Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Vitality of Division

Critiques of Protestant division by Catholic apologists, that denominationalism is a hindrance to faith, seem to be built on or informed by (inasmuch as they carry any sophistication at all) older sociological theories. The more recent supply-side theory of religious expression argues that competition between religious bodies increases faith, while uniform adherence limits it:

The earlier prevailing view was that pluralism eroded religious faith. The Protestant Reformation led to the fragmentation of Western Christendom, with diverse sects and denominations emphasizing alternative beliefs and doctrines. For Durkheim this process destroyed the hegemonic power of a single pervasive theological faith, sowing the seeds of skepticism and doubt. Drawing heavily upon the analogy of firms struggling for customers in the economic market, supply-side theory assumes the exact opposite. The core proposition in the religious market approach is the notion that vigorous competition between religious denominations has a positive effect on religious involvement. The explanation why religion flourishes in some places while languishing in others rests upon the energies and activities of religious leaders and organizations. The more churches, denominations, creeds and sects compete in a local community, the theory assumes, the harder rival leaders need to strive to maintain their congregations. Proponents argue that the continued vitality of religious beliefs and practices in the United States can plausibly be explained by the sheer diversity of American faithbased organizations, strong pluralistic competition among religious institutions, freedom of religion, and the constitutional division of church and state. Older mainstream denominations in America, such as Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans, have been challenged by rival evangelical churches which demand more time and energies, but also offer a more vigorous religious experience.

By contrast, communities where a single religious organization predominates through government regulation and subsidies, for example establishment churches, are conditions thought to encourage a complacent clergy and moribund congregations, stultifying ecclesiastical life in the same way that state-owned industries, corporate monopolies, and business cartels are believed to generate inefficiencies, structural rigidities, and lack of innovation in the economic market. Stark and Finke suggest that Northern Europe is dominated by ‘socialized religion’, where state regulations favor established churches, through fiscal subsidies or restrictions on rival churches. This process, they suggest, reinforces religious monopolies, and complacent and apathetic clergy, leading to indifferent publics and the half-empty pews evident in Scandinavia.

While useful in that religious pluralism can produce an increased effort on the part of Christians to work harder in the promotion of the Gospel, the supply-side theory is not without its methodological difficulties, and, most critically, Scripture speaks to division largely on negative terms. But just what is meant by the concept of division in Scripture isn't generally elucidated by Catholic bloggers, aside from a simplistic, even crass, appeal to the existence of denominations. I would suggest that while unity on all correct beliefs is the Scriptural ideal, organizational unity is a different beast altogether (Luke 9:49-50 seems to suggest great latitude in this area), with the latter having, at best, a loose influence on the former.

We live in a fallen world, and so questions of division are subject to serious qualifications, disappointments and complexities of every sort. Gathering all Christians into one denomination with one hierarchy will solve few of our problems while creating its own set of difficulties; the rise of the Papacy in the middle ages should be sufficient evidence of that. Given the sinfulness of humanity, there will be cases when certain kinds of division are better than certain kinds of unity (e.g., increased doctrinal disunity with Mormons is a generally positive, rather than negative, development). Church organization is somewhat like politics in this regard: given human nature, no system is ideal; the question is which of several poor systems we will choose to implement, knowing that the individuals utilizing the selected system will find multiple ways to corrupt, and ultimately ruin, its function.

Christianity has taken various organizational forms, each with inherent benefits and limitations. Whether the house church model of China or the hierarchical form of Vatican City, the critical question is not whether these structural adaptations need to be replaced or reformed, even if such a question is both valid and important on its own terms, but whether the members of each structure are holding to and joyfully living out the tenants of the Gospel. Sin is the pivotal factor, which plays no role in modern sociological theories, and an insufficient one in the absolute demand that Protestants return to a monarchical episcopate.


  1. Theological competition is like a system of checks and balances. Even a theological tradition that starts out sound can become quirky and decadent if it's too isolated and insulated.

  2. Nicely done, and fair too.

  3. "Given the sinfulness of humanity, there will be cases when certain kinds of division are better than certain kinds of unity (e.g., increased doctrinal disunity with Mormons is a generally positive, rather than negative, development)."

    This is a very good observation and conclusion.

    The vitality of division indeed!!