The Grateful Dead vs. Denominationalism…

I’ve been having trouble lately.

I’ve been going back and forth in my head about denominations.  I catch myself wondering why it could be that the “one” Church could have so many divergent viewpoints.  Could they all be working for the same goals?  And if there is “one” true expression of Christianity, which one is it?

So, earlier tonight I was listening to the greatest band God ever sent to earth, and it clicked.  Once again the Grateful Dead have explained a concept to me that had eluded me up until now.

Okay, so that sounds weird.  But stick with me.

The Grateful Dead was comprised of (give or take) Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, and a rotating lineup of others.

Jerry split off at points to form the Jerry Garcia Band.

Bob Weir formed Rat Dog.

Mickey Hart formed Planet Drum.

Phil Lesh formed Phil Lesh and Friends.

And even when they were together, Jerry offered one thing, Bobby offered another.  Phil Lesh brought his own spin to the sound.  Every member offered something to the group.

But the Jerry Garcia Band was never the same as the Grateful Dead.  Planet Drum is not the Grateful Dead.  Rat Dog is not the Grateful Dead.  Phil Lesh and Friends is not the Grateful Dead.

It’s the same way with church.

The Baptist denomination brings one thing to the table.  Presbyterians bring another.  Catholics bring something different.  And the Greek Orthodox church brings something else.  None of these groups on their own make up “Christianity.”  Christianity is something synergetic that happens when all of them are figured into the equation.

So, there is this tendency among Grateful Dead fans to merit Jerry over the others, or Bobby over the others, or whoever your favorite is.  But no individual is the Grateful Dead.  It’s great to have favorites.  It’s great to think that one individual resonates with you on a deeper level than the rest.  But we can’t mistake that for a belief that that one person makes the band.

The same goes for religion.  Do we spend our time trying to convince everyone that the only true way to see faith is through the lens that we see it?  I would argue that we have to acknowledge that each individual group has something to bring to the table that is worth listening to.  The Body of Christ is a huge band with an ever -rotating lineup of musicians.  None of them makes up the whole picture.  It is great to find a niche that resonates with your soul and to dig deeper into that area, but not if the cost is being at war with the rest of the “band.”

Sometimes we play harmonies. Sometimes we play dissonance. Sometimes we hit chords together that make even the most dead soul weep with joy. Sometimes we sing off key. But we’re singing together. Whatever it is that we are doing…we are doing it together.

Love is the Word.

-A

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The Universe is Round. View all posts by Andrew

9 responses to “The Grateful Dead vs. Denominationalism…

  • Romanós

    Golly!
    Almost all my posts for the last two weeks have to do with this topic directly or indirectly.

  • David@RedLetterBelieversss

    Now this is a great post. Nice hook and application. Who would have guessed? — David

  • theologigal

    Really interesting analogy. Before I was a believer, I was always really confused by the existence of multiple denominations, thinking that it was a sign of some great fracture within the faith – that no one could agree and so they had to keep splitting off.

    But I appreciate the way you describe it – while the origin of some denominations may have been a “split”, each denomination has something valid to bring while probably not encompassing all of Christianity.

    We may disagree on small things (worship style), or even some rather important things (baptism), but as long as we agree on the things regarding salvation then we can consider ourselves brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of denomination.

    • Andrew

      yes,

      i’m still not 100% convinced of the benefits of denominations. but this analogy at least helps me not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. i still get really nervous when i say i’m a christian, or when i tell someone i’m in seminary and their first question is, “so are you a baptist (or insert denomination here…)?”

      it’s a tough spot…don’t want the downsides of Catholicism…the institutionalized forms that put undue authority on one person. and don’t want something so independent that it is unaccountable to anyone. of course we are to be accountable to scriptures, but what happens when we disagree on what they mean?

      i think, for now, working towards unity and doing like you say, recognizing that we are brothers and sisters in Christ first is the most important.

  • eadesfedup

    I think that you are right that not one denomination can claim absolute truth with it comes to practices. I don’t think most, currently anyways, clam that. We know that the other groups are believers and that we’ll see them in heaven.

    One thing I think this Grateful Dead analogy lacks is knowing why the denominations began in the first place.

    You mentioned baptists. They started because a group of believers concluded that baptism should only be done by those who can consent to it.

    One or more of the early founders were drowned for heresy by the Anglican church.

    Some beliefs become so important that people are willing to stand apart for them. I don’t think this means that denominations are now at war with each other. But a denomination is more that just a different flavor in the banana split. (That’s an analogy I am more familiar with.)

    • Andrew

      matthew,

      i agree that a denomination is more than just another flavor. i don’t think you should just pick what you like and go with it. i completely see your point. there is deep emotion and depth to the reasons that most denominations formed.

      And i can appreciate that some beliefs are important enough to stand apart. but the point is that it’s more than a question of how wet you get when you get baptized, or whether baptism is a symbol of death and rebirth or an entering into the new covenant. It is possible to have these disagreements even within the same new testament church. the leadership at our church believes in sprinkling and paedobaptism. but if someone who is a member wants to be dunked in the river, they’ll go dunk them in the river.

      And that’s where I think the real issue arises. It seems that denominational politics is all too often reduced to these issues. Look at the names of the denominations. Baptists are about baptism, Presbyterians are about church government, Catholics are about the “one” church…to be sure there is room for disagreement among Christians, but isn’t there room for most of these differences to be solved by saying, “I disagree, but the scriptures aren’t perfectly clear on this, so let’s agree to disagree.”?

      There is room for splits over heresies. But I don’t think that most of the issues that divide denominations are heresies. They are disagreements in which one person wrongly claims it is a heresy and then people get mad at each other and do not show the world around them the love of God in their disagreements. Obviously not everything can be a “maybe” but neither can everything be a “yes” or a “no”…does that make any sense? or am I rambling?

      -a

  • Romanós

    I used to think denominations were permissible because everyone can probably find a church that they feel comfortable in. But now I think that denominations are simply a glaring example of human sin and rebelliousness on the part of Christians, who prefer their own ideas and ways to what Jesus explicit teaches in the gospels. We will find endless arguments to work against Christ’s plain words in scripture, “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

    I wrote a series of comments on the blog of a Calvinist seminarian where we dialogued on denominationalism, at least that’s what I was trying to work through:
    http://jasonchamberlain.blogspot.com/2010/08/sacred-tradition.html
    The dialogue actually continued into a second post, but I did not feel the seminarian was understanding my point at all:
    http://jasonchamberlain.blogspot.com/2010/08/controversies.html
    I finally gave up trying to get my point across.

    I also tried to get this point across to an Orthodox Christian sister, but with similar results, but not as lengthy (we Orthodox tend not to talk quite as much):
    http://alanaroberts.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/for-unspiritual-people-like-me/

    Sorry to include these links, brother, but if you want an explanation of what I mean when I say I no longer accept the idea of denominations, you might be able to catch a glimpse between the lines of this banter in comment form.

    In the past, you and I have resonated a lot on the same frequency, and I expect that except for semantic dislocations we still for the most part do, but maybe I am being a bit too adamant about my rejection of denominations.

    It’s just that I believe in the Church of those whom the Father draws to the Son more than anything, and that Church defies our propensity to name and define. It simply is. And though we continue in our separate quarters, I being a Greek Orthodox, you being perhaps a Baptist (forgive me, but I am not sure of your affiliation), I am first and foremost your brother in Christ, and I will defend you against all who come against you in Christ, without asking myself, “does he believe what I do about…?” My love and support for you in Christ has to be absolute, because there is no other reality, that is, if we are both in Christ.

    What then of our denominations? Let the leaders of the churches divide the flock if they want to, but what they say doesn’t have any affect on the Truth. I can feel just as welcome among your congregation as you can among mine… at least that’s how it should be. But if anyone bars your way in my church, then I join you as an outsider, because I know you follow the same Lord. I would rather be exiled and excommunicated than betray another follower of Jesus in conforming to churchly discipline.

    When Christ returns, He is not only not going to recognize our denominations, but we may find He is quite angry with those who perpetuate them. They will be burnt up in a flash, those denominations, though the souls that erected them may still be saved (see 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). As I wrote in my blog, “For Christ, Orthodoxy doesn’t exist.”
    http://cost-of-discipleship.blogspot.com/2010/07/greater-than-all.html

    I was surprised that I did not get in trouble with my fellow Orthodox for expressing that, but then again, I was not surprised, because for all its stern facade, Eastern Orthodoxy is remarkable flexible and forgiving, and also, what I am saying is implicit in Orthodoxy itself, which is comfortable with paradox.

    Hope you are able to make some sense out of all this or, better yet, just forget about it, and read the Bible. That’s where the Truth is most clearly to be found.

    • Andrew

      Romanos,

      I think we are actually almost completely in agreement. The church where I am a member and on staff is Presbyterian. And I see a lot of Truth and beauty in that belief system. But I cannot bring myself to say I am a Presbyterian. I say I am a Christian. I am a member of this church, not because of the denomination, but because Jesus is loved and the Gospel is proclaimed, and the Spirit is present leading us to the Father.

      If a church is going to have a denominational affiliation I actually like the way our church does this. They do not hide their affiliation, but neither is it the “front door.” I did not even know it was a Presbyterian church until I went to join. Members must be Christians in the C.S. Lewis “mere Christianity” sort of sense. But there is room for disagreement in places where the scriptures aren’t clear. As I said in an earlier comment, if you want to be dunked instead of sprinkled, they will do that.

      Our only place of possible disagreement is in the total abandoning of denominations. Though I’m teetering on that edge. I do not see any denomination that speaks for the whole Church. This is a problem. But I have seen too many “nondenominational” churches who have no accountability and then drift into true heresy. To be honest I am torn on the issue here. On the one hand, I have seen even in our own church a problem of having to answer to the session of elders for things that the Bible does not teach. We constantly have to explain ourselves to the session for our use of art-forms in worship services. But without any accountability there might also be problems. I honestly don’t know of a good answer. I only know that denominational politics leaves a very nasty taste in my mouth. I don’t deny that the members are Christians, but I do deny that they are “Christianity.” They are like party politics. I don’t think they work, but I don’t have a good alternative.

  • Romanós

    We ARE in total agreement, I think, at least if I’m reading you right on your final paragraph above.

    I am not for abandoning denominations, at least not as this kind of a decision: “On January 1, 2012, we are all dis-affiliating and every denominational name and structure is abolished.” That would be just as bad as trying to unite the Church in a truly effective way through the Ecumenical Movement.

    I think the first really true step towards the kind of unity that following Christ demands consists of the leaders of the various churches to encourage all their members to do what you and I and my co-worker Brock and countless others are already doing, recognizing and supporting other followers of Jesus who agree with us on the centrality and unique authority of the Bible, and the orthodox (lower case o) understanding of Christ’s nature and saving work, as was current in the Church as it was entering the era of the Councils.

    The Councils were the beginning of a trend that has captivated and captured the Christian Church, that of making definitions and the assent to definitions more important than faith in the living God and living in the context of the holy scriptures, of having a scriptural mindset, and hence a society Christian not only in name (as “defined”) but in spirit and truth (the only authentic one).

    I am not even saying the Councils were wrong in what they codified. But I believe the act of codification or canonization was the beginning of a replacement of life in Christ with the mere description and definition of it, making it more attractive and easier to believe than to be.

    Paradoxically, canonical Orthodoxy is both the guardian of the evangelical Truth and its destroyer. Why? Because it thinks that you can preserve the Truth by locking it in a safe. That’s like wanting to preserve your beautiful newly wed wife by killing her and placing her in a glass coffin, where she will stay always the same, so you can gaze at her forever.

    Does this mean that I abandon being Greek Orthodox? God forbid! But I see the Orthodox Church for what it is: It is the ikon of the Church of the Redeemed, but it remains a spiritual still-life for its members and any others who only want to ingest its beauty instead of entering into the Bridal Chamber, where the Bridegroom awaits each soul as His only bride.

    I witness for Jesus Christ, not for the Orthodox Church or, indeed, for any church or ministry. I witness for Christ, and Christ witnesses for the Church. How? By the word of my testimony and by my life in Christ, for the Church is nothing but that: you and me, one by one, witnessing and living for Christ.

    We are the Light of the world, if we follow Jesus, taking on His nature in proportion to our obedience and faith, according to His word to us in the gospels. This is the only place where and how the unsaved world meets Him, through the constant ministry of His living ikons, His Body, and the only way it can find Him and be adopted into that Body, His Church.

    Standing in our midst is One whom we do not really know, as the honorable prophet and forerunner John the Baptist told the pharisees, that is, if we do not acknowledge Him by wanting and being what He wants. The pharisees wanted Mashiach on their own terms. He came on His terms, and they purchased His death on the Cross by their unbelief. Purchased, mind you, not forced. He gave up His life voluntarily. Their unbelief purchased His death, and He returned the money to their sacks, as did the noble Joseph, by rising again to life, so that He could show Himself to the whole world, to all His brothers, and reveal to them who He is, the Savior.

    Brother, let’s keep wanting what He wants, and walking in the Light, let Him use us as instruments of His peace, and be living testimonies of the unbreakable and unbroken bond of unity with Him in the Holy Triad, through the Spirit that lives in us.

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