Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Question Concerning the Perpetual Endurance of Non-Self-Legitimating Christian Denominations

With all the hoopla today concerning the Catholic Church's announcement that disenchanted Anglicans may, without giving up liturgy, practices, or (priests') wives, enter into full communion with Rome, I had a thought sparked unrelated to the fascinating discussions going on concerning the consequences of this monumental decision for the Anglican Church, the Roman Church, and ecumenism in general. Actually, this is something I've been reflecting on for a while now, but today's decision and overall reaction led it to (at least an initial) fruition.

More than an idea, it's a question, and one intimately related to where I come from and where I find myself now. Regarding the latter I am at a United Methodist seminary surrounded by classmates and professors who belong to predominantly mainline Protestant traditions, including Methodists (of course), Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Episcopalians (not to mention those from the United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalism, black church traditions like CME and AME, Church of the Nazarene, and a few who come from Assemblies of God or non-denominational charismatic groups). Which is to say, broad representation from the primary ecclesial streams resulting from the Reformation.

Where I hail from (and still call home) is the churches of Christ, rooted in the 19th century American Restoration movement begun by the work of Bryan Stone and Alexander Campbell (which led to churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and independent Christian Churches). This tradition is marked by rootedness in the authority of Scripture, autonomous local congregations who elect their own leadership, a cappella singing in worship, weekly observance of the Lord's Supper, requisite baptism by immersion, (originally) strong pacifist inclinations, (often) conservative ideology, and (even still) sectarian leanings. In churches of Christ there is no formal ordination or clergy, and while it is generally expected nowadays for ministers supported by the church to have training in ministry and the Bible, there are no requirements, and often ministers may come from a different background than seminary.

Thus it is easy to see why the wide world of mainline Protestantism -- especially surrounded by seminarians preparing for the pastorate -- is for me an enduring mystery and an ongoing discovery. I should add that the primal feature of the Restoration movement was its emphasis on unity: though it unfortunately lead only to further division and discord, the founders of the movement sought to unite all Christians in the authority of the Bible and in so doing release Christians everywhere from the dividing boundaries of creeds, confessions, denominational markers, and so on. (It all sounds so familiar ... had that been tried before? How did it work out again?) As a result, while many Christians in churches of Christ are fiercely loyal to the tradition (often viewing it as "the" true church), there is at the very least a spirit of simply wanting to be the church God desires for the world -- whatever this might mean in relation to "the" tradition, or any other "man-made" edifice erected as an obstacle before the church's life and witness.

Without a doubt this view is deeply problematic, and I hope any perusal of this blog sees how varied my own views about tradition and ecclesiology are by contrast. However, this background does afford me, at times, a perspective with which to observe the goings-on of the church at large with a significantly different mindset than those on the inside.

And so my question is this: Is there any legitimate reason for mainline Protestant denominations to desire for their ecclesial tradition to endure in perpetuity?

My thought is based on a confluence of infinite hypotheticals married to the very concrete situation the mainline churches find themselves in today. Put theologically, and positively: if God were to act tomorrow to restore unity to the church universal, and the resources and theological emphases of, say, the Lutheran church were to be caught up, substantially and honorably, into a new and more unified ecclesial tradition, would this be cause for rejoicing or regret?

Or, imagining a different situation: if a particular tradition were losing real vitality and life -- say, the Presbyterians -- and members of that tradition were leaving it for another tradition, not in the spirit of a fad or "shopping the church market," but because the former tradition was truly dying and the latter was truly alive -- yet God's church as a whole was in fact alive and well -- would this be cause for rejoicing or regret?

Or, even another situation: if God acted in judgment against a particular tradition -- say, the Methodists -- for too long forsaking its calling, and that church died out, yet (again) its members found life and belonging in an alternative tradition -- rejoicing or regret?

Or, finally: if the original reasons for a movement's creation and ongoing existence were to disappear gradually -- say, the socioeconomic uniformity and lack of charismatic expression that led to Pentecostalism -- yet just because those original reasons had fallen away yet new facets of a different context had arisen and found faithful response in another tradition -- rejoicing, or regret?

The question, at root, has to do with two factors: legitimation of existence, and institutional survival. In my view, only three groups have claims to both (however disputed those claims may be): the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and sectarian traditions who claim to be the "one true church." Those outside the minority traditions of the third group are in full agreement by their very not being in them that those groups are wrong, so we are left with Catholicism and Orthodoxy, two communions who may be wrong but do have legitimate claims (i.e., apostolic succession) and are related in myriad ways. But after that, at this point in history (for once it was indeed different), every other church tradition self-consciously exists as an imperfect and partial instantiation of the wider church catholic. And, as far as I can tell, in that sort of existence, there is neither self-evident legitimation of the tradition's existence nor biblical or theological reasons for the perpetual survival of the institution (as there truly is, tacitly and explicitly, in Catholicism and Orthodoxy).

Yet the language, practices, and worldview of various denominations seem clearly to be convinced of the necessity of, the goodness of, even God's own desire for the unceasing perseverance of their tradition. But what if the church were clearly and powerfully growing and flourishing in faith, life, and witness throughout the world, yet Methodist membership were dropping with no sign of relief? With what reason would we do anything but rejoice and be glad? Should we be so invested in short-term manifestations of God's people and purpose for the world that we miss the larger picture? Should we be invested at all in the survival of any denomination -- so long as the church of Jesus Christ is not only surviving, but thriving?

I realize that things are not so simple; and I ought to add that the traditions mentioned, and the situations imagined, bear little resemblance to actual encounters with persons or expressed views. And I really may be missing something here. But it seems clear to me that the moment we fall for the temptation to make the "survival" of any one particular offshoot of God's people foundational, or even important, for the work we have to do as the church -- and in so doing forget that it is the Lord Jesus we serve, whose gospel it is we seek to share -- we forsake the very founders of those corrective or renewal movements whose vision and sacrifices we hope to imitate, and which we honor only by our willingness to refuse to make idols of them, their words, or their followers after them.


  1. This is a very good point. I have no problem, in theory, with a denomination dying out or being subsumed under a united universal Church... while there may be limited cause to regret the cultural loss of a non-self legitimating denomination, it wouldn't be a mourning as if that was most important... certainly the greater unity is the greater reason for rejoicing that should dominate the affair.

    That said... I don't see why a situation of "pluriformity" wouldn't work. Moving from Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Baptist churches into "the" one Church that develops to replace them isn't the only way of doing this. If denominations exist into perpetuity, just as canonically distinguished as they are today, but there is an accompanying recognition of ministerial orders and sacraments across denominational lines... I don't see how that doesn't achieve the same thing as full visible unity.

    That is, if denominational distinctives are cultural or secondary... and this seems to be the reason for shedding them to achieve greater unity... I don't see why their perpetual existence as secondary, so long as it is recognized as secondary, would do violence church unity. Denominational divisions only seem to be problematic when they are real divisions, and I don't see why they would need to be considered as such if a situation of mutual recognition across denominational boundaries were established.

  2. Evan,

    Excellent point about "pluriformity," and I certainly agree that the notion of (re?)unification into "the" one church is extremely problematic. I only mean to point out that rarely if ever are denominational distinctions viewed as secondary, either on the inside or the outside; and that, to hear the language denominational representatives use, you might easily assume that their mission is to perpetuate a Methodist/Lutheran/whatever "presence" in certain places. Yet does God desire a "presence" of each and every denomination in each and every place? It smacks to me of institutional survival fear and ecclesial capitalism. Let's each get our fair share of the market in each place...with some transferal back and forth, of course.

    So that's where I'm coming from. On a different note, thanks for your kind comments on the Quaestio Disputata post, and I wanted to let you know that two papers in that format are required for my Systematic Theology class with Ian McFarland. So it is already being done in a syllabus -- and I agree, it's a great exercise!

  3. In a poem entitled "Questions about Angels," Billy Collins wonders why theologians, who he assumes to be individuals with souls, would ever be so bored with or blind to the big questions of the mystery of angelic beings to ask how many can dance on the head of a pin. The poem is delightful, and and offers a necessary self-deflating reminder. However, I think it misses the fact that our wise and loving God created us from dust, and created as such, we value a lot of things that are, in truth, dust.

    With that prologue, I think the fondness for our own traditions that your question identifies may be a fondness for dust, but I don't see it as such a horrible thing until it prevents us from recognizing Christ, giving grace or sharing gospel with the world until they adopt our all of our cultural preferences about worship and church. I am happy to have my notions corrected, but isn't any manifestation of church necessarily cultural? Would sixth or seventh century Catholics really find themselves at home in today's Catholic church? Would today's American or continental Catholics really feel at home in African or South American Catholic churches? We act out local cultural beliefs and values anytime we gather to "do church," as, I believe, did Jesus. I am not sure how that is a barrier to true church except in the ways we make Christ and the gospel inaccessible by binding our meats, holidays, and new moons on those for whom they cannot possibly have meaning.

    In short, though I am not Methodist, the end of that tradition would bring me sadness because there is a good chance we would stop celebrating, and perhaps even remembering, the good that this particular tradition has done in the name of Christ. However, coming from the same tradition as Brad, and he may be underselling the divisiveness of our history in the twentieth century, I would certainly joyfully celebrate any movement towards unifying the body of Christ that fashioned into a single body multiple divided groups of traditions, even if my own ceased.

  4. Bill, perhaps you are my perpetual interlocutor! (A good situation, I think.)

    I know the Collins poem you reference, and it's one I need to get on the blog ASAP. I do hope that I didn't overstate my case, implying either that there aren't benefits to our particular traditions or that churches of Christ have anything but an abysmal record on this front. I think this post is one, more focused example of a general cultural reflection I find myself having often as of late. Namely, what do we try to keep going for no reason other than its own existence and our inability to imagine life without it? On the positive end, you have something like the newspaper industry, which has legitimate reasons for perpetuation even as sales continue to plummet. On the other hand, if people stopped buying microwaves or processed food tomorrow, the "economy" would "suffer," and there would indeed be consequences, and therefore many would argue we "ought" to keep buying such things we don't need (and more and more) for the sake of the country's economic climate. Yet in fact we would be healthier human beings if we cut out half of that crap altogether, the economic effects be damned.

    So those are sort of general poles of serious and superfluous things in life which could disappear, by choice or other influences, and in either case there would be outcry -- but for different reasons. And I find myself observing in denominational/ministerial settings a mindset that presumes God is invested in the endurance of our particular version -- begun centuries ago in response to particular conditions often now only retained within the traditions themselves -- when I am not so sure God is in the business of Denominational Institution Survival.

    That's where I'm coming from, anyway. Thanks for the comments sir.

  5. I think all of this hints towards a bigger ecclesiological question: Is the desire for perpetual institutional perdurance something that is theologically acceptable for any ecclesial tradition?

    As you note, Roman and Eastern Orthodox communions make the strongest claims for the necessity of their own institutional perdurance, but I don't think that matters too much in regard to the actual theological question.

    It seems to me that any institutional structure will find its own perpetuation supremely important, so we should expect this. The theological question is if this survivalist and protectionist mentality is what the gospel calls out and seeks to create in God's own work, in Christ and the Spirit, of transforming the world into the Kingdom of God.

  6. Halden,

    I certainly agree; my only point here was that, at the very least, Catholic and Orthodox theologies have a claim that is in itself logically comprehensible as implying their own communion's perdurance. Protestants don't even make such a claim! (I.e., we're talking hypocrisy rather than bad theology here.)

    But of course you're right: the question of the perpetual endurance of any one church, even in claiming to be "the" church, is immediately pressing. I would be fascinated to explore the answer with a sympathetic Catholic or Orthodox believer. It truly does seem to imply the taming, or possession, of the freedom of God's workings in the world.

  7. Evan,

    I can't really tell if this is your point or not, but the current strategy being taken by Rome (and having been taken in the past with the Eastern churches) seems to be something just like what you are describing: rather than the destruction of Anglo-Catholicism by attrition or individual conversion to RC, it is being preserved whole, akin to Ukrainian Rite Catholicism, or Maronite Catholicism, for instance.

  8. What I'm talking about would be the Vatican's recognition of the orders and sacraments of the Anglican Communion, and vice versa. That's what I take to be the ecumenical goal, rather than recognition of different Catholic rites organized under Rome. This sort of progress is already being made between numerous Protestant denominations.

  9. I see your point, but for Catholicism (and for the churches of the East, in fact) being organized "under Rome" is in some sense a non-negotiable of being the Church. If you are defining ecumenism as something counter to this, then it would be hard to fault Catholics and Orthodox for not participating. There is no problem with defining ecumenism in that sense, except that typically ecumenism is assumed to be an unqualified good readily discernible by all people. This case highlights that it isn't. These are all empirical points with which one might disagree, but the criticism that the RCC is acting at odds with it's duty to ecclesial charity is an incoherent charge. This is not what I understand you to be doing, but one hears this charge frequently made.

  10. For what it's worth (and I know this was a fairly minor point here), Anglicans also maintain apostolic succession. Which is not to say that it holds anything more than symbolic significance to this Episcopalian!