The Labels and Doctrines That Unite and Divide Us (Part II)

In Part I of this blog post, we highlighted some of the terms and labels that are commonly used to distinguish American Protestant denominations, churches, and beliefs from each other. In addition, we noted several reasons why it is important to understand and be conversant with these terms and labels, as well as with the ideas and doctrines they connote.

Now, in Part II, we will examine these ideas and doctrines. We will consider succinctly how Evangelical Christians and Mainline or Progressive churchgoers think and talk—what they actually believe—about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church’s mission.

But first, some caveats. In our discussion of churches and theologies, we would do well to avoid using the term, conservative (which is commonly used to denote Evangelical and fundamentalistic congregations and theological perspectives) and the word, liberal (which is often applied to Progressive and Mainline traditions and groups). In the United States these terms have unfortunate (and confusing!) political connotations, and many American churchgoers assume—wrongly!—that “conservative” churches and theologies are attended and favored exclusively by members of the Republican Party and the “religious right” (and analogously, that all conservative and Republican Party policies and ideas are fully supported in “conservative” churches), and similarly, that “liberal” congregations are made up of Democratic Party loyalists (and that all Democratic Party ideas are embraced in “liberal” churches).

In truth, some Republicans and political conservatives are theological “conservatives” (that is, Evangelicals and fundamentalists), and some people who attend “liberal” churches also support the Democratic Party and liberal political causes—but the correspondence is very inexact. There are rock-ribbed Republicans who are theologically progressive and attend UCC churches, and there are Evangelical Christians who are Democrats.

Speaking of fundamentalists and fundamentalism, I will not use these terms in this blog post; instead, I will use the terms, Evangelical and Evangelicalism. During the early- to mid-twentieth century, these words had starkly different meanings: Evangelicalism described mainstream, inclusive, and traditional Christian beliefs and churches; fundamentalism, on the other hand, was thought to refer to an extreme, literalistic, and exclusive variant of Protestant Christianity. Thus, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who was no devotee of fundamentalism, could assert confidently that the United Church of Christ (UCC) was characterized by its “liberal evangelicalism.” And as recently as 2007, Sheldon Culver and John Dorhauer of the UCC’s Missouri Mid-South Conference fully embraced Niebuhr’s characterization in their book, Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, largely because, for the purpose of their argument, they wanted to place the United Church of Christ squarely in the mainstream of historic American Protestant tradition (where I too believe it belongs).

The trouble is, words change over time. Thus, the terms, fundamentalist and fundamentalism, enjoyed broad public acceptance in the early Twentieth Century, but have fallen into disfavor since the end of World War II—even among fundamentalists!—and are rarely if ever used. Similarly, Evangelical and Evangelicalism no longer mean what they did in Niebuhr’s day—and they don’t even mean what Culver and Dorhauer thought they did in 2007. Today these terms are synonymous or nearly synonymous with fundamentalist and fundamentalism. Thus, no one uses the expression, “Liberal Evangelicalism” to define the United Church of Christ nowadays—and I don’t believe that there is anything Evangelical about our denomination. Nor should there be. So despite Niebuhr’s (and more recently, Culver’s and Dorhauer’s) appropriation of the terms, Evangelical and Evangelicalism, to describe the UCC, I will only use these terms in reference to exclusive, literalistic, and extreme Protestant theologies and churches—the kind of teachings and congregations that once were thought of as fundamentalistic.

 

THE BIBLE

Many Evangelical churches believe in the “verbal plenary inspiration” of scripture. They say that every single word in the Bible is “God-breathed” (almost dictation-style), and they insist on reading the Scriptures literally. Of course, when pressed, many Evangelical Christians will admit that if any biblical writings are truly inspired, it would have to be the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts which most of us cannot read, not the English translations that are in the pew racks of virtually all American churches, and which most of us have common access to. Some Evangelicals also realize that many alternative Hebrew and Greek texts are extant—and that there are just as many ongoing controversies over the question of which alternative texts, and which readings of those texts, are the most authoritative and inspired.

Evangelicals do understand that some parts of the Bible text are allegorical, and/or contain metaphors and figures of speech that make little or no sense when read literally. Thus, in Mark 9:43, when Jesus said that it is better for a person to cut off her or his hand than to go to hell with two good hands, he was not actually advising his followers to go off and maim themselves!

In contrast to this Evangelical approach to the Bible, many Progressives say that they take the Bible seriously but not literally. They say that while the Bible is the Word of God, it is not a science textbook. It gives us general faith principles for guidance, but it does not give us detailed prescriptions for dealing with complex social, political, and economic problems, like whether to vote for a particular political candidate, or whether the United States should go to war with Iran, or whether a caregiving wife should ask doctors to disconnect her terminally-ill husband’s breathing tube and life-support system.

 

JESUS

Many Evangelicals try to harmonize the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings—and they view the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as historically factual and accurate. They echo the Chalcedonian Creed’s declaration of 451 A.D., that Jesus is fully God and fully man, deserving of humankind’s worship and allegiance as Lord and Savior.

Most Evangelicals believe in Jesus’ “vicarious substitutionary death” on the cross. Citing such scriptures as Galatians 3:10 and 13 (“All who rely on the law are under a curse; [but] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree’”); 1 Peter 2:24 (“He bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness”); and 1 Peter 3:18 (“Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God”), they insist that Jesus was punished by God and “died in our place,” and they emphasize the blood of Jesus—indeed, they say that the wrath of God against humanity could only be appeased by the shedding of Jesus’ blood. Thus, Calvary was the reason Jesus was born. He came to “die for our sins.” In effect, God was enraged over human sinfulness, and wanted to destroy humankind, but killed Jesus instead.

Progressives disagree with much of this. Many agree with leading Jesus Seminar theologian Marcus Borg, who distinguished between the “pre-Easter Jesus,” or the Jesus of history who was a finite, mortal, and somewhat mysterious figure we don’t know much about—and the “post-Easter Jesus” of Christian experience and tradition, who is eternal, divine, and fully knowable through faith.

Many Progressives insist that the sacrificial atonement doctrine was a minor theme in Christian theology until St. Anselm began emphasizing it in his teaching sometime around 1000 C.E.  Before then, the early church fathers thought of Christ’s work primarily in terms of his victory over death.

Drawing on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, many Progressives assert that God did not need the cross, or for that matter the shedding of Jesus’ blood, in order to forgive human sin. God’s forgiveness of sin was simply the product of God’s merciful and sovereign desire to forgive sin. Period.

Thus, some Progressives suggest that the substitutionary death doctrine amounts to little more than cosmic child abuse. It is based on the premise that sin needs to be punished. This idea of a great cosmic balance sheet that must somehow be balanced is both un-Christian and un-Biblical, they say.

Progressives believe that Jesus’ arrest, torture, and death were acts of scapegoating—in the sociological sense of that term, in which a group of people punish or lynch an innocent, vulnerable person, for perceived offenses which are really projections of the group’s own failures. Examples of such scapegoating can be found throughout the Bible, from the story of Joseph and his brothers, to the accounts of Daniel and Susanna, to Jesus—and whenever scapegoating occurs in the Bible, the Biblical narrative sides with the victim.

Most Progressives agree with blogger John Petty, who noted in his Progressive Involvement blog that “the God of Jesus was not a wrathful God itching to get even with sinful people.  In fact, according to Jesus, God rather liked people.  Sinners didn’t bother Jesus all that much.  Quite the contrary.  Jesus always seemed to see people in a better light than they saw themselves.”

 

SALVATION

Many Evangelicals believe that making a “one-time decision for Christ” is the most important responsibility that every person has in her or his life. Often, that decision is made at a spouse’s or parent’s urging, but it could be made during an “altar call”—that is, by raising one’s hand or walking forward to the front of the church, in response to a pastor’s or evangelist’s appeal, at the end of a worship service or evangelistic meeting, at a church camp, or in a youth group meeting.

Many Evangelical churches emphasize that humans are sinful by nature (or, in the phraseology of John Calvin, are “totally depraved”), and are destined to spend eternity in hell unless they become “born again.” Often, Evangelical churches and their adherents refer to this spiritual responsibility, which they insist that all people have, in an almost formulaic way, as “getting saved,” or “receiving Christ,” or “making a decision for Christ,” or, “asking Jesus to come into one’s heart.”

Many Evangelicals believe that such a spiritual encounter with Jesus, along with an orthodox understanding of Christianity, and a literal understanding of the Bible, are the only means of salvation. Didn’t Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6)? Thus, non-Christians, followers of other spiritual teachers and traditions, devout Jews who are not followers of Jesus, and faithful adherents of other world religions will not go to heaven, even if they live lives of great moral virtue, and perform deeds of kindness and service for the poor and the unfortunate. They are destined for eternal punishment because they did not “invite Jesus into their hearts.”

By contrast, most Progressive or Mainline churches and congregants insist that they are just as concerned about people’s relationship to God as Evangelical churches and their followers are, but they understand salvation to be ongoing—it is a journey rather than a destination. Further, since the Christian journey is a common or a universal human experience, many progressives would say that “there are many different roads that lead to God,” and that all of us are being saved every day. Indeed, some Progressive Christians reject the concept of hell altogether, and say that a loving God saves all people—even if they do not “make a decision for Christ”—indeed, even if they are Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim or Atheist.

Many Progressive Churches emphasize that salvation is not a formula, and that there is no special power or magic in the expressions, “getting saved” or “being born again,” or “asking Jesus into one’s heart.” Indeed, when one studies the scriptures, she discovers that there is great variety in how the Biblical writers advised their readers to deepen their relationship with God and with Christ: The Christian scriptures refer variously to loving and trusting God, doing God’s will, following Jesus, becoming disciples of Christ, doing good works, believing, persevering, being righteous (or practicing righteousness), being a devout God-fearing person, suffering for Jesus’ sake, remaining faithful, walking with Christ, walking in the light, abiding in Christ, and embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage. Thus, a saving encounter with Christ does not only happen one time, and it does not happen only by walking down the aisle to the altar, or only by praying the “sinner’s prayer” that is printed on a tract or suggested by the pastor.

 

THE CHURCH’S MISSION

Many Evangelical efforts at mission are prompted by Jesus’ Great Commission, in which he told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). Impressed by these verses and by Biblical references to, and teachings about, Jesus’ Second Coming, many Evangelical Christians believe that those who have not heard the Gospel message (in effect, all non-Christians and non-church-goers, and all persons who, they feel, do not espouse or exhibit proper Christian values and behaviors) must be told about Jesus and given a chance to repent and seek the salvation that can only be given by Christ, before the Second Coming or the “rapture” of Christ’s body, the Church—at which point it will be too late for repentance or salvation.

More than anything else, this twin idea—Jesus Great Commission and the belief that God’s divine clock is ticking, and that Jesus is coming back very soon!—animates the Evangelical idea of the Church’s mission. The Church’s imperative is not to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, or alleviate suffering; rather, the Church’s imperative is to preach the Gospel and invite as many people as possible to “receive Christ” before it is too late.

In addition, many Evangelical pastors, leaders, and congregants ascribe to a thinly-Christianized version of Plato’s notion of the body as the prisonhouse of the soul. According to this idea, matter is temporal, and is subordinate to spirit which is eternal; thus, the human body and all of its passions, hungers, and needs are far less important than the human soul. It follows from this idea that the work of the church must focus on worship, on the care and nurture of the soul, and on basic Christian formation—on teaching congregants about the Bible, Jesus and God—and not on providing or advocating for social and economic justice.

Some Evangelicals believe that since getting and staying “right with God” is the paramount human responsibility, every worship service, class, or event that is held in the church should offer people an opportunity to make a “decision for Christ.” Thus, many Evangelical churches see the ultimate goal of their outreach programs, church suppers, food pantry and clothing-giveaway ministries, and missions as “winning souls for Christ.” Relatedly, some Evangelical pastors consider it their duty to give “altar calls” at the conclusion of every worship service and church event—even at weddings and funerals!

By contrast, Progressive and Mainline Christians are more favorably impressed by Jesus’ Great Commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Progressive and Mainline Churches and congregants assert that God is concerned with everyone and with everything—with the whole person and with the whole Earth; thus, salvation is communal and global, it is not individualistic. It follows that the Church’s mission must not only be about getting people “saved.” It must also be about protecting the environment, promoting global peace and justice, helping feed the hungry, and improving the lives and promoting the dignity of all people—including those we might think of as foreigners, enemies, or otherwise different from us.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Each of these topics—and each comparative discussion of what Evangelicals and Progressives believe—deserves a much fuller treatment than we can entertain in these two blog posts. If you are interested in further explorations of these topics, a good place to begin studying might be Marcus Borg’s excellent Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.

A final word. If you are anything like me you hate to be labeled. So be aware that the theological words (Progressive, Evangelical, Mainline, Charismatic, Independent, and the like) that I have used to describe churches and their congregants (as well as the various discussions in this blog of how Evangelicals and Progressives think about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church’s mission) are not prescriptive but descriptive. I am not telling you or your church what to believe, nor am I telling you by what label you must call yourself. Rather, I am reporting what I see, what is out there. I invite your disagreement and discussion. Post a comment!

The Labels and Doctrines That Unite and Divide Us (Part I)

Recently, I engaged in a series of conversations with friends and congregants who had asked me what the difference is between United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations and theology, other Progressive or Mainline Protestant churches and teachings, and Evangelical faith traditions and doctrines.

I offered a simple answer—which quickly became complicated (and inadvertently misleading). I said that quite often, Evangelical churches and beliefs are associated with Southern Baptist, Reformed, Wesleyan, and Lutheran (Missouri Synod) denominations, or may have the words, Independent or Bible Church in their names.

I added that nowadays Fundamentalistic churches and traditions are theologically similar to Evangelical congregations and theologies. Or perhaps I should say it the other way around: Evangelical churches and teachings are hard to distinguish from fundamentalistic ones.

Charismatic fellowships include churches and doctrines that are affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Pentecostal, and Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) denominations.

Mainline or Progressive Protestant congregations and beliefs (I use these two terms interchangeably) may be Presbyterian (USA), Congregationalist, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, Unitarian, and UCC.

I also said that United Methodist and ELCA churches and theologies can be either Evangelical or Mainline: In rural America and in the South, they tend to be Evangelical, while urban congregations and their teachings often lean Progressive.

Black and ethnic congregations and their doctrines are often (but not always) theologically Evangelical and socially Progressive.

Perhaps it was inevitable that most of the friends and congregants I said these things to were not entirely pleased with my explanations. In particular, Annette, who attends a church I pastor, said she did not like to think of her church as Progressive. The term, Progressive, sounds, well, liberal—and even though it is a United Church of Christ congregation, she did not think it should be liberal. Annette added that any attempt I made to highlight the differences between other churches and theologies (be they Evangelical or Mainline) and our own congregation and beliefs would be divisive and upsetting—especially to inclusive, ecumenically-minded UCC people. Moreover, such comparisons would inevitably be imprecise—so it’s better not to draw any distinctions between various churches and their doctrines!

I agreed that yes, theological language and discussions can be confusing and vague, but unfortunately, there is no other medium for communication, for learning about other churches and their teachings, for dispelling misinformation, and for coming to terms with our own religious beliefs and values. I even quoted those great poets and philosophers of love, language, and life, the Bee Gees: It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your syncretism away—at least, I think that’s what Barry was singing!—to say that not all Christian beliefs fit together, and that churches don’t all teach the same things. Without language and discussion, and without drawing sharp distinctions, we lose all understanding and comprehension. And besides, education and awareness are their own rewards.

To be sure, the differences between churches—even churches in the same denomination—can be significant, and are not always tidy. A congregation’s history and culture, in addition to its geographic location, and whether it is urban, suburban, exurban, or rural, can make it more or less “Evangelical” or “Progressive.” For example, some UCC congregations, located in rural communities throughout Central New York, are quite Evangelical in character—and ignore (or openly defy) the Progressive theology and ethos of the United Church of Christ and of the New York Conference of the UCC. This can make it maddeningly difficult for someone who moves from, say, California or Massachusetts to a small village in Central New York, and starts visiting rural UCC churches hoping to find a congregation that is similar to the one she attended in San Francisco or Boston!

But why should congregants and church leaders pay attention to these terms and labels, and to the diversity of congregational cultures and beliefs that they signify? And why is it important to talk about our differences? For lots of reasons. First, we UCC’ers say that our unity as a denomination and as congregations is not based on our uniformity; rather, it is based on our diversity. Indeed, the United Church of Christ has a variety of Progressive, Mainline, and quasi-Evangelical churches in its 39 Conferences, and many if not most of these churches have Progressive Christians worshipping side-by-side with more traditional and Evangelical Christians every Sunday. This fact in and of itself is bound to cause confusion—and refusing to discuss our differing perspectives, or pretending they don’t exist, only exacerbates the confusion.

(It is highly questionable how diverse the United Church of Christ really is, and what we UCC’ers mean when we say that we are a diverse church—but that is a different discussion for a different blog article. See my October post, “How Diverse Is the United Church of Christ?”)

Second, many church people are genuinely confused by the religious and theological language that we preachers use—it is a kind of jargon, and it is almost never explicitly defined or explained. Churchgoers and leaders say that they would benefit greatly if women and men of the cloth would explain what they are saying, and what they and their churches believe, in simple language.

Third, many people—including a sizable number of church people—believe that the theological differences and denominational distinctives among churches do not matter, and that one church and one set of beliefs is about as good as another. Indeed, some openly admit that they don’t care what is taught by the church they attend or by its parent denomination; others say that they started going to a particular church because it was the closest one to their house or apartment. Similarly, some church people, and even church leaders, believe that a pastor is a pastor is a pastor—essentially that all ministers are the same and believe the same things. They are not and they do not.

Such confusion can be especially problematic when a church is looking for a new minister. Typically, when this happens in a United Church of Christ congregation, an Associate Conference Minister, or some other Conference official, will drive over and provide resources for that church’s search committee, answer questions, and begin to help the congregation find a suitable Interim Minister, and eventually, a new pastor. The denominational person may also bring along reflective self-analysis guides, “church profile” templates, “search and call” information, and, when appropriate, the names and profiles of appropriate pastoral candidates. Usually, this happens quickly, automatically and seamlessly. All Progressive and Mainline denominations have processes that are approximately similar.

But what if a church does not have any denominational affiliation? What if a church’s relationship with its denomination is estranged? Or what if a denomination ceases to exist, as some small denominations have in recent decades? What if the middle judicatory of a particular denomination goes bankrupt, disappears, or becomes inaccessible? (Such an occurrence may seem unthinkable, but at least one UCC Conference Minister announced recently that his Conference’s finances were stretched impossibly-thin, and that if donations and other income did not go up, that Conference could cease to exist in four years. One certainly hopes that the good Conference Minister was exaggerating when he said this, perhaps in an effort to encourage churches and members to increase their giving to the United Church of Christ!)

Might there come a day when denominational assistance and resources are not available to Mainline congregations that are looking for a new pastor? I don’t know. But if such a day comes, search committees will be on their own and will need to know how to distinguish an Evangelical minister from one with a more Progressive theology. If they can’t make such a basic distinction, they may “call” or hire a minister who is not a good theological fit.

A number of bad things can then happen, in rapid succession. The newly-hired minister may quickly become frustrated and quit. Or the new minister may frustrate the congregation and be fired. Or the new minister may try to “hijack” the church—that is, try to separate it from its parent denomination. There are other possible outcomes—but none of them are good.

To make matters worse, every church has at least one well-intentioned congregant who knows of an unemployed preacher, or has a distant cousin who “does a little preaching and pastoring on the side”—but rarely do such unaffiliated reverends and would-be reverends prove to be qualified or appropriate ministerial candidates. Ever hear the old saying, marry in haste; repent in leisure? It also applies to churches and to the pastors they call.

(A true story: I am familiar with one fairly small, fairly-conservative and fairly-independent-minded UCC congregation that recently found itself floundering after the departure of its pastor. And sure enough, a congregant at that church had a friend who he thought was some kind of a minister—so he called him. That friend turned out to be a Mormon Elder, who offered to come over and baptize the entire congregation en masse into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints! As of this writing, that church has not yet taken up the Mormon Elder’s offer.)

Fourth, and most basically, despite the fact that we UCC’ers say that ours is a diverse and an ecumenically-minded church, and that we welcome and accept Progressive Christians, Mainline Christians, traditional and Evangelical Christians, fundamentalists, in short, everybody—and actually, because of this fact!—we do discuss and worry about theology; we do ask theological questions (“What’s the difference between what we believe and what that other church teaches?”); and we do make practical theological distinctions and value judgments all the time.

Fifth, the labels and terms we use, and the distinctions we draw between various denominations and their teachings, are like maps and GPS devices that help us find our way. As such, they are essential. I am someone who gets easily lost, so I am quite fond of that GPS ap on my iPhone that tells me where I am in relation to where I want to go. I also like those big kiosks on university campuses and in shopping malls, that tell me what other buildings or stores are in the vicinity. In much the same way, it is useful to be aware of the full range of theological beliefs, and to know where we are in relation to them—even though we may be very happy in the church or denomination we are in.

I am interested in your thoughts and ideas.  This discussion raises all sorts of interesting questions:

  • How would you have answered the person who asked me, “What’s the difference” between UCC churches and theology and the teachings and religious practices of other denominations? Do you think there are any significant differences? If so, what are they?
  • How committed are you to your particular church or denomination—can you say that the church that you now attend, or its parent denomination, is “better” than other churches or denominations? Why or why not? And in what sense is it “better”?
  • Should we talk about, or emphasize, the differences between various churches and denominations?  Why or why not?
  • How would you have answered Annette’s concern that talking about our differences is divisive, upsetting, and ultimately imprecise—so it’s best not to even try?

Evangelical and Mainline or Progressive churches can be distinguished in terms of their teachings about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church’s mission.  We will examine these differences in Part II.