Like C. S. Lewis before me, I come to bury a great myth. This is a myth which has achieved canonical status, not only in Roman Catholic circles, but in many evangelical circles. It is attained the same axiomatic standing among many Christians as evolution, the “Constitutional right to choose,” and the solemn duty of California taxpayers to educate illegal aliens has among the liberal establishment.
This unquestioned dogma goes under such opprobrious designations as the scandalum denominatus and the tragoedia Reformatum. Mere mention of one or another phrase is sufficient to make brave men weak of knee and watery of eye--with much attendant sighing and head-wagging, breast-beating and self-flagellation.
As I’ve often had occasion to say, good ideas come and go, but bad ideas are here to stay. That the Reformation was, at best, a necessary evil; that denominationalism is a scarlet letter upon the fitful bosom of the Protestant faith—a well entrenched and thoroughly bad idea.
It doesn’t even occur to many Evangelicals to doubt this axiom, and even if they did…well, that’s just not the sort of thing that is discussed in polite society. Why, that would be as onerous a faux-pas as suggesting at a PETA fundraiser that human babies were more valuable than baby seals.
Once a bad idea gets a foothold, it takes on the status of sacred tradition, to be handed down reverently and thoughtlessly from one generation to the next. It becomes part of the intellectual air we breathe—or choke on.
But ecumenism is of a piece with a perfectionist philosophy of history. An ecumenist is to the church what a liberal is to the world. Liberals are an unhappy lot. They are unhappy with the world. There is always something, somewhere that leaves them deeply dissatisfied, and they cannot rest content until they fix it. For folks who believe in evolution, the liberal is remarkably ill-adapted to his natural environment.
In a sense, the liberal is right. Of course, his diagnosis his wrong. And his cure is wrong.
Likewise, the ecumenist is unhappy with the church. They act as though the church had fallen from some former state of innocence. In every generation, they say the same thing. They pen their Jeremiads. They join hands with their like-minded mourners and sing a round of Kumbaya.
All the while, the church bumps along just as she did before they were born and after they die. Nothing changes but the date on the calendar.
There are several reasons for this state of affairs.
The most obvious thing they overlook is how we got to where we are in the first place. People could make the world a better world were they better people.
It is within our power to make the world a better place if we really wanted to. The conclusion is irresistible: the world is pretty much the way we want it to be. The same holds true for the church.
The state of the church is not like a law of nature—something imposed on us, over which we have no control. We are the church. The church is just a bunch of people under the headship of Christ.
You notice how often folks complain about a situation when they could either change it or remove themselves from the situation? So even if there’s something they don’t like, they don’t dislike it enough to make a change.
It’s like what passes for poverty in America. No one wants to be poor, but it generally accompanies a certain lifestyle, and while one may not like the consequences, as long as one likes the lifestyle, there’s no great incentive to change—especially when the state makes it possible to maintain that lifestyle despite the consequences.
There is just no collective will to change, for were there such a will, there would be a change. The very fact that we have certain social ills goes to show that there is no practical solution for the simple reason that we wouldn’t have all these social ills in the first place were it not for the fact that most folks don’t care that much.
The mere existence of the problem is enough to render the problem is insoluble—not because the situation could not be improved, but because the situation would not exist but for the tacit consent of all parties concerned.
Oh, there are exceptions, but the exceptions are limiting-cases of the norm. If things get bad enough, and if a natural leader comes along, it may be possible to turn things around.
Another reason is that many people positively like the status quo. Have you noticed that everyone who bitches about all the denominations belongs to one? His idea of ecumenism is that everyone should belong to his own denomination. The ecumenist is not dissatisfied with his own theology, such as it is, but just with everyone else’s.
Why is a Lutheran a Lutheran? Because he likes to be a Lutheran, that’s why. If he didn’t like to be a Lutheran, he’d be something else. There are plenty of alternatives.
Does an ecumenists seriously believe, at this stage of the game, that Baptists are going to cease being Baptist, Lutherans desist from being Lutheran, and so on and so forth?
No one is putting a gun to their heads. Every denomination is a voluntary association.
In order for the ecumenist to succeed, he’d first need to create a problem in order to solve it. He’d have to begin by making most Christians terribly depressed over the political map of Christendom. The problem for the ecumenist is that he sees a problem where no one else does.
Wherein lies the scandal of denominationalism? It is only a scandalous state of affairs if you think that everyone should believe the same thing. If so, then what should everyone hold in common? Is the scandal that every Christian is not a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church? If not that, then what?
I’m a Calvinist. I’d like every Christian to be a Calvinist. I think it’s important to make my case. But having done so, that’s about it.
If I had a son, I’d teach him the doctrines of grace. I’d take him to a Reformed church.
Now, before I get to my illustration, if you have any young children, you may wish to send them out of the room at this point.
But suppose, just suppose, that at the age of 16 he became a…a…(gulp) Lutheran! Sorry about that, but sometimes we need the shock-value of a really extreme worst-case scenario to drive home the point!
Seriously, though, would that be a scandal? A family tragedy? Would I have to begin wearing dark glasses to the grocery store? Should I throw him out of the house? Cut him out of my will? Take out a full-page age in the NYT disowning him?
How is it that so many Christians work themselves into such a ridiculous state of mind that they fling around abusive terms like “scandal” and “tragedy” to brand an honest difference of opinion? As long as the lifeboat is a sturdy vessel that can safely transport its occupants to the heavenly harbor, surely we can spare ourselves the outpouring of ecumenical grief and mourning. In my humble opinion, a flotilla of seaworthy lifeboats is a considerable improvement over one sinking cruise ship.
For that matter, how do you think we developed all these denominations in the first place? Because there was a market for them.
And the marketplace also has a way of weeding out most denominations. For most denominations are fly-by-night operations that come and go. Very few survive and grow prosper.
Moreover, denominations don’t merely proliferate. Many denominations are pining on the vine. Market forces promote some denominations while demoting others. If churchgoers don’t like the product, they go elsewhere.
The reason we have so many different denominations, independent churches, and cults in America is both because America is an immigrant nation and because we have no national church. Instead, we have a free marketplace of ideas. Such theological competition is not to be reviled and decried. It is, to the contrary, a good thing.
National churches and mainline denominations turn into dying institutions because the clergy come to be increasingly out of touch with the values of the laity. The clergy assimilate withthe worldview of the liberal establishment. But in the words of Niebuhr, a church that preaches a God without wrath bringing men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross is a dying church, and deservedly so. It is inwardly dead and outwardly moribund.
The fact is that there are only so many things that Christians want in a church. Different Christians want different things, but the basal combinations are few in number. The market is quickly saturated.
That’s why the original denominations which pioneered the Reformation are still around. They got there first and for the most part they cater to the various personality-types. Some churches are more doctrinal (e.g. the Reformed), others more atmospheric (e.g. the Orthodox), still others more existential (e.g. the charismatics), while some others mix-and-match.
Like the principle of irreducible complexity, you’re never going to boil down denominations to anything simpler than the number of personality-types to be serviced. High-church types don’t go for low-church worship, or vice versa.
Even if everyone had the same creed, they would not have the same taste in worship. If everyone were a Calvinist, you’d still have Puritan types and Anglican types and people in-between.
Denominations are like ecological zones. Down Under, you have marsupials instead of mammals. But the marsupials fill all the same ecological niches as the mammals do elsewhere. You have herbivorous, omnivorous, and carnivorous marsupials, predatory marsupials and marsupial prey species.
An ecumenist is like Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle. When he sees some finches with smaller and others with bigger beaks, he sees speciation, he sees macroevolution at work. But when a schismatic sees the same finches, he sees microevolution; all he sees are cyclical variations which revert to type.
Just look at fundamentalism. It began with a rather radical dichotomy between Israel and the church, between one dispensation and another. But over time fundamentalism has become ever less distinctive in relation to the preexisting traditions. Like a recessive gene, fundamentalism is blending back into the gene pool from whence it came.
Denominations are a gift, not a scandal. If a group breaks away from a church for the wrong reason, then the church it leaves behind is purified by the process. For if the breakaway group left for the wrong reason, then those who remain behind are likely there for the right reason.
Conversely, if a group departed for the right reason, then that is also a winnowing process in reverse. They leave behind a corrupt body, like a useless husk or outer shell. It will shrivel without their presence and support.
We often hear that the divisions within Christendom mar our witness to the world. Do they?
To begin with, there’s no direct correspondence between creedal and institutional unity. Just look at the Catholic church.
Likewise, the world wouldn’t like the church any better were she to present a united front in her commitment to the gospel and Bible ethics.
So the time is long overdue to bury this particular myth. It’s a-molderin’ somethin’ awful. Dig a hole, hold your nose, toss it in, cover it over, and be done with it.