Anyone who knows my religious background knows that over a span of 45 years I attended churches of many different denominations. I was christened as an infant in the United Methodist church (I have cousins who are United Methodist clergy) in upstate New York. When we moved to Scottsdale in the early 1960s, my family started attending a Wesleyan Methodist church pastored by Robert Girard, author of Brethren, Hang Loose and Brethren, Hang Together.When my family moved to another part of town in the early 1970s, we began attending the nondenominational Scottsdale Bible Church (before it went mega). My mother then became a charismatic, and off she and I went to various small charismatic assemblies (including a Frances Hunter meeting where folks were healed of that dread malady of one-leg-longer-than-the-otherism). When I went to college in Flagstaff, I attended my friend’s Lutheran church, where I was exposed to Ash Wednesday (with actual ashes on the forehead!) and Lent. After college I moved to West Germany (this was the 1980s), and then on to Taiwan where I taught at a nondenominational Christian college founded by Quakers. The church I attended in Taiwan had four pastors who took turns preaching: a Lutheran missionary, a Baptist missionary, and two Presbyterian missionaries. I married a Baptist, and when we moved back to the States I became a member of Thomas Road. The interesting thing is that I never viewed this varied experience of Protestant theology as “denomination-hopping.” I wasn’t angry. I hadn’t had a disagreement with the pastor of my former denomination and found some new teaching that I thought was more “Biblical.” I hadn’t really thought at all.
My view of the Protestant denominations was that they were all different facets of the beautiful gem of Christianity. I never lay awake at night worrying about denominationalism, just as, I’m sure, most slaveholders had no problems sleeping at night – it simply never occurred to them to question the ethics of keeping human beings enslaved. Most folks never do question the status quo. Denominationalism was of course my status quo – I had never lived in a world without it, and I never thought of it as a good or a bad thing. It just was. Of course there are hundreds of different denominations. Different people have different opinions. So what?
Not that I would have attended any church at all. I self-described as a conservative, Bible-believing Christian. I wanted nothing to do with those durn liberals who tried to explain away the miracle of the loaves and fishes as an outburst of generosity and the Resurrection of Christ as a flight of fancy. No, I only attended churches where the people really believed.
But, believed what? Looking at the list of denominations I was associated with, you can see that I attended churches that baptized babies and viewed Holy Communion as a sacrament as well as churches that baptized only adults and viewed the Lord’s supper as an ordinance. (In fact, my Wesleyan Methodist pastor actually considered my infant baptism in a Methodist church to be invalid and rebaptized me at around age 12. Go figure. And when I wanted to join Thomas Road, the deacon who interviewed me wanted to rebaptize me AGAIN, just in case my Wesleyan Methodist baptism had been for “regeneration.” Fortunately, we were able to dissuade him from that.) Some of the churches I attended taught me that I had to experience the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” and speak in tongues, and other churches derided that notion as holy-rollerism. Over the years some of my pastors preached that I could lose my salvation, and others preached that I could not.
And I saw nothing wrong with this mass confusion, because like any member of a badly dysfunctional clan, I had an excuse for what was going on right on the tip of my tongue. Had you asked me, I would have told you that in this life Christians, being sinners saved by grace, will never agree completely with one another on issues of doctrine. All Protestant denominations do, however, agree on The Essentials.
Right…. The Essentials, like salvation. After all, “what must I do to be saved” is the most fundamental question of all. If I don’t learn the correct answer to that question, my eternal soul is in jeopardy. So, of course, all Protestant denominations hold identical beliefs when it comes to salvation, because salvation is ESSENTIAL.
Let’s imagine that I am an unbeliever whom the Holy Spirit has convicted of her sins. I rush into the nearest church and fortuitously find an ecumenical gathering of a Baptist pastor, a Lutheran pastor, a Methodist pastor, a Pentecostal pastor and an officer in the Salvation Army (which is a Protestant denomination). Startled when this wild-eyed woman bursts through the door, the assembled clergy nevertheless react graciously as I blurt out my concerns….
Me: What must I do to be saved????
Baptist pastor John: You’ve come to the right place, ma’am. Let me lead you through the Four Spiritual Laws. First, God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
Me: I believe that! I don’t want to die and be separated from Him!
Pastor John: Good! You’re on the right track. Second, you must recognize that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness.
Me: Oh, I know! I know!
Pastor John: We’re half-way there! Number three: Only through Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the Cross can you be saved!
Me: Amen! I believe that!
Pastor John: And finally, you have to receive Jesus as your personal Savior. If you’ll pray with me now, I’ll lead you in the Sinner’s Prayer and you’ll be saved!
Lutheran minister Bill (clears his throat): AND you’ll need to be baptized, my dear.
Pastor John (bristles slightly): What my colleague means, ma’am, is that of course you WILL be baptized in obedience to our Lord’s command. Matthew 28:19 – “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” Just as long as you understand that baptism doesn’t save you….
Reverend Bill (sitting up very straight): Actually,my dear, the Bible tells us in I Peter 3:21: “And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you….” You will NEED to be baptized.
Pentecostal pastor Janice: I wouldn’t worry too much about that, honey, but you WILL need to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit and speak in tongues. After all, Scripture says quite plainly: “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ” – Romans 8:9. If you don’t speak in tongues, you don’t have the Spirit of Christ and you can’t be sure of your salvation!
(Reverend Bill and Pastor John stare dourly at Janice)
Me (squeaking) : I was christened as an infant….
Methodist minister Bev: Oh, well, you’re all set then.
(Reverend Bill and Pastor John, speaking simultaneously)
Reverend Bill: Yes, you’re fine.
Pastor John: No, you’re not!
(They glower at each other)
Salvation Army Captain Sam : Forget all that! We in the Salvation Army don’t baptize at all. Baptism is a holdover from the Roman Catholics.
Me (staring at this collection of clergy, and speaking very slowly): Perhaps I wasn’t being clear. Let me repeat my original question:
What must I do to be saved???
As I said, when I was a Protestant, I only attended churches where the people really believed. WHAT we believed, however, was all over the spiritual map, and for some reason that didn’t bother us….
On the Feast of St. Augustine
Deo omnis gloria