During my days in Seminary I readn an article editing the experience of church splits. The author actually spun church splits into a methodology for church growth – planting churches!
Years later I am want for a Christian denomination without the experience of division. But alas to begin one simply means sooner or later a divsion is inevitable. There are a number of reasons. Ask any pastor with experience beyond ten years what kind of inane reasons are submitted for both leaving and splitting churches.
Purists will claim the Roman Catholic Church has not had a split but that would be editing the Grand Schism. And while the Orthodox lays claim to a contiguous experience we must take into account the ethnic manifestations of this “one” church. Maybe you would suggest it something different, not a split. But, let’s see us all get together then.
After all if a Southern Baptist can tell anything, it is division. Long or short form, we know what it is. We divide theologically – and often on disputable matters. But if it is “your” matter then the split was “worth it.” We divide over pragmatics, methodologies and music. We know how to divide. It is not divide and conquer. It is divide and reveal how hard it is to get along.
When Phyllis Tickle described the benefit of the Great Reformation – the priesthood of all believers – she explained this blessing and this curse.
The blessing came in the desire to be sure everyone could read. If you are to have such a large priesthood, and you are going to move to the Bilbe as your sole authority rather than the believing community, then you must work to see that everyone can read the book. Enter Gutenberg. Not only do we work to see that everyone can read, but we help to ensure we have plenty of copies for them to read. I am glad to have a copy, or two, or three, or … But, even in the battle of translations the matter is how the majority reads a text.
Gideons can place bibles everywhere. Anyone who wants a bible and can read will then be able to exercise their prerogative over the text. And from the blessing comes the curse.
Consequently void of the interpretive move of the believing community I am now on my own, allegedly guided by the Spirit, to make sense of it on my own. Enter pathological division. I am not questioning the Bible. I am suggesting the notion of objective reading by anyone is impossible. We need the Spirit to lead us into all truth. But, we must also have some boundaries of protection when we are not listening. And, since the Spirit would bring unity, like that found in the Trinity, evidently we do not always listen so well.
Phyllis noted the more than 29,000 Christian denominations in the USAmerica as acknowledged by the IRS. She also commented on the 39,000 different Christian denominations worldwide. If this does not illustrate the tendency toward a pathology of division, I am nost sure what does.
My friend Stan Norman, former professor of Baptist History and now Provost at Oklahoma Baptist University, and I had this conversation during a BWA meeting some years ago. It seems we have taken priesthood of all believers and made it priesthood of “the” believer. Now the nuance is important. Unless “the believer” is connected to a believing community to which he or she submits, his or her interpretation becomes “the” interpretation. So the original move was to underscore a person’s access to God not make them singularly an authority unto themselves. When we are an authority unto ourselves we will certainly pathologically divide, and divide, and divide.