The Problem of Separatism for Christian Unity

UnknownChristian Separatism is historically rooted in Congregationalism. It is an outgrowth of historical developments in the English Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The fundamental belief of English Separatists can be seen in their idea of the gathered church. They believed that such a church should exist in contrast to the territorial basis of the Church of England. The Church of England, through an anomaly rooted in its origin, was established upon a parish church model. In the parish each person in a certain area (geographically) was assigned to the parish church. Historically, a parish referred not only to the territorial unit but also to the people of its community as well as to church property within it. English Separatists believed that the foundation of the church should be the Scriptures and the work of God’s Spirit, not man or the state. These Separatists further believed that Christians should seek out other Christians and gather together to make up a particular (local) church. This belief was the basis for an autonomous local church, creating an ecclesiology which became the principal tenet of Congregationalism. This emphasis on autonomy was, in so many ways, a refreshing alternative to the state-controlled church of the time.

Today this emphasis on the autonomous church has morphed considerably. Much of American evangelicalism, at least of the non-denominational variety, owes its ecclesiology to this very movement. (Few realize this I think.) In modern evangelical practice our branding seems to be what matters most. Through a strong emphasis on individualism, and our “unique” kind of church (they are strikingly non-unique to me), an odd form of English Separatism lives on. This modern separatism can be seen in hundreds of evangelical preachers, leaders, churches, movements and popular blogs. We, at least as a broad category of Christians, seem to believe that one of the greatest enemies of the gospel is to organize churches beyond a local expression. This modern expression is actually more than non-denominational; it is anti-denominational.

Large parts of these American separatist movements fit into the Pauline paradigm of divisions explained in 1 Corinthians 1. Paul writes:

What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:12-13, NRSV).

Large parts of evangelicalism is driven by this new separatism without much historical understanding of where the idea originated or why. Oddly enough, the historically Congregational churches have formed associations and denominations. Congregational churches retain autonomy yet these local churches now have become far more cooperative in their mission. But their more evangelical heirs have resisted. Often times it is this type of “independent” ecclesiology that fosters opposition to formal ecumenical expressions, especially to those that have transpired since the birth of the oft-maligned World Council of Churches in 1948. But these independent churches are also opposed to the more conservative ecumenical expressions, such as the National Association of Evangelicals (which is hardly a key player in this field any longer). Other attempts at visible unity have repeatedly failed in these independent contexts. The best these churches seem to be able to do is to foster their own “church brands” and promote these brands through strong personality figures and multi-site churches that look like the flavor of a particular leader or style. This is where the aforementioned Pauline text comes to the table: “I belong to Christ!”

Today – based upon my own reading, classroom contexts and wide-ranging local ministry experience – I believe the Holy Spirit is working to form new convictions, convictions based upon ancient ideas about God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. These ancient ideas are impacting a wider and wider number among the youngest evangelical generation. My generation was attracted to the details of mastering a theological system, a system which we often thought of in strident either/or terms; i.e., what was true and false. I was trained by evangelical scholars who were drawn to the details of theological debate while they were quite often passive about social concerns like peace, war and justice. My generation of evangelicals experienced the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War from a perspective that was generally distant. Eventually some leaders of my generation gave us the Moral Majority and a host of culture war models and spokesmen. (These movements were mostly led by “males” so I use the word “men” here quite intentionally!) My own academic training was shaped by the disciplines of modernity; e.g. science, philosophy, rigorous biblical exegesis, and communication theories. We built churches that were large and attractional; congregations that were shaped by programs that fed (not always intentionally) our cultural consumerism and political conservatism. This new, younger generation is geared toward dynamic ways of human expression that are going to change the world I knew rather profoundly. (These are generalizations, I know, but they are helpful when correctly understood.)

Well over a decade ago my late friend and mentor, professor Robert E. Webber, wrote: “The kind of Christianity that attracts the new generation of Christians and will speak effectively to a postmodern world is one that emphasizes primary truths and authentic embodiment.” I share Dr. Webber’s view and believe that these last fourteen years, since his forward-looking book Ancient Future Faith was published, underscore this point even more clearly within the evangelical Protestant world. There is a deep and growing hunger for something that is not faddish and trendy, something that is rooted in mystery and creates deep hope. I have observed this and experienced it personally. I can only hope and pray that it grows in the decades ahead. I believed it will necessarily cause young Christians to welcome new expressions of unity in mission, what I call missional-ecumenism.

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