The end of denominationalism

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul harks back to an earlier conflict in a congregation in Antioch. Members new to the community did not agree with the practice of Jewish and gentile Christians eating together, as this went against the ordinances they had practiced since their youth. The disagreement grew into a conflict, and over time the conflict mushroomed. The co-pastors of the congregation started to take different sides. Higher judicatories got involved. Finally, the opponents of the congregation’s meal practices convinced Peter, one of the leaders of the wider church, to set up services elsewhere.   If Antioch were located in 21st century America, we could predict how things would unfold. Denominational conflicts can be managed for a long time, but denominational unity is rooted in some agreed upon common theological and liturgical vision. Therefore, if things were not resolved at some point, Antioch would give birth to a new denomination. The split would at first be painful, of course. But as years passed, everyone would agree it had been for the better. People flourish with institutional clarity. And even if they split, they can still appreciate one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. After all, that has to do with spiritual unity, not with having an institutional common life.

And, in fact, that is how Peter, the hesitant leader of the dissenter group in Antioch, seems to have thought. However, as Reformed theologian Peter J. Leithart rightly points out in his latest book “The End of Protestantism,” Paul does not let Peter get away with swapping table fellowship for spiritual unity; Paul demands a real, visible, common life, and connects this with what Protestants have usually seen as a central element of Paul’s preaching: justification. Because we are justified together, we ought to have a common life together, Paul claims.

The writer of the Ephesians letter picks up on the same theme when he reminds his gentile audience that in Jesus Christ the temple wall that once divided gentiles and Jews has been broken down and that those who once were divided now have been united. And, says the writer tellingly, in this way “you have been saved!” (Ephesians 2:5)

Scripture, Leithart argues persuasively, tells a story “of a human race unified, divided, and then reunified.” It tells a story of humanity created as one but divided by sin, and of a God who salvifically intervenes in our divisions and brokenness by gathering the scattered fragments of humanity, starting with Israel and from them reaching out to the gentiles, and forging them into a new humanity, a new household of God. In this way sin is healed and the powers of division are overcome. The church is the place where this gathering work becomes visible. As a visible community of people from different walks of life, of different races, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds, brought together into a new common life, the church is the “social manifestation of the gospel of Jesus … [and] unless the gospel comes into social reality as the church, there is no salvation and we are still in our sins.”

And this is why denominationalism is so damaging. Denominationalism allows us to build a church life as if the church were a voluntary organization, built on the congruity of convictions and tastes of those who belong to it. Denominationalism does not gather together those who are different, but those who are like-minded. It results in a religious marketplace where believers become consumers, seeking out a congregation that fits their needs and “give without asking much.” It does “not reconcile the divided, but rather reinforces the divisions.” It offers a church life that mimics and mirrors the world’s own divisions, something Leithart powerfully illustrates by zooming in on the ways our denominational divisions align with our racial divisions. It allows us to spiritualize “salvation” to an individualized notion of personal forgiveness of my sins, rather than a being drawn into a new, visible and costly common life. It allows us to justify the divisions among the churches, divorcing “spiritual unity” from the institutional life of the church. Denominationalism is an alternative to the church that Jesus promised, where God’s people are one the way the Father and the Son are one. And that’s why denominationalism will have to die.

Challenging denominationalism from the inside out
The eschatological church will be a reunited church, living a visible common life. This is the vision set forth in Scripture, Leithart argues. And if that is true, we are asked to already live into this salvation offered to us in Christ. Leithart offers us both a vision of the post-denominational life of the people of God and a program on how to live into what church will be. As far as the latter goes, Leithart seeks to avoid repeating the failed attempts to create an institutional unity that has no traction with people in the pew, and also steps away from the much more popular model of ecumenical cooperation that may support a common cause but does little to challenge our denominational divisions. Instead, Leithart opts for, in my words, practices of common life – practices that establish patterns of living that challenge denominational identities and divisions from the inside out. I am not sure Leithart presents these alternative practices as concretely and with as much detail as he could have, but here are some examples of what is embedded in Leithart’s train of thought.

First, church membership. We all regularly receive as church members people who previously belonged to another congregation. Quite a few of them will move from one congregation to another because they think the new congregation better fits their needs, or because conflicts arose with people in their old congregation, or simply because they think the choir sings better or the preacher speaks more to them. In a religious marketplace model, that’s all fine. But not with Leithart’s model. What if instead of adding these people to our rolls, we provide them with hospitality – but only in preparation of returning to the church family where they already belonged? What if our care for them would not be the easy move of adding them to our numbers, but the much more difficult work of offering to work with them and their old congregation to work through any conflict they made have had? Or, if the old congregation is lacking some gifts that we have in surplus, what if we offered to share from what we have and so express that we are not competitors, but really called to be one?

Second, prayer. Leithart lifts up common prayer as a central element in overcoming our denominational differences. I think he’s after something more subversive than simply praying “that all may be one.” For those who prepare weekly worship bulletins, what if every Friday you called the office of the church down the street, whatever denomination they belong to, and asked if you could print the names of their prayer list in your bulletin and pray for them, because you consider these people to be as much your brothers and sisters as the people of your own congregation? And what if you would tell them this is not a one-time deal, but that next week you will call again? What would such concrete, focused prayer do to our denominational self-understanding?

Third, pastoral leadership. The majority of our Presbyterian congregations is small, as is true for many other denominations. The result is that the streets of many neighborhoods and towns are lined with small churches, all struggling to support their own ministries. Then, when a pastoral vacancy occurs and the denomination concludes a congregation no longer can support a pastor by themselves, the congregation will be stimulated to yoke with a congregation of the same denomination in an adjacent town or neighborhood. The new pastor now drives around from town to town, always on the road, never quite settled. What if we were to do this differently? What if the next time a vacancy occurs, the congregation or denomination connects with a church down the road – even if from a different denomination? Maybe these two churches can call a pastor together – and now the pastor can settle in her own town, and the two congregations can start thinking about themselves not so much as expressions of this or that denominational identity, but as two expressions of the very same Christian community present in their town. The full communion arrangements between many mainline denominations already allow for this kind of thing, and for the pastor it would be a meaningful expression of something embedded in our Presbyterian ordination service, according to which we are not ordained as ministers simply within the PC(USA), but within “the Church of Jesus Christ.”

The end of Protestantism
If these kind of practices start to shape our church life, Leithart argues, we see “the end of Protestantism.” I believe this could be better called “the end of denominationalism.” Leithart focuses his argument on his fellow Protestants, arguing that as we live into the reunited church our common identity will no longer be shaped by being Presbyterian, Lutheran or Methodist, but we will be catholic, members of the universal church, and Protestantism, as such, will be over. But, as Leithart also rightly points out, the same holds for Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. In the divided ecclesial world in which we live, the identities of these church families are as much defined by their differences from one another and from other parts of the church as is the case in Protestantism. In other words, they too live like denominations, communities shaped by theological, historical and cultural identity markers rather than as communities embodying the eschatological gathering work of Jesus Christ. In the reunited church, Protestantism will no longer exist, but neither will Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. We all will be catholic.

The PC(USA) post-schism
It strikes me that Leithart wrote an extraordinary timely book, exactly because it is so unfashionable. Surely, sociologists tell us that denominations are dying, but not because denominationalism itself is on its last legs. Existing denominations are crumbling due to internal conflicts and aging memberships that can no longer support the denominations’ organizational structures. But new groupings that emerge are still governed by denominational principles, in that they desire visible unity and a common life that is a product of identifying with one another theologically or culturally. But what Leithart wants to show us is that in doing so we miss out on the heart of the gospel: to be reunited with those with whom we are estranged.

As a church, our own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) finds itself at a critical juncture. In the last 10 years or so we ourselves experienced the frustration and pain of endless debates and church conflict resulting in schism. As a result, we are now more homogeneous then we were ever before. And even while at the time that the conflicts were raging many of us called for unity and the importance of sticking together, now that the split has taken place I also regularly hear quietly from pastors and presbytery executives that there is something nice about the discussions having come to an end and the troubling voices having disappeared. Psychologically, that is completely understandable. But at the same time, it is the seduction of denominationalism, of wanting our church life be organized along the lines of our agreements and comfort rather than being governed by the gathering work of Jesus Christ who calls together that what is scattered.

Therefore, I believe, that at this point where multiple taskforces are working to provide our church with a new vision for its identity and organizational structure, we do well to heed Leithart’s voice, and use this moment to ask ourselves: Do we want to continue being a denomination? Or do we want to truly become a church? What would that look like for the way we organize ourselves, and the way we situate ourselves vis-à-vis other Christian communities? Are we aiming to protect ourselves, our heritage, our identity – or are we seeking to sense the salvation that becomes tangible in the gathering work of the Lord? Jesus’ words are quite telling – “Those who try to preserve their lives will lose it, but those who lose it, will preserve it” (Luke 17:33).

Edwin Chr. van Driel is a minister of Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA) and the Directors’ Bicentennial Associate Professor of Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.