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Difference as Essence

It is not at all uncommon for me, as a pastor, to encounter some variation of the question, “So, what’s the deal with all the different denominations in Christianity? Why can’t you all agree on anything?!”

Often, this will come in the context of a puzzled query as to what, exactly, a “Mennonite” might be and why anyone might want to self-identify as such. Even though I think I can offer a decent enough explanation/rationale for Anabaptist vision and identity, I often leave such conversations thinking, “Yeah, it sure must look ridiculous from the outside—all of these people claiming to follow the same God, yet seemingly capable of accomplishing little more than endless splintering, infighting, and redrawing and fortifying boundaries between one another!” Whatever positives might come along with denominations—and there are a few, to be sure—their existence does not often make a very good or coherent impression upon a watching world.

A few weeks ago, I received a copy of a series of lectures called “Reframing Anabaptism” delivered to Mennonite pastors in 2011 by Conrad Grebel professor Jeremy Bergen. I have not yet had time to finish every lecture, but I was particularly struck by part of Bergen’s first lecture where he talked about the historical “problem of the true church” in the context of multiple emerging denominations:

After the Reformation, there emerged what I would call “the pastoral problem of the true church.” Given a diversity of churches, how do I know that the one I’m part of is the true church, and thus a gateway to salvation? Each church had to give an account of itself that justified its existence, especially in light of what a serious thing it was to have schism among Christians. As we might say it today—each church had to come to the marketplace with brand differentiation.

The subfield of theology known as ecclesiology became increasingly important as it attempted to answer this question. And while this is an existentially understandable question, the answers the various churches gave to it had an unfortunate consequence: the differences between churches came to be seen as their essences.

Bergen’s claim here resonates on a number of levels. Certainly as someone working within a denominational structure in a cultural context characterized by the default mindset of consumerism and by a plurality of religious options, this explains how it often feels to speak for and from within a specific tradition. When the “customer” can very easily just go down the street to the next church, it can feel like the role of this or that church or denomination is to “sell” their brand in the most convincing manner possible. And, in order to do this well, we have to emphasize what makes us unique and special (and right)! Whether it is theological distinctives (Mennonites = peace!) or worship styles or programs offered or promised experiences, everyone has to have something to draw and retain the customer. The logic of the marketplace dictates that to fail to stand out is to die. This is often no different in church-land than it is in the world of hamburgers or jeans or smart-phones.

The problem of denominationalism highlighted by this passage from Bergen’s lectures is structurally identical to some of the problems of multiculturalism as described in a recent lecture by Kenan Malik on CBC’s Ideas. In the context of a political ideology that celebrates (and often demands!) diversity, specific ethnicities and cultural expressions have increasing incentive to stand out. And when you have to stand out to justify your ongoing existence, to take advantage of certain political programs, or to avoid being swallowed up into some kind of generic postmodern ethnic stew, you emphasize what is unique, what is different, what is exotic. Thus, it is often the most conservative and radical elements of a particular faith or culture that come to represent its most “authentic” forms. They stand out, after all. They get our attention. And in a world where the consumer almost always rules, our attention is a most prized and coveted thing indeed.

Is it possible, in our current cultural climate, to celebrate diversity without requiring that our differences be seen as our essences? Is this possible in the church of Christ? Must we see ourselves (and others) as competitors for a limited “market share?” Can we speak confidently, respectfully, and joyfully from within this or that particular denominational framework without feeling like we are simply trying to “sell” our unique flavour of Christianity in the crowded marketplace of theologies and practices?

I think we can. But whether in the broader culture or in the church, I think we will have to learn how to hold our identities a bit more loosely. Or at least differently. This is not to say that we forget who we are and where we came from, nor is it to say that our reasons for being (whether historically or currently) do not matter. Far from it. It is simply to acknowledge that our identities are necessarily fluid and never 100% fixed (thank God!). The issues that divided the church in the mid-16th century are not our issues, nor will the issues facing the church generations from now be the same ones we are facing today. As followers of Jesus—whenever and wherever we live—our identity is located, first and foremost, in the person and work of Christ, not in how we differ from others, important as these differences might be (or seem to us).

In addition, to refuse to locate our identity primarily in our differences might just be to offer a necessary rejection of the logic of the marketplace in a place where this logic has no business. Such a rejection would allow us to truly honour the choices of others and to sincerely celebrate when they find a spiritual home (even when that home isn’t our church!). None of this requires that we “go soft” on what matters to us as churches or denominations. It simply acknowledges that we do not see everything as clearly as we might think, that others might see some things more accurately than us (imagine!), that the church is God’s thing, not ours (and that God can be trusted with it!), and that, more often than not, a bridge is a better thing to build than a wall.

  1. Dan #

    Great points Ryan! While I think there is more to the original development of denominations that market driven seeking of members, I can certainly see that the denomininational divide tends these days to be subtle and fluid in many cases. I especially agree with your point that the differences we struggle over now will be different than 50 years from now, which should cause us to consider that maybe they aren’t worth fighting over…

    August 27, 2012
    • I absolutely agree, Dan—historically, the issues that caused these divisions were often life and death matters that were far more significant to people then than they are for us. In many ways, our current market-driven approach to churches and denominations is a “luxury” that could only arise in a cultural context where most people assume it doesn’t matter what we choose.

      Things have obviously changed quite drastically. In the sixteenth century, nearly everyone in Europe was a Christian, however nominally; in our cultural context, Christianity often operates from the margins, no longer enjoying the power and privilege it once had. The denominational framework we inherited from the past remains, but it makes little sense to many in our post-Christian context. I think even starting to understand some of these basic cultural realities will help us as we try to figure out how to think about and inhabit denominations, and relate to those from other backgrounds in a world that mostly views these distinctions with a combination of apathy and confusion.

      August 27, 2012
  2. Ken Peters #

    Hi Ryan, excellent thought on denominationalism. I accept your struggle with the limitations of sects and groupings you have found yourself in and those that others have foisted upon you. There is indeed much that we can repent for. However, can a Christian exist in today’s world without denominational orientation? Oh, i know that many churches and countless Christians take pride in negating any particular theological orientatation and refuse to be affiliated with any particular historical splinter of the Church – but protests aside, I don’t see and I cannot see Christians existing apart from some aspect of the church historic that has already had their day in the sun and made an imprint in the world.

    Those that would argue they’ve accomplished this mighty feat have yet to do their homework and find the confessional and ecclesiastical corrolaries in history. Their boast in being non-defined is itself a definition that has been the trademark of many a movement throughout the church’s history – a.k.a. the Stone / Campbell movements in the States. I believe the sentiment: “Let’s just call ourselves Christians” is both historically naieve and existentially arrogant.

    Rather than an opening stance or posture that is mistrusting and suspicious and generally negative toward the concept, idea and reality of denominations, could the historical and global reality of the church as it exists actually hold God’s manifold wisdom and the key to the Kingdom? Is it not essential and observable to the nature of God in Christ to be singularly specific in his revelation throughout salvation history? Why would we protest and hold a negative perspective on God’s incarnational presence in the development of peoples, languages, cultures, spaces, time and history?

    We do not insist on the same with regard to any other discipline. Why do we have many computer languages: can’t they agree on just one? Why do we have many pedagogies: aren’t students the same the world over? Why do we have many medical practices: is not the human body the same as it has always been? Why do we have many political theories: has not history proved best practice yet? When we apply the same principle in play to various disciplines we begin to see how silly the question looks.

    My limited wisdom would suggest better the garden with a plethora of bloom, shape, design, colour, texture; better the church historic and global with a plethora of human expression of God’s goodness and salvation. The task at hand then, as leaders within denominations is to speak humbly, intellegently, respectfully and with an eye to historical appreciation as we explain to ourselves, our people and other inquring minds the beauty, wisdom and glory of God’s Word and Presence as each human family appropriates it in their own unique way.

    “May the peoples praise you, God;
    may all the peoples praise you.
    May the nations be glad and sing for joy,
    for you rule the peoples with equity
    and guide the nations of the earth.” Psalm 67.3-4

    August 28, 2012
    • Thanks for this very insightful comment, Ken. I hope I didn’t come across as advocating anything like a “let’s just call ourselves generic Christians” approach. I could not agree more with your words here about the importance of a connection to the church historic. It is neither desirable nor possible to sever our ties with the past, and the church would be (and often is) poorer for making this attempt.

      I also appreciate your challenge to the default position of seeing denominations as an inherently negative thing. In particular, I was struck by your question: “could the historical and global reality of the church as it exists actually hold God’s manifold wisdom and the key to the Kingdom?” Indeed. As you say, there is great beauty in diversity—beauty that we should expect to see in a church that worships a creative God who is determined to “incarnate” his presence into a wide variety of contexts.

      My only hesitation on this score would arise out of the sheer amount and variety of denominations out there (some of which exhibit very little that is beautiful on most reasonable calculuses), and many of their motivations for coming into being. So often, these groups arise out of fractious infighting and dispute and a failure to pursue conversation and reconciliation. This, I think, is what many people have in mind when they are critical of denominations. It’s not that they have a problem with a diverse, multi-voiced chorus of praise to God. It’s that so many of these voices seem to be borne out of conflict and a failure to live up to our own professed ideals.

      Having said that, I must again express my enthusiastic agreement with what you have so eloquently stated. I cannot improve upon this:

      The task at hand then, as leaders within denominations is to speak humbly, intellegently, respectfully and with an eye to historical appreciation as we explain to ourselves, our people and other inquring minds the beauty, wisdom and glory of God’s Word and Presence as each human family appropriates it in their own unique way.


      August 28, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #

        Personally I think Ken is on to the logical extension of your argument. If denominationalism falls, so does Protestantism.

        October 17, 2012
      • How glad we should be, then, for cogent and compelling articulations like Ken’s of the beauty of God’s family, with all of its diversity.

        [B]etter the garden with a plethora of bloom, shape, design, colour, texture; better the church historic and global with a plethora of human expression of God’s goodness and salvation.”

        October 17, 2012
  3. Vicky #

    There’s a new book that talks about how Christianity got off the path right at the beginning. Lawrence Goudge’s new book, Cover Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs has an interesting perspective on New Testament History. the Jewish followers of Jesus preserved the beliefs and practices of the original apostles: Peter, James and John. Therefore, the true heretics were those who created the new religion of the dying God (anathema to Peter James and John). Cover-Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs exposes the church’s hypocrisy in first silencing those who truly followed Jesus and then exterminating them, just as they did the Cathars.  I just learned of a new book – Cover Up: How the Church Silenced Jesus’s True Heirs by Lawrence Goudge. I found it here Let me know what you think of it.

    September 17, 2012
  4. Paul Johnston #

    Diversity, beauty, incoherence and contradiction seem to be the variables under discussion here. If I read your post correctly, I think you are at least outlining a rationale that acknowledges incoherence and contradiction…. There is much that could be discussed here.

    As a contrarian premise, I think it is reasonable to begin with the suggestion that “denominationalism” is an intrinsic post-reformation phenomena such that one cannot examine it credibly without simultaneously examining the very credibility of the Reformation itself. For the most part I read Ken’s argument as a self contained wholly Protestant perspective that does not jive with the reality of the “church historic”, unless the history of the church only begins in the 16th century. I would feel very comfortable arguing that the ecclesiology of the church from it’s real historic beginning was a relentless pursuit of solidarity;of oneness. With the understood caveat; one body, many parts. (The rational expression of diversity and beauty WITHIN but still subordinate to oneness). I think the weight of Pauline ecclesiology is such that from a scriptural perspective I wouldn’t want to be the person advocating on behalf of the modern Protestant phenomena of “Denominationalism”. I think this phenomena would be an anathema to the work and word of St. Paul.

    Further the real church historic was as relentless in it’s pursuit of oneness and the elimination of heresy (denominationalism?) as was the original community and the scripture that community birthed. To this day over 70 % of the worlds Christians still align themselves with a church historic that reflects this perspective. Say what you will about the negatives of schism and there is much to be said, schism in no way affirms denominationalism. It is more the outcome of broken politics.

    The reformation owes more to the enlightenment and the notion of pluralism than it does to either the church historic or Sacred Scripture. No real or lasting reunion with the real church historic is possible for Protestant denominations until they come to terms with these realities.

    October 18, 2012
    • Lucky for you, then, that, as a part of the “real” church historic, you are not the person who has to advocate for this “anathema” of heretical denominationalism.

      October 18, 2012
  5. Paul Johnston #

    I will readily concede that my legitimate attachment to the real church historic in no may makes me any more, or you any less, worthy of the promises of Christ. But it remains that no amount of Protestant (or for that matter Catholic) wishfulness on the subject, can change the facts. The Apostolic legacy is Greek; is Roman; is Catholic. The reformation that birthed your denomination and others, is deliberately, by it’s own decrees and confessions, not of this legacy.

    October 19, 2012
    • Yes, I am aware of this Paul. My training required that we take a glance at church history—and we even spent a bit of time looking pre-16th century!

      It’s hard to know how to respond to some of your recent comments, to be honest. I don’t want to be unkind. And I don’t really want to get into a nasty argument. I am not Roman Catholic and I will not be becoming a Roman Catholic. I get that you think it is very important to keep trying to convince me. I get that you think the Roman Catholic tradition is superior to other expressions of Christianity. I get that you think Anabaptists are “heretical” or “anathema” or “illegitimate” or whatever other term you prefer. Fine. I get all that. I understand your position, I simply do not agree. We value different things in different ways.

      October 19, 2012
  6. Paul Johnston #

    I don’t want anything nasty to come from this exchange either, Ryan. Nor am I suggesting that you become anything other than who you choose to be. Nor do I think that my choosing to be Roman Catholic guarantees me God’s grace or that you choosing to be Mennonite denies you God’s grace. Forgive the apparent poverty of my expression but it is not now, or in the future, my intention to convert you, or anyone else to the Roman Catholic faith. Frankly the issues surrounding my own conversion are enough for me. (You articulate many of them quite beautifully in your latest post….and like you I think, at the end of the day, after all the doubts, the certainties the conversations; points and counterpoints, it will be the relationships we choose with God and one another, that will tell the truth about us.)

    So what am I going on and on about? 🙂 Good question. Best answer I can give you is this. I believe in one house, many rooms. I believe a house divided cannot stand. I believe in one church. The Jesus Church. I do not believe in the churches of “Apollos”, “Paul” or denominational distinctives that contradict. Light is light, darkness is darkness. Somebodies idea of the one Church is right. Somebodies idea of the the one Church is wrong. We cannot stand in opposition as Christian churches, one to other, and delude ourselves that these postures are either rational or worse, to my ear anyways, beautiful and holy. To believe this, is to me, to insult our Lord and Savior. To insult the truth.

    So if Christian “oneness” is my trump, “worldview”, then I have to get to the often awkward and always potentially nasty business of confronting “contradictory pluralism’s” within the faith. If I am true to this philosophy it occurs to me that I must remain open to the concept of my being, “converted”. Who knows, maybe one day I will be an advocate of something that looks more substantively, Mennonite in character than it does Roman Catholic…ya think… :)… honestly, Ryan, maybe. I cannot be consistent to what I say I believe and close that door. Though I will ALWAYS add the following caveat. The fully transubstantiated Eucharist is the real presence of Christ (but not the only real presence) on earth. Any future, “one Christian church” that does not acknowledge this reality is not the true “One Church”. For me this is non-negotiable. Period. Exclamation point!

    So what’s my, “fight” with the Protestant faiths and it’s different expressions and advocates? It goes like this.(First the nice stuff, 🙂 )…Often brilliant, comprehensive exegesis of the, “Word”. Real advances in understanding, revelation and truth. Often brilliant, accurate (sometimes ruthlessly so) accounts of the human failures, out right hypocrisies and real evils made manifest through Apostolic succession, by the,”church historic”. But too much of a pass on it’s own sins and dysfunction. I challenge the Protestant faiths to view their own histories as comprehensively as the have done “ours”. I have every confidence, once they do, given the overall intelligence and integrity that abounds within Protestant communities (and most certainly, certain Mennonite pastors 🙂 ) we can then create the necessary framework within which, re-unification can begin.

    For transparencies sake, and to satisfy and confirm your intuitions regarding what IS hostile within my purview, I say this. If the Protestant churches fail to rigorously examine their own histories or after so doing default to a variation of a response that says something like…”we’ve come to the conclusions necessary to advance re-unification dialogues but we have no authoritative mechanisms within our institutions to legislate and thus legitimize these conclusions”, then I say Institutionally speaking, and institutionally speaking only!!, please stand down. Let the church that does have legislative authority and can speak with one voice, BE the one voice. I readily acknowledge that the fullness of truth will be compromised by my advocacy but I firmly believe it is better to speak with one voice, than conflicting voices.

    While my position clearly ask the Protestant institutions to, “shape up or ship out”, let me also be clear what this position does NOT say. It does NOT say that any individual Catholic, simply by virtue of being catholic, attains the promises of Christ or that conversely any individual Protestant, simply by being protestant, is denied them. Those decisions are the sole prerogative of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

    My only prayer in this regard and I sincerely extend it to include all of humanity, irrespective of any, or even no religious affiliation, is that all be found worthy of the promises of Christ.

    October 19, 2012
    • I believe in one church. The Jesus Church.

      Amen. However differently we understand the nature of this “one church” and all of the implications that follow, we can at least agree on this much.

      October 20, 2012
      • Paul Johnston #


        October 20, 2012

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