How do you judge a denomination?

After two glorious weeks of doing something more important than thinking theology – deer hunting in the Pennsylvania mountains with every bit of my spare time – I am back. Here’s a thought: how do you judge, “size up,” or evaluate a denomination, church, tradition, or even other religion?

I get asked this all the time. Someone will say to me “what do you think about the _______ (fill in the blank) – Methodists? Mormons? River Brethren? Episcopalians? Catholics ? You get the idea. And that usually evokes something like the following musings.

How do you “judge” a group? Do you evaluate them by their official, published theology? Or do you evaluate them by what their current working theologians actually believe (which is often different than their published ‘official’ line on a subject. Those kinds of official changes take time).  Or do you evaluate them by what their top-tier leader(s) believe? Or, do you evaluate them by what the majority of their members believe? (This is often different than what their published theology says, what their theologians currently think, AND what their leaders say!) Alternately, do you drop all of those tests-for-orthodoxy, and come at it from a different approach – evaluate a group by the kind of Christians they produce? Churches, denominations, etc. often produce better Christians than their theology would logically lead to! Or, to put it another way, their theology may be wide of where yours is, but the quality of the Christians they develop is nevertheless fantastic.

A couple thoughts about this: contrary to what we would assume, poor theology doesn’t necessarily result in poor following of Jesus. It doesn’t necessarily result in low returns in love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, humility and self-control.  Weird doctrines and strange practices don’t stop people from loving Jesus and living how he says. Said another way,  strange ideas are not able to keep the Spirit of  Jesus out of the room. And they can’t stop Jesus from working in someone’s life. This is axiomatic. Just as high prices do not actually mean high profits, poor theology doesn’t actually mean people follow Jesus poorly. Obviously by the existence of this blog, I am deeply interested in theology. However, we need to recognize that judging a group by its theology, at whatever level, does not give us a picture of something even more important: how its members follow Jesus, and how their hearts reflect the characteristics His Spirit develops in us.

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Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

For those of you still trying to sort out the “Emergent Church” or “Postmodern Christians,” here’s a piece I wrote a couple years ago:

        A nearly universal commonality “Emergent/postmodern” congregations share is that the Gospel is more lived by the life than believed in the head. Emergents believe that living the way of Jesus is better than having all kinds of accurate doctrines about him stuffed in your brain. They value the accurate living of a Jesus-formed life a greater good than accurate parsing of sectarian doctrine. Postmodern Christians feel that an over-emphasis on doctrine (and proving my church is right – not yours) took up too much of the modern’s church’s time in the twentieth century – at the cost of teaching people to actually live out the way of Jesus.

 “…believing that healthy theology cannot be separated from healthy spirituality” is a characteristic thought from EmergentVillage’s website.

Perhaps Dean Blevins sums this up well:

“Modern churches embrace a set of propositional statements (e.g., articles of faith, a confession, or a creed) that serves as the main gateway into the church. One must “believe” before “becoming” and “behaving” as a Christian.  Emerging churches seem more interested in Christian community and daily living as the beginning point. These churches do not oppose theological or biblical guidance. Often these churches openly discuss core Christian convictions… and engage in open theological reflection. However, established doctrines do not define them as much as Christian living does. ….Emerging church practice seems to model the message, ‘Religion is not what you say you are, but how you live your life.’  “ (Dean Blevins, Postmodern and Wesleyan,103).

In A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren contends that orthopraxy is the POINT of orthodoxy. (Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy, 31)

This might be a good place to draw attention to a distinct emphasis in postmodern, emerging Christianity: an emphasis on the teachings of Jesus rather than doctrines about Jesus. Modern Christianity, born in the fires and debates of the Protestant Reformation and the scientific revolution, focused a lot of energy in getting the right answers nailed down, science style, to every doctrinal issue they thought might pertain to individual salvation. In the modern framework, since everything is built in a logical framework like a scientific experiment, you have to get all the doctrines correct or the whole contraption starts leaning over, eventually falling down.

Postmoderns, leery of claiming to perfectly understand overly much, replace Correct Understanding with Correct Relationship as the key issue. This is blisteringly upsetting to some evangelicals, who demand a list of correct doctrines before they will admit you are among the saved.

Nevertheless, postmoderns do not believe a mistaken point of theology is going to keep people out of salvation. That is because they believe that it’s not the accurate answers on a theology exam that saves, it’s Jesus. Therefore you will find a strong emphasis on the living of the Christian faith, rather than whether you have all the right doctrinal points nailed down.

I’ve already stated that trying to argue your denomination’s historical theological distinctives to postmoderns  is most likely going to fall on deaf ears. They’d rather serve in a soup kitchen or talk with their heroine-addicted neighbor than sit and argue with another Christian. They wonder: If you believe all the ‘right things’ (according to your church, of course) but aren’t doing anyone any good, aren’t you missing the point?

Postmodern/emerging/Emergent Christians also wonder: can a community so focus on maintaining its orthodoxy that it stops reflecting the character of God? Can love, justice, mercy and humility get left behind somewhere in the iron-grip of maintaining a theological grip on something? This seems to be just what the Pharisees did.