Within North American culture, social conservatives and liberals hold
conflicting views about many topics with a
religious, moral or ethical component. Perhaps the currently most divisive are
debates over equal rights for
homosexuals, and bisexuals and
abortion access. These differences between conservatives and liberals
are naturally reflected within
Christian denominations. Many Christians now hold diverse beliefs about
the nature of sexual orientation, the role of women, and other topics.
Some hold traditional gender and theological views; others have adapted their theology to
accommodate findings of human sexuality and biblical criticism. Many
members want to remain in the denomination in which they were raised. The
result is that liberals and conservatives within many denominations have
different visions of the future for their faith group. The result is often
intense conflict and even potential schism.
Other theologians and commentators divide Christianity into three wings: conservative, mainline and
Among the conservative wing, there is general unanimity of
belief on the above-mentioned topics. Probably in excess of 90% of the
membership oppose the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy for
economic reasons. Homosexual behavior is generally despised as profoundly sinful,
and is believed to be hated by God. Conflict tends to be more often over
numerous fine points of theology, like:
Under what conditions -- if any -- should a Christian couple be allowed to
divorce and remarry, or
Whether a person who does not speak in
tongues has been truly saved.
Among the liberal wing, there is a wide range of individual
beliefs about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe. But these
denominations are accustomed to such differences of opinion among their
membership. They handle
them in stride.
Within mainline denominations, particularly among
Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist faith groups, many
intense conflicts are emerging. Such discord is inevitable. The denominations are finding
themselves increasingly divided between liberal and conservative
factions, each of which has a different vision for the future.
Clergy - laity conflict in beliefs:
Another level of serious conflict occurs
between the clergy and laity of some mainline a few liberal denominations. Generally speaking,
many church members have been brought up to
believe in heaven and in the literal truth of Jesus' virgin birth,
divinity and resurrection. Some believe in the inerrancy of the Bible,
and other historical beliefs. However, most clergy have attended
theological colleges and many have developed personal beliefs that reflect current
Biblical scholarship. They reject many of the traditional doctrines of the church. This
produces a conflict among clergy, between their need to preach the truth as they see it,
and their need to support the basic beliefs of their denomination,
and avoid controversy.
can be the unity of the congregation and denomination. There is no simple solution to this
problem. Most conservative congregations do not experience this problem. Belief among the
laity and clergy is much more homogeneous. Very liberal denominations welcome
and value diversity of opinion; differences in belief are not threatening to
Examples of intra-denominational conflict:
Starting in 1996, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has experienced major conflicts over gay
/ lesbian ordinations and union ceremonies. Membership votes
major split: The northern presbyteries on the East and West coast voted solidly in favor
of homosexual inclusive policies; the Southern Presbyteries voted solidly against; the
Midwest is split.
The Episcopal Church is currently undergoing a major strain. The Episcopal Synod of
America (ESA), a renewal group representing conservative elements within the denomination are
in effect creating a parallel Episcopal Church within
the United States. They were motivated primarily over sexual matters: the ordination of
women, and the gradual shift within the original Episcopal Church towards the ordination
of gays and lesbians.
The Roman Catholic Church is not normally considered a mainline
denomination, and is certainly not Protestant. But its experience is similar
to mainline Protestant denominations. Is is going through a period of considerable internal dissention:
The Roman Catholic Church forms the largest single Christian
denomination in North America. Their dissention is largely related to sexual matters: female
ordination, married clergy, birth control, abortion, pre-marital sex, etc.
Here the split is largely between the People of God (the general church membership)
and Vatican policy.
How denominations handled past internal conflicts:
There have been a few topics that have seriously divided mainline denominations
in the past. Perhaps the four most important were frictions between:
Those who believed that the owning of slaves was permitted on theological
grounds, and wanted the institution of slavery to be continued, vs. the abolitionists.
Those who believed that the Bible prohibits female ordination,
who wanted the clergy to be open to all competent heterosexuals who feel a call
to the ministry -- both men and women.
Whether the Bible should be interpreted as the
inerrant Word of God, or as a historical
document subject to critical analysis.
Those who believed that God favored segregation on the basis of
race, and those who favored racial integration.
History has shown that mainline denominations have been able to accommodate
internal division over long periods of time. However, conflict can become
so serious and prolonged that a schism was the only way to resolve the
debate. Schism is now being actively discussed in some mainline denominations,
mainly concerning the role of gays and lesbians within the denomination.
This series of essays in this section will deal mainly with internal
conservative-liberal conflicts within mainline denominations.