In Defense of Denominations


Over at Religion News Service, Trish Harrison Warren argues that the sexual misconduct by former Willow Creek Community Church pastor Bill Hybels should force evangelicals to rethink their commitment to denominations.  Here is a taste of her piece “Willow Creek’s crash shows why denominations still matter“:

Denominations, however imperfect, often have more robust accountability measures in place for their leaders (these measures do not rely on close friends or parishioners of the accused).

As merely one example, in my denomination, a bishop can “inhibit” a church leader from future ministry or an ecclesiastical court — comprising both ordained and lay members — can conduct a trial and decide to depose a clergy person altogether (more commonly known as being defrocked). His or her ordination would be revoked and there are systems in place to ensure he or she would never be a leader in any other Anglican church.  (If a leader is accused of a crime, he or she is also mandatorily reported to civil authorities for investigation.)

The point of church discipline is both to help bring the accused person to repentance and also to protect the larger, global church body from harm.

I wonder if the Willow Creek crisis signals a tacit end to nondenominationalism as a model for future church planting. Certainly, a conversation is brewing among evangelicals about the need for healthy institutions and older traditions as we navigate our future.

Clearly, there is a kind of denominationalism that is corrosive and corrupting. Likewise, institutionalism, the idolatry and self-protection of institutions, has produced massive evil. As allegations against several evangelical celebrity pastors came to light last summer, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing large-scale sexual abuse of children and a massive systematic cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s utterly apparent that denominations and ecclesial institutions will not rescue us from sin and abuse of power.

Read the entire piece here.

The Author’s Corner with Stephen Berry

Stephen Berry is Associate Professor of History at Simmons College in Boston. This interview is based on his first book A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World (Yale University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write A Path in the Mighty Waters?

SB: The initial idea came from reading a number of autobiographies in Grant Wacker’s American Religious Thought class. I kept noticing that figures such as Charles Hodge behaved differently when they traveled aboard ship. For example, during Hodge’s voyage to Europe he had lengthy discussions with a Roman Catholic priest, an encounter at variance with his normal conversation partners in Princeton. So I kept asking myself, “What was it about ship life that facilitated this sort of interaction?” So I tucked the idea away as my “crazy dissertation idea,” originally thinking that I might write about the role of steamboats in the spread and development of frontier Christianity. Peter Wood, my mentor in the Duke history department, pulled me back into the eighteenth-century Atlantic crossing with its longer voyage times and more diverse range of encounters. After graduate school, I spent a great deal of time redeveloping the project to give it a narrative structure, which my committee had suggested since a voyage has a natural story arc. The problem I encountered was figuring how to break up the chapters without making the divisions seemed arbitrary and artificial. Thankfully, I was able to participate in the Munson Institute at Mystic Seaport, which gave me a needed crash course on all things maritime. That summer I began to see the Atlantic Ocean not as a single, solitary place but rather possessed with its own geography. The Bay of Biscay, the Tropics, the Gulf Stream each exercised a particular effect on passengers and shaped of their practice of religion. Although I have worked on this project for a long time, the manuscript that Yale University Press just published was really born that summer.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of A Path in the Mighty Waters?

SB: Aboard a ship with no particular established religion, travelers normally divided by geography, religious affiliation, or social protocol reconstructed their religious beliefs and practices to make sense of their new surroundings and to pass the time over the months of the passage. The ship accustomed travelers to the religious flexibility and independence that life in America would require of them and anticipated the American approach to denominationalism, involving mutual acceptance and competition, openness and exclusivity.

JF: Why do we need to read A Path in the Mighty Waters?

SB: Because it tells a good story, and who doesn’t like to read a good story. Seriously though, we need a better understanding of what an eighteenth-century voyage entailed as both a physical and spiritual experience. The book addresses a gap in several overlapping fields of study. Maritime histories of this era usually focus on the experience of sailors or life aboard specialized types of ships such as naval or slave vessels. Scholars of American religion have overlooked the ship’s role in shaping Christian beliefs and practices as they were transferred from Europe to America, particularly in regards to the development of religious toleration. The emerging field of Atlantic history ironically often neglects the ocean itself and people’s experiences upon it. Ships served as kind of petri dish. Eighteenth-century voyages combined divergent and competing worldviews in a relatively open, non-institutional atmosphere that reveals the particular mentalities of the participants and their belief systems.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

SB: Growing up between Nashville and Franklin, I was conscious from an early age that the Civil War hung over the landscape, and I scoured the maps in Bruce Catton’s Picture History of the Civil War hoping to discover my yard depicted on the battlefield. So I always loved history, but over time my interests shifted from military to cultural history. I struggled initially as an undergraduate history major at Vanderbilt largely because I had never really learned to read for argument, but then suddenly things began to click. I was in way over my head in a graduate level class on British history taught by James Epstein, where we were assigned these massive books for each week. One week we discussed E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and after a semester of silence, I held my own in a class discussion as we debated the impact of Methodism on the social consciousness of laborers. After my enthusiasm that day (full disclosure, our class met in the campus pub that day and my sudden loquaciousness might have been alcohol induced), one of the doctoral students encouraged me to keep studying religious history. And so I guess I took his advice. In seminary, I wrote several research papers on the role of Christianity in the American South, which led to my first publications. After working as an archivist and librarian for a couple of years, my wife Dana encouraged me to pursue my doctorate and the rest is, as they say, history.

JF: What is your next project?

SB: I have begun to work on a couple of ideas but nothing has achieved critical mass yet. I spent so much time learning maritime history to supplement my formal training in American religion, I feel compelled to pursue another project combining the fields. I currently hold a joint fellowship at the Boston Athenaeum and the Congregational Library, which I am using to research American seamen’s encounters with world religions. As independence opened new markets to the United States, American sailors circumnavigated the world as part of the early republic’s quest for commercial success. Mariners provided rich portrayals of the religious practices witnessed in foreign ports with the observer’s situated understandings of their underlying belief systems. This project will uncover what these pathfinders imported to their new nation about world cultures even as the nation began to export Christianity through its own missionary movements (also made possible because of ships).

JF: Thanks Stephen.

And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

Peter Berger on Denominations and Atheists

Worship at an atheist mega-church

According to Peter Berger, denominations are not dead.  In fact, Roman Catholics, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus are all embracing various forms of denominationalism.  So are atheists. This is how Berger explains the development of so-called “atheist mega-churches.”

A taste:

The AP story links this development to the growth of the “nones” in the US—that is, people who say “none” when asked for their religious affiliation in a survey. A recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (a major center for religious demography) found that 20% of Americans fall under that category. But, as the story makes clear, it would be a mistake to understand all these people to be atheists. A majority of them believes in God and says that they are “spiritual but not religious”. All one can say with confidence is that these are individuals who have not found a religious community that they like. Decided atheists are a very small minority in this country, and a shrinking one worldwide. And I would think that most in this group are better described as agnostics (they don’t know whether God exists) rather than atheists (those who claim to know that he doesn’t). I further think that the recent flurry of avowed atheists writing bestselling books or suing government agencies on First Amendment grounds should not be seen as a great cultural wave, in America or anywhere else (let them just dream of competing with the mighty tsunami of Pentecostal Christianity sweeping over much of our planet).
How then is one to understand the phenomenon described in the story? I think there are two ways of understanding it. First, there is the lingering notion of Sunday morning as a festive ceremony of the entire family.  This notion has deep cultural roots in Christian-majority countries (even if, especially in Europe, this notion is rooted in nostalgia rather than piety).  Many people who would not be comfortable participating in an overtly Christian worship service still feel that something vaguely resembling it would be a good program to attend once a week, preferably en famille. Thus a Unitarian was once described as someone who doesn’t play golf and must find something else to do on Sunday morning. This atheist gathering in Los Angeles is following a classic American pattern originally inspired by Protestant piety—lay people being sociable in a church (or in this case quasi-church) setting. They are on their best behavior, exhibiting the prototypical “Protestant smile”.  This smile has long ago migrated from its original religious location to grace the faces of Catholics, Jews and adherents of more exotic faiths. It has become a sacrament of American civility. It would be a grave error to call it “superficial” or “false”. Far be it from me to begrudge atheists their replication of it.
However, there is a more important aspect to the aforementioned phenomenon: Every community of value, religious or otherwise, becomes a denomination in America. Atheists, as they want public recognition, begin to exhibit the characteristics of a religious denomination: They form national organizations, they hold conferences, they establish local branches (“churches”, in common parlance) which hold Sunday morning services—and they want to have atheist chaplains in universities and the military. As good Americans, they litigate to protect their constitutional rights. And they smile while they are doing all these things.