White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Have Denominations Had Their Day?

We hear increasingly that we’re entering a post-denominational world.

Recently LifeWay researcher Ed Stetzer wrote an interesting post on the value of denominations. Known for his theologically-informed insight as well as research analysis, Stetzer offers some interesting statistics and evaluation on this question. (See Do Denominations Matter? by Ed Stetzer)

From my perspective, though, an important emphasis is missing from Stetzer’s argument. He affirms denominations primarily as a way of pooling our resources for a common vision. Denominations gather people who have similar convictions to work together toward common goals. True enough. However, what then distinguishes denominations from for-profit corporations, for example?

Scripture’s focus is on what God is doing rather than on what we are doing. The Triune God is saving sinners through preaching and sacrament. There is “one holy catholic and apostolic church” not because individual believers realized that they could more effectively reach the world and accomplish their goals in tandem. Rather, this church exists because of the Father’s eternal election of a people, the Son’s mediation and saving work for them, and the Spirit’s work of uniting them to Christ through the gospel. We are recipients of a kingdom; the Father is the builder, by his Son and Spirit, through the Word.

Therefore, there really is one church—catholic, spread throughout the world yet united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism—even though its visible shape right now seems to speak against it. Same thing with the holiness of the church: holy in Christ, it is nevertheless “simultaneously justified and sinful.”

Even the apostolic church was rife with sectarianism, strife, and false teaching. Eventually, the equality of pastors gave way to bishops and the bishop of Rome raised himself above all other bishops. The church of Rome unilaterally amended the Nicene Creed and excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople for not bowing the knee to his office. Then Rome excommunicated the Reformers in the sixteenth century, and divisions among the Reformers themselves appeared. Today, Protestantism is an incubator of new denominations and sects, while deep divisions within Rome are overcome merely by the single dogma of obedience to the pope.

There’s no going back to a pristine era in which the apostles, ministers, and elders of the first century led a reasonably united church. However, I would argue that denominations matter because Christ said he would build his church, not just churches. One local congregation cannot be the whole church, although it is an expression of the whole church insofar as it shares in the true ministry of the whole church. I understand the New Testament to teach a covenantal order of church government, where local churches are connected to each other in narrower and wider assemblies. This, I believe, is the Lord’s express will for his visible church.

In a fallen world—and church—denominations come and go. They cannot presume to be “the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church,” but they can at least be fragile expressions of that covenantal koinonia that Christ wills between people in local congregations and between local congregations.

Whatever we think about denominations, the crucial question is not pragmatic: What do they help us do. Rather, it is theological: What is God doing in the world through them? And how can denominations, for all of their faults, express more fully the unity and catholicity of Christ’s body than independent churches? Once that question is addressed, the pooling of resources becomes a natural by-product rather than the reason itself.

May.June 2003 MR

The May/June 2003 issue of Modern Reformation contains helpful resources concerning denominations.

In the Church: Finding Common Ground Across Denominations
By Ann Henderson Hart

Historical Chart of Denominations
(30kB PDF)

From the Sept/Oct 2005 issue, W. Robert Godfrey has
A Reformed Dream

Mike on Issues, Etc. Discussing Barna


Mike was on Issues, Etc. on September 15 to discuss the research revealed by religious pollster and interpreter George Barna.

Listen to the audio here:

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Horton on IE

Christianity.com Video 5 – Are all sins equal and is there equality in hell?

In our fifth installment of the Christianity.com videos Dr. Horton discusses whether or not God hates some sins more than others, and if so, why. As a result, Mike also talks about the somewhat popular idea that there are different degrees of hell dependent on the severity of one’s sins.

Christianity.com Video 4 – What books should all Christians read?

Obviously Christians should be students and readers of the Holy Scriptures, but Mike was asked to name five other books that Christians should read. This discussion is recorded in the fourth video from Christianity.com.

Christianity.com Video – 3: Horton on Classical Christian Education

Dr. Horton was asked about some principles parents should consider when educating their children. Mike responds by endorsing the Classical Christian Education model in the next Christianity.com video.

Salvation Technology

Participating recently in a gathering of Anglican bishops in Africa, a friend related the astonishing scene of episcopal celebrants texting each other during the sermon and the celebration of the Supper. Some churches in North America encourage texting in church, as a way of making the service more “interactive.” The assumption, of course, is that technology is benign—neither good nor evil. Since texting in services is neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture, it’s a matter of Christian liberty. However, increasingly, Christian liberty has come to mean a neutral sphere where there are no better or worse answers. Like legalism, antinomianism only knows two settings: “Don’t” or “Do”; “Wrong” or “Right.” The missing middle term is “wisdom.” It may not be wrong to text during church, but is it wise? Is there any difference between texting on the train ride to work versus texting in church? What is the long-term implication of such an act when the church service is specifically designed by the Triune God to make us recipients? If “faith comes by hearing…the word of Christ,” then are we quenching the Spirit’s work through the means of grace by never being able to be quiet, sit, and receive God’s judgment and justification? Is there no place for receiving? Must we always be active: mastering, critiquing, commenting, pontificating?

Ironically, those who decry “worldliness” are often the most likely to embrace unreflectively aspects of modern (and postmodern) culture whose costs on truth, goodness, and beauty are remarkably high. Christian wisdom provokes us neither to reject any good gift of God’s providence and common grace nor to turn these gifts into idols. Avoiding these perilous extremes is always the tough business of discipleship. One glaring example today is technology.

Technology hasn’t just given us a staggering array of tools to use; the tools have shaped us, as all tools do. History is even divided by technological turning points: for example, the three successive stages of stone, bronze, and iron. New tools changed the way we inhabit the world, organize our societies, and imagine our identity, purpose, and the meaning of history. We don’t just make tools; the tools also make us. This is as true of the nomadic and agricultural eras as it is of the industrial revolution and the information economy. Our tools shape the way we think, live, work, relate, and even envision our identity.

Especially since the industrial revolution, the impression is that our chief end is to manage life in such a way as to maximize happiness and minimize pain. We imagine that we’re still in charge of our tools, but we can’t deny that we are managed (often tyrannically) by the very technology that we trust will make our lives freer, easier, and more productive. Especially in our era, technology becomes more than a means to a more ultimate end; it becomes the end. Which means that even loved ones—indeed, even God—easily becomes a tool for us to use in our effort to master unpredictable and often chaotic nature.

In his 1964 classic, One-Dimensional Man, Herbert Marcuse observed that “…science and technology rendered possible the translation of values into technical tasks…From the quantification of secondary qualities, science would proceed to the quantification of values…” In other words, questions like, “Is this true, good, and beautiful?” were banished to the realm of private, subjective opinions. Public truth—the really important questions—were technical: “How to…” Efficiency became not only a criterion of industry and home and in the workplace, but pushed out ultimate questions of truth, goodness, or beauty from our social lives. In religion today, the question of whether a particular teaching is true, but whether it works—as William James put it, “its cash-value in experiential terms.”

It’s not just that our ability to measure, quantify, and manipulate things in time and space grew exponentially, but that we began to think that this was the only way of thinking and that things that could be known (i.e., used) in this way were alone worthy of our time and energy. Marcuse quotes Gilbert Simondon: “Through a raising and enlarging of the technical sphere, [society] must treat as technical problems, questions of finality considered wrongly as ethical and sometimes religious. The incompleteness of technics makes a fetish of problems of finality and enslaves man to ends which he thinks of as absolutes.” Values are translated into needs, leading to a “pacified existence,” a “technological Eros.”

There is a kind of secularized Gnosticism underneath all of this. In a biblical worldview, the Triune Creator alone is Lord and Master of nature—and we human beings belong to nature and stewards of it. In the modern worldview, we are masters, manipulating nature to bend to our calculative reason and unrestricted will. It’s a war between rational humans and the natural world—which means also an inner war between our reason and our bodies. We can’t just be who we are (by nature), but must constantly choose new identities, new lifestyles, new visions of a fulfilling life. Eventually, history (guided by rational technology) will overcome nature. “What is only natural is overcome and recreated by the power of Reason” in an otherwise “helpless and heartless universe,” explains Marcuse. This industrialized logic “also spreads a repressive productivity and ‘false needs.'” Here again, we think we’re in charge. We’re just using tools to fulfill needs that reason identifies, when in actual fact the matrix of the technology we inhabit creates “felt needs” that it alone can meet. Marcuse is worth quoting at length on this point: “It is repressive precisely to the degree to which it promotes the satisfaction of needs which require continuing the rat race of catching up with one’s peers and with planned obsolescence, enjoying freedom from using the brain, working with and for the means of destruction.”

What complicates things, Marcuse notes, is that this sort of productivity generates obvious comforts, efficiency, and wealth. But at what cost? Under these conditions, modernity is willing even to grant freedoms to strenghten the repression. “The degree to which the population is allowed to break the peace wherever there still is peace and silence, to be ugly and to uglify things, to ooze familiarity, to offend against good form is frightening. It is frightening because it expresses the lawful and even organized effort to reject the Other in his own right….In the overdeveloped countries, an ever-larger part of the population becomes one huge captive audience—captured not by a totalitarian regime but by the liberties of the citizens whose media of amusement and elevation compel the Other to partake of their sounds, sights and smells.”

We now live in an era described by Francis Fukayama as “the global cliché culture”—presaged by Marx’s line, “All that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with serenity their real living conditions and their relationship with their peers.” This points up the fact that Marx and his heirs weren’t the real innovators. Like Nietzsche, they were building their own vision of an atheistic utopia on the rubble of a decadent Christendom.

In our time, even salvation has been cast—for quite a while, actually—in terms of spiritual technology. It’s obvious in the average Christian bookstore, with the best-selling titles devoted to the “How To” genre. However, it’s not just how to be a better parent or partner, or godly diet plans and seven steps to having your best life now. Even salvation—the most sacred concern—is profaned. It’s no longer a question of how we relate to the Triune God, but how we can be born again, go to heaven, and manage our personal growth. Even to affirm the new birth, heaven, and sanctification in this scheme is a hollow victory, since the map is no longer really soteriological (about salvation) but technical (about how to manage our lives).

Way back at the turn of the twentieth century, Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield’s Perfectionism explored the prominence of mechanical and technological metaphors in the mystical writings of radical pietism, Methodism, and especially the Higher (Victorious) Life movement. Consistent with synergistic assumptions (i.e., divine-human cooperation), the emphasis is on finding the right steps, tools, techniques for climbing the ladder of grace. The “Higher Life” teachers speak of engaging the Holy Spirit, says Warfield, much as one might engage an electrician. We “plug into” the Holy Spirit, “connect,” “link up,” and so forth. More like a power plant than a person, “the Spirit” becomes something else that we can use (or not use) to gain mastery. There is one set of conditions for “getting saved” and another set of conditions for upgrading from coach to first class (baptism in the Spirit, the victorious life, etc.)

So it’s not surprising that evangelical leaders like George Barna now encourage Christians to find their “spiritual resources” on-line rather than in local churches. Once we swallow the idea that we can ascend the hill of the Lord through our technological efforts, it hardly seems necessary to gather bodily with other sinners, confessing our sins and our common faith, interceding for Martha’s cancer or Bill’s lay-off, giving tangible offerings symbolic of our whole life belonging to the Lord in body as well as in soul. And if water baptism has nothing to do with real (spiritual) baptism, and if the Supper is merely about our active remembering rather than our receiving Christ’s gift of himself—his own body and blood, then we can do all of that spiritual legwork on the net. We can go around all of the troublesome physical stuff. We can go around Christ’s personal body as well as the bodies of the ecclesial body of Christ to “connect” directly with Christ one-on-one, or perhaps in that quintessential oxymoron: virtual communities.

Again, what we need is neither legalism (forbidding technology) nor license (embracing technology), but of thinking wisely as Christians—in the light of the whole biblical teaching relevant to these questions. However, when salvation itself is reduced to spiritual technology, the old words no longer mean the same thing. If we begin to understand salvation as God’s descent to us, through ordinary earthly means—the incarnate flesh of Christ, the creaturely means of grace, and the real community that shapes our discipleship over a lifetime, then we will at least have the most crucial coordinates for wise decision-making about our use of technology. More than that, we will understand the gospel not as good advice, steps, techniques, or procedures for life-management but as the good news that in Christ “salvation is of the LORD” (Jon 2:9).

The July / August 2010 issue of Modern Reformation touched on some of these issues as well. Check out these two articles:

Face-to-Face Discipleship in a Facebook World
By John Bombaro

Coming of Age in the Facebook Age
By Alex Chediak

The January / February issue of Modern Reformation was titled “Grace Over Race.” Included in that issue were articles dealing with God’s grace and its trumping every human-built barrior. Enjoy these articles as well:

Grace, Race, and Catholicity
By Mike Horton

Corporate Christian Mergers
By Thabiti Anyabwile

David Brooks Interacts with Christian Smith’s Findings

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, David Brooks interacts with Christian Smith’s latest book Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. According to Brooks, most of the young people interviewed by Smith and his colleagues “could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunk driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. ‘I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,’ is how one interviewee put it.'” Christian Smith has been a frequent WHI guest over the years to discuss his work for the National Study of Youth and Religion.  According to Smith, most of what passes for Christianity today, regardless of the denomination, is “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”  You can read Brooks’ NYT piece here.

Program Note:  Michael Horton recently interviewed Christian Smith about Lost in Transition, along with another book of his which unpacks his reasons for leaving Evangelicalism in favor of Roman Catholicism. That interview will air later next month. In the meantime, however, you can listen to the following conversation between Horton and Smith recorded last year on the campus of Notre Dame:  WHI-1029 

Christianity.com Video 2 – Horton on Hell

The next installment of the Christianity.com videos has Dr. Horton discussing the doctrine of hell and whether we can even bring a charge against God that he is being unjust in condemning people to eternal punishment.

Christianity.com Video 1 – Horton on Catechism

Christianity.com pulled Dr. Horton into a studio a couple of times in the past few months to allow him to answer a variety of questions concerning the faith, piety, and practice of Christianity. Over the next few weeks we will be posting these videos here so stay tuned.

In the first video Mike deals with the subject of catechism and what role it should have in the church especially as she fulfills the Great Commission.

WHI-1066 | By Grace Alone Through Faith Alone

Regardless of their denomination, most Christians would argue that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a free gift of God’s grace and mercy that no one deserves. By his righteous life and sacrificial death, Jesus provides for us what we cannot provide for ourselves. But at this point, some argue that the free gift of God’s grace still has to be “accepted,” and that it is on the basis of our embracing the gospel that we are saved. What do you think? Are we saved by “choosing” to follow Christ? Is believing in Jesus the “one work” we have to do in order to get to heaven? The hosts discuss these questions and more as they interact with Ephesians 2.


The Pelagian Captivity of the Church
R.C. Sproul
Who Saves Whom?
Michael Horton
Unconditional Election
J.I. Packer
WHI Discussion Group Questions
PDF Document


Doug Powell


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Putting Amazing Back Into Grace
Michael Horton
For Calvinism
Michael Horton
The Christian Faith
Michael Horton


You Foolish Galatians
Guilt, Grace & Gratitude
Consumers or Disciples?

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