Christian Converser: Political Faultlines Continue To Divide US Churches

Apologies for the slowdown in delivery of posts from this blog in 2022. The authorship has experienced many distractions, much of which have been personal family circumstances. These have been overcome enough by now to resume blogging. A faultline that has emerged this year in the US over evangelical engagement with political culture in the US came to prominence when a major US denomination which has branches in the Southern Hemisphere underwent the departure of its “founding” or “mother” church. At the time there was no clear understanding to be found for people outside of this denomination about what was happening that would lead to the prominent church in California to distance itself from its 500+ associated parishes in the continental United States (and thousands more worldwide). It has since emerged that typical evangelical dissensions had been growing for a number of years, particularly since the death of the founding national leader in the late 1990s. Theological differences which are not uncommon in charismatic circles, which this denomination is a major proponent of, were evident from the very beginning and particularly so when a major prophetic movement centred in the midwest US was allowed to join and then later dis-joined from the denomination, a situation further repeated when a Canadian church associated with a notable “revival” movement went through a similar period of engagement and disengagement with the church grouping.

The situation with denominational groupings having different theological views leading to some element of division is very common in protestant evangelical circles. This comes down to the nature of different types of denominations and their governance models particularly. Where governance is predominantly vested in individual churches and the denomination is more of an association with a limited leadership and presence, there is greater scope for each member church to formulate its own theological beliefs and cultures. This to a large extent is an appropriate description of the Southern Baptist Convention, although conservative congregations within that movement have made considerable effort in the last 40 to 50 years to exert more autocratic control over members whose theology they disagree with. The corollary of this is where a national denomination exerts strong control over its members and may vest only limited local authority in each church with a strong hierarchy of leadership extending into the mother church. Many evangelical megachurches and the Roman Catholic Church are examples of this latter model and hence avoid the theological divisions by imposing the culture from the top.

In this case, this particular denomination, like many traditional protestant denominations outside megachurch circles, had only a loose hierarchy of oversight for its member congregations, and this has resulted in the natural development of theologically diverse views. In such denominations, this understandably leads to political aspects developing over issues such as the election of a national directorship to speak on behalf of the denomination. As mentioned above this particular denomination has local branches in the Southern Hemisphere and a specific example in NZ arose over the anti-conversion therapy legislation of recent years when a member congregation took a public contradictory to the national leadership, which had signed onto a campaign opposing the legislation. Further challenges in theological diversity exposed by this example include that in this denomination, like many similar ones, there are opposing views over the nature of governance of individual congregations. Each church chooses its own governance model and some have a top-down hierarchy from the senior pastor whilst others have elected boards of elders overseeing the senior leadership. This creates division with a national body as for public issues such as political campaigns, only some of the members would have canvassed the views of their membership, whilst in others the senior pastor would make the decision with perhaps only minimal input from other leaders and no formal engagement with individual members. These are examples of what is possible in loosely coupled denominations, compared to the other highly coupled examples mentioned above.

The writing of this article has been inspired by discovering the extent of theological diversity that exists within this particular denomination and which has developed over the last two decades. They’ve been around for about 50 years, whilst others have existed much longer. One of the situations they’re encountering is the common situation of engagement with national and local political causes in the US as is so common there especially since the Trump presidency. Pressure came upon denominational leadership for pushback against specific policies and issues that arose during the Trump era, creating anger from member churches who appeared to implicitly support Trump or conservative political stances. Another area of divergence resulted from typical Charismatic theological faultlines as noted above in the situation of prominent exponents of certain charismatic viewpoints being allowed to join and then later disjoined. The Toronto Blessing is a standout example of this type of controversy in churches worldwide and is most likely a large part of the reason why many modern charismatic churches have chosen to eschew the “Pentecostal” label. This particular faultline is not a new one, being particularly apparent during the “charismatic renewal” of the 1960s/1970s in NZ, when a notable new Pentecostal denomination arose, which has since shriveled considerably, although faithful descendants and admirers are established in several prominent Auckland megachurches.

The key question to be learned in this situation is whether we need so many divisions of the Church worldwide into numerous denominations. In this case a new denomination has been implicitly formed by this “mother” church, given their prominence as a multi-campus megachurch in their own right. As has happened elsewhere in the past, there have been numerous other departures (alleged to be of the order of one third of the total membership level in the US) which could lead to the national association over time becoming much smaller. The same could be possible in other countries if there is seen to be too much political difference with a nationally held and publicised stance on a particular matter. But ultimately the problem is that there are too many church leaders out there looking to build their own empires and attain political clout in their own right, and in the US and elsewhere, this is massively afflicted by the rush towards Christian Nationalist theological viewpoints. Everyone wants to be on board with this new (actually in reality quite old) theological fad, to the point that it is taking over every aspect of church culture and daily life. The problem is that there is no sound basis for conservative churchgoers and their member churches to insist that their denomination become aligned to a secular institution, this just creates greater division in society. But at the same time some conservatives are insisting their churches should not address the major social issues of the day such as racism. It is hard to see how a church can be relevant to meeting the needs of people in society without becoming able to address the injustices which are happening there. Whilst there are reasonable grounds for churches to separate on questions relating to sexual morality, this blog believes too many denominational splits are occurring over trivial theological and political differences and this is to the detriment of the church overall. In the example that has been chosen there is a sticking point coming in that denomination over the type of church governance with the denomination seeking to become more tightly coupled. That is a matter over which there could legitimately be a separation as it has significant impacts for the whole culture of churches.