Non-Denominational: Can You Be A Christian and Denouce Religion? 21

Have you read the book, The Shack, by William P. Young?

Not Shaquille O’Neal

The Shack is a compelling story about the grieving and healing process of a shattered man after the tragic loss of his 6 year old daughter.  The book makes some strong points about having a personal relationship with God, by taking a rather unconventional approach. You have to let your imagination run a little wild in order to appreciate this book.

For example, the storyline developes around a weekend retreat with the Trinity: God the Father is a black woman (you have to give the author a pass on that — it kind of works for his purposes); God the Son is a 33 year old Palestinian man; God the Holy Spirit is an Oriental Mystic. The protagonist, Mackenzie Philips, arrives at the root of his deeper issues in life that keep him from having a personal relationship with God through a 12-step based theropy session with the Holy Trinity. Recommended reading for some of it’s helpful insights; take the heresy with a grain of salt.

Heresy, such as these words from Jesus’ own lips (in the book): “I never founded a Church.”

In other words, The Shack promotes a non-denominational form of Christianity, by claiming thoughout the book that the problem with all Christian religions is just religion. That is the underlying tenet of non-denominational Christianity today. A tenet which I believe involves a strong misguided view of religion.

Almost everyone should be familiar with the following video written, directed, and delivered by a young 22 year old Jefferson Berthke. In it, he explains exactly what the title proclaims: “Why I hate religion, but love Jesus.”

Back in January of 2012, this video went viral with over 22 million hits. Needless to say it provoked quite a reaction, mostly negative from Christians and Atheists alike (each for different reasons, obviously).

Here is a response video from a Catholic Priest, which I think answers each of Berthke’s grievances quite soundly.

Does Jefferson Berthke miss the point or is he just misunderstood? I think it’s a little of both.

First, Jefferson explained in an interview with gave the interpretive key to his poem, by explaining how he came to understand religion as an intrinsically bad thing. And perhaps, if you can see where he is coming from, you would agree with his point (even if you do not fully agree with him on it).

As the 22 year old explains:

“Essentially, I come from a Mars Hill context, because that’s my home church. I didn’t realize this, but outside Mars Hill, religion means different things to other people. Inside Mars Hill, the word “religion” is pretty much synonymous with hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteousness, and self-justification. That was really the heart of my definition of that word. If you went through the entire poem and replaced the word religion with either legalism or self-righteousness or hypocrisy, it would have not changed my intention or the heart of that poem whatsoever. To me, those words are interchangeable.”

What Jefferson failed to comprehend, before he posted the video, is that to most people what he said comes across something like this:

Classic false dichotomy

Sorry for the philosophical humor there folks. Of course, if you are German, you’ll be laughing out loud in about 5 minutes. Otherwise, you probably don’t get it. So allow me to explain.

Immanuel Kant “founded” Transcendental Idealism. Can you like what Kant teaches without liking what he teaches? Can you follow Kant without following his Transcendental Idealism — all interpretations aside?

The non-denominational Christian would probably respond that this is a straw man argument, because it misrepresents his views on religion and what Jesus taught. He may even have a point about that. He would probably say that Jesus did not establish a religion or a Church, despite what the Gospel says to the contrary (e.g., Matthew 16:18). And of course, without a Magisterium to guide sound interpretation of the Gospel, it is difficult to debate him on this point.

So I will admit it is a complicated issue.

But I am not here to debate in terms of strict biblical apologetics* (unless someone wants to take me up on this issue). Rather, I am curious as to how others view the non-denominational phenomenon. I would be especially interested on hearing what some non-denominational Christians would have to say on this, if they are comforatable sharing their views with me here.

If you would like to express your views here, I will respect them. I won’t challenge you on them unless you want to debate the issue here. My motivation is simply interest. I’d like to know a little more about your non-denominational approach.

  • NB: Regarding *biblical apologetics,* this is an apologetics blog, but the approach leans more toward cultural apologetics. This is something that I should and will explain in another post (or new page on the blog).


  1. No, what ‘The Shack’ does is makes nondenoms like myself look like restructurists of the Holy written Word of God. Protestant and even some Evangelical churches are embracing this heresy (deviating from the Bible) and having discussion and study groups about that book. ‘They were first called Christians at Antioch’ in the book of Acts does not say another sect of religion, only that they believed Christ as Saviour, gathered, encouraged, educated and edified the early Body of Christ.

    • Thanks, Rev. Marple. I should have also mentioned that my interest in learning more about the non-denominational wave in Christianity has a lot to do with the confusion it causes. I think it would help denominational and non-denominational Christians to put the all the cards out on the table, because I find that in discussions where this topic comes up, there is a lot of ignorance over the central issue and people end up talking past each other without knowing it. In those cases, both parties end up walking away with less understanding than they probably had in the first place.

      • Absolutely true. I find that most people would rather open a book like The Shack instead of opening THE book. How that must grieve God. What you mentioned in your reply goes on in every Church regardless of denomination or lack of denomination. A preacher friend once said, ‘While the Bible is perfect, where there is people, there are problems’. 🙂

  2. I found your use of the term “non-denominational” interesting. I have belonged to a non-denominational church for years and understood the term to mean that I do not belong to a denomination (ie, Assemblies of God, Baptist, etc.) but rather to an autonomous local church. We have a church government of a Senior Pastor and team of Elders. We believe the whole Bible, and do NOT hold with the teachings of the Emerging Church or any other post-modern religious philosophies.

    In answer to your post, though, I do agree with you that religion is good…religion like is mentioned in James chapter 1 as “pure and undefiled…acceptable in the sight of God” (obviously there is a kind of religion God likes!)

    Yet, I hate hypocrisy or the worldly, compromising, easy-living style of “Christianity”. I do think that it should just be called what it is – hypocrisy…sin…etc. – rather than placing easily misunderstood terms on something. I earnestly believe it would be best if our churches denounced “hypocrisy” from their pulpits instead of a “religious spirit” that any young Christian will likely misunderstand – after all, they came to church in search of religion.

    • Thanks for your great comment Lisa. I realize that the way I used the term is not the way on which it is always used. In fact, I used to always understand it to mean exactly what you understand it to mean, until jus a few years ago. So there is a lot of confusion caused by different uses of the term, which is something I think more people should be aware of.

      The reason I think it is important is because many people hear what people like Jefferson and think “That’s the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.” When that happens, dialogue and understanding become nearly impossible. We should always seek to understand each other,because, after all, we are Christians. And the Lord did pray,”That they all be one!”

      Thanks again for your comment.

  3. This can easily be really complicated. As far as I know, ‘non-denominational Christians’ are a pretty recent phenomenon? Please do correct me if I’m mistaken. I have a colleague who belongs to the ‘Free Church’, would these churches belong to the non-denominational flock? Are non-denominational Christians sole survivors or do they gather as a parish to worship?
    I have real issues with ‘The Shack’, simply because it’s not Biblical, and yes, there are many who would prefer to read this novel rather than the Bible, but the novel is just the figment of someone’s imagination! What concerns me is that because of the relativist mind-set of this era, books like The Shack, lead people further and further away from the Truth of the precious legacy guarded by the Church as asked to by our Lord Jesus. Discussing this book would lead nowhere, I think. There are facts about Christianity, plain and simple. It’s not there to be interpreted to suite one’s mood or whim or fancy.
    Something that has always given me solace is the fact that actually, Christianity provides definite answers to issues of the day, and has done for millennia. The thinking today:- ‘I’m ok if you’re ok’, provides no boundaries and leads into a maze of the downward spiral design….
    Very interesting topic, one I do not know enough about. I wait with baited breath for this discussion to continue.

    • It really is complicated, but not from the simplistic approach mindset of the anti-religion Christian. From their perspective, they just have the Bible and the Holy Spirit and that’s all they need. Some do not go to Church; others do, but they don’t see churchgoing as synonymous with religion. For them, religion is what Jesus preached against when he rebuked the Pharisees for their traditions.

      I have to agree with everything you said. The issue I take with the NDC approach is that they say that religion itself is evil and in doing so, they insult good people who exercise religion fervently, mostly because of a misunderstanding. Also, not everyone understands NDC to mean what I am saying about it here, which adds to the problem.

      In sum, it is complicated because there is a lot of unnecessary equivocation surrounding the issue, which impedes the possibility of healthy dialogue and understanding.

      Thanks for your comment, 1 Catholic Salmon.

  4. Pingback: Non-Denominational: Can You Be A Christian and Denouce Religion? « squirmypantsproduction

  5. Interesting topic, James. Of course, that’s par for the course with you guys!

    I never even thought of this issue until I was transferred to WV many years ago & spent 7 years there (….& it’s where I found the future Mrs. TurnRight, too…)

    I have no idea how many times I was approached with some variation of “Have you accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as your Personal Savior?”, etc.,..
    Non-denominational Christianity was the norm: not Baptists as I’d assumed, and certainly not Catholics like myself. When I would mention that yes, I believe that Jesus died on the cross for my sins & yes, I’m a Christian, they’d raise their eyes in surprise and say something along the lines of “but I thought you were a Catholic?”

    My years there taught me that Christian intramural squabbling is almost more divisive than disagreements between atheists and believers.

    To your point, yes, we can’t water-down Christ’s message, & it is sophistry to say Christ didn’t establish a church. I think part of the reason “religion” gets a bad rap in some circles is that the culture (via academia and the media, primarily) have badgered and bludgeoned it so incessantly, people who would otherwise believe don’t want to be associated with the “losers” (in the eyes), and so create faux-differentiations so that THEIR belief won’t be seen as tainted by the ‘cool kids’.
    That way, illogical as it is, they can think of themselves as Christians without espousing a “religion”.
    It’s self-serving, but I think it’s pretty accurate.

    Just my opinion here, obviously, but as much as I tried to point out the points where we agreed, I might as well have been speaking Swahili.
    I got through to a few, but that was the exception, not the rule.

    • Growing up in Georgia, I had similar experiences to yours, JTR. I find that a lot has changed. I know a lot of Protestants in the South who speak very highly of Popes JP II and B XVI. I like to see trends shifting in a good way, toward unity and fellowship among Christians — when it’s apparent — especially as we all face the common threat of secularism.

      One of the reasons I wrote this post is that I perceive the trend against religion in some Christian circles as detrimental to that unity. The implication of anti-religion as something Jesus himself preached is that those of us who practice our faith religiously are not only in the wrong; we are just like the Pharisees who Jesus called hypocrites and who willingly handed Jesus over to be crucified. I couldn’t think of a much bigger threat to Christian unity than this, besides the infiltration of secularism into our religious institutions.

      • You’re dead-on, James, when you say this is a real concern we’ll be painted or perceived as being
        “just like the Pharisees who Jesus called hypocrites and who willingly handed Jesus over to be crucified”.

        It is the reason that the priest-abuse-scandal warranted TONS of ink, while the far, far worse (& ongoing) problem of public-school-teacher-related child abuse is all but invisible in the media.

        The Left desires nothing so much as to drive a wedge between faith and the faithful: if they can destroy the “brand”, they’ve won.

        I hate to bring it back to sales and marketing but, hey, you go with what you know.

  6. Say, did you turn off your “like” button recently? It doesn’t work anymore for me . . .
    This was a very interesting post. I read The Shack. I like it. We had a discussion group about it, the pastor joined us for one session. It was lively and interesting, but too many years ago to recall in detail. The Shack is, after all, a novel, and it was entertaining and I mostly remember the power of forgiveness when the hero realized the Jesus loved the murderer of the child and that he himself was called to do the same. Some of the imagery was good, too. But still, just a novel.

    Nondenominational. I am glad to read the post and all of the comments. I learned much. I had thought of “nondenominational” as a gathering of diverse people seeking commonalities and praying together. Not as a way of life in itself. My own naive thinking, I guess. Such a gathering would necessarily be broad and general, perhaps even bland in the effort to not offend, without the conviction and fire that a religious community would have. Truth would take a backseat to shared beliefs, in an attempt to build cohesion and unity amongst diversity. But it seems that my perception is incorrect, there is more at play here. It’s not the first time I assumed and only partially understood!

    But my perceptions enabled me to understand nondemoninational services and churches as an attempt to bridge differences rather than having a doctrine of belief. I was thus able to interpret the remark in The Shack as meaning that Jesus didn’t establish different denominations/religions–man did that. Jesus intended us to all be one, following him with love as brothers and sisters. It was man who started fighting over who understood the Lord correctly and thus the various denominations formed (splintered from the universal true Church.)

    I look forward to posts and comments and responses on this topic. How very interesting.

    • I was not aware that the Like button was not working, Reinkat. Thanks for pointing it out. Sometimes the like button on other WP blogs does not work for me unless I close and then reopen the page — or even the browser — from scratch. Not sure what the problem is.

      Your understanding of non-denominational Christianity is not naive. Almost everyone understands it the way you (and I) did, including Christians looking for a welcoming Church but don’t want to worry over doctrinal or liturgical confusion. Many non-denominational churches do not push the anti-religion issue, so the congregation does not follow that line of thinking. Still, the trend of Jesus, Yes, religion, No, is growing in non-denominational circles.

      I really like your benign reading of The Shack. That interpretation actually squares with a Catholic vision of Christian unity. My experience with non-denominal Christians and things I’ve read and seen on it, however, makes it clear to me that the author was writing from that perspective. His arguments are straight from the handbook.

      Noel’s comment below shows that this way of understanding the Goapel and the way we are meant to live it is not very uncommon at all.

      Thanks for your comment and God bless!

  7. Hey Biltrix, you never fail to pick my brain. I am interested in hearing your views on the subject. As for me, there is no doubt in my mind that one can denounce religion and still be a Christian. What is religion? A bunch of insufficient man made rules and regulations designed to tie individuals back to God. More often than, these rules do not have anything to do with “The Law” God gave Moses. Does anyone remember how Jesus was always scolding the Publican and Pharisees? They enforced religious rules no one, including themselves could keep.

    • Thanks for sharing this with me here, Noel. Our views on the nature and purpose of religion are obviously different. I wrote about this on the blog this year in a similar post to this one. Right now I am on a mobile device, and cannot search for that post and share the link easily. When I’m back at my desk tomorrow, I reply back and share that link with you in another comment. I would be interested in discussing this with you further, if you would like to.

      God bless!

    • Thanks for sharing your post, Dale. It is certainly a different approach to NDC than what I presented here, with a broader perspective too.

      As you say, we all want to be “right” — we need to keep that in mind befoee we judge others.

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