” Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (2003), 85–102, which can be downloaded here.