My formal service in the Christian community began during my first year in college. It included preaching, evangelistic outreach, and ministry to boys at risk on the streets of Philadelphia, Pa. In the intervening 44 years, I made an extensive study and assessment of young men engaged in turf wars in urban areas, the causes of civil strife, and most especially, the nature of conflict in the church. The following article, dedicated primarily to the Protestant sector of the church, summarizes some of my findings.
Individuals and groups of people acquire a core operational identity that is formed out of a variety of factors such as history, culture, ideology, experience, and personal characteristics. While conscious choice has a role in ultimately defining identity, most of it is absorbed long before we develop a critical awareness of who we are. For example, all Western Protestants are indelibly stamped with attitudes arising out of the Renaissance and the Reformation. Authority is couched firmly within an individual’s perceptions and sensibilities, or, at most, within a particular constituency friendly to the individual. The crowns of potentates and the tiaras of popes were stolen and placed on the heads of the people, who dutifully consult their own feelings, inclinations, or conclusions before consulting any external authority such as Scripture, confessions or tradition.
Reason is immaterial in this process since it is almost always used to justify prior assumptions arising from identity.
Relocation of authority is accompanied by a pervasive mistrust of structure of any kind, unless it perfectly mirrors images produced by identity. If not, Protestants will refine, reshape, reform their frequently ephemeral institutions and forms of government. Thus, their past and present is rife with movements ready to shift to a more “faithful” form or a more “enlightened” position.
The readiness to shift is energized by a restlessness often defended as “freedom of conscience,” initiated by the Reformation. Any matter of theology, worship, practice, or polity that appears to be flawed must be changed according to the vision of the constituency that identified the flaw. And whether the change is a return to a more traditional stance or a progressive adaptation of Christian doctrine, it must be accepted on the basis of the constituency’s own inherent authority to propose and proclaim it.
Furthermore, proclamation is accompanied by a missional impulse to convince fellow Christians of their mistaken ways and lead them into repentance and conversion. The biblical, apostolic mandate to preach the Gospel has added to it any addendum a constituency wants to represent as its own gospel.
Thus, Western Protestants are both one and many. Technically, they are united, for the most part, around the essential tenets of Christian faith. Yet, imbedded in their identity are the traits mentioned above, as well as others, which guarantee a plethora of sub-identities that compete with each other and often clash over differences in doctrine and practice.
Identity organizes the various elements in an individual or group into an intentional focus that defines boundaries, purpose, and meaning. Actions designed to match meaning — to carry out purpose — are the result. Whether we are Islamic terrorists or a sub-identity of Western Protestantism, we will try to act in accord with the intentionality of our identity.
Anything that seems to intrude into our identity, or the intentional purpose produced by it, will generate fear, and fear is the fuel that feeds the fires of conflict. Fear gives birth to anxiety, anger, rage, and hatred. If you want war, instill fear. Intimidate people. Threaten their land, their relationships, their culture, their faith, their well being in some way, whether you intend to or not, and you will have a fight on your hands.
A key consideration here is the level of fear reaction. In the science of physics we are taught that every action generates an equal and opposite reaction. Not so in the world of human relationships.
With respect to the fear of invasion, we are similar to the fire ants that occupy parts of the lawn around our home in Batesburg, S.C. Just barely touch the top of a fire ant mound and they will swarm out, inflicting a stern reminder of boundaries not to be violated. My observations suggest that fear of invasion, founded or unfounded, relates to the event that caused it, one to the tenth power.
For a number of reasons connected to the development of sub-identities within Protestantism, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which I have served since 1970, finds itself mired in fear. Two principal groups within this denomination are threatened by each other’s identity and intentional focus. From this has come the establishment of numerous special interest organizations, most notably the Covenant Network of Presbyterians representing progressives and the Presbyterian Coalition supporting conservative voices in the church.
At a Coalition meeting in August 2006, I spoke with Pam Byers, executive director of the Covenant Network, about the near panic I had seen in some who attended a Covenant Network event a few months earlier. She accurately pointed out that she was seeing the same panic at the Coalition gathering.
Identities at odds have provoked the fear that leads to the following qualities and actions prevalent in the PC(USA):
Isolation: Over the decades, as clearly different identities developed in the PC(USA), isolation between the groups was tolerated, even encouraged to avoid confrontation. This policy resulted in faith dialects quite unlike each other. If someone attends both More Light and a New Wineskins worship services, they will find language, music, prayers, and theological approaches unique to each of them, creating distance and misunderstanding between the two groups. Isolation tends to perpetuate itself and is difficult to overcome.
Insulation: Isolation becomes insulation when we seek the comfort of those who are like-minded rather than risk discomfort in the midst of those who disagree sharply with us. Avoidance escalates until, like a thermal blanket thrown round a hot water heater, we are wrapped in a self-sustaining cocoon protecting our special warmth.
In Houston recently, the Coalition gathered to reflect on a number of issues. Over lunch, I commented on the need to engage our progressive sisters and brothers. A young man on the other side of the table snapped, “They are not our sisters and brothers!” For at least one person at that gathering, the insulating cover is firmly in place.
Ignorance: Our Isolation and insulation add ignorance of those not in our ideological camp. Actually, in Presbyterian/Reformed circles, our lack of knowledge of sub-identities in our ranks extends right back to the beginning of our diverse family. Insufficient awareness of the sensitivities of those near us often has led to actions that thrust them out of fellowship and erected a lasting wall of separation. As much as we take pride in our scholarship and education, we are still woefully ignorant of the art and craft of treating each other with due regard.
Irritability: Presbyterian folk and our other Protestant cousins are a testy lot. In good times, under the best of circumstances, we can react strongly to even minor intrusions. However, during times of escalated stress the merest suggestion of boundaries crossed, of agreements breached, triggers outrage and retaliation.
A case in point is the Authoritative Interpretation passed by the 2006 General Assembly. While many believe it made no material change in constitutional ordination standards, others perceive a shift. Just the perception, still untested in ecclesiastical courts, caused a wave of concern across the denomination. We are in a very tender condition.
Impatience: For Protestants, time is always of the essence. We must not waste a moment in achieving what we think is God’s will. Combine this deeply ingrained habit with our present irritability, our fearful touchiness, and you have a guaranteed prescription for pressure to move quickly on the part of everyone involved. Why did the Episcopal Church (USA) Convention in 2003 move to consecrate Bishop Robinson, an openly active gay priest? Because progressive forces in the church could not wait for a more protracted process that the wider Anglican community was expecting. Why, shortly thereafter, did a number of conservative congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego realign themselves with dioceses outside the United States? The urgency of the hour, as they perceived it, demanded separation. With respect to due process, it matters little which action was right or wrong. Both of them happened, at least in part, because all of us have a short fuse.
Impulsiveness: We must grasp history and bend it into the shape of our identity.
Short on time (so we believe) and pushing for the Gospel (our missional intentionality), redemption of the world and reformation of the church has to be accomplished ASAP. In this respect, we are more like revolutionaries than church reformers. So, we engage in impulsive, near-sighted actions without regard to the reactions they may initiate. Like revolutionaries everywhere, we propagandize, use political action, look for weaknesses to exploit, attack opponents, claim to be the true believers, and bless all our moods and behavior as the work of the Holy Spirit. (Even atheists claim the blessing of the forces of historical cycles, the Secular Spirit.) We insult others, both by implication and directly. We intimidate people in opposing constituencies by shows of force in our assemblies. We threaten to incinerate the entire structure of the PC(USA) either by burning our bridges behind us or by putting so much heat on those we don’t like that we drive them away.
Pope Benedict recently questioned whether Protestants are true church.
Predictably, Protestants put on their individual tiaras of authority and pronounced him ridiculous. Yet, in one respect, the Pope has made an important point. Protestants have no cohesive, comprehensive ecclesiology. We view the church in instrumental terms, something we can use to attain our ends. The proof of this is our absolute devotion to causes, large and small, rather than the Communion of Saints. Our identity, our missional intentionality, shape the church, not the other way around.
Progressive and conservative elements are the left and right eyes of the church. Either we learn to bring those eyes into balanced, complementary vision, producing genuine depth perception in our part of Christ’s body, or the “I’s” will have what is left of it.
William Paul Tarbell is pastor of Saluda Church in Saluda, S.C.