[Thanks to RealClearReligion for linking. -- Editor]
Anthony Chute, Christopher Morgan, and Robert Peterson have delivered a real gift toward building a unified future in their newly released Why We Belong: Evangelical Unity and Denominational Diversity. This edited volume brings together Anglican (Gerald Bray), Baptist (Timothy George), Lutheran (Douglas Sweeney), Methodist (Timothy Tennent), Pentecostal (Byron Klaus), and Presbyterian (Bryan Chapell) representatives to do two things: (1) the contributors give personal narratives of how they became a part of their respective denominations and (2) each contributor highlights their respective denominational distinctives. Given the minority position that American Protestants hold in terms of Christians worldwide, the type of unity-in-diversity proposed in this book comes as a welcomed challenge to Christians of all denominations as we face an increasingly pluralistic America together.
American pluralism is not a problem per se, but the diversity of worldviews current in the country provide unique and new opportunities for unity in ways never experienced before in our nation’s history. Evangelical Protestants have had very easy lives in the American story and one could argue that they may have taken their “most favored religion” status for granted which leads to unwise cooperative efforts with government. So much so that, now politicians feel too comfortable proposing legislation that attempts to tell Christians and their organizations how they can or cannot put their beliefs into practice, as if politicians have such authority to speak into the life of the church.
Why We Belong is a clarion call for a new way forward. What is needed is a space to foster the kind of unity proposed in the book in local contexts in cities and towns across America. This type of multi-denominational discourse should be the new norm (as I tried to model in my latest book on Protestantism and issues of race). In the last chapter of Why We Belong, David Dockery makes several good recommendations regarding how Protestant denominations can foster more cooperation and solidarity. One of the best suggestions to start with would be for evangelical Protestants to not waste so much time and energy bogged down in intramural debates attacking one another. American Christians, especially Protestants, have much bigger issues to deal with than we often realize within our various denominational ghettos. Dockery also highlights the fact that networks and partnerships among evangelical Protestants have essentially replaced the type of cross-denominational relationships that were more the norm beginning in the 19th-century through the 1960s until a growing non-denominationalism began to increasingly erode confessional orthodoxy beginning in the 1970s. A central weakness and blind spot of the current partnerships and networks that Dockery does not mention is that many are heavily driven by celebrity Christianity, which often feeds the cult of the personality beast. Evangelical Protestants need a deeper, sustainable unity that is not driven by the celebrity status of generational leaders.
Again, what is needed is a non-celebrity driven, locally-focused movement of Protestants united together in pursuit of the greatest of Jesus’ commands to his disciples and the epicenter of why the church exists: to love God and love neighbor (Matt 22:36-40). Because love is the goal and motive of the Christian life, as David Jones explains, there could be nothing more wonderful in the making of American church history for the 21st-century than for Protestants to discover ways to locally lock arms to love God and love their neighbors. Why We Belong is a wonderful step in that direction.