FUTURE TRENDS FACED BY U.S. PROTESTANTS
The following essay was published by Newsroom on 2000-NOV-7 as: "U.S. Protestants face change amid internal rivalries."
Internal conflicts over gay and women's rights:
Though the 20th century saw
major ecumenical advances, issues such as homosexuality and the
role of women in leadership have polarized America's Protestant
denominations. In the view of some, those churches have become
so splintered that they act as separate bodies that have only a
name in common.
The country's mainline denominations, including the United
Methodist, Episcopal, and Presbyterian U.S.A. churches, largely
have reached consensus about female leadership but are waging a
full-scale battle over homosexuality. The Southern Baptist
Convention (SBC), which is considered more theologically
conservative than mainline churches, continues to face
defections over declarations the convention has made regarding a
woman's place in the home and pulpit. On 2000-OCT- 30, Texas
Baptists voted to withhold $5 million from key SBC ministries
due to disagreement over pronouncements by the national body.
What implications do these seemingly intractable battles have
for the future of denominations? Do these apparent erosions of
denominational integrity, along with the rise of independent
churches, indicate we are moving into a post-denominational era?
Newsroom spoke with a number of observers of the American
religious scene who agree that while denominations face
tumultuous times that demand changes, they are not on their
Denominational mergers, not splits:
Today's situation needs historical perspective, says James E.
Bradley, a church historian at Fuller Seminary in California.
"Actually, I think you could make a case for the 20th
century as the century of ecumenical mergers rather than
splits," he said. Recently, for example, Episcopalians
formed an agreement with Lutherans, and Lutherans have come to
some agreements with the Roman Catholic Church, from which they
parted five centuries ago.
Tame, compared to slavery debate:
"Historically I would say that in the long run what is
going on right now looks pretty tame compared to the period
before the Civil War when mainline Protestant denominations
split into northern and southern branches," said Catherine
Brekus, a professor of church history at the University of
Chicago Divinity School. Divided by how to interpret what the
Bible says about slavery, the Presbyterians split in 1838,
Methodists in 1844, and the Baptists in 1845. "It was an
eerie precursor of what was about to happen," she said,
referring to the impending war between the states.
Bradley points out that the 19th century also witnessed
splits over revivalism and over major doctrinal disputes such as
the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. In the early 20th century, fundamentalists who advocated interpreting
Scripture more literally parted ways with so-called modernists.
Later a more moderate strain broke from fundamentalists, known
as the evangelical movement. Though evangelicals largely have
been identified according to specific denominations or
movements, many people within the mainline churches who are now
fighting to maintain traditional doctrine consider themselves
Cultural cohesion eroding:
One reason for the division in today's American Protestant
churches is that the cultural cohesion that once held
denominations together is eroding, says Nancy Ammerman,
professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary in
Connecticut. "With people moving around in increasing
numbers, marrying across denominational lines, and encountering
different people, the old taken-for-granted denominational
identity simply doesn't hold in the same way it did a generation ago," she said. "Amid that cultural shift,
denominations are reworking the way they hold together, and
people tend to get very explicit about their ideas or beliefs.
When things are settled people don't tend to worry so much about
whether the person in the next church over believes the same way
Power shift; defining boundaries:
Theologian and sociologist of religion Martin Marty notes a
power shift in which mainline churches led by white European
males are no longer the cultural and spiritual leaders that they
were 50 years ago. "Today women have their own agenda;
African Americans, Hispanic Americans -- everybody has a
different theme," said Marty, the founder of a religious
research center at the University of Chicago. "The mainline
used to be chaplain to the establishment, and there is no longer
a role for that, so they are busy scrambling around to find out
what they are about."
Ammerman believes that the cultural and ethnic identities
that have united the church are giving way to a cohesion based
on mission or function. "That is a more fragile way of
holding people together," she said. "It is subject to
renegotiation in ways that the other is not."
Marty believes that the mainstream churches' effort to find a
common purpose has resulted in a shift in the doctrinal
battleground. "Once upon a time the separate denominations
existed to define doctrine and practice over against other
denominations, so that, in effect, Baptists existed to fight
Methodists, which existed to fight Catholics," he said.
"When that function changed, it meant that what I used to
call the internal politics of denominations -- you win some, you
lose some -- has come to be a military model; you win some and
you kick everybody else out."
Marty contends that the Southern Baptist boycott on Disney
and pronouncements about women really are about defining
boundaries more than about the issues themselves. "In a
world of relativism and erosion you want to say who is in and
who is out."
Unity vs. love:
Modern communication, while a tool for unity, also has helped
fuel the fire of division and sharpen the conflict, notes Mark
Noll, a church historian at Wheaton College in Illinois.
"It's not as though people didn't know things in the 19th
century, but I don't think they had as much instant access or
such polemical access," he said.
Bradley points out that for a Christian, unity sometimes can
be in tension with other values, as in the case of slavery in
the 19th century, when truth and justice prevailed. "The
idea that unity between denominations is the ultimate ideal is a
false notion from a Christian perspective," he said.
"Love and truth are hardly ever rightly at odds, but in
certain circumstances it seems that those two principles do
cause us to have to make hard decisions."
Another cultural change that has led to division is a lack of
respect for "centrist" leaders that causes people to
challenge leadership more freely than in the past, said William
J. "Beau" Weston, associate professor of sociology at
Centre College in Kentucky. "We've seen it since Watergate,
and the whole ideology of critical thinking and questioning
authority fomented by Baby Boomers in their youth is now coming
back to bite them," he said.
Reinventing denominations; reform movements:
Though parachurch groups can provide many of the functions of
denominations, they are not as good at accountability, Wilson
believes. Many independent church congregations find themselves
with no recourse when their local church leadership fails them.
"I think that's why denominations keep getting
reinvented," he said. "A charismatically driven
anything is just torn apart if there is conflict with the
leader, or about the leader. And that is the thing that
denominations are good for, structures of accountability and
working through those things."
Some sociologists envision a reinventing of the denomination
primarily as a provider of services to local congregations.
"I think that is precisely what they shouldn't do,"
Ammerman said. "The one thing that denominations can do
that none of the other organizations can do as well is mission,
whether benevolent work, or relief work, or evangelizing. That's
the one thing that congregations say to us they are most looking
She believes the large mainstream Protestant denominations
are not going to go away. "They are too big and
organizationally strong to simply disappear," she said.
"They are going to change and restructure themselves over
and over again. What we will see is a continuing proliferation
of organizations that both embody denominational identity and do
the work that denominations once did."
Some of those organizations are advocates for a particular
vision of what it means to be Presbyterian, for example,
Ammerman said. Within every mainline denomination are
independent groups that say they exist for the purpose of
steering their denomination back to its roots.
"Broadly speaking you could make a case that
denominations of the past have been grouped around issues of
doctrine and polity, and today the divisions seem to cut through
the denominations and are related more to contemporary social
issues," said Fuller's Bradley. "So that in itself
suggests that a rethinking of the nature of religious groupings
probably is desirable."
Groups such as the Methodist's Good News Society and the
Presbyterian Coalition share a theological bond with each other
that they do not have with others in their own denominations.
"They hold that more dearly and in higher esteem than they
do even the name of Methodist or Episcopalian," Bradley
Those groups, however, are not likely to link up and form
their own denominations, Marty says. "They may split off
from their own and start other ones, but there are just too many
instinctive boundaries -- the way you sing hymns, the way you do
things -- that they just are not going to leap over."
Chicago Seminary's Brekus points to a long strain in
Christian history of movements that seek to restore the church
of the 1st century. "The irony is that those churches that
say that they have erased history and are going back to the
beginning have their own traditions, some of which they've invented," she said.
Marty notes that while denominations may be losing their
power to individual congregations and movements, people don't
stop being denominational. "If you oppose denominations you
find that in a few years you've just formed another one,"
Bradley believes participants in the contemporary conflicts
should be reminded from history that these divisions are not new
and that "good people will differ" on certain issues.
"I think if there is one thing we should take from our
study of the past it is that it doesn't make us necessarily soft
on truth or doctrine if we agree to disagree with civility and
Marty recalls that he once presented a series of two
lectures, with one titled "Denominations: We Can't Live
With Them" and the other "Denominations: We Can't Live
"We can't live with them because they are seen as
bureaucratic, institutional, self-serving, hyper-organized, and understaffed," he said. "On the other hand they do
help us connect with the larger body of Christians; they are
somehow a house for specific delineations of the Spirit."
- "U.S. Protestants face change amid internal rivalries,"
at Newsroom. See: http://www.newsroom.org/Article_show.asp?ArticleID=973500683
Copyright © 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2000-NOV-7
Latest update: 2000-NOV-7
Author: B.A. Robinson