I grew up in a house haunted by sectarianism. My parents had ministered in a tradition that contained a wide stream within it that taught that those who disagreed with them theologically were not truly Christians. My parents were eventually able to carefully separate orthodox theology from sectarian theology but others have not been so lucky.
The Rob Bell controversy has generated a lot of discussion among current and former members of traditions with a sectarian history. Many of the young pastors from these streams have either hotly defended Bell or, at the least, expressed sympathy for his progressive theological trajectory. Now, many of these young men and women may have carefully worked through the pertinent texts, studied church history and resolved why the Holy Spirit would allow so many churches to stray off the beaten path on such an important issue but I suspect that many are reacting emotionally more than theologically.
I left my parent’s church in 1998 to attend a seminary in west Texas that was emerging from an even deeper and divisive sectarianism than my parents had ever experienced. The students and profs were extremely sensitive to what one staff member called, “churchers” or those who continued to fight for the “movement’s” core beliefs that there is a narrow pattern laid out in the New Testament and that any community, which refuses to follow the pattern is not a part of the Body of Christ. The divisive, and sometimes traumatic, dynamics of these communities left deep scars among many of my professors and fellow classmates.
These sectarian traditions largely held evangelical or fundamentalist theologies and even regularly cited conservative scholars outside of their traditions but added patternism as a hermeneutical key. When these traditions began to finally break from their sectarianism they also began to reject evangelical scholarship as well. Within a few decades, the seminaries that train the future ministers of these traditions swung from the right to the left. Why did they kick conservative scholarship to the curb along with sectarianism? Was that a necessary move? I don’t think so.
I noticed when I was in seminary that there was an aversion to almost anything traditional including penal substitutionary atonement and inerrancy. It struck me that such a radical shift from a strand of evangelicalism to an easy embrace of theological liberalism, despite its disastrous effects on mainline Christianity, was part of the emotional need of these men and women to distance themselves as far as possible from a traumatic past.
In the wake of the debate over hell sparked by Rob Bell’s book, I have seen blog posts from members of these traditions stating things like, “I used to believe that everyone but those who believed and worshipped like me was going to hell but now I have grown tired of speaking of judgment.” I want to ask these folks if such an attitude is an overreaction to their upbringing rather than a truly Biblically grounded theology but they tend to be very touchy about it, so I let it go because I know that it won’t do any good.
Yet, I pray that they will be able to differentiate sectarianism from true evangelicalism. I want them to see with unbiased eyes what churches such as Sojourn in Louisville and The Village in Dallas are doing by combining sound doctrine with true love and grace. I want them to see that it is possible to hold to the core beliefs of Clement, Augustine, Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, Knox, Edwards, Whitfield, Wesley, Spurgeon, Warfield, Machen, Billy Graham, etc. and still be humble and care for the poor and all the things that are so beautiful about the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
So may it be.