Just a ‘Jesus follower’? Why denominations still matter

Mar 26, 2019 by and

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It’s become common among some Protestants, especially evangelicals, to call themselves “Jesus followers.”

Not Christians. Not Baptists or Pentecostals. Not members of the Presbyterian Church in America or the Anglican Communion. Not Wesleyans or Methodists or Lutherans.

Just people following Jesus.

I appreciate the spirit behind the moniker.

Christians want our first loyalty to be to Jesus, not a particular institution or tradition. But I am wary of referring to myself as simply a “Jesus follower” because no one follows Jesus in some pure, individual way, free of institutional ties or traditions.

I understand the desire to wash our hands of denominations. Linking ourselves to older institutions implicates us in past and present evil, and the damage caused by bickering and splintering within denominations can scarcely be overstated. The 20th-century evangelical rallying cry of “doctrine divides” is, in some sense, self-evidently true.

In reaction to the pitfalls of denominations, the mid-20th century birthed the baby boomer phenomenon of the “nondenominational megachurch.” American evangelicalism saw a rising tide of churches that were anti-doctrinal and nontraditional, focused on relevance, extraversion, positivity, attractional style and seeker-sensitivity. Often these churches are helmed by a charismatic male lead pastor.

It was in this milieu, in 1975, that Bill Hybels started Willow Creek Community Church, and it grew to be one of the largest churches in America. Willow Creek’s growth is due, at least in part, to its entrepreneurial commitment to innovation.

But what happens when innovation backfires? What do you do when a nondenominational celebrity pastor falls?

Sin and accountability

In this dark moment, Willow Creek leadership turned, not to other celebrity pastors, nor to other nondenominational mega­church heads, but to denominational and institutional leaders.

Willow Creek formed a four-member advisory board to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct against its former pastor last fall. Two of the board members were denominational leaders from the Wesleyan Church and the Evangelical Covenant Church. Two others were leaders of evangelical institutions, Wheat­on College and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Their report found that most of the allegations against Hybels — mainly of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and the abuse of power — were credible. The report also found that Willow Creek’s elders and the leader of the Willow Creek Association, a network of churches where Hybels also played a leading role, failed to hold him accountable.

Yet because Willow Creek was an independent congregation, the report ended by saying there was nothing the church could do to further discipline Hybels.
He left the church last spring. And since he is no longer an employee, the church no longer had oversight of him.

Denominations, however imperfect, often have more robust accountability measures in place for their leaders.

I wonder if the Willow Creek crisis signals a tacit end to nondenominationalism as a model for church planting. A conversation is brewing among evangelicals about the need for healthy institutions and older traditions.

Clearly, institutionalism — the idolatry and self-protection of institutions — has produced massive evil. As allegations against several evangelical celebrity pastors came to light last summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing large-scale sexual abuse of children and a massive systematic cover-up in the Roman Cath­olic Church. It’s utterly apparent that denominations and ecclesial institutions will not rescue us from sin and abuse of power.

Yet, the reality that denominations and institutions cannot save us does not negate the need for wise institutional structures and systems of accountability.

Fruit without topsoil?

To identify as Christians is to involve ourselves in a deeply human story — a long story of the church, marked by redemption and beauty and marred by violence and catastrophic failure. It is frankly humiliating to be part of a sinful institution; it puts an end to any pretense of moral purity and virtue signaling.

And maybe that humiliation is important to remind us that we, too, will fall into sin. We too will flounder and fail to live up to the gospel we proclaim.

In the end, neither institutionalism nor anti-institutional nondenominationalism will help us move forward. We need both healthy institutions and institutional repentance. We need both tradition and transformation.

If there is to be any future for evangelicalism in America, it must be a traditioned evangelicalism. Innovation and energetic entrepreneurship are strengths of the evangelical movement. But this innovative spirit only grows good fruit when it is the topsoil of a deeper and richer tradition.

So I won’t call myself an evangelical, full stop, nor will I identify myself as merely a “Jesus follower.” I’ll call myself an evangelical Anglican — and, in my imperfect tradition, I hope to learn how to believe, repent and follow Jesus.

Tish Harrison Warren is an Anglican priest.

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