Guest Post: Christian Smith on Presbyterian Narcissism

Guest Post: Christian Smith on Presbyterian Narcissism June 28, 2012

Dr. Christian Smith (William R. Kenan, Jr.  Professor of Sociology; Director, Center for the Study of Religion & Society at Notre Dame University; author of The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture) recently contacted me to ask if I was interested in posting some thoughts he had on “the narcissism of small differences,” which Smith thinks is one of the psychological underpinnings of the perpetual theological conflicts that beset conservative Presbyterianism.

I was hesitant at first to post this piece, as I was concerned that, given the topic and my history with this Christian sub-group, my motivations might be misconstrued. I would also have expressed myself somewhat differently on a number of points.

I decided to proceed, however, because Smith’s analysis is clearly applicable beyond the narrow confines of conservative Presbyterianism–a point Smith himself makes. I am confident that others from a variety of ecclesiastical backgrounds will be able to switch names and  particulars and see their own experiences in Smith’s observations.

I would only add that my purpose for posting is not simply finger-pointing. More difficult than offering an analysis of a problem is thinking of constructive ways forward as followers of Christ, truly united in love for the other rather than the self. Every single one of us should take that challenge to heart, and in so doing truly bear witness to the Gospel. But part of that process includes calling the body of Christ to account, and bluntly if needed.


There is something very strange about the Reformed Protestant world in which I grew up and which I have since left. By “Reformed Protestant world” here I mean circles of conservative Presbyterianism represented by institutions such as Westminster Theological Seminary, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the “neo-Reformed” movement, and so on.

I am sure that these dynamics apply in many non-Reformed and non-Presbyterian circles, but I limit what I say here to them, since I know them best.

Almost all of the people that I know in this world are really good folk. I owe a great deal to them. But for some odd reason, they do love to make huge controversies out of minor issues. The smallest points of doctrine become major subjects of storm and battle. Endless attention and energy gets spent on matters that, with a bit of distance, are clearly tempests in teapots.

Doctrinal controversy seems almost to function as a form of community entertainment, something to prevent things from getting too boring. So, various of them continually “bringing charges against” others of them in their congregations or presbyteries within the denominational “court systems,” which seems to be a never-ending source of interest.

I have always chalked up these pervasive making-mountains-out-of-molehills tendencies to a kind of subcultural trauma suffered during the early-twentieth-century modernist-fundamentalist battles, in which the conservative Presbyterians were trounced in the 1920s—and in particular to losing Princeton Theological Seminary to the liberals (which gave rise to Westminster Seminary).

A kind of post-traumatic-stress syndrome beset the conservative Presbyterian subculture from that trauma, it seems to me, which gave rise to the kind of nervous “doctrinal legalism” that continues today. (Limiting “leadership” to [de facto] white males—the homogeneity of the composition of annual General Assembly photos published in denominational magazines is astounding!— cannot help either, seeing how that tends to skew discussion more toward “principles” than relationships, but that is another story.)

Recently, however, I came across a concept in psychology that I think sheds illuminating light on the tendencies described above: the narcissism of small differences. Now, I am no advocate of allowing psychology to colonize Christian truth—far too much of that has already happened in both mainline and evangelical Christianity. But the narcissism of small differences is too revealing to be ignored.

The term was coined by Sigmund Freud (which unfortunately means that those who most need to understand it will be the least willing to take it seriously). The basic idea is this: groups of people are often most sensitive and snotty toward those who they are most socially alike. Human groups do not have their fiercest conflicts with those who are quite different from them. Instead, they display the greatest pettiness and viciousness in fighting those who they look the most like.

About the narcissism of small differences, Freud wrote: “It is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other,” thus displaying “such sensitiveness…to just these details of differentiation” (Civilization, Society and Religion, Penguin Freud Library, 12, pp. 131, 305).

Now, I think Freud is nuts when it comes to most things he wrote. But he hit the nail on the head with this one. The narcissism of small differences is a clear and widespread dynamic in human social life. We so often consider so important the little things that make us different from those who are otherwise so much like us. So people engage in major efforts to define, elaborate, justify, and police those small differences in ways that usually leads to conflict.

Doing just that helps to solidify a clear and firm sense of self-identity in situations that otherwise might involve some ambiguity (which most people do not like and some sorts of people absolutely abhor). It also helps validate one’s own importance and significance in life and the world, by being an agent defending seemingly crucial issues against similar people who threaten to corrupt truth or violate boundaries. Often the very similarity of the other makes them seem a greater threat as a possible corrupter or misrepresenter of who and what one is and believes.

This narcissism of small differences explains a lot of human conflict in history. It explains why socialist and communist political parties are always so factionalized. It explains why the Amish and Mennonites have split over buttons versus zippers. It explains why residents of Rwanda, ex-Yugoslavia, and other places have found it so easy to exterminate their co-residents who are only somewhat different from them. It explains why “nice” neighbors in “nice” neighborhoods can become so competitive and snarky about symbolic-status issues, like who has the finer lawn mower and greener yard grass.

But for present purposes, what the narcissism of small differences very powerfully explains, I think, is the prevailing tendency among conservative Reformed and Presbyterian Christians in the U.S. to spend so much time, energy, and attention arguing over and policing and prosecuting what in reality are relatively minor—sometimes absolutely obscure—matters of doctrine.

It is not just that they were traumatized by losing Princeton to the liberals and so always feel on edge. Those who sustain the entertainments of doctrinal and biblical legalisms are also in fact so darn similar to each other, and that theological and organizational proximity makes what are often really only very small differences seem life shaking.

That is a form of narcissism. It is narcissistic because it is driven by a quest, very real even if unacknowledged, to feed the importance of one’s own identity even at the expense of others and the church.

If so, this is well worth recognizing. It is not only the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that says that narcissism is a problem. The Bible and Christian Church teachings for two millennia would also seem to have something challenging to say, although in a different language, about the perpetual generation of conflicts and schisms that are driven in part by self-importance and, ultimately, self-love.



Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Don Johnson

    All of us have a temptation to narcissism, and part of the challenge is we can see it much easier in others than in ourselves! Thanksfully, we have some words from Jesus, something about removing planks!

    • peteenns

      Indeed. Love of self is a broad problem.

  • Lisa Kurtz

    People will always be people, unfortunately. Thank God He sent His Son to take the place of ALL our sins. Love will never be love until you give it away.

  • Christian Smith

    True enough. But what do you think of the (I think) problem that such responses can function as “Christianese”-talk correct in and of itself but used to deflect critiques, to diffuse criticism and responsibility, to remove the discomfort of hard things being said?

    • peteenns

      Chris is responding to Don, I believe.

  • JenG

    @Christian – thanks for your great book (TBMI), it was so helpful for me. While I was reading it my toddler became obsessed with your photo on the jacket and learned to say “Christian Smith”! Ha! : )

    This article rings so true… unfortunately, about myself (is it narcissism to see myself in this article? Ha!). I feel most threatened by the people in the pew next to me and am always paranoid about being lumped in with “them” (meaning people I suspect haven’t really thought through their beliefs/presuppositions and therefor think/say things that make little sense to me OR that have thought through their beliefs and have arrived at a different conclusion than me). I find myself getting along easier with, and spending less time judging, people who have distinctly different beliefs and worldviews than me.

    This concept makes good sense to me – it reminds me of how I’ve often heard someone say, while I’m conflict with my mom/dad/sibling/etc the annoying phrase :”You’re just fighting because you are just too much alike!” – and it’s true. We hate when we see ourselves in someone else and find it annoying and realize that means we’re annoying….

    • peteenns

      It seems Paul struggled with the same thing when he was trying to get Christians to get along.

      • JenG

        Well, at least I’m in good company… : )

  • Very true, we are so much alike (all in the image of God) and so little different, yet we focus on differences. In this context, “small” means “things I consider to be trivial”; so you can find in the last few chapters of Chris’ book the non-trivial things he is ready to go to war over; such as psychology “colonizing” theology, and other dreadful postmodernisms.

    We forget that God is *Real*, and all our dogmas and doctrines are not construction plans but fumbling attempts at descriptions of an ungraspable reality. The more we know about psychology, the better we understand God’s image, the better equipped we are to worship as we should. Getting over myself is a good thing for me to be working on, amen, hallelujah.

    • peteenns

      Well put, Marshall.

  • Jacicorp

    I get the problems of the narcissistic preoccupations targeted by this discussion. I don’t want to be involved in these fights. I want to be gracious in my relationships inside and outside the church. I am not uncomfortable with ambiguity. But I do feel, at times, like I’m drifting. What is a small difference? What is a difference that matters? Who decides which is which, or what lies between? I doubt my own capacity for judging this. And, do I tend to resolve these tensions by simply moving the line of substantial difference to a culturally forward place where we are less contentious…for now? And how is the new situated-ness justified?

  • Alessandro

    “Doctrinal controversy seems almost to function as a form of community entertainment, something to prevent things from getting too boring.”
    ” …they do love to make huge controversies out of minor issues…”
    “…sustain the entertainments of doctrinal and biblical legalisms…”
    “it is driven by a quest, very real even if unacknowledged, to feed the importance of one’s own identity even at the expense of others and the church.”

    These are very serious accusations leveled against an entire community of believers. Is Dr. Smith really able to peer with such vivid and accurate insight into the hearts of these Christian brothers and sisters? Apparently these facts are so obvious that the best course of action is to use this public forum to highlight the small-minded sectarianism of this community of conservative Christians.

    Dr. Smith states the church limits leadership to white males and that tends to skew discussion more toward principles than relationships. Another serious accusation (the church limits leadership to whites) coupled with a stereotype (white males skew toward principles rather than relationships).

    In this article, huge swaths of God’s people have been pigeonholed as opinionated and motivated by self-aggrandizing pride. Are there those that may sinfully love to argue for argument’s sake? Undoubtedly, as there are everywhere. But there are also many godly and humble ministers and elders within these circles who approach these controversies with much prayer and weeping. Those whose love for God’s Word drives them to seek to understand how it speaks to every aspect of their lives and faith. Apparently Dr. Smith is able to determine exactly where these cross the line and are in “reality are relatively minor matters of doctrine.”

    I encourage those reading this to assess carefully how ready you are to simply accept these insights into the hearts and motivations of these brothers and sisters before joining in judgment over them.

    • peteenns

      Alessandro, I hope Chris will respond, but I have heard this type of retort quite often an it strikes me as simply deflecting legitimate criticism. That may not be what you are intending, but the effect of such a response is to insulate behaviors that can and should be called to light. Note, however, that Chris says de facto while males, which is significantly different from saying “white” is a criterion. But as I said, I hope Chris chimes in for himself.

    • Jedidiah Slaboda

      “Huge swaths” is a very relative term.

  • Christian Smith

    Alessandro: (1) I’m not talking about “hearts.” I’m talking about behaviors, practices, things that are publicly observable over decades. (2) This is no alien world to me. I know it intimately. (3) I find it interesting that Christians who are supposedly the strongest believers in “original sin” and “total depravity” often turn out to be the ones most defensive about any possible thing being wrong in their own communities. Sometimes (Freud again, unfortunately) strong defensive reactions mostly tell us that a sensitive nerve has been touched. (4) I see a lot of personalizing happening in this discussion, which is standard procedure for evangelicals. But my post is about cultural tendencies in historical traditions, communities, and denominations. Everything doesn’t boil down to the intentions of individuals (I’m being sociological here), often there are collective dynamics and unintended consequences at work none of what individuals would like to think of themselves as promoting.

    • Alessandro

      Peteenns: I am sorry that my post came across as a retort, that was not my intent. I did want to be direct with what I see as a real problem with the article, but did not intend to write in an inflammatory way. I’m sure there is legitimate criticism to be leveled at the number of and types of debates that go on and the spirit in which they are sometimes carried out. Those involved ought to be doing some careful soul-searching for exactly why they are dealing with their brothers and the finer points of doctrine in the way that they are. But this is not what I’m reacting to. It is the one-size-fits-all approach that boils it all down to the alleged narcissism of the community that concerns me.

      To your second point, I understand that Dr. Smith wrote “de Facto”, but he also wrote “Limiting”. If someone reads this who knows nothing about the community of believers what is the take away? The sub-text I think he or she may read is that although there is no written rule limiting it to whites, there is an unspoken and thus de Facto rule limiting it. Why use the word “limiting” at all? Perhaps it’s unintentional, but it’s unfairly damaging to their reputation nevertheless. Does going on about the yearly pictures of the assembly being mostly white really bolster the article’s premise about narcissism being the root of their problem that much, or is there another dynamic going on? Not sure, just seems unnecessary and unfair.

      Dr. Smith: Please relook at some of the quotes that I highlighted as well as reconsider some of your other statements in the article. When you write that they love controversy is it not a judgment about their hearts? And it’s also broadly applied as if everyone in these circles is endlessly engaging in controversy and enjoying it. It is all so sweeping. I understand that you want to take a sociological view of collective dynamics, but saying they love it as entertainment seems to me to go beyond just observations about behaviors and practices and moves into impugning motives. And it is here where I think we ought to be extremely careful.

      • Bryan

        Alessandro, I cannot agree with what you are suggesting when you say, “And it is here where I think we ought to be extremely careful.” I find this to be an odd statement because you also stated, “Apparently Dr. Smith is able to determine exactly where these cross the line”, as if to suggest that Smith is unable to determine this while you are somehow able. This is extremely problematic. I don’t buy it for even a second when you state, “Those whose love for God’s Word” apparently lovingly squabble over important matters of faith while Smith seems to apparently make light of this. These issues have gone on for centuries and have done far more damage than good. I have been steadily veering in the direction of orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy for reasons such as this. These “important doctrinal matters” have been far more burdensome than helpful. Interestingly enough, Jesus illustrates this orthopraxic solution when he used the heretical Samaritan as the proponent of his story in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. I am also deeply suspicious when I hear someone throw around the “God’s Word” card because usually those who do so have completely emptied this concept (in grand ahistorical fashion) of its massive assumptions in questioning the validity of those councils who collected the parchments and scrolls and placed them in a codex, never questioning the homework of those who did so but assuming it be “God’s Word” at the end of the day. I think Smith is right on in this article and has attempted to point out a phenomenon that has been more divisive in the church than unifying.

        • Alessandro

          Bryan, My warnings to be careful is specifically about reading the heart and motives of others. I bristled most at the language in the article about “love” and “entertainment” applied to the attitude of these brothers and their controversies. Even promoting the term “Narcissism” of small disputes suggests a motive based in pride. I can understand and even accept the premise that those who are closest to each other tend to debate the more nuanced differences. But why do they? There is a leap to state it is motivated by self-importance and, ultimately, self-love. Is it a true and insightful leap or is it a misguided leap? Who can say, but with the lack of backup provided in this article it is a leap nonetheless. The only substantiation provided is that we should trust in the decades of closeness that Dr. Smith’s has had with this group.

          I feel it crosses the line to publish in a public forum claims that this community’s controversies are narcissistic, something to prevent things from getting too boring, a never-ending source of interest, function as a form of community entertainment, love to make huge controversies, sustaining the entertainments of doctrinal and biblical legalisms, and feeding the importance of one’s own identity even at the expense of others and the church. Dr. Smith quotes Freud that “It is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.” Such a quote in an article that itself uses such ridiculing language. I wonder whether Dr. Smith is still somehow too close to this community he left, and thus my original encouragement to other readers to assess carefully the facts before joining in judgment of this community.

          My statement “Apparently Dr. Smith is able to determine exactly where these cross the line” might have been written using unnecessarily pointed language, but I do not think it is fairly compared to reading into the heart and motive. Dr. Smith clearly writes that the disputed matters are “in reality relatively minor—sometimes absolutely obscure—matters of doctrine”. I’m not reading into it. He considers these matters unimportant and writes as much. No doubt Dr. Smith, you, I, and everyone have argued a point at times that someone else might find utterly silly to debate. I’m sure there are those who find even this dialog between us to be overblown. But does that make it so? Is every controversy bad? Does no good ever come from the long difficult path of hashing out controversy? Even your own desire for orthopraxy requires a determination of what is the good practice. And shall we determine it unaided by iron-sharpening-iron that healthy (as opposed to harmful) controversy provides?

  • Melissa Fitzpatrick

    Thanks for putting some insightful sociological language around this phenomenon. I was raised in the SBC and I think we struggle with this kind of narcissism too.

  • Tony M

    Dr. Enns, thank you for going forward with publishing Dr. Smith’s comments. They are insightful and very stimulating for thinking through. This is a beneficial conversation to be engaged in. I was raised SBC and I often pondered some of the very things Dr. Smith brings up. Why is it that some are so willing to schism and vilify over such small squabbles? I still am trying to work through that. Unity amongst our diversity seems to be a biblical calling card for the Christian community, but many in practice seem to prefer uniformity in their community instead.

  • John Muether

    This is what Neuhaus called the law of theological propinquity — one reserves most strident criticism for those closest, in part as an effort at boundary maintenance. It seems to apply to sociological theory as much as reformed doctrine. Still I would be curious about the empirical evidence for the claim that confessional Presbyterians are particularly feisty in this regard. Does not seem to characterize the OPC, in my judgment.

    • Steve Meidahl

      John M….seriously? Nothing more characterizes the much publizied history and current reality of the OPC. As a graduate of WTS and having pastored for 8 years what was then the larest attended OPC church in the country, I can testify to the veracity of the narcissism of small differences. I was there for every presbytery meeting and was made the object of much of their robust concern since large churches in the OPC are by definition confessionally suspicious churches.Thankfully, the Lord deemed it unnecessary to bless this remnant mentality with large numbers of His people for the OPC’s care.

  • Quibbling over small matters is bad. But some may think a matter is small when it may really be not small. I have a great deal to say about baptism. I think baptism is important because Jesus commands it. It makes little difference who performs baptism into Christ, but those who are not immersed in water in the name of Jesus are not saved and headed for heaven. And it’s not unimportant whether or not the person being baptized has turned to Jesus as Lord. Those who have not turned away from sin and self-love cannot be buried with Christ in baptism and raised into new life with Him. Some things matter greatly.

    • Larry S

      actually, I don’t think you go far enough Ray.
      People have to be baptised via fully immersed and a stream that is running water – just like the Jordan. Anyone who isn’t immersed fully into a stream of running water is headed for eternal hell-fire. (Sarcasm – intended).

      I’ve heard of some Russian Christians (Mennonites) who only baptise in running water. The headed for hell-fire bit is something I added for retorical flare.

  • Thanks for the post. I loved this statement… “It is narcissistic because it is driven by a quest, very real even if unacknowledged, to feed the importance of one’s own identity even at the expense of others and the church.”
    It seems lately when I share something (for the sake of context and understanding) from my personal experience my evangelical peers have been quick to find a “logical fallacy”. I am hearing so many hurting people simply saying something so they can be understood not to win an argument. As a pastor I am tired of the polemics getting in the way of understanding within our Christian communities.

    I wonder if logic and apologetics can ever really lead to an irenic Christian community.

  • Doug Mitchell

    Thanks for this post, and your willingness to bring it thoughtfully forward. As a formerly “truly reformed”believer, I recognize and appreciate what Mr Smith has articulated here.

  • Will

    “Now, I think Freud is nuts when it comes to most things he wrote.” Dr. Smith, don’t you think this is overstating the case a bit? One wonders if you feel obligated to write this in order to play to your anticipated audience. You can’t even resist bringing up another useful Freudian theory in your comments–ok, just two ideas that weren’t “nuts,” but the rest is insanity itself? We all realize that Freud hasn’t been accepted psychological or psychiatric practice for a long time. But this man changed our entire culture with his ideas, many of which parallel biblical ideas (how about Romans 7 and the split psyche for starters?). I’m not claiming that Freud was a closet Christian, but having read a number of your books with great admiration, I was disappointed here that you seem piously allergic to one of the great intellects of counter-modernity.

    • Christian Smith

      Yes, am overstating a bit.

  • Jon hughes

    I’ve observed exactly what Christian Smith describes here in London (in both a Reformed Baptist church and a Presbyterian church), and quite frankly am sick of it.

    Spot on, Dr. Smith!

  • Christian Smith

    John M: Re: “Does not seem to characterize the OPC, in my judgment,” I trust this is a case of very wry humor, or else perhaps there are two different OPC denominations that we have experienced?

    Alessandro: Thanks for the follow-up, is helpful. It is also very possible to understand people’s motives from their actions and statements, we all do it all the time, that is how basic social life and interaction work. Otherwise we would have little idea of what anyone else is doing and why. Still, you are right that our understandings are always fallible. But a half-century of personal experience and discussions, which I can claim, goes a long way to help reduce the chance of getting it wrong. In any case, if all of us (my own Church included) are not open to robust criticism and self-criticism, then we’re really in big trouble–slogans like “Reformed and ever reforming” become even more empty than they already mostly are (in my view). A last clarification: “male” is indeed a formal limitation (based on allegedly “biblical” grounds), “white” is the de facto part reflecting the demographic near-homogeneity of the case in question. The mentioned GA photos tell it all.

  • John Muether

    Chris: I get it that the OPC is a tiny denomination whose reputation for precision (not narcissism) has led many (including perhaps yourself) to leave. But it seems you are trafficking in coarse stereotypes here. Believe it or not, the OPC went forty years (Pete will tell you that is a long time in biblical terms) before a discipline case came before its GA. Hardly a story of PTSD. You are capable of a more charitable read.

    • peteenns

      John, good to hear form you again, and go Mets (unless they are getting swept by the Yankees). I did, though, like Chris, have to do a double-take on your original comment. I thought you were kidding. The OPC is well know for insisting on levels of precision that have led to a general tenor of contentiousness, which I do not think is remotely a “course stereotype.” I don’t see how this can be gainsaid. Further, it has struck me over the years how quick the OPC is to “contend for the Gospel” before truly hearing the reasoning behind dissenting voices, and conversely how slow the OPC has been to discipline its own leaders for demonstrating a contentious and divisive spirit. I don’t mean to get into a squabble with you about what the OPC is “really” like, but–using the court metaphor so prized in that denomination–if you brought your position to the court of informed public opinion, I think the jury would have to deliberate for 10 minutes.

      To be clear, I am not condemning everyone in the OPC (including you!). Truly, I know many fine people in that denomination. The problem, as I see it, is systemic.

      • Christian Smith

        Not just talking about the OPC. The PCA is a case study when it comes to “bringing charges against.” There is a larger dynamic here. Perhaps it takes enough outside perspective to see it.
        My observation is that most in the OPC are extremely “charitable” with themselves, not open to (self-)criticism, and quite defensive and intransigent. If that were less so, these kinds of discussions would not be happening. That’s not a posture conducive to “Reformed and ever reforming” but better suited to functional infallibilism.

  • James

    So, what is the solution? Stay within the group we are so much like or move to another quite different? Won’t we eventually encounter the same problems there?

    • peteenns

      Good question, James. In my experience, some ecclesiastical unions are more open to dialogue than others. I don’t think the precise issue Chris describes here is found in all other settings. Each has it’s unique problems and challenges. The question is which of these do you want to live with.

      • Christian Smith

        At a deeper level, I think, we need to interrogate the very idea of divided ecclesial unions and communions that are all fragmented and separated from each other. But, again, that’s a whole nuther matter.

  • Steve

    Smith makes an interesting point about narcissism. But is he missing the larger point that when man assents to religion, he subjects himself to renouncing his instinct and aggression. Therefore, narcissism develops from the fact that man desires to control another’s aggression and instinct (for the sake of maintaining stability in civilization and society)?

  • The trackback is loaded with Irony. HAHAHA

  • Well put, Chris.

    My only objection would be that the Rwandan genocide and the conflict(s) in the Balkans are – at best- only very partially described as due to a narcissism of small differences. While the genetic and linguistic differences between the south Serbs in the Balkans are small (there is more difference, I think, between the Hutu and the Tutsi), the historical, religious, and cultural differences are really fairly large, though certainly not enough to go to war with one another, much less to commit genocide.

    Reading through the piece as an outsider to this confessional tradition (save to have seen its less confessional outworking among Baptist churches splitting over utterly inconsequential and non-doctrinal points – themselves very much an example of the narcissism of small differences), I thought about how this manifested itself among Anglicans. It’s not in the current struggles and splits over human sexuality or the ordination of women to the presbyterate and to the episcopate. These are issues that actually touch on the deeper and more consequential matters of biblical authority and catholic tradition (to say nothing of actual creedal issues, like the person of Christ or the nature of Triune God or the sufficiency of Christ alone for salvation). The narcissism of small differences manifested itself among Anglicans in the liturgical controversies of the 19th and early 20th centuries, when the introduction of certain pre-Reformation manual acts and vestments into the (unchanged) Anglican liturgy (by proponents of the Oxford Movement, for example) caused ecclesiastical trials and actual riots in the street in England, and precipitated a minor schism in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. I don’t suggest that the temptation to schism over minor differences isn’t there still, though. In fact, I have no small amount of anxiety (allayed by the theological virtue of hope, I pray) over the ability of conservative, reasserting, biblical catholic Anglicanism to remain united and not to split into Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical camps, though over issues that look far more like those that divide (Roman) Catholics and Protestants, rather than those that divide one small group of Presbyterians from another small group of Presbyterians (or indeed, those that divide Anglicans who wear chasubles and use incense from those who only wear choir dress to administer Holy Communion).

    That’s being said, I’ve met Anglicans in the last few months who still actually get their knickers in a twist over eucharistic vestments, so I don’t rule out splits over such picayunish (and narcissistic) things as that.

  • John Muether

    Pete, my hopes for the Mets ride on Dickey’s crazy knuckleball. His autobiography is a fun read.
    II concede that the OPC is the whipping boy for the disaffected ex-Reformed, and I am not claiming its reputation is completely unearned. But much of it is. Especially its alleged litigiousness, which is far more prevalent in the PCA, ironically, where some go (like Meidahl?) to escape perceptions of OPC narrowness. Talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome is sloppy and irresponsible. I thought sociology was in the debunking business.

    • peteenns

      I’m not sure litigiousness is the issue that Chris is addressing. The OPC is a small, self-selective, denomination. I would be surprised if there were too much internal strife. What I think Chris is getting at, and where I agree, is the attitude of the OPC (etc.) toward those deemed outside of the tribe–especially those fairly close by. That is where the “narcissism of small differences” comes in.

      This tenor was regrettably driven home to me several years ago when Dick Gaffin published an article in WTJ (2003) where he said, among other things, that the tradition represented in Old Princeton and carried forward at WTS (and by implication the OPC) is “the true religion.” He continued early in that article to say that, “Reformed distinctives are truth held in trust for the other traditions” and “Reformed theology…is not so much working together with [other theological] traditions out of a common theological orientation, as it is seeking to correct them.” These quotes appear on the first 2 or 3 pages.

      It is hard to read this without seeing in these quotes a confirmation of Chris’s thesis–unless one would make the case that Dick’s views don’t represent the mainstream of the OPC (and I would add PCA). If you feel Dick is out of step, I would be all ears.

  • Christian Smith

    The debunking image of sociology comes from Peter Berger’s Intro book from the 1960s. Reflects a bad gnostic tendency in the discipline. I’d say instead that sociology is in the business of offering illuminating generalizations about how the social world is composed and how it works to produce events, conditions, and outcomes of interest.
    The fact that the OPC and the PCA are indeed separate, not merged denominations today, given the history of the considering of a merger back when, is itself a *perfect* example of the narcissism of small differences (on both sides).
    I think PTSD is exactly what’s happened–and for very good reason, given what transpired in the fundy/modernist battles–except that, beyond being embedded in the neurons of the first generation, it’s become *culturally* embedded in the “systemic” way to which Peter refers. It does not require literally waking up screaming and sweating from nightmares of battle to have real historical traumas toward which one’s subculture is primarily oriented. Happens a lot. So no retraction on that from me whatsoever.

  • Joel

    Has Professor Smith ever heard of Sedevacantists?

  • Joy

    Mr. Muether’s response is the typical knee-jerk reply to these kinds of statements, in my experience. You’re lucky he even acknowledged the legitimacy of sociology as a discipline, as usually that gets dismissed in the whole “we can’t give in to worldly presuppositions” talk. The de-legitimizing of the experience of disaffected members in whatever Christian group it is quite common everywhere, which is pity because how then do we together grow in holiness?

  • Bob Sacamento

    Honestly, there’s been alot of talk on this blog recently (and maybe for a long time — I’m new here) about various people not listening to other points of view or even suppressing other points of view and being all skeert up about some new thang they heard somewhere and …. I don’t get it. I read most of these posts and I feel like I took a wrong turn and wound up in the drawing room of some private club of which I’m not a member, while they are in the middle of a big fight over some arcana in the initiation ceremony or something. I really just don’t know where the writers are coming from. Me, I’ve been hit from the right by Evangelicals who think I’m treading the path to heresy for considering the claims of evolution, and I’ve been hit from the left by Evangelicals who can’t understand my neolithic insistance on referring to God as “He.” I’ve seen name calling and intolerance on both sides, and so: Dr. Smith, Pete Enns, and pretty much anyone else who writes here, I don’t ask you to betray confidences, but if you can’t mention some specifics, I have no idea where you are coming from, and these columns aren’t doing me a whole lot of good. I might be in the minority here, but based on some comments I have read, I am not alone. I know you guys mean well but, and I don’t blame you for wanting to vent — heck, I do it all the time. But seriously, try to remember that alot of your potential readers weren’t there for the experiences you are complaining about, and alot of us just don’t know what you are talking about. Others will have different opinions here, but my vote, for what’s it worth, is either give some specifics or talk about something else.

  • Ashley M

    My husband and I are among those who have had a long relationship (at times less tenuous than others) with more conservative PCA churches, and have both participated in the conversations you described and then felt alienated and isolated from them. Well, and we would both lose interest after a while. My husband is Haitian and Puerto Rican, I am half Cuban (and a woman with advanced degrees in theology, so I was pretty much always uncomfortable, never knowing if I was being taken seriously or not). We both have been in ministry and have done “well”, if that’s even a usable word in this context, but we both felt like we were always going a little crazy — like you might feel if you were at a party in a beautiful mansion squabbling over napkin colors when outside you could hear shells being dropped.

    We are now working for a multi-racial church in a larger city, but lived in a smaller, highly intellectual college town for much of our marriage. During my time there, I worked for two of three “institutes” of christian scholarship, all of which were doing fascinating and important work, publishing and convening, but all of which were also subtly engaged in rather combative doctrinal disputes and all three of whom were confused for the others by “laypeople”. Frankly, when I left, I was spiritually and emotionally exhausted.

    What has been so healing in our time in away has been the *lack* of doctrinal conversations. As a student of theology, I never thought I would say that. And it’s not that people have stopped discussing scripture, the Bible, baptism, etc. It’s just that something about the timbre of those conversations is different. The shrillness is gone. We are now worshipping in a church that is almost ridiculously diverse, both in doctrine and in race, class, etc. The difficulties are most certainly still very present — don’t get me wrong — but there are no position papers, and no one’s gotten up from the table (yet). It’s as though our differences are the vehicles though which God is saving us.

    This is anecdotal, which I’m aware has only so much weight — but it is one anecdote.

    • peteenns

      Thanks for your story, Ashley. I think many people can relate on numerous levels. And imagine that: a church without position papers…. 🙂

  • TAT

    I wonder, though, what one makes of the deep-rooted anti-Catholicism within these communities. If you are wondering what I am talking about, take a look at the Q&A on the OPC’s webpage and notice how often negative comments about Roman Catholicism appear, sometimes quite gratuitously. (Most recently, for instance, in a question about worshiping with Arminians, I learned that Roman Catholics say the Apostle’s Creed “carelessly,” whatever that means!) No one would deny that there are significant theological differences between these two groups, so the theory expressed here would not explain why some OPC members need to take constant sideswipes at a church that would seem so far removed from Reformed theology.

    I bring this up not to attack the OPC but to point out that not all of the belligerent divisiveness associated with conservative Presbyterianism can be attributed to positions which are “too similar.” I wonder, instead, if there is simply a culture of argument or a culture of theological warfare within some groups which makes it hard for them to get along with anyone else.

  • John Maxfield

    Problem is, often the most destructive divisions brought about in the church are in the name of unity, “inclusion,” “reconciliation,” and ecumenism. Witness the Anglican Communion today, the ELCA, etc.

  • Religion is such a wide and varied subject, in north wales there was only a few religions to debate, now that multi-culture has grown so has the mix of religions in a small area.