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.

Published by

Chris Xenakis

Chris Xenakis is a pastor, an adjunct lecturer in political science, an old school black and white photographer, and a sometime amateur actor.