Christian Nominalism: Causes and Cures
Nominalism is a widespread religious phenomenon
today. It affects most of the known religions of the world and
is present in virtually all countries. Nominalism is growing in all families
of the Christian faith, including Christian and Missionary Alliance
churches. In light of this, the present study has a three-fold
purpose. It will first examine the causes of nominalism.
Secondly, it will highlight some of the problems affecting church
life as a result of nominalism. Thirdly, it will propose possible
cures and solutions to nominalism within Christian and Missionary Alliance
churches. Before we proceed, however, we need to agree on a basic definition
Nominalism: A Definition
Nominalism occurs when people identify themselves with
a cause without clear understanding of it or serious commitment
to it. In that case, such people are affiliated with that cause
in nameonly. In regards to the Christian Faith, nominalists
those who adhere to the external forms of piety and godliness
while denying its power (II Timothy 3:15). In this study, then
nominalism refers to Christians whose Christianity does not
go beyond mere identification with a church or a Christian body.
Such Christians may participate in many Christian functions of
their choosing but they want a religion which is not too
Causes of Nominalism
We all can, I am sure, point to such nominal
Christians in our own churches, our circle of acquaintances and even
our family. What causes these people to be content with only part
of the Christian faith?
One can find numerous causes explaining the drift from
authentic faith to nominal Christianity. For our purposes,
however, I have limited the causes of nominalism to five:
institutionalization, Christianity of habit, negative ethics,
legalism and confession without conversion.
Perhaps institutionalization represents the one cause of
nominalism which most of us can readily identify.
Institutionalization refers to the process by which an informal
movement becomes an established body. In the established
body newness is transformed into routine, creeds and codes.
When this happens, allegiance to the body is measured by
conformity to recognized (and often external) factors rather than
vitality of life and faith. Institutionalization normally
during the second or third generation after a movement begins.
As you can see, most of our Alliance national church bodies
have entered or are about to enter the period of
institutionalization. This should warn us that we are ripe
nominalism if it does not yet exist in our midst.
The second factor which leads to nominalism, namely a Christianity
of habit, is closely linked to institutionalization. Here people
declare themselves Christian because it has now become the custom
or the tradition. We have a label for this phenomenon when it takes
place in religions such as Islam. We call it folkIslam. Well,
many people born into the households of our churches are folkChristians, that
is, they are Christians only because this is their tradition. As
A. W.Tozer observed so long ago, "The power of custom, precedent
and tradition... [means that] not Christ but tradition is lord in
this situation" (The Waning Authority of Christ In the
Churches The Alliance Witness, May 15, 1963). In itself
tradition can be helpful. But when it becomes the sole dimension
of faith, then the process of slow death begins.
Negative ethics is the third cause of nominalism. This kind
of code of ethics usually takes the form of what a Christian is
not allowed to do. For instance, in many countries of West
Africa, in evangelical Protestant circles, it is generally
understood that a Christian does not drink alcoholic beverages,
smoke, chew kola nut or go to the cinema. Do not
misunderstood me. I am not suggesting that these are good
activities for Christians to engage in. Rather I want to
underscore the fact that this list does not inform people, in a
positive manner, of what a Christian does.
The perverse effect of this negative ethics is that even
when people do engage in these prohibited activities, they are
still recognized as believers, albeit not serious believers
Jula a te danaba sebe ye). This,
in itself, is a concession to
Fourthly, the closely related negative ethics, is legalism.
As a cause of nominalism, legalism is essentially an attempt to
regulate social and religious conduct by setting up objective
standards to be obeyed by everybody. It seems to indicate a
belief that people can be transformed inward by working on
their outward behaviour first. Consequently many people will
attempt to conform to the outward expectations without having the
inner transformation wrought by the Spirit and the Word. Ultimately,
negative ethics and legalism may be good devices
of social control but they are not adequate measurements of
Perhaps the fifth cause of nominalism can summarize the
preceding four examined thus far. We may state the fifth cause
of nominalism as "a learned confession without an experienced
conversion,... substituting good deeds for conversion" (Kasdorf
1980:153). Another way of putting it is that people are often
socialized into the Christian faith without having had a spiritual
transformation. When that happens, particularly in newly
evangelized places, people may have practices which are
Christian in form but "pagan" in meaning. In that case
an unhealthy contextualization.
Nominalism and Problems of Church Life
is not enough, however, to recognize that nominalism
exists and to ascertain its causes. One must also examine the
implications for Church life both in terms of problems and cures.
That is the reason why we now turn our attention to the
problems of church life which result from nominalism.
First, nominalism creates an illusion of growth. If, as the
case is everywhere today, one is highly interested in statistical
increases in church membership, nominalism will be difficult to
detect. After all, church services are well attended and many
people can even join the churches regularly. But does this
quantitative growth translate itself into qualitative discipleship?
That is the question.
I am not suggesting here that we should abandon all efforts
at numerical increases. Rather, my plea is that as we bring
people into contact with Christ and His Church, we should not neglect
to "teach them all that He commanded". For without
this kind of dual focus we are likely to have growth without
Secondly, nominalism encourages the establishment and
perpetuation of a religion of spectators. It also breeds
clericalism. Without the necessary maturity in faith Christians,
like other religious people, tend to become mere spectators
and not active participants. Content with just watching, such
Christians want religious things done to them and for them in
exchange for a minimum of personal discomfort. That is why
nominalism is a minimalist approach to religion. And a
minimalist religion can only succeed where and when clergy
are totally in charge while lay people passively follow
instructions. Let us note, in passing, that clericalism is
dangerous trend observable in many of our churches for various
Thirdly, and in conjunction with the preceding, nominalism
dissipates Christians' convictions. When people only adhere
to a religion because of tradition and convenience, they are
easy targets for new ideas and religions. To be sure, one should
be open-minded and ready to learn new things. Open-
mindedness is, however, not the same thing as a lack of
conviction. When a person's Christian faith and practice are
not solidly grounded in conviction, that person has no basis to
critically evaluate the many viewpoints presented by the religion
to the exclusion of others if all religions are equally valid?" You
see, this question is directly related to lack of
conviction. The lack of commitment wilt make it harder and
harder to recruit Christians for the many varied ministries of
our churches. I am referring to what we call lay ministries as
well as full time Christian vocational ministries.
I realize that the foregoing four areas of problems created
by nominalism may not be present in the same degree in alt
our churches. But, if nominalism has even a beginning where
we live and serve God, some aspects of the problems
highlighted here will be present. For this reason we must look
for ways of occurring nominalism.
Cures to Nominalism
is not an incurable plague. In fact, its deadly effects can be reversed
if proper measures are taken. Let us therefore examine four measures
which, together, can be the beginning of a cure to nominalism in our
churches. Individually, each measure can provide a specific solution
to a given problem. The four measures are: conversion in the context
of worldviews, mutual correction through global missionizing,
renewed emphasis on teaching and discipleship and a
deliberate practice of real Christianity where ethics grow out of
The quest for cures to nominalism must begin with a proper
understanding of conversion. Often conversion is viewed as a
change of religious affiliation. Sometime the gospel proclaimer
looks for evidences of conversion which reflect his or her
worldview. Since conversion is first and foremost a return to the
living God, it means a radical change of allegiance. One's basic
allegiances are determined by worldview assumptions. Most worldviews
are attempts to order the world without making
room for God's direct intervention. That is the case even when
reference is made to a supreme Deity: such a supreme Being
is actually a benevolent overseer or convenient hypothesis.
Consequently most wortdviews tolerate or encourage idolatry.
A person who is genuinely converted to God and His Christ
must renounce all idolatry. That is why conversion without
challenge to worldview assumptions quite often set in motion
processes which lead to nominalism. For such a conversion
does not seek to uproot idolatry. All of us who evangelize must
make efforts at understanding the worldview assumptions of
those we evangelize. This will help us discern multiple
allegiances when they occur. Such a discernment is critical
for dealing with nominalism at the beginning stages.
Sometimes nominalism results from syncretism or
unhealthy and uncritical contextualization. Uncritical
contextualization is due, in part, to the lack of evaluation of
worldview assumptions. Quite often outsiders are able to shed
light on our blind spots. In this regard, the Alliance World
Fellowship is in strategic position to launch a process of global
sharing and missionizing which can lead to mutual correction.
For self-contained Christian communities suffer from various
ailments, nominalism being one of them.
Teaching and discipling must be at the center of any attempt
to cure nominalism. As important as Gospel proclamation is, it
is not complete unless and until it includes teaching. The Great
Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 does, of course, mention
teaching in conjunction with preaching the good news. Teaching
and discipling are important as cures to nominalism for another
reason: their purpose is to make the Gospel message become
"power of the Spirit" for daily living. If the Christian
so internalized that it becomes part of one's daily life,
nominalism will have little or no room for development.
In the context of today's world, teaching is about right
beliefs as well as right actions. David J. Bosch notes that ideally
every church member should be a true disciple (1991:82). Even
if this ideal can never be achieved, teaching and discipling aim
at increasing the number of true disciples in our churches. And
true disciples should be in the habit of practicing real Christianity.
Andrew F. Walls (1991:74) shows that in nineteenth century
Britain, "evangelism was about 'real', as distinct from 'formal'
Christianity. [It] involved a life of ongoing devotion and practical
duty." If we want to cure our churches of nominalism
this is the kind of Christianity we need to adhere to and live by.
Religious leaders around the world are alarmed at the
spread of nominalism. It is therefore timely for this topic to be
discussed at this level in the Alliance family of churches. Our
reaction, however, must be more than alarm and dismay. We
must find a pastoral approach to nominalism. I have tried, in
this study, to provide elements for such an approach. May
God grant us a burning passion to see our churches filled with
real Christians, not just formal or nominal ones. May He help
us translate this passion into action.