“Revealing and terrifying God, whose very revelation is mystery, forgive our frightened attempts to possess you. Theology has become our way to try to be in control, dear God, even of you. We ask for the humility that comes from the unavoidable recognition that you insist on our being your people. What an extraordinary thing. Amen.”—Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken
My first experience with denominations came during my junior year of college. I went to a Christian college, a Baptist General Conference college to be exact. With my suitcase of naivety neatly unpacked in my campus apartment, I stepped into the crossfire between fanatical Armenians and radical Calvinists.
I hesitantly sided with the Calvinists, agreeing more with those who said that I couldn’t lose my salvation than with those who said I could. (I reasoned that if I couldn’t save myself, I couldn’t unsave myself … and I knew I was saved.) So I did my best to spout Calvin’s ideas.
The same semester I joined the Calvinists, I also visited a Lutheran church and accidentally took wine for communion. It looked just like the grape juice we used at my home church, but this stuff burned going down. I didn’t know people—particularly Protestant people—drank wine, especially for communion. To compound my confusion, I also worked on the campus newspaper with a guy who bravely converted from a Baptist to a Catholic. Weird.
But nothing was weirder than moving from the Midwest to the South several months later. Before long, I was a member at a Southern Baptist church where people practiced church like I’d never seen it before. I didn’t stay there long, but retreated to my roots. I settled back in an American non-denominational Bible church.
I tried tp removed my thoughts from the divisions and superiority of different churches and fellow believers and started to see a little more clearly.
Then, I went to work for a Christian company. Re-enter weirdness. In the two years I worked there, I was subjected to idiotic jokes about everyone from Nazarenes to Charismatics to Church of Christ-ers. There were arrogant water cooler conversations about speaking in tongues, predestination and the relevance of veiled eschatological references in the book of Ezekiel. But nothing was more sickening than the way one denomination looked down its nose at the others. And I became bitter.
I didn’t stay bitter long though. Instead, I fought back. What is a denomination, I asked. “Well,” answered Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, “it’s a religious organization whose congregants are united in their adherence to its beliefs and practices.” The word united stood out. Unity often seemed to be the last thing on everyone’s mind. Instead, I had seen differences paraded, preached and debated ad nauseam.
So, I kept fighting, exploring what God says. And under all the legalistic drivel, I unearthed truth. People believe differently, and that’s OK.
I am not Baptist or Presbyterian. Not Catholic or Episcopalian. Not Charismatic or Lutheran. Not Armenian or Methodist. Not right and not wrong. I am a believer in what unites us all: the God of our salvation, who reconciles us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit—the God of all creation who gives us mercy, hope, music, laughter, wine, chocolate, sex, dancing, miracles and Himself. The God of the universe, who is a mystery we will never figure out with our limited theology and finite minds.