Voices: sectarianism within us

In recent posts on this site, I’ve echoed several “voices” that I thought should be heard.  I, and some of you, have heard the voices of

And in this “voices” post, I suggested implicitly that the term “Christian” is used variously and inaccurately.  I then specifically invited answers to a query about the use of the word “Christian.”  Only one reader bit (thanks, John), but presumably, more of you at least thought about  it.  “Christian” is a term that deserves thought.

Among the worthwhile slogans of the Campbell-Stone American Restoration Movement is this one:  “call Bible things by Bible names.”  We might infer from that suggestion that, since the Bible doesn’t speak of trash cans or trains or traffic, terminology in those spheres may be relatively unimportant.  However, the Bible does speak of pastors and parables, of sin and salvation, of Christ and Christians — so we ought to speak biblically accurately of such things.

And so I come to the question again:  what of the word-concept “Christian”?  What does it commonly mean?  Biblically, what does it mean?  And therefore, how should we use the word?

Put another way, how may we rightly define the term “Christian”?

About 15 years ago, my own voice was heard from a pulpit, of all places.  (I may soon have the opportunity to “preach” formally again, but it will be more exegesis than sermon at this point in my life, and this is all beside the point.)  In that fateful sermon, which ended up upsetting some folks sincerely and others vicariously or by projection, I called our small-to-medium-sized Church of Christ — which was fairly moderate and fairly healthy — to examine ourselves.  I believed then, and still believe, that sectarianism exists within us.

Now, to those peering in from outside the provincial history of my movement, this may not appear to be a particularly insightful or incisive observation.   “What’s the big deal?” some might ask.  But most congregations of our stripe have for long years been weaned on the notion of being just Christians and nondenominational, nonsectarian.  Many are (or would be, if the eye-wool were peeled back) horrified by the realization that we are now, by most estimations, a sect.  By way of defining terms:

  • A movement is the evidence of collective energy for a cause.
  • A denomination is a named entity that grows out of a movement.
  • A sect is alternately thought of a) as a delineated segment from a movement, or b) as a denomination crystallized.  The use of the term “sect” instead of “denomination” is sometimes intended to sound more harsh, implying divisiveness and not mere division.
  • A cult would be a sect that engages in brainwashing and/or illegal activities, usually based on one or more charismatic personalities, and marked by either excessive, strongly counter-cultural behaviors.

The above definitions are my own, formulated within 4-5 minutes.  They are not put forward as exhaustive or as even commonly accepted, but they can serve as working definitions for the purpose of this blogpost.

In naming the sectarianism within us in the Church of Christ in my sermon years ago, it was my purpose to call out those who would render blind whole groups of people to the self-righteous obstinacy of the decades — and then, to spur us toward serious thought about what it is to be a “Christian.”  What does the term really mean, and how did/does it function as a label?

I was taught on many occasions that “Christian” means “like Christ.”  But if we push that definition too far, those in a sectarian denomination may begin to believe they are the most like Christ, setting themselves up as “the only Christians” instead of merely being “Christ-followers only”.  One illustration I employed in moving toward a variant definition of “Christian” was the label “Bostonian”:  a Bostonian is not necessarily like Boston, but she is of Boston, belonging to Boston.

If we can re-envision ourselves as being of Christ, based on the scriptures’ idea of a) coming into, b) remaining in, and c) growing in that state, well, I think we could move back from being a sect or denomination to a movement.

Names (2) — nondenominationalism everywhere?

I once delivered a full-length sermon on the topic “the denominationalism within us”—to the horror of several siblings who had some wool shreds near their chins and noses (the wool’s having been pulled down from above).  Born ‘n bred as nondenominational Christians, they were more than offended to be accused of being denominational.

Now, most church groups don’t fear denominationalism at all and in fact find the denomination “nest” quite homey.  Leaving alone the issue of that false comfort for now, I merely want to say that the Church of Christ has for decades employed a set of terminologies that discourage honesty about structure and identity.  Disingenuously, it has in some circles used a lower-case “c” on “church,” as if to say, “we’re not a denomination,” all the while using the oddly fashioned term “church of Christ” in precisely the same way as the Methodists use the initials “UMC,” Baptists use the term “Baptist,” and Catholics use the pretentious label “The Church.”

Yes, Virginia, there is denominationalism within the Church of Christ.  There is no doubt about this.  Despite not having an earthly headquarters (a plus in many respects), any real system of ordination (a plus in most respects), a general conference (a plus in all respects), etc., “we” are a Yellow-pages-identifiable religious group that has a name.  That makes us a denomination, period.

Leroy Garrett tells of the early concerns with naming in the Restoration Movement:

Once the Stone and Campbell movements united and became one church, a story I shall be relating, they settled the name issue by calling themselves by both names, Christians and Disciples, and their congregations were variously known as Disciples of Christ, Christian Churches, and Churches of Christ. It was unusual — a church with three names! The cruel irony is that once this unity movement betrayed its own heritage and divided into three churches, a sad story that I will also relate, each of the churches ended up wearing one of the three names, and for the most part only that name.

I still heartily reject “Methodist,” “Catholic,” “Baptist,” “Lutheran,” etc., as having anything to do with anything eternally significant (although they are in some contexts valid, helpful descriptors).  In the last case:  I find it patently irreverent to name with a human’s name a group that purports to claim allegiance to Jesus as Messiah, so “Lutheran” and “Wesleyan” and “Swedenborgian” are right out.  The epithet “Methodist” speaks of a way of Christian living, and as many believe to have been the case with the first use of the term “Christian,” it was originally derogatory.  “Baptist” is much more biblically based but also belies a sectarian, human philosophy or set of practices.  “Catholic” is, etymologically speaking, less provincial than all the rest in this paragraph, but that label, of course, carries with it centuries of apostasy, strongly suggests the Roman hierarchy, and gathers with it whole nationalities, ethnicities, perversities of both living and doctrine, not to mention weird habits like Bingo nights.  A trunk full of junk like this represents major baggage that no one should carry.  Better never to use the common adjective “catholic” without clearly explaining it as meaning “universal.”

I perpetually find myself with mouth agape when I see evidence that human allegiance can still be paid to these human labels, or to any like them.  Although denominational loyalties seem far weaker than they were years ago, they are still with us.  People consider themselves “Methodists” and “Episcopals” and “Assembly of God” more than “Christians.”  Not being one for mob mentalities, I don’t get it.

But again:  what is it to be Christian?  I grew up thinking it meant “Christ-like.”  I don’t think that’s as helpful a definition anymore, though.  In the sermon referred to above, I defined “Christian” as I would define “Bostonian”:  the suffix “-ian” designates one who is of something, possessed by something, belongs to something.  A Bostonian is of Boston and in some sense belongs to Boston.  A Christian, likewise, is of Christ, possessed by Christ.

The definition of “Christian” is infinitely more important than affiliation with any denominated subgroup within Christendom.

Next:  ecumenism

Ekklesia values 5a (nondenominational, nonsectarian)

To return to the original church “value”: my church is not sectarian and is not part of a denomination or franchise. I will often criticize denominational trappings, but I do not condemn the people within the denominations simply for being named. What I oppose on a larger scale is divisive sectarianism, and for myself, I would much prefer to be part of a group that didn’t even come close to using a title—ANY title—even the name or title of Jesus Christ—divisively.

Further, on the matter of affiliation . . . for a local congregation to be affiliated with a denomination is for me problematic–not absolutely necessarily so, but so frequently so that I am compelled to comment. The affiliation with a broader network can so readily compromise commitment to biblical truth, to authenticity of local mission, and to personal conviction that it must be challenged. Those who are naturally phlegmatic and/or submissive may be able to sit in the pews passively, disagreeing but not caring to make a fuss. Those of us with other temperaments and biblically based convictions cannot always sit idly by when affiliation leads to compromise. I care so much less about what the organization says than about what the Bible says, and, secondarily, what my conscience leads me to. My church, in the ideal, will not be affiliated to the degree that scruples and biblically based consciences will be threatened. My church will not be sectarian.

However, my ideal church will not intentionally wear blinders. It will be aware of its own set of backgrounds, seeking to be informed about the impact of various tenets and practices of the past on the present. And my church will—because I’m involved with it, if for no other reason, be particularly informed by the strengths and weaknesses, ideals and objectives of the American Restoration movement led by, among others, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.

I close with words of David Lipscomb (courtesy of Bobby Valentine’s Stoned-Campbell Disciple blog), first on fellowship and withdrawal of it for doctrinal reasons:

So long as a man really desires to do right, to serve the Lord, to obey His commands, we cannot withdraw from him. We are willing to accept him as a brother, no matter how ignorant he may be, or how far short of the perfect standard his life may fall from his ignorance…We will maintain the truth, press the truth upon him, compromise not one word or iota of that truth, yet forbear with the ignorance, the weakness of our brother who is anxious, but not yet able to see the truth …Why should I not, when I fall so far short of perfect knowledge myself? How do I know that the line beyond which ignorance damns, is behind me, not before me? If I have no forbearance with his ignorance, how can I expect God to forbear with mine? …So long then as a man exhibits a teachable disposition, is willing to hear, to learn and obey the truth of God, I care not how far he may be, how ignorant he is, I am willing to recognize him as a brother. (David Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, April 22, 1875).

Again from Lipscomb, on the difference between seeking truth and being a party-spirit Christian or sectarian:

A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party opposes. This partisan takes it for granted that everything his party holds is right, and everything the other party holds to be wrong and is to be opposed. Hence the party line defines his faith and teaching. He sees no good in the other party. He sees no wrong in his own party . . . A truth lover and seeker always looks into whatever party he comes in contact with, and will first look to see what truth the party holds … The love of truth is a spirit of kindness and love toward all, even to the holder of error. He loves the holder of truth because he receives truth and strength from him, (David Lipscomb, “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker,” Gospel Advocate. June 27, 1907, p. 409.)

Next (sometime this week): leadership and hierarchy

Ekklesia values 5 (nondenominational, nonsectarian)

In the context of the church sign a couple of weeks ago, Sarah commented on the passage in 1 Cor. 1:

Paul chastises the believers in Corinth for following evangelists of different name and using their names to cause divisions in the church.

It’s alarmingly amusing, or ironically distressing, or something, that I once found myself in a hotbed of disunity and trouble because I pointed out the same thing in 1 Corinthians. Here’s the setting. . . .

After I returned as an adult to the church of my youth, it seemed to me that things were going pretty well. We were moving in ways of worship, the mission team was functioning with heart, the newer elders were shepherding, our fairly new preacher was going in-depth with Pauline passages, we were having reasonably good Bible studies, good times of togetherness, good plans, etc. And then I was asked to fill in as preacher on a Sunday night. I spoke on the church universal and the denominationalism within us. This suggestion, in Church of Christ setting, was tantamount to an act of terrorism.

I exaggerate, of course. And I do regret saying a few things the way I said them–needlessly provocatively. But quite a few people were visibly upset at the very suggestion that we could be using the name/title of Christ divisively. Yet in fact that can be, and often is, precisely the situation. It is the height of hypocrisy to do something covertly — with a huge tapestry of wool over the collective eye — that we accuse everyone else of doing to the detriment of Jesus and His cause. The name “Church of Christ” is no different from the name “Jehovah’s Witness” or “Methodist” or “Roman Catholic” if it is employed in the same way. And something along these lines was even happening in the 1st century, or Paul wouldn’t have warned against being divisive with Jesus’ name.

God’s church is

==> Nonsectarian and non-franchise

  • Affiliated with no denomination, yet not isolated from the larger Christian community
  • Aware of, and informed by, history and tradition
    • focused on the 1st century
    • particularly attentive to the frontier American Restoration Movement (a/k/a Stone-Campbell Movement)
    • conversant with the strengths, foibles, and idiosyncrasies of diverse religious traditions

At a peak in my campaign for nonsectarian Christianity, even I passed on a bumper sticker that proclaimed the driver a “Generic Christian.” That seemed a little chincy to me. But Christianity in its purest form is not attached to marketable “brand” or to the ownership and control of a franchise that’s attached to a larger organization.

It may be helpful here to offer a brief treatment of terms and concepts.

To denominate = to name; denomination = named thing or group (not necessarily a bad thing)

The general progression from movement to sect to denomination is fairly well documented. In a movement, at least a few aspects are likely purposeful, germinal. But given human nature, this will likely change over time. A developing sect is presumed to be countercultural, to some degree; this is a progression from “purposeful and germinal”–the tenets become more locked-in, more rabidly held, and it becomes an us-them mentality. But later … a denomination, which has much less excited sense of purpose, is a crystallization of a sect or movement.

These are of course insufficiently simplistic descriptions, but they give some linguistic context to my belief that a denomination is not in itself in the wrong for being denominated. The mere use of a word to name or identify is not necessarily divisive.

To be part of a movement is to be passionate, to be incendiary, to be progressive. To be part of a sect may be ill-advised, because the sect’s counterculturalism may be either cultish or off-putting. But “secting” may also be exactly what we’re supposed to do—“in the world but not of the world,” or, if you prefer, not “conformed to the world.” The problem is when “sectarian” becomes divisive. As I hear the word “divisive,” in no case should a Christian be in that camp. A divisive person causes division. This divisiveness differs from merely being separate from the world; to be divisive is to create sharp lines of fellowship within the body of Christ … to divide those that Jesus died for … those who accept Him on some level.

I’ll be quick to point out that practical divisions are a necessity for those who have standards. I have walked out of churches, and will do so again, because they believe and practice things I find to run counter to the scriptures. But I must leave the theological, eschatological (ultimate, final) dividing lines to God alone. I may not be able to worship or study with this group or that, but it is not mine to assign them to hell.  Further, it is not necessarily divisive to decide to split, or merely to be elsewhere on Sundays. These are natural outgrowths of convictions and study. One may be sincerely convicted that he cannot conscientiously be in this or that group of Christ-followers on Sundays, without having a divisive, contentious spirit.

(To be concluded)

In the community of faith

A few weeks ago, I questioned the idea that scripture is safely interpreted “in the community of faith.” This popular position had been verbalized, among other places, in the United Methodist Church’s official statement on the inspiration of scripture.

While I didn’t intend to suggest that a sincere heart interpreting alone will always be “righter” than a sincere group of Christians, I did intend to suggest that the mere existence of a “community of faith” in no way guarantees correct interpretations. This principle extends far and wide—well past the borders of my own fellowship, but certainly including it, so I’ll say it again: a denomination or congregation (or “fellowship of churches”) is fairly likely to be off-base on this or that. The community of faith is a spiritual necessity, but neither its presence nor its proximity ensures right doctrine.

A relatively minor example of what I consider an errant “community of faith” decision or teaching is what I’ve come, not so affectionately, to recall as “the sign debacle.” Several years ago, when I was a good deal more whippersnapperish, my church in DE was about to build a new sign for passers-by to see. After months of hint-dropping and conversations with the elders and others, I believed I had a really fine consensus for constructing and installing some kind of changeable sign.

The sign I had in roughly mind would have been classy — not neon or cheap-looking. It would have provided opportunities for great advertising, and even some teaching, as it were: a sign that said “God’s Church” on Monday and “The Cedars Family of Jesus meets here” on Friday might have made some Rt. 41 drivers think. Again, I believe all the primary leaders — shepherds/elders of the church — were in agreement with my idea, in principle and in most specifics.

But then a few others in the congregation got wind of the idea. And the narrow sectarians (whoa! I’m only catching my egregious labeling on final proofing, but I’ll leave it in as exhibit A) took over. The church was then effectively being led by a few naysayers and not by the leaders. This sign could have even had our fellowship’s well-known title still on it somewhere, for all I cared. As long as the opportunity existed to show that a scriptures-based Christian church was not to be pigeonholed by one exclusive name, we were doing something productive in the arena of nondenominational discipleship and witness to the surrounding community. I was motivated by principles of non-sectarian, unifying Christianity, and I still believe I was on the right path.

The new sign ended up looking nice. “Real nice, Clark,” in the words of Eddie from the “Christmas Vacation” movie. But it said essentially the same thing as the previous sign had said for 25 years, and we went nowhere as a church. This kind of thing, I suspect, happens a lot in churches. And it’s just one reason that congregational consensus, a/k/a “interpretation by the community of faith,” is not always to be trusted.

For a bit more on sign-ifying and the church, see here.

More on denominating and capitalizing

Thanks so much to Bobby Ross, Managing Editor of the Christian Chronicle, for chiming in and correcting me on his newspaper’s policy when I referred to it the other day. This led me to search some more archives. . . .

I once wrote to the editor of Newsweek to complain about what I considered careless (or at least unthinking) capitalization. The problem there was not calling a church the “Main St. church of Christ,” which most non-CofCers (and some within the fold) would find silly and errant. In this case, the issue was a reference to the Catholic Church.

To the Editor:

In my religious affiliation, some have difficulty perceiving the difference between the universal (Christian) church and a particular subdivision/sect. It has been common to use a lower-case “c” in the word “church” when referring to our subgroup, which is clearly a proper-name, Yellow-Pages-identifiable institution.

If your 2/28/05 article “Precious Suffering” had capitalized “church” in referring to that entity ruled by the Pope, it would have reduced the possibility of offense to all those millions who see the Catholic
institution and hierarchy as a presumably sincere, yet decidedly misdirected, branch of Christendom. The Catholic Church is not equivalent to the church for many readers; it would seem appropriate to identify the former as a proper-name institution–which, last time I checked the rules, means a capital letter is indicated.

Thank you, though, for the 3/7 sequel on the Pope–which more aptly attributed verbal expressions of religious position and scruple to this world leader rather than presuming that all the readership subscribes to the notions of the Catholic order.

What do you think about this capitalization stuff?  I’d rather not just be expend too much energy on something merely about big/little letters.  Thing is, though, I think this really does indicate substantive assumption under the surface of people’s thought.