Thursday, February 10, 2011

Denominations, Division, and Doctrine

There's been a lot of talk recently around the PC(USA) circles that I frequent (and a few non-PC(USA) ones) about a letter that was written, co-signed by a number of PC(USA) pastors, suggesting that the church is "deathly ill" and calling for "something new" that looks, to me, a lot more like a Baptist-style congregational polity than the kind of "connective" denomination that the PC(USA) used to pride itself on being.

While I have read the letter, and have commented on it on other forums, my interest here is less with the letter itself than with the trend it seems to represent. As the letter rightly notes, there have been deep divisions within the denomination, and indeed within most American denominations of any meaningful size, for quite some time now. It is certainly understandable that Christians within such divided denominations would be looking for some new way forward that might possibly get beyond the continuing fights that have been going on for far too long.

That said, I find myself more than a little suspicious of most of the solutions so far proposed, which seem, to me, to amount to a desire to separate out into groups of like-minded believers. Some of these have been calls for full-scale schism from the existing denomination, but this has been by no means the only way that such separation has been proposed. Indeed, the "deathly ill" letter does not suggest actually breaking away from the PC(USA) — although it does seem to consider the possibility — but rather for groupings that allow "like-minded congregations" (their own words) to gather together. To gather along "like-minded" lines means, naturally, not to gather along lines with congregations or believers with which one disagrees. I'm not convinced that this is a path toward healing.

Now, I know my Christian History enough to know that theological differences are at the core of why most of our denominations exist in the first place. And these distinctions are important. But a "connective" denomination that ignores geophysical "connections" in favor of purely doctrinal ones seems to me not to be very "connective" at all. Or, at the very least, insufficiently so.

For better or worse, my environment is such that the people I see shouting the loudest for denominations (not just the PC(USA) to change how they structure themselves so that they are more doctrinal than geographical tend to be those who fall primarily on the "conservative" side of the spectrum. It's not so much that I don't see "liberals" raising a fuss within denominations (far from it!), but that I haven't seen them threaten to loosen their connections with a denomination they currently see themselves as part of. At worst, I've seen individual liberals leave or switch denominations, while entire conservative congregations have done so. Maybe that's just a perspective thing (my particular denomination is certainly decried as "liberal" more often than it's criticized as being "conservative," so perhaps there simply aren't as many "liberal" bodies who would leave if they didn't get their way), but whenever I've heard someone say "both sides are just as bad" in conservative/liberal arguments lately, those arguments have tended not to be supported by the visible evidence. 

One obvious question that this has raised in the conversations I've seen recently has been "are denominations doomed?" To put it another way, "will more churches align themselves only loosely, along generally more 'congregationalist' polities?" Perhaps, but I truly hope not. My great fear about an exclusively congregationalist Christianity is that more and more churches will be led by strong personalities that assume power for themselves rather than by pastors who have both undertaken serious training for their role (I am not here arguing that seminary education will remain as it has for the past few decades. Change in how training is established need not be a problem) and have had their calling to ministry confirmed through a connective process involving the people whose churches (plural) will be lead. While I know that many who are more conservative than I am fear that seminaries have become "too liberal" of late, I don't think that it can properly be said that seminaries have failed to take the Bible seriously (as is sometimes accused). I have seem great damage done by pastors who take it upon themselves to interpret the Bible without sufficient training. It becomes especially easy to ignore large sections in favor of other sections. This is, of course, a very human tendency to which we are all susceptible. But it is only through connection with other Christians, especially in an educational atmosphere, including perspectives with which we may differ in our conversations, that we can break through that pattern.

None of this is to say that I think our denominations should, or perhaps even can, simply remain as they are. If nothing else, there is the danger that any organization that gets too large becomes harder to maintain. So perhaps some kind of reconfiguration does need to take place. I'd just be lying if I didn't acknowledge that I'm mistrustful of the current source of such proposals.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely said. While our human tendency is to gather with people who think like we do (it is so much more comfortable) the call of the gospel, in part, is figuring out how to live in community with those whom we differ. One of the things I think the church is supposed to do is to show how this can be done. Of course we have not done a good job of this. Calls for like minded folks to gather, like calls for doctrinal purity tend to narrow hiw we live out the gospel not expand it. I'm all for serious theological thinking and discussion but we only grow by encountering those with different ideas. I'm glad the PCUSA is a place where lots of different views can meet.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...