“There are two outcomes for Sects, either they die away or they rejoin the main body.” – Philip Schaff, The Principle of Protestantism
“I fear, my friend, that after we are gone, Sects will multiply and the church will become a mess” – Martin Luther in a Letter to Philip Melanchthon.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
Longtime Readers are aware that I am vehemently opposed to the Sect System and to the system of “polite” ecumenism that upholds distinctions but allows for working together across “denominational lines.” I am, as it were, against any such lines or walls between groups of believers that cause them to separate themselves from one another and keep us from realizing the reality of Jesus’ prayer in John 17. It was from this prayer that Church Historian Philip Schaff derived his critique of the Sect System that was being justified by both the Princeton Theologians like Charles Hodge and the Revivalists like Charles Grandison Finney. In Schaff’s mind, if Jesus asked the Father that the Church might be one: “as you and I are one” (Jn 17:21). Then to justify breaking fellowship over non-essential issues was a step in the opposite direction. It was, as Francis Chan writes in Until Unity: “A way that we grieve the Holy Spirit.” This is because it is denying the unifying work of the Spirit that Jesus prayed to His Father and our Father for.
But what does it mean that the Church be one like Christ is one and what does this mean for the sect system we have built since the 11th century?
If the Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in perfect love and unity, all three members of the One, Triune God, existing in perfect harmony as co-eternal and co-equal persons, each doing their own part in creation and the rest of Salvation History. Not as three separate parts of an object (Partialism) or as different forms of the same substance (Modalism), but as a divine mystery which cannot be explained or grasped by human minds. If that is the kind of unity that Jesus is praying the Father would grant us, then we are desperately wanting in the worst way.
Both Augustine and Charles Hodge tried to explain why this was not the case, that because the Church was an institution on earth it would inevitably have unbelievers and believers (Augustine) and split (Hodge). While I grant that Augustine is correct, there will never be a perfect church free totally of sin and unbelief as long as human beings are fallen. This is confirmed by Jesus himself in Matthew 7 and 25 when the church is judged by Christ. What I disagree with is both men’s conclusions. That there is a spiritual church that always exists in perfect unity and that this “invisible church” maintains a spiritual reality while the visible church, the church we see on Earth, is going to vary based on the people and location. Therefore, since the Invisible Church was always in a state of perfect unity it did not matter what happened among the people sitting in the pew. To Hodge then, “The Spirituality of the Church” became a justification for sectarianism. Since the Church experienced spiritual unity at all times in the spiritual reality sectarianism could be justified, especially in the case of theological error. Instead of coming together and dealing with the theological error as they did with Arianism at Nicea, you now have entire denominations that were built on a theological error rather than on biblical truth. You also had and still have a number of churches claiming their interpretation of the bible is the only way to heaven. Since “Spiritual Unity” was maintained in the heavenly places, it did not matter what happened in the visual places. It needs to be added that the idea of the “Spirituality of the Church” has been used today to justify those in Church Leadership who have harmed others, especially women and children, as well as dismiss the hurt of the victims of abusive leaders. The statement: “The person who hurt was not part of the true church, so you should not claim to be hurt by the church” is a way of gaslighting victims by telling them they should not be hurt because “this wasn’t the true church.”
Philip Schaff, and John Williamson Nevin, both argued for what is called: “Organic Unity.” Organic unity is the idea that the Church maintains an earthly unity among believers who are indwelt with the Holy Spirit. The Church was not split into Visible and Invisible realms, Schaff rightly understood this as Manichean Dualism, in his day and ours it has become full-blown Gnosticism. Schaff understood that not only did Jesus pray that we would be one as He as His Father were one, but that he also gave the means by which that was to be accomplished, The Holy Spirit of God, which would come as a helper to us but so much more. Schaff took the word “one” in Ephesians 4, repeated multiple times, seriously. The Church was always supposed to be organically one, holy, catholic (universal, and Apostolic (built on the teachings of the Apostles). If it became anything else, if it became two, it ceased to be what Jesus intended it to be. Schaff also believed Paul’s six chapter call to Unity in 1 Corinthians was to be taken seriously by all the Churches (a reasonable conclusion given how letters were circulated in the Ancient World). If our unity was to be organic than that meant we were to be visibly one Church who dealt with error when it arose through excommunication (1 Cor 6, 1 Tim 1:20) so that those who were in error lost the benefit and blessing of the believing community and were either forced to course correct or return to an unbelieving life. Splitting and dividing the body were and are sins in the Bible, as 1 Cor 1-6, 1 Timothy 1, Titus 3 and other passages attest. There was never to be a time when the Church was not organically one through the Holy Spirit. Further, organic unity meant we dealt with issues that might keep us from being effective witnesses to Christ, it meant we had to see to the visible unity of the Body, the bond of love, so that outsiders would see that love and good works and glorify God (Matt 5, John 14-16, 1 John).
Enlightment philosophers called these two ideas: “Realism” (Hodge” and “Idealism” or “Romanticism” (Schaff and Nevin). Realism was the central tenant of what was called: “Scottish Common Sense Theology” which states that everyone is dictated by common sense and it was common sense which would win out in the end. Idealism was the German notion that there was a way things could be and it was our job to strive for that ideal reality. It is important to note that neither idea found origin in Scripture, but the Holy Spirit is sanctifying us into the ideal image of Christ, something that will not be completed until eternity. Realism caused Hodge to look at the Church one way and Idealism caused Schaff to think of the Church in the other. Both men found justifications for their views in scripture and in the Church Father’s, sometimes by different readings of the same Fathers.
In the end, due to the closing of Mercersburg Seminary in 1862, Princeton won the debate and the justification for dividing became a central theme of Church Life as the Baptists split into North and South, The German Church split over revivalism, the Congregationalists…..you get the point. To the tune of over 300 worldwide denominations of Baptists, several denominations of Presbyterians and so on and so forth. Dividing became the norm, the Sect System became the mode of operation. Like it or not, it became a part of the culture. Despite Schaff’s warnings that this was untenable, unsustainable and doomed to fail, we did it anyway.
Now in our present time we find ourselves living in a place where cultural Christianity is looking less and less like Christ, getting meaner, as it were. Where Barna reports that 1 in 3 Millenials who have left the church call it “Hypocritical” and where institutional trust among the youngest two generations of the Church is somewhere around 10%. The endless propagation of Sects has led to not a credibility problem, but a credibility Crisis.
Think about it, if you are a de-churched believer who grew up reading the scriptures and you read Acts 2:42-47 and then looked around and saw just about the opposite of that being lived out by believers, would you want to come back to the institutional Church as it exists now? I know I would not, in fact, if I were not a Pastor, I would not be in the church at this present moment, for this very reason. If you were a None who had never encountered the church before (the fastest growing demographic in religious studies) and you picked up a Bible in Wal-Mart, read Acts 2:42-47 and then walked into a Church or got online and saw someone you know was a believer acting in the exact opposite manner, would you go to Church? Probably not, and if you did, you might be gone the next week after someone gave you the side-eye for wearing shorts to Church. It is not that there should never be hypocritical behavior, or that we are going to eliminate hypocrisy this side of eternity, but most of us are not even trying, we are just sinning boldly and claiming the promises of God. Something that Jesus, Romans 2 and other passages warn us against. If God requires repentance, then our first reaction when we are aware of hypocritical behavior should be repentance, not hubris. But you have individuals and whole churches that through participation in the sect system that believe they are the true church, have the corner on the mark on Christianity and that their actions are excused by claiming the name of Christ.
Then we wonder why people do not come.
The fact is, at this time, in a majority of the Church in the U.S there is very little attractive about the lifestyle of believers so that they might see the Gospel life lived and know that there is something to this Christian life, this Christ way, that we talk about. There is a lot of infighting, a lot of bitterness, a lot of political and economic marketing and not a lot of Christ. While it needs to be said that Acts 2:42-47 is descriptive, not prescriptive, the priorities of the Early Church were prescriptive, the teaching of the Apostles, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread and Prayers. These were to be the priorities of the church when they met together and they should still be our priorities today. Not a nice sermon, but a community of people that lives out a shared life (in Christ) and vision (of Christ and His Life).
That is not to say there is not good happening in the Church. There are communities of younger, many disaffected, Christians popping up everywhere in search of the community they see in the Gospel. Sometimes literally selling their possessions to help out one another, discussing how to remake the Church into the image of God through the power of the Holy Spirit. Reading books and learning and growing together as a community of faith. These men and women come from every single background within Christianity, including Roman Catholic and Baptist (perhaps the lion and the lamb can lie down together after all?). They are also communities where healing can happen for those who have experienced trauma of all kinds from the Church, be it sexual trauma, spiritual abuse, emotional trauma, the trauma caused by very real instances of racism. Places where becoming Christ-Like is important, discipleship is important, love for one another is important and if we could, many of us would have meals together every night (sadly many of us live in different states and this is not an option). These groups are also multi-ethnic and seek to raise up the voices previously silenced by the Church, where learning from each other is prioritized as we all learn from Christ. By the way, if you question the make-up of these groups, in every one I am a part of, the essentials of the Christian Faith are upheld by everyone I have met in the groups, that Jesus Christ came incarnate and died on the cross for our sins and everything else affirmed by the Church in the Creeds of the Church. We do reject what is often theological excess and matters of opinion that has been raised to the level of “essential” but is really peripheral.
These things give me hope that maybe in a generation or two we will have torn down the sect-system in America that grieved Philip Schaff and which grieves the Holy Spirit. It may not disappear completely, but as Churches become healthier under the cultural pressures of increasing secularization and those who have led the Church into ruin leave the scene, perhaps we can get back to the historic faith of the Church, rejecting Nationalism and all the other ists and isms we have syncretized into Christianity along the way. That does not mean we will not have detractors and hypocrites in the church, but ignoring the problems they create will not be an option if the Church is to maintain a credible witness to our neighbors.
Lord, help us become credible witnesses of you again! So that the world may know that you are God and you are good! Amen!