One Denomination to Rule Them All (Won’t Happen)

One Denomination to Rule Them All (Won’t Happen) May 27, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been reviewing a classic 2005 evangelical book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience. In it, author Ronald J. Sider tried his darndest to convince evangelicals to start obeying their own rules. In this installment, I’ll show you a totally-out-of-left-field suggestion of his from Chapter 4. See, he wanted churches to figure out some totally-central authority for all of evangelicalism — like an overlord denomination to rule them all. And that is quite possibly the most laughable suggestion in the book. Today, I’ll show you how Ronald J. Sider wanted this idea to work. And then I’ll show you why it can’t possibly ever happen.

denomination map reveals the future
The future is now. (Image: Lorenzo Colombo.)

(For the most part, the posts in this series apply to Christians who believe in Hell. In these posts, I abbreviate the book’s title to “Scandal.” Quotes come from the 2005 hardback edition of the book. Previous “Scandal” posts: Overview of the BookMeasuring Evangelical HypocrisyThe Myth of Original Christianity Underlying the Book; Solving Exactly the Wrong Problems in Evangelicalism; How Hell-Belief Leads to Hypocrisy; Biff and the Mormons.)

Seriously: Out of Nowhere.

A few pages away from the end of Chapter 4, I discovered a subsection titled “Practical Steps.” In this subsection, Ronald J. Sider suddenly brought up a whole new topic: denominational/umbrella group accountability.

All through the book, he focuses on individual churches and Christians. Now, suddenly, he swivels around to denominations and umbrella groups.

I felt quite disoriented reading it. I wondered, Wait, where’d THIS come from?

But in another way, it kinda makes sense. If Sider frets this hard over accountability at one level, then it’s nice that an individual church’s accountability as a whole matters to him as well. Usually, evangelicals wringing their widdle handsies over accountability only care about the sheep, not the shepherds.

Really, though, I just wanted to stress one thing here:

The suggestions he makes first really don’t flow at all with the book’s overall intense focus on individual accountability.

In fact, these paragraphs almost seem like an insertion into the text — you know, like the Pericope Adulterae in the Gospel of John that so many Christians use to rationalize their control-grabs over others.

Authoritarianism for the Authoritarianism God!

Before making his call for small groups to wield total control over individual Christians’ lives, Ronald J. Sider offers two suggestions. He considers each of them “critical.”

First, he thinks nondenominational churches all must join a formal denomination.

He doesn’t specify any in particular, of course. Just some denomination would satisfy him. He thinks that denominational chains would vastly increase local churches’ accountability. As he puts it (p. 111):

How can an independent “Bible church” claim to be biblical when its very refusal to submit to a larger church structure of accountability defies the essence of a biblical understanding of being the church?

Second, all “parachurch organizations” must chain themselves to some equally powerful overarching structure.

Here, he means organizations like campus evangelism groups and evangelistic “crusade” businesses like the one Billy Graham operated for so long. He has no idea how this could meaningfully happen, though (p. 112):

I am not proposing an evangelical pope or a return to Rome. But the evangelical world must, in the next couple of decades, find some new, concrete structures to provide greater accountability for evangelical parachurch organizations.

They must. Don’t you see? They must!

These suggestions made, he returns his full attention to his other distressingly-authoritarian ideas. We covered those yesterday.

How a Denomination Happens.

denomination is an organization of Christian churches that all profess the same doctrines, abide by the same basic rules, and work together toward larger goals. They appoint leaders and boards of directors, create rules that their member churches must agree to follow, and discipline churches that disobey those rules. Though they vary considerably in terms of strictness, that’s probably a decent overall definition.

In the Gospels, many Christians believe that Jesus appointed one of his Apostles, Peter, to lead his first followers — and that this act created the first and only valid denomination of Christianity. For many centuries, Catholic leaders exercised such total control over so many countries that they were, indeed, the leaders of all Christians everywhere. The Protestant Reformation wrecked their totalitarian hegemony for good — but also began an ongoing tradition of denominations splintering apart further and further.

And Jesus is just so lucky to have them to fix everything those other denominations got wrong!

our denomination set things aright
Saji George, “Tom’s Doubts #14.” (Sept 2011)

Typically, a denomination sparks to life when a church’s leaders decides to break with their parent denomination. If a lot of churches in their denomination do the same thing for the same reason, they might join together to become a new one of their very own.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened when the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) splintered apart during its Conservative Resurgence. In 1991, about 1900 SBC churches broke away from the increasingly-and alarmingly-conservative SBC to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). Similarly, when I was Pentecostal I got taught that my own church had broken away from a Trinitarian denomination. Afterward, my church immediately joined some other breakaways to form the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI), which teaches Oneness Theology.

The Popularity of Nondenominational Churches.

As the name likely suggests, a nondenominational church operates outside of the greater community of denominations. And a great many of them exist, too. In fact, nondenominational Christians might well be one of the biggest “denominations” around.

When we speak of nondenominational Christians, we almost always mean evangelicals. They almost always completely agree with whatever the SBC says on any given topic. Almost universally, they go in for the usual literalism-bigotry-sexism-and-culture-war combo platter we find in most of evangelicalism these days. They just ride outside of the denomination system.

And wow, nondenominationalism is popular.

denomination breakdown of evangelicals
Click to embiggen. Breakdown of evangelical numbers.

According to Universal Life Church, between 1990 and 2008, the number of Christians worshiping outside of a denomination soared from 500k to 8M.

Here’s some context for that figure:

The 2014 Religious Landscape Study discovered that evangelicals make up about 25% of the United States population overall. Within that category, nondenominational evangelicals make up about 4.9% of the American population — while Southern Baptists make up 5.3% of it. So in numbers, nondenominational Christians rival Southern Baptists, who still rank as the largest single formal denomination of Protestants in America.

A lot of megachurches seem to fall into this category, as do churches that consider themselves seeker-focused. They still usually buy the combo platter, but they reframe it to sound a lot more appealing and less abusive.

So yes, evangelical Christians sure do adore their nondenominational churches.

King Sider Doesn’t Like Nondenominational Churches.

Ronald J. Sider really doesn’t like nondenominational churches. And I mean, he’s not alone there. A lot of Christian theologians don’t. His particular complaints revolve around the lack of accountability in nondenominational churches (p. 111):

The notion–and practice–of an independent congregation with no structures of accountability to the larger body of Christ is simply heretical.

Oooh! Heresy! Heresy in the streets! OMG!

Them’s fightin’ words!

Incidentally, he also doesn’t like the independence of “evangelical parachurch organizations” for similar reasons.

Why Nondenominational Churches Ain’t It, According to King Sider.

But it gets worse, and by that I mean more hilarious:

There is simply no biblical justification for any local congregation to fail or refuse to join a wider network of churches (e.g., a denomination) that provides guidance, supervision, direction, and accountability. Nor is there biblical justification for understanding the local autonomy of the congregation within a denomination to mean that the local congregation is free to pick, choose, and ignore what the Spirit and the Word say through the larger denomination.

So Sider sees denominations as offering two key supports to local churches in their groups:

  1. Restraints upon the antics of the church’s leadership
  2. A control grip on Bible interpretation and evolving doctrinal stances

However, to get here Sider must selectively ignore and cherry-pick history to an astonishing degree — and if his audience agrees, then they must as well.

The TRUE CHRISTIANS™ of Sider-Land.

At the beginning of Chapter 4, Ronald J. Sider offers up a list of various Christian groups he considers to be TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who Jesus-ed right (p. 85):

What early generations of evangelicals, whether Calvinists, Methodists, Anabaptists, or Pentecostals, assumed and embraced about mutual responsibility and accountability in the body of Christ has largely been lost.

Sider himself attends a Mennonite church, according to his La Wiki writeup. The Mennonites are way into the Anabaptists of centuries past. So his list isn’t exactly free of bias taint. (Also, Calvinism isn’t actually a denomination. It’s more of an ultra-authoritarian infection that strikes denominations.)

First Premise: Accountability for Church Leaders.

So I reckon Sider’s first error involves his very premise that denominations provide accountability for church leaders in their group. It seems like they do the opposite by providing cover for abusers to work their evildoing for decades before finally getting caught.

Each and every one of the denominations (and Calvinism) that Sider praises have been struck with multiple serious abuse scandals over the years. I’ve thoughtfully arranged the following list in order of his praises:

  • “Child abuse a Calvinist problem, podcast says” (source)
  • “Sexual Misconduct in the United Methodist Church: US Update” (p. 5 in particular; source)
  • “Sexual abuse challenges conservative communities” (about Anabaptist sexual abuse; source)
  • “Another sex scandal within the United Pentecostal Church International?” (source)
  • As for Sider’s own denomination: “‘We Are Done’ : Mennonite women speak up on assault, sexual abuse” (source)

Who could forget, either, the SBC’s long-standing refusal to adopt a global abusers database? Back in 2008, Paige Patterson, acting in his unofficial apparent capacity as an integral part of his denomination’s sex-abuse cover-up and abuser-protection system, declared that a sex-abuse survivors’ advocacy group pushing for reform was “just as reprehensible as sex criminals.” And then the world found out just how deep that rabbit hole went with “Abuse of Faith.”

Indeed, the SBC still refuses to adopt an abuser database or implement any other concrete, tangible reform like it. One-and-a-half years later, the furthest they’ve gotten in actually addressing their “Abuse of Faith” scandal is a written caution from their denominational president aimed at SBC church leaders who might be thinking about hiring Patterson to come speak at their churches. Seriously.

Yeah, real lots of much accountability there, guys. Good going!

Second Premise: Doctrinal Accountability.

Sider’s second reason for demanding that all churches belong to denominations involves doctrinal consistency. He thinks that denominations provide a brake on churches that stray too far afield in interpreting the Bible.

However, every one of the denominations he praises broke with some other denomination over interpretation issues.

  • Methodism split from the Church of England (source)
  • Anabaptists represent one of the major early splits from Catholicism (source)
  • So do Calvinists generally (source)
  • Pentecostals probably derive from a number of different evangelical denominations, but suffice to say their parent denominations would have found their ideas to be completely heretical (one source)

If the denominations that merit Sider’s praises had followed his instructions, they never would have split. All of them would likely have been considered heretics by their parent denominations. And all of them would say that they don’t feel like they’re heretics — that their quirky lil hot takes on the Bible were correct, while those of their parent denomination were incorrect.

When does heresy become the more-correct interpretation? Sider doesn’t tell us, and I wouldn’t expect him to even recognize that as a question that needs answering.

The Evangelical Pope…

Ronald J. Sider sighs wistfully over the utter control exerted by the Catholic Church over its own member churches. This book came out after the big reveals about the Catholic child-rape and cover-up scandal that came to (Spot)light in 2002, but you’d never know it to hear his praise for them (p. 112):

In the Roman Catholic world, the vast number of religious orders (Dominicans, Jesuits, etc.) that have emerged over the centuries are somewhat similar to evangelical parachurch organizations. They offer the same kind of creativity and flexibility in the face of new challenges. But they are accountable to the pope.

We will completely forget that these religious orders have almost all faced their own serious abuse scandals. (See: Dominicans, Jesuits, Franciscans, Benedictines, Carmelites, Cistercians, Sacred Heart… need I continue? Yeah, sure Jan Ron, these orders are SUPER DUPER ACCOUNTABLE.)

Of course, Sider swiftly reassures readers:

I am not proposing an evangelical pope or a return to Rome. But the evangelical world must, in the next couple decades, find some new, concrete structures to provide greater accountability for evangelical parachurch organizations.

It’s hard to imagine what he is proposing, though, if not some kind of evangelical pope or universal evangelical overlord structure like Catholicism.

… That Evangelicals Will Never Ever Allow.

And it ain’t gonna happen.

Over time, Protestants splinter further and further apart, almost never joining together. When I hear about mergers, it’s usually on a church-by-church basis (like here and here) and done in response to shrinking numbers on both sides, not on a denominational basis.

In order for two groups of evangelicals to recognize one authority figure, someone’s beliefs will be pushed aside in favor of someone else’s. And to evangelicals, as polarized as they are and as authoritarian as they are, the people pushed aside would be losing dominance in that equation. Their beliefs would be deemed the wrong beliefs and they’d be the side that lost that doctrinal squabble.

So various evangelical leaders have merited the title of “Evangelical Pope,” like John Stott apparently, but it’ll never be binding to the whole howling clucking squawking mess of them. And you can absolutely bet that people who disagree with those men’s interpretations of the Bible would never, ever grant them such a title even informally.

Whistling Up a Chimney.

Ultimately, Ronald J. Sider reckons without his hosts here with his two suggestions.

Protestantism is all about breaking away from recognized authority figures and structures. Ultimately, it’s about placing one’s quirky lil hot take on the Bible above whatever those authority figures decided about it. If the earliest Protestants hadn’t done that, Christians would all still be Catholic.

More to the point, over the centuries since the Protestant Reformation, evangelical leaders have carefully dismantled all forms of checks and balances on themselves. For many years, their entire movement has been about nothing but gaining, growing, and protecting their own power — and wielding it, of course.

Nondenominational church pastors will not gladly submit to a yoke just to make King Sider happy. One of the last ways to achieve unwarranted personal power, relative wealth, and privilege for lower-status men these days is joining evangelicalism and starting a church.

Without a way to force these leaders to submit to a denomination or overlord group, Ronald J. Sider can go whistle up a chimney for all it matters.

NEXT UP: Oops, Ronald J. Sider accidentally his Lord God [sic].


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.
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