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.

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