Unity, diversity, foundations and coercion – in the church

Posted: February 19, 2012 by J in Church, Church history, Theology

(continuing from the last post…)

What’s the foundation that unifies churches in the evangelical movement?

I want to try telling a bit of our story to give some context, and help figure out an answer. For the first 1000 years or so, the Church was unified by a few things. One was the great ecumenical creeds, the apostles creed, for example. In other words, theology. Another was tradition. The church had roots in history going back to the time of the apostles. If the tree was large, and the branches spread wide, it could still look back to the trunk and roots which it had all sprung from. A third unifying factor was Christendom – the idea of a Christian Empire, a manifestation (in some sense) of the kingdom of God in this world. These three formed a powerful unifying  force, defining, locating and unifying the church in time, space and belief.

That unity started to crack in the 11th century, when the East and West split and adopted different versions of the Nicene Creed. Geography and theology were both still unifying forces for each of the (divided) communities, but tradition had now been found an inadequate basis for unity. A shared tradition was not enough to keep the 2 churches together.

By the 12th century, things were looking bad for the Western church – it launched the Inquisition. This brought coercion to the fore in the life of the church. The Inquisition was aimed at heretics. Theology was looking like a shaky basis for unity. It hadn’t been able to keep East and West together, now it didn’t seem to have the gravitational pull to keep the Western church intact. Insecurities took over and lead to oppression and torture.

By the sixteenth century, these suspicions were confirmed: the church exploded catastrophically into violence and bloodshed at the ‘Reformation’. The theology of the ecumenical creeds was not able to preserve unity, even when agreed on by all parties. The story of the gospel and the core doctrine of the Trinity seemed to be an inadequate basis for unity in the church. More abstract doctrines, such as justification by faith, transubstantiation and the sovereignty of God, seemed able to exert a much more powerful fragmenting force than the unifying influence of the ecumenical creeds could counter. It seemed that faith in the God who had sent Jesus to redeem by the power of the Spirit, was not adequate to hold the christian community together. Geography, too, was looking shaky as a foundation for unity: Catholics and Protestants lived in the same country, and the result was frequently war.

And of course these division-creating doctrines (or ‘distinctives’) then became basic to the identity and (ironically) the unity of the newly formed sects. Protestant? Justification by faith. Catholic? Transubstantiation. And so on. Where in the past the church had united around a shared creed of central beliefs, from the Reformation onwards churches (and especially protestant churches) united and identified themselves through distinctives.

The Enlightenment saw the breakdown of the idea of God’s kingdom in this world, and the concept of  Christendom began to haemorrhage. As both Protestant and Catholic churches spread beyond Europe to other continents, geography became irrelevant for the church’s identity. By this stage, tradition, theology and geography had all ceased to play the unifying role they once had in the world-wide Christian church.

In the c.19th, the rise of Liberal christianity and higher criticism of the Bible raised new challenges to unity. For now there were Protestants who believed many of the key doctrines, but held them in a different way, as expressions of human faith, rather than divinely revealed truth. And the most obvious mark of this movement was its different attitude to the Scriptures: the Bible was now just a human record of religious experience.

Those holding a traditional, revelation-based faith sensed that the church’s core identity was under attack, and re-formed themselves into evangelical organisations (often parachurch). But how to define these groups? The particular doctrines on which they disagreed with Liberal christians changed over time, since Liberals were ultimately free to believe or deny pretty much anything they wanted. At one time it might be the virgin birth, at another the resurrection of Jesus. Also, Liberal christians could believe in the resurrection, but in a different way. It seemed it was just too hard to pin them down on theology.

It seemed the only way to define and centre evangelical identity was as the opposite of Liberalism: i.e. around a high view of Scripture. This seemed to be the clear and stable point of difference with Liberal christians. From now on the evangelical movement would be defined and centred around a new foundation: its distinctive view of the book. This had the unfortunate implication that Liberalism had effectively been allowed to define evangelicalism. This kind of unity was the ‘circling-the-wagons’ kind. But circling the wagons creates a unity founded on outside threats, rather than shared internal goods or values.

The importance of this foundation for c.20th Christianity can be seen in that collection of booklets called The Fundamentals, which seek to outline essentials of orthodox Christian faith. In volume after volume, the question of Scripture recurs. It can also be seen in the truly vast number of publications about the Bible itself to come out of evangelical publishing houses through the century. Evangelicals, we say, are ‘Bible-believing Christians’.

It is worth noting that this new core idea was not a material or substantial one, it was not unity around content, so much as around form. It was not belief in the contents of Scripture that was central to evangelical identity (most of these were shared with other church traditions) so much as a certain approach to Scripture, a certain view of the book itself.

The hope was that defining evangelical identity by a particular view of Scripture would give the clarity needed to create unity. The strategy was certainly successful in creating a clear distance from Liberal Christianity. However, the ongoing controversies and instability within evangelical groups suggest that this foundation has not proved to be very robust.

Many evangelical groups have felt it necessary to define the doctrine of Scripture more or more precisely, having found a general assent to a revelatory view of the Bible inadequate to preserve unity. Terms such as infallibility, inerrancy, etc have become successive standards for evangelical movements struggling  to define themselves. Along with this has gone the habit of disciplinary and coercive practices even towards others who share a high view of Scripture, in order to preserve internal unity and deal with perceived threats from within.

Unfortunately, all of this has proved inadequate, as the issue of hermeneutics rose like floodwaters over the debate mid-century, adding a whole extra dimension of complexity to the problem. Even amongst inerrantists, disagreements about what the bible actually says can and do now fracture peaceful fellowship.

As I tell the story, it’s starting to feel like an infinite regress, a chase to find a foundation that recedes faster than we can pursue it. The doctrine of Scripture has not proved to be the strong and focussed force for unity which it was hoped to be.

But somehow that’s still where we are today. The thing’s been tried and found wanting for many decades, but I guess we might have run out of options for a unifying centre – we keep clinging to this one.

But it’s not functioning well. It may well be that our current high levels of intervention and politicking reflect a real lack of a unifying centre in our evangelical scene. It seems that allegiance to the Bible, a fairly abstract and vague idea at the best of times, is inadequate to create the cohesion that any group craves and needs. Inerrancy or whatever is just too poorly defined, it leaves too many questions unanswered (like hermeneutical ones), and above all it is a formal or procedural idea, and too light on content to provide a rich and healthy foundation for our unity. And so it leaves the church feeling vulnerable to destructive forces from within and outside.

In Gunton’s terms, our church movement looks to me like a group suffering from lack of a unifying story or idea, and resorting to the inevitable coercive practices to fill the vacuum.

And ironically, these coercive responses, though designed to create and protect unity, tend to fragment the church further, as evangelical groups divide and split from each other more-or-less endlessly. The cure is worse than the illness.

Have I got this right?

And could we evangelicals recentre and redefine ourselves around a better unifying focus?

Any suggestions?

  1. Errm, hows about, united with the world in wretched sin, united with the world as mysterious recipients of his grace, and united with Christ by his Spirit?

    • Jonathan says:

      Yes, well trouble is that’s a pretty broad basis of unity. There’s going to be a lot of people in the group on that basis. As a shared story, it’s rich, it’s well defined, it’s realistic – but it’s not going to very helpful in distinguishing US from THEM.

  2. I recently received this from one of our illustrious training bodies

    “Have you registered yet for NSW Training Day 1?
    There are only 2 weeks to go!!!!

    Churches around us are becoming more liberal and “tolerant”, and allowing sin to shape and change them. It’s more important than ever to ensure that you have a theology of church that is grounded in the Bible and to ensure you can protect the health of the holy huddle. Don’t miss out on a great day of training!”

    Hahaha, I couldn’t help but laugh. Lucky we aren’t one of those churches that is shaped and changed by sin! (yeaah riiight).
    But don’t worry ‘we’ will save the church (surprisingly not Jesus) by wielding our theology of church and our superior Bible knowledge.

    I don’t know what went down on the day, so I can’t comment, but the invitation sounds like some wagon circling to me.

  3. Ben Hudson says:

    That’s the first time I’ve heard the term ‘holy huddle’ used non-pejoratively.

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