Just last week, I met up with an acquaintance with whom I had grown up in the church, but who, after studying sociology in college, dropped the faith because it simply “didn’t help him understand the world” in a way that made a difference as to how he would live his life. Faith in Jesus was not a live option for him because it seemed that various other sociological factors could better explain the dynamics of Christianity than the self-definition that Christians themselves offered of themselves. Part of faith, of course, comes from being willing to believe against belief that we will all be one as God himself is one, but one cannot blame him for noting how ethnic background, socio-economic status, and even political affiliations seem to play a larger role in informing the life decisions of Christians than the conviction that we are part of a new humanity in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female.
Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, in writing about the scandal of disunity in the church, pushed back against the common notion that the roots of schism lay primarily in differences of doctrine about the nature of faith and salvation. In his 1929 book The Social Sources of Denominationalism, he suggests that doctrinal differences – although real – often find their original motivation in varying social conditions at the time:
“What is true of [Christian] ethics and polity is true of theology. Less directly, but nonetheless effectively, theological opinions have their roots in the relationship of the religious life to the cultural and political conditions prevailing in any group of Christians.… Doctrines and practice change with the mutations of social structure, not vice versa; the ideological interpretation of such changes quite misses the point.”
He backs up his claim by retelling the history of the church, not as a history of doctrinal development in response to social challenges, but as a history of social challenges leading to “doctrinal disagreement” and schism. The Reformation was certainly grounded in the “rediscovery” of “justification by faith”, but it was just as much grounded in the failure of the Catholic church to accommodate the interests of the rising middle class. Little wonder, then, that the middle-class-oriented Reformers found themselves facing the demands of lower-class radical reformers (the Peasants’ Rebellion in Germany and the Anabaptists in Switzerland) not long after they established themselves.
The advent of denominationalism in light of the religious-political arrangements of the United States only made things worse. When the principle of “free association” is the name of the game, it is no surprise that like clings to like, especially when taking the way of the cross might involve giving up one’s lifestyle and privileges. The separation of church and state, for all of its benefits, has also resulted in a veritable explosion of churches and denominations divided on all kinds of lines. This is, for all of us, an absolute scandal. Niebuhr ends his book with a lament:
“From its position of leadership in the task of integrating humanity [the Church] has fallen to the position of a follower in a social process guided by economic and political forces. In its denominational aspect, at least, it has become part and parcel of the world, one social institution alongside of many others, a phase of the total civilization more frequently conditioned by other cultural tendencies than conditioning them. The old vision of the time when the kingdom of this world should be transformed into a kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ has faded into the light of a common day in which the brute facts of an unchanging human nature, of the invincible fortifications of economic and political society, of racial pride, economic self-interest and Realpolitik appear in their grim reality. The denominationalism which has been built on these foundations is the church’s confession of defeat and the symbol of its surrender.”
As the church gears herself to confront the challenges of secularity that beset us today, the challenge of Christian unity may indeed be one of the most important battles that need to be fought. If the ekklesia of God is to be anything more than just another “choice” in the ever-widening panoply of options fighting for a slot in our ever-busy schedules, we need to find a way to make it clear to the world that the church is not simply reducible to another sociological force, but the place where God himself dwells. It must be clear to all that the God we worship is not merely the Catholic God, the Presbyterian God, the Pentacostal God, or even the non-Denominational God but “one” God. Not only the God of Rome or of Scotland. Not only the God of white or black. Not only the God of rich or poor. Not only the God of intellectuals or the working class. But the same Lord of all, rich to all who call upon his name.