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The following essay was published by Newsroom on 2000-NOV-7 as: "U.S. Protestants face change amid internal rivalries."

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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 death beds.

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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.

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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 evangelicals.

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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 they do."

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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."

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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.

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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 for."

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 said.

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," he said.

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 compassion."

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 Without Them."

"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."

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  1. "U.S. Protestants face change amid internal rivalries," at Newsroom. See: http://www.newsroom.org/Article_show.asp?ArticleID=973500683

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Copyright © 2000 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-NOV-7
Latest update: 2000-NOV-7
Author: B.A. Robinson

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