RELIGIOUS GROUPS ON CAMPUS
Morality and positive public image are not enough to save a person. Only Christ's grace can save.
Rev. Matthew W. Rueger, Author
Jan. 1, 2020
You're away from home and away from your home Church. One day you're invited by fellow students to go with them to an on-campus Bible study. They seem friendly. You trust they wouldn't be leading you into anything bad, so you go along. On Sunday they invite you to go with them to their service. They are sincere about their faith and that impresses you. They also seem to know their Bibles and that too leaves you with the feeling that what they believe must be true to what the Bible says. In time, they tell you they are part of a non-denominational ministry on campus. They assure you they won't ask you to give up what you believe as a Lutheran because they don't judge the doctrines of individual denominations. In fact, you find out that the students who are active in this group grew up in a number of different denominations.
So what is so wrong with being involved in the popular campus non-denominational group? They seem nice and care about the Bible and morals.
Here are some things to consider.
1. Non-denominationalism is a myth.
A 'denomination' is a group of churches that hold to a particular view of the Bible. The reason there are so many different denominations is that there are many different views of what God's Word says. Every church or "ministry" on campus or otherwise holds to certain beliefs about the Bible. That makes them "denominational" whether they want to admit it or not. Just because they choose not to identify with any particular denomination doesn't mean their views aren't in line with those of certain established denominations. For example: It is typical of these "non-denominational" groups to hold to a belief system that rejects infant baptism, does not believe in the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Lord's Supper, and does not think a human being (pastor) can absolve sins by the command of God. Such a position fits in well with baptist or neo-evangelical thinking. It is also typical of the beliefs of "E-Free" and "Cornerstone" types of churches.
Really, non-denominationalism is itself a denomination - not in the sense of an organized body of churches gathered around a particular confession - but rather in the sense of a church that holds to beliefs that are identifiable with those of certain reformed denominations.
2. Doctrine does matter!
The word "doctrine" is often thrown out as if it is some man-made rule. Doctrine is even seen as an impediment to genuine faith because "doctrine" can be divisive. It says this is right and therefore by implication says other views are wrong. The word "doctrine" however simply means "teaching." A doctrine is a teaching from God's Word. Groups that claim they don't take any doctrinal positions are really saying they don't believe God's Word teaches anything! Yet they gather in groups and come to conclusions about what they think God's Word says. They don't understand they are actually coming to conclusions about doctrine.
Truth is, doctrine does matter; It matters what God's Word teaches. The Bible is not a mysterious book that should say whatever anyone wants it to say. It is God's book that says to us what He wants to say. We Lutherans follow the principle that "The Bible interprets the Bible." That means that we believe one can figure out what God is teaching in His Word by comparing the various statements in the Word that apply. One cannot rightly understand the Bible by citing a verse or two in isolation from the rest of the Scripture. One needs to read and study the whole of Scripture to properly interpret the individual passages. The study of "doctrine" is essential understanding the full Word of God.
Lutheranism has a strong heritage of intense and thorough study of God's Word. The doctrines we teach are not merely those that Luther decided were true in his day. Generations of scholars have studied and explained the various teachings we confess with reference to the Bible, historical research and the faithful teachings of the early Church. Lutheranism does not claim to teach anything new or innovative. We claim that the faith and doctrine we confess is consistent with the confession the Church has always made since its foundation. An in depth presentation of Lutheran doctrine can be found in the Book of Concord can be found here.
3. What about baptism?
"Non-denominational" campus ministries often encourage "re-baptism" or "believer baptism." They teach that your baptism as an infant doesn't really count because: A) you don't even remember it happening to you and B) it wasn't your personal decision. Somebody (likely your parents) decided for you that you should be baptized. They teach that the only valid baptism is one where you personally decide to be baptized. As evidence for this position, they claim that the Bible does not explicitly say "babies should be baptized." They also claim that there are no examples of babies being baptized in the Bible.
In regard to the first claim, the Bible does not say babies should be baptized. It is also true that the Bible does not say "only adults should be baptized," or "only people able to make their own decision should be baptized." What the Bible does say is:
"Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you." Matt. 28:19-20
The language of God's Word is to baptize "all the nations." It does not specify any age bracket. Furthermore, there are several examples of the apostles baptizing entire households (Acts 16:15, 16:33, 18:8). Secondly, the claim that something is only valid if one makes the "decision" for him or herself is contrary to scripture.
Circumcision was the sacrament of the Old Testament which bound one to God and His covenant. It was performed on males at only eight days old. The decision for that child to become part of the family of God was made by his parents. This was the very practice commanded by God and shows unequivocally that He accepts babies into His covenant based on the decision of their parents to bring them to the faith. Baptism is no different. It is God accepting a baby into His grace based on the decision of others to bring them to God.
4. Symbolic Lord's Supper
It is typical of these groups to rewrite Jesus' words of the Lord's Supper as well. Jesus's words at the giving of the Lord's Supper were "This is my body" and "This is my blood." Many (if not all) non-denominational groups claim these words are mere symbolism. St. Paul, however, speaks of the bread and wine of the supper as if they are a union or "communion" with the very body and blood of Christ. The New Testament does not speak of the bread and wine as if they are only symbolic.
"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" 1 Cor. 10:16
Typically these groups also deny that there is actually forgiveness in this supper. Despite the fact that Matthew’s Gospel records Jesus as saying, "This is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" Matt. 26:28, most of the groups say there is no remission of sins offered there. We are supposed to do it, according them, because it is a law or "ordinance" that Jesus says we should keep. This is not a new teaching. It is essentially the teaching that was held in Reformation times by a man named Ulrich Zwingli. He and Luther had several meetings together and eventually came to the conclusion that their understandings of the supper we irreconcilable. The oldest understanding and the one that has been taught by Church fathers since the time of the apostles is that of Luther - which says that the Lord's Supper does forgive sins and is the true body and blood of Christ. As Lutherans we do not claim that the bread and wine physically change in a measurable way. We say only that we take Jesus at His Word and believe that somehow, in a mysterious way that transcends our senses, His body and blood are there for the purpose of forgiving sins.
Changing the meaning of our Lord's Words and promise is a serious matter. Turning it into a symbolic meal that holds no forgiveness is to lose something of the Gospel itself. Jesus gave us this meal for the strengthening of our souls. He intended it to give us grace and forgiving love. Those who deny this, miss out on a wonderful and faith strengthening gift that Christ has given His Church.
5. Decision theology
"Decision theology" is the brand of theology that puts the emphasis of one's life with God on one's own personal decision. As stated above, one can see this most obviously with regard to teachings about baptism. These groups often say that you are not really saved until you have personally decided to let Jesus into your heart. Some groups claim you have to be able to point to the exact time and date when you made your decision for Jesus. Decision theology is a very serious heresy (false teaching that denies the Gospel). It goes 180° contrary to the Gospel. The Gospel teaches we are saved by God's decision for us. He chose to reconcile us with God when we were still God's enemies (Rom. 5:10). In Ephesians (1:4), God's Word teaches that God chose us before the foundation of the world. John 15:16 makes this claim:
"You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit."
The Gospel is the message that God chose us apart from anything we have done. Our salvation is 100% His doing, His decision. Decision theology makes salvation partly our doing because it depends to some degree on our decision to let Jesus into our heart. When even a little human work is added to God's work in the teaching of salvation, then the Gospel itself is denied - it is no longer all God's gift and becomes something we can say we have caused within ourselves.
The answer to decision theology is the Lutheran doctrine on grace. Grace is all God's gift, His decision, His choice for us, His work. We receive His saving grace as a gift. For many of us, that gift was first give to us as babies when we were baptized. God renews this gift in us throughout our lives through His Word and at the Lord's Supper. Our decisions are always tainted by sin and are therefore unreliable. God's decision to claim us as His own is a holy decision untainted by sin and is therefore always certain.
These issues with non-denominational groups are not minor issues that can be ignored because the people who espouse them are "nice" or "friendly" or "moral." I have no doubt that they are sincere in their beliefs and present a much better moral image than those who party every weekend and are sexually promiscuous. Morality and a positive public image are not enough to save a person. Only Christ's grace can save. Unfortunately these non-denominational ministries miss the point of grace by insisting on the human act of personal appropriation through one's decision.
The best advice then with regard to these non-denominational campus ministries is to avoid them. In Romans God says,
"Mark those who cause division and offenses contrary to the doctrine you have learned and avoid them." Rom. 16:17
It might take a little extra effort to find a Lutheran congregation and go there on Sundays, but then again Jesus never said it would be easy to remain faithful unto death.