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June-July 2021

Everyday Heroes


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On C.S. Lewis and Denominational Survival

By J. Matthew Pinson


I recently read an address C. S. Lewis gave to a group of Anglican priests and youth leaders in 1945. It reminded me of what many in the Free Will Baptist Church have been thinking lately: doing everything we can to de-emphasize Free Will Baptist confessional beliefs and practices is probably the surest strategy for denominational extinction we could devise. After a few general observations about denominational identity and survival, this article will look more closely at what Lewis can teach us.


The First Strategy for Denominational Survival

Two strategies for denominational survival seem to be competing for prominence in the Free Will Baptist Church (as in all denominations). The first states: if we want to keep from dying, we must emulate the non-denominational, consumer-oriented megachurch. This, among other things, means de-emphasizing “strange” doctrinal beliefs and practices such as the possibility of apostasy, the washing of the saints’ feet, or requiring immersion for new members transferring from non-immersionist churches. It means not teaching distinctive Free Will Baptist doctrine from the pulpit.

It requires making it as hard as possible for people to discover our congregation is Free Will Baptist, based on its publications and communications.


The Second Strategy for Denominational Survival

The second says: If we want to keep from dying, we must fulfill the Great Commission mandate of evangelizing people and teaching those we evangelize everything Jesus and His deputies, the inspired Apostles, taught. This means we must teach and preach doctrine, like the Apostles in the New Testament said to do, and we must practice New Testament teachings, even those strange to people outside our confessional tradition. This includes distinctive Free Will Baptist doctrine and practice.

If we don’t carefully instill the scriptural doctrines our confessional tradition has affirmed, and if we don’t emphasize distinctive biblical practices our tradition has extolled, and if we do our dead-level best to cover up the fact we are Free Will Baptists, within a generation we will be assimilated into the non-denominational matrix and will go out of existence as a separate denomination.

These two strategies are mutually exclusive. If one is right, the other is dead wrong. You can’t embrace a hybrid of the two.


The Last Thing We Need Is Another Denomination

Please understand. I do not think, nor did Lewis think, we need more denominations, more schism. Unless a separate Free Will Baptist denomination is necessary because of our conviction that our doctrine affirms Scripture, it would be wrong to have another denomination. It’s schismatic. It’s divisive. Without that conviction, we could simply join another denomination. I think Lewis, good Anglican that he was, would agree with me.

Something breaks my heart—and I think breaks the heart of God—about the wide proliferation of denominations that basically believe the same thing but are separated because of squabbles rather than the doctrine and practice the Bible entails. A denomination is not a “network.” It is a fellowship of churches that believe the affirmation of certain scriptural, apostolic doctrines and practices necessitates a separate denomination.


The last thing we need is another denomination. If other conservative Arminian Baptist denominations believe the washing of the saints’ feet is a divine ordinance to be practiced liturgically, as well as the other beliefs in the Treatise we believe necessitate our existence—by all means, let’s join up! Let’s not be divided because of our preferences, or because we are used to seeing each other or golfing or eating sushi together at the National Convention each July.

If we’re going to fall over ourselves to find more efficient ways to bury our Free Will Baptist identity, doctrine, and practice, why go to the trouble of having a separate denomination? Why not just join the Southern Baptists or become non-denominational?


Are “Missional” and “Confessional” in Opposition?

Many Free Will Baptists have been talking about these things of late. We’re trying to figure out what it means to be who we are, with integrity, in a mission field in our secular age in the West. We’re in a rapidly secularizing culture. We must be missional. And when new believers on the mission field are converted, they want you to level with them about what’s true and what’s false. They’re hungering and thirsting for knowledge. They want to know what the Bible really means.
What does the Bible mean when it says you will receive the crown of life only if you continue? What does it mean when it says you can fall away and not be renewed to repentance? Is affusion (sprinkling) okay in baptism? Is infant baptism okay? Or, do I have to be immersed as a convert to follow Jesus in baptism? Do we need to observe the Lord’s supper literally and physically, or was that just a spiritual lesson? Do we need to wash people’s feet literally, physically, or was that also just a spiritual lesson?

That’s why the people opposing Protestant liberalism most in mainline denominations come from the global South and the mission field. It’s people in the consumeristic modern West who want to de-emphasize theological precision and biblical doctrine and practice—who seem to want to do anything but teach and preach and sing doctrine.

These conversations are happening frequently among Free Will Baptists—especially 20-somethings in the ministry. They are embracing a new mentality David Kinnaman, the president of the Barna Group, prescribes, noting, “After countless interviews and conversations,

I am convinced that historic and traditional practices, and orthodox and wisdom-laden ways of believing, are what the next generation really needs.”


Now to What C. S. Lewis Said

In light of these exciting conversations taking place, especially among Free Will Baptists in their 20s, I loved what I read recently from C. S. Lewis. Again, remember he’s talking to Anglicans in England in the 1940s:

“Some of you are priests and some are leaders of youth organizations. . . And here at the outset I must deal with an unpleasant business. It seems to the layman that in the Church of England we often hear from our priests doctrine which is not Anglican Christianity. . . It is not, of course, for me to define to you what Anglican Christianity is—I am your pupil, not your teacher. But I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines must exist, beyond which your doctrine will cease either to be Anglican or to be Christian: and I suggest also that the lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priests think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your own minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession.

“This is your duty not specially as Christians or as priests but as honest men. . . . Men who have passed beyond these boundary lines in either direction are apt to protest that they have come by their unorthodox opinions honestly. In defence of those opinions they are prepared to suffer obloquy and to forfeit professional advancement. They thus come to feel like martyrs. But this simply misses the point which so gravely scandalizes the layman. We never doubted that the unorthodox opinions were honestly held; what we complain of is your continuing your ministry after you have come to hold them. We always knew that a man who makes his living as a paid agent of the Conservative Party may honestly change his views and honestly become a Communist. What we deny is that he can honestly continue to be a Conservative agent and to receive money from one party while he supports the policy of another.

“Even when we have thus ruled out teaching which is in direct contradiction to our profession, we must define our task still further. We are to defend Christianity itself—the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers. . . .” [1]


Lewis and Denominations

C. S. Lewis spoke here as an Anglican to Anglican clergy, and he did what he did in so many other places when he talked about confessional doctrine and not just “mere Christianity.” In his writings, Lewis talked about cardinal doctrines like the virgin birth, but also about lesser doctrines such as the Anglican doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper. Some people read only Lewis’s wonderful book Mere Christianity and think that is all Lewis was interested in—a sort of amorphous, non-denominational Christianity.

But they forget the preface to Mere Christianity, where Lewis said “mere Christianity” is like the central hall of a great house which leads to distinctive rooms, and he did not want his appropriate discussion of mere Christianity, which unites Christians in the different distinctive “rooms”—denominations or confessional traditions—to discourage people from going into those rooms and exploring them and enjoying them.

His silence in Mere Christianity about his Anglican distinctives of doctrine and practice should not be interpreted as “sitting on the fence” regarding doctrines and practices distinguishing one denomination from another, nor that he thought them unimportant:

“I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions—as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. . . . When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and panelling. . . . When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong, they need your prayers the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.” [2]


Moving from Entry-Level Christianity to Unabridged Christianity

Oh, how desperately we need this sort of time-honored wisdom in our own day of an evangelicalism unsure of itself, so intimated by the spirit of the age. We need what we find throughout Lewis’s writings and the writings of the great saints and martyrs in the church’s past: we need to be ourselves.

We need to be what the Scriptures call us to be with integrity and without apology. We need to teach what the Scriptures teach, practice what Scripture enjoins us to practice. We need to zealously evangelize the lost and then just as zealously teach them to observe everything Jesus and His deputies, the inspired Apostles, teach and command and enjoin in the New Testament—not just the core, not just what it takes to be saved, but everything.

Leroy Forlines put it this way: “The part of the Great Commission that says we must teach people to observe everything Jesus teaches and commands means He won’t allow us just to teach ‘entry-level’ Christianity. His Great Commission to us demands we teach ‘unabridged Christianity.’” [3]

This is what has, historically, happened on the mission field. New Christians rescued from the grip of sin and its devastation and fitted for glory usually don’t want to stay at the “entry level” in the hall. They want to know more. They want honest, direct answers to questions that arise when reading the Bible.

If we believe the Free Will Baptist confession of faith and practice is biblical, we need to teach it and preach it and practice it with gusto—not be ashamed of it. This, we’ll find, is not only a good recipe for survival as a small, theologically distinctive denomination. It’s also a commonsense expression of the Great Commission—an honest, authentic attempt to teach people everything Jesus and His Apostles put forward for His Church. It’s this kind of full-throated, confident discipleship in Christian truth that will lead mature disciples to make other disciples of Christ and bring growth and replication and renewal to our churches in our increasingly secular age.

About the Writer: J. Matthew Pinson has been president of Welch College since 2002. To learn more about Welch College, visit

  1. C. S. Lewis, “Christian Apologetics,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).
  2. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1960), 6–12.
  3. See Forlines’s classic essay, “A Plea for Unabridged Christianity,” Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought 2 (2003), 85–10.


©2021 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists