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Denominations, Sects and Religions

Denominations, Doctrines and Fellowship
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

You probably have seen by now that I write on a lot of topics, mostly centered in communication and cross-cultural communication, languages and cultural heritage.  I get questions from various people of all kinds.  One writer replied in an exchange on a topic of discussion arising out of a debate he had seen between a Lutheran theologian and a Catholic theologian about the foundation of the church in Peter.

After my write-up of my investigation on that topic, he replied with some further background comments that led to the exchange I share with you now in this article.

Thanks again for all of the insight!  Again, it means quite a bit that you took the time to compose such a thoughtful response.  It seems to me that each party in this argument uses the text to support their pre-held conclusion.

Some acquaintances make it seem as if the Catholic view point is inherently flawed and easily perceived by all who seek the truth of the matter.  From my personal quest I have noticed that the Catholic theologians I speak with tend to be more accepting of the Protestant perspective than are the Protestants towards the Catholic perspective.

You are right that denominational rivalries get in the way, and become the primary agenda, rather than the real evaluation of a question or a passage of scripture.  Some people feel a strong pressure or requirement to defend the established point of view of a particular church.

I have noticed that some Protestants are unaware that many of the concerns of the Protestant Reformation were addressed in what is called the Counter Reformation, which was a true attempt at reforming the abuses of the Roman Catholic structures.  This was carried out over the next century following the breakaway.

Important reforms have been implemented at various times since then, especially more readically in the last half of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, the Portuguese and Spanish churches missed out on this, for some technical historical reasons, resulting in a quite medieval and reactionary structure and attitude in the South American churches, even to recent times.  Even fewer are aware of the radical changes in the 20th century after the Vatican II Conference.

Ironically, there also occurred at the same time as the Counter Reformation some forceful repression of protesters by the Roman Catholic Church.  The "religious Wars" in the various realms of Europe went on for a long time.

Likewise where Protestants came to wield the political power, they were just as ruthless and barbaric against those who remained faithful to the Catholic Church.  Or to those who wanted even more radical reforms.

It is because of this destructive military-political conflict in Europe that the "radical" concept of separation of church and state developed.  The public in the English colonies of America became more and more forceful in seeking protection from and guarantees against a dominant church allied with the political and military force of the state.  A more modest version of this came to be established in many European states, under the term toleration.

This concept of a free church in a free society, under a government free from the tyranny of a religious body is now fully supported by the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) worldwide (while some entrenched vested interests mitigate against this in South America).

Most Protestant denominations support this concept.  Even in Europe where a legal vestige of a state church remains, it is basically a moribund concept, since the official church in most countries has been ignored and lost any influence it should have had.

Baptists particularly were champions of the radical version of this in colonial America.  Once knowing the freedom form religious persecution a people will not easily give in to the oppression again.

Some whose genetic or religious ancestors were persecuted or otherwise developed bitter resentments against the Roman Catholic Church may not have given attention to the ongoing changes in the RCC.

Catholic Changes
However, the greatest changes have occurred in the 20th century.  An extreme revolution occurred in the RCC even under the "conservative" Pope John Paul II.  He was very conciliatory, and encouraged ecumenism, Catholic-Protestant discussion and debate, and encouraged Roman Catholic theologians to explore possibilities.

I have perceived, as you indicate, that some RC theologians and other commentators actually sound very Protestant.  A few very radical thinkers have been disciplined to various degrees because they took this "too far" for comfort.

Charismatic Renewal
But the Charismatic Movement, developing from the Ann Arbor revival, spread worldwide through the Catholic Church, and even its related communions.  This was a very spiritualizing movement.  Roman Catholic prayer groups are much the same as the Protestant (including Charismatic) home cell groups.  We have met very evangelical Catholics, for instance, in our 25 years in Kenya, as well in the US, and to a lesser extent in other countries.

A Roman Catholic family were participants in our home cell group in Virginia.  We were all seeking and learning together under the Lordship of Christ, studying the same Bible and dealing with the same practical questions about how to authentically implement our faith in our community.  Their Catholic congregation was more current and in touch with the community and the meaning of the Gospel than many Protestant churches still nursing their staid traditional memories, practices and misconceptions.

A defensive, time-warp fortress mentality will not make any impression on the passing generations who miss out on the Good News.  Christ, I believe, should be our reference point, not our comfortable traditions.

Autonomous Fellowship
Most Americans are also ignorant of the fact that there are many church communions in other parts of the world who are also in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, but are semi-autonomous, more like in the Greek Orthodox approach to fellowship.  Some of these came into fellowship in the 1500s or 1600s, such as the Armenian Catholic Church.  Others have migrated into the Catholic sphere in the more recent modern era.

The variety in the Catholic Church is quite diverse.  But the main thing many Protestants have trouble with is the hierarchical structures which require ecclesial "obedience" of each lower lever to those above it.  This, however, is also changing, and is much more "collegial" or democratic than many realize, just in the years since Vatican II (1966 or so).

The US Catholic Church operates basically like a Protestant denomination.  Local churches ("parishes") are organized in many cases exactly like the Protestant and Charismatic counterparts.  Women serve as leaders of various ministries, such as Minister of Education, Children's minister, etc.

Starting Point
These are some practical matters that need to be kept in mind.  In the long run, for a believer, we have to determine our starting point of attitude and discussion with each other:
(1) is it our faith in Christ, and our joint attempts to understand and follow his Lordship?
(2) or on the other hand, do we start from a perspective of denominational loyalty, heritage, worship forms and tradition.

It amazes me what happened to the modern Ecumenical Movement.  The primary reason the Ecumenical Movement faltered (and the same is happening in most bilateral dialogues on how to re-establish communion and recognize "orders," ordinations, etc.) is that they took a rationalist, doctrinal approach.  They tried to work out all the differences in doctrine first, before they came to the point of allowing acceptance to the common altar of communion, and recognizing the "clergy" of each other.

God First
Worship and communion are the common and primary points of confession, repentance and commitment to Christ as Lord.  It seems that any discussion or practical considerations are necessarily secondary to the Lordship of Christ.  The modern Rationalist mindset dominant since the Enlightenment has focused the western church on mental concepts, abstract ideas, what are often lovingly referred to as Doctrines.

Though the word "doctrine" originally meant just "teachings," it has become a technical term for an abstract list of propositions.  Different denominations have different lengths of lists.  Different communities require or enforce them in different ways or to different degrees.  These lists focus on mental assent.  Some communities even go so far as to say, or to indicate in practice, that you cannot be saved if you do not understand and agree to the required list.

Mental Religion
This, of course, implies that those outside this fellowship who have not had the opportunity of enlightenment that this particular congregation or denomination has had, lack the proper knowledge required for salvation, or at least for full spiritual life.  This sounds very mental, very Gnostic to me.  Salvation by right knowledge, properly guarded, properly passed on, properly interpreted.

The zealous defense and enforcement of the "right list" of knowledge statements often entails a bitter, hateful, non-Christian attitude to those who won't assent or don't find the particular list or some particular statement important.  Did Jesus teach us to get the right list of propositions, or to worship God in Spirit and Truth?  If lists were so important, why didn't Jesus give us one?

Is the Truth Jesus talked about just Rational Deductions?  If so, how could Jesus say "I am Truth"?  I made a life commitment to follow Jesus, so every question for me goes back to his life, teachings and example.  The learning never ends.

We have to agree on the words of a formal doctrinal statement before we even allow each other to sit down at the Lord's table together?  Denominational tradition takes precedence over bowing to Jesus?  Ridiculous.

The discussions can still go on.  But they can't be the basis of my relationship to other people who confess Jesus as Lord!  Let's put the discussions and our statements of doctrine under the Lordship of Jesus too!  If "doctrine" as we use the term had been so important, it seems like Jesus would have said something in that direction.

Not Institutions
Another way to say this is that the institution is not the focus.  The institutional, structural church is necessarily tied to its historical, cultural position with its historically-determined way of expressing its faith.  Otherwise it could not make sense to the generation in which it lived!

What is the focus?  The total life of faith-relationship with God, as understood in the expression of the life, teaching and spiritual ministry of Jesus, whom we now see as the Risen Spiritual Lord.

What is the New Testament perspective? In the term "It seems to me the New Testament perspective" I weigh most heavily the picture I get from Jesus' own portrayal of the meaning and purpose of the "kingdom." With this context, it seems to me the New Testament perspective is that our unity is based in our joint communion, our one-ness in Christ.  So it seems reasonable that the starting point is in worship.  That is where we gets things in the right priority — God first, our focus on him.  Usually it is the other way round.

Eyes on God
It seems to me we should openly pray together, worship together, work together in various practical ways that we already agree on and take communion together (a full open communion).  As we develop the practicalities of knowing each other in faith, sharing these worship experiences, theoretically, this will adjust our perspectives into the common faith orientation under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

Then we can develop some range of common understandings from which we can perhaps come to a new formulation of some of our historically developed cherished expressions of our faith.  This makes of faith-commitment the foundation, our common acceptance of the Lordship of Christ the determining point.

Faith the Starting Point
Faith is basic, worship is the guiding perspective.  I think we will develop better fellowship if we are jointly facing the cross or the altar together, rather than facing each other over a formal agenda arising out of our cultural, philosophical, and historical limitations.  Another way I would say that is that we should approach the heart and soul first, focusing on the relationships with God and therefrom with each other, and not put the mental, intellectual ("doctrinal") matters first.

I have found that this actually enhances the discussions, because we have not vested our whole identity in the thoughts of our mind, and the formulations of our philosophical reflections, but the working context becomes the common faith we confess with Christ as Lord.

Lord of My Thoughts and Beliefs
Why can't Jesus be Lord of my beliefs, instead of our doctrines determining what Christ can be to us?  I'd like Christ to be the Lord even of my thoughts.  Christ should be Lord of the human words I attempt to use to express my faith and to understand it.

Christ should be Lord of my growing understanding and my growing attempts to express my faith and reflect on the meaning of my faith.  Not the philosophical structures of Greek philosophy or other historically determined ways of analyzing and explaining the Good News.

It is so freeing when the experience of the Good News is the basis, and not my ideas (or those I heard from someone else)!

Also related:
[review] Faith Discovery Quest
[TXT] Peter and the Rock of the Church
[review] The Master Communicator
[review] The Pope and Peter Revised
[reviews] Rahner's Dynamic and Practical Thought: Some Reflections on the Dynamic of Relationship in Modern Theology
[review] Sympathetic Conversion


Topic initially addressed in an email exchange 06 September 2006
Finalized as an article and posted 22 November 2007
Last edited 26 February 2018

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright 2007, 2018 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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