Brutal Presbyterian Disunity

Brutal Presbyterian Disunity December 20, 2012

There is a very useful but very sobering chart partway through James H. Smylie’s A Brief History of the Presbyterians. It documents the various strands that became American Presbyterianism and the many schisms that emerged from those stands (some of which later merged back into the larger Presbyterian churches): the Old School and the New School, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (and the Second Cumberland Presbyterian Church), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Church, and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, to name just a few. Looking at the chart makes my head spin. Anglicans get plenty of well-deserved attention for their efforts at disunity, but Presbyterians at least deserve an honorary mention in this game.

Communion of the Apostles, by Fra Angelico, 1440-41

Ephraim Radner, in his A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, reminds us that it should also make our hearts sag. The division of the Christian Church mutes its voice and renders impotent its opposition to the evils surrounding it. Radner frames his discussion around eristology rather than schismatology or heresiology. That in and of itself is enormously helpful. Eris is the Greek goddess of discord and strife.

How could American Protestants do anything but greet denominationalism with a shrug? It’s our reality, and we might even believe that denominationalism creates a competitive religious marketplace in which a multiplicity of Christian churches reaches more people with the Gospel than would otherwise be the case. The problem isn’t just that there are different churches, though division in and of itself reflects the divine between human beings and the oneness, the divine unity, of God. (Radner examines the actual consequences of disunity — see his chapter “Division is Murder”).

Moreover, Christians typically are not just divided, but are also hostile toward one another. Consider my own Presbyterians. I a member of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). I am used to denominational discord over the issue of homosexuality. It’s been underway for decades (the issue of homosexuality came to the fore shortly after different groups of Presbyterians both united and fractured over the issue of ordaining women as ministers). As a student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, I attended a PCUSA General Assembly back in the early 2000s. Presbyterians (well, at least one faction of the church) dearly wanted to take stands against injustice in the world and passed resolutions pertaining to everything from drilling for oil in Alaska to violence in Columbia. It was hard for me to regard such resolutions as anything but a waste of time. Why would the U.S. government (let along foreign governments) listen to a dwindling and fractured denomination?

After that General Assembly, I largely stopped following denominational politics. Why not concentrate on one’s thriving local congregation and ignore the depressing state of affairs at the denominational level? That worked pretty well until 2011. Then, after presbyteries approved a General Assembly resolution that removed obstacles to the ordination of gays and lesbians, my local church fractured. The session asked the membership to vote on whether or not to remain within the denomination. By a significant margin, members voted to remain. About 35% or so voted to leave the denomination, and they left the denomination by leaving my local church. Soon, the pews were half-empty. There were a handful of kids each week for the children’s story instead of a large group. Certainly American Christians place far too much emphasis upon numbers and growth, but rapid shrinkage and the disappearance of friends and stalwart members is terribly depressing. Thankfully, by the time we moved out of state the congregation seemed to be emerging from the doom-and-gloom phase. Presbyterian congregations across the country have been enduring similar tragedies in recent years, as churches vote to leave the denomination and presbyteries battle with congregations over the control of property.

Radner notes that for Plato, the “eristic” was “the skill simply for winning arguments, quite apart from belief or perhaps even truth.”  Certainly, there have been factions within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who have been primarily concerned with winning the struggles over human sexuality, with pragmatic strategies and vote-counting. At the same time, I know that people of good will on both sides have recognized the danger of Eris and have sought common Christian ground, dialogue, and unity. At times of rancor, Presbyterians love to sing “The Church’s One Foundation is Jesus Christ Her Lord.” Still, too many liberals and evangelicals fall into the mindset of the 1920s, when fundamentalists like J. Gresham Machen concluded that liberal Protestant or modernism was something other than Christianity and modernists like Harry Emerson Fosdick largely reached the same conclusion about fundamentalism. One reason that Christian unity is so difficult is that it’s easy to rationalize discord with apostates and heretics. Any attempt at unity must begin with a rather capacious definition of Christianity.


I haven’t attempted to summarize the complex arguments presented by Ephraim Radner in A Brutal Unity (his connection between Christian (dis)unity and the rise of the liberal, western state is a particularly important contribution). The book is not an easy or quick read, but the questions are of obvious importance, however much American Protestants might wish to ignore them: “the forgotten division — which multiplies into manifold divisions — is not for the sake of healing but for the sake of ongoing conflict, for the sake of remaining separate and allowing such separation to be unquestioned, to stand for the whole.” For those who respond to any discussion with either a shrug or a very realistic response that nothing will ever change (probably true, because even institutional unity usually comes with a full measure of factionalism and actual disunity), this sentence suggests the depth of Radner’s insight: “Ecclesiological eristology ought to be aimed, instead, at grasping the way in which the Church qua Church is ordered by God such that her hostility — her internal violence — can reveal the truths of God’s own being and acts: the one God, the Church of whose Son is one in adoring expression of his life and nature.”

This post is part of the Patheos Book Club conversation about Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church.

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  • Steve

    This is a troubling problem which affects many people I know. Many are on a lifelong journey of trying to find the truth amidst all the disagreements. What, do you suppose, is the solution to this dilemma? When two sincere, God-fearing, and learned people disagree about important matters of doctrine, how can simple folk know for sure what is true?

  • Denominations surely make one’s head spin. With Oxford University noting 44,000+ autonomous denominations how can one ever keep them straight. documents a few hundred of them with some attempt at humor here and there. If there is such a thing as “truth” then there must be one denomination who has the fullness of it and if what Christ said is true in Mat 16:18-19 and especially Mat 18:17-18 then that one denomination must have been in physical existence from the very beginning.

  • Jodie

    Questions that divide the Church do not come from the Holy Spirit. But one has to wonder, why should a denomination exist in the first place? Are they not mere hold overs from the days of state religion? What purpose do they serve in America? One also has to wonder, when you back away a certain distance, it all seems to be whether you say tomahto and I say tomayto. The only thing we really know about Jesus and following Him ends up being what we learn from Him in prayer, one on one. The clergy is breaking the very Church they are ordained to lead. The rest of us are rapidly loosing interest in tomatoes of any kind.

  • John Raley

    Twenty years ago I too was a member of PCUSA. Year after year I watched as the denomination got bogged down in the gay and lesbian issue and finially after the “Sofia” incident in Minnesota I called for a moratorium (I was on the board of elders) of our “head tax” contribution until someone from presbytery come and explain themselves. A rep did come and he was geniunely perplexed as to why anyone would be upset over this disgrace. (Can’t go into it here..lets just say they made a mockery of the Lord’s Supper) I then realized that this demoniation was in real (and probably still is) trouble.
    The Gospel in my view had either gotton lost or redifined into “Reimagining” (per the “Sofia” group of the church) I simply could not recognize or abide by this dysfuntional denomination any longer. A blind person could see that much trouble lay ahead and since that time many church’s have voted to break away from the PCUSA.
    I am envious of both Catholicism and the Orthodox church as both can trace their origins right back to the beginning of Christianity. Even my own denomination (Luteran) has had to go through splits. All these denominations are an absurdity, I do not think it was meant to be that way, I think that at least those church’s that maintain faithfullnes to the Creeds of the early church (Apostle’s, Nicene, Athunasion sp)
    are more likely to stay on the Orthodox Faith than those who do not. I have also been giving more thougt to the tradition of the church which also helps one to stay on a clear path.

  • johnturner

    I just came across physician, Founding Father, and Presbyterian-turned-Protestant eclectic Benjamin Rush’s apologetic for Christian “disunity”:

    It would seem as if one of the designs of Providence in permitting the existence of so many Sects of Christians was that each Sect might be a depository of some great truth of the Gospel, and taht it might by that means be better preserved. Thus to the Catholics and Moravians he has committed the Godhead of the Saviour, hence they worship and pray to him; to the Episcopal, Presbyterian, and Baptist Church the decrees of God and partial redemption, or the salvation of the first fruits, which they ignorantly suppose to include all who shall be saved. To the Luterhans and Methodists he has committed the doctrine of universal redemption, to the Quakers the Godhead and influences of the Holy Spirit, to the Unitarians, the humanity of our Saviour… Let the different Sects of Christians not only bear with each other, but love each other for this kind display of God’s goodness whereby all the truths of their Religion are so protected that none of them can ever become feeble or be lost.

  • John Raley

    With all due respect to Dr Rush I hope that his medical expertise is much superior to his theological outlook.
    What he is indicating is precisely the problem of Christendom today. I mean there are actually things that one MUST believe in order to define oneself as a christian. (i.e The Creeds) It is one thing for the christian church’s to try and accomodate perhaps the “style” of worship or the nomenclature to fit the cultural surrondings (modern rock christian musiic would be a prime example) But THE MESSAGE should be the same as it has always been from the very beginning …the Gospel..the Good News….Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and through Him we have purpose.
    In passing…Unitarians?? They are not christian and should not be considered as such. I think that Dr Rush may have a point in that this diversity at least provides a “fail safe” mechanism to insure that some entities within christendom maintain orthodox doctrine. This is why there are so many splits among the “mainline” denominations and I suppose from that standpoint it is a good thing.

  • Sharon Singh

    It should be no wonder why disunity exists when the structure of a denomination is more similar to our government or large corporations. Denominations are formed from the discord of one man’s interpretation of the word of God and the unwillingness of others to counsel each other to reach a resolve which is beneficial for all. The word of God is simplistic and forthcoming as to what our tasks are in this life. The ego of man seems to reign supreme instead of finding solutions to strengthen the body of Christ. How can we expect to prove as examples for non belivers when we cannot work out issues amongst each other? Our house is divided. Perhaps we should pay more attention to “fix your own house before you try to fix another’s.” We are not setting a good example when we are exibiting behaviors which are commonplace in this world.

  • I left the PCUSA back in 1999 because of the growing liberalism. I thought it was bad then, but I am totally shocked how far the denomination has slipped into apostasy. The local church I had belonged to for 25 years has recently left the denomination as well ( Since joining a PCA congregation, I have never looked back. God’s Word is absolute and there is no discussion otherwise. I can live joyfully with that stance.