Mainline Churches Face Great Divide; as the Cultural Battle Ensconces Itself in the Pulpits of Mainline Protestant Denominations, the 'People in the Pews' Turn to Churches That Uphold Biblical Authority

By Powers, John M. | Insight on the News, December 22, 2003 | Go to article overview

Mainline Churches Face Great Divide; as the Cultural Battle Ensconces Itself in the Pulpits of Mainline Protestant Denominations, the 'People in the Pews' Turn to Churches That Uphold Biblical Authority


Powers, John M., Insight on the News


Byline: John M. Powers, INSIGHT

The mass media launched into a cloud of frenzy as the Episcopal Church ordained its first openly practicing homosexual bishop. Predictably, the ordination of V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire excited both alarm and support. This is said to foreshadow a thunderclap of schism certain to challenge the unity of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

Virtually unnoticed by the media, left and right, is the fact that the quarrels threatening the Anglicans also are being experienced by almost every major mainline Protestant denomination. But, say experts, these divisions have less to do with homosexuality than with the authority of the sacred books and documents collected within the Bible.

Deborah Caldwell, senior producer at Beliefnet.com, has reported on the major Christian denominations for more than a decade. She tells Insight that the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) all are tangling over the ordination of gay ministers/priests and church sanction of same-sex marriage. Conspicuously, the Southern Baptist Convention and National Baptist Convention are not so embroiled by these debates but nevertheless have not escaped major differences and schism.

"Every Christian group in America right now has or is experiencing a cultural battle," Caldwell says. But it is a familiar story. For instance, she notes, the Methodist Church split in the 19th century over the issue of slavery and became the Northern Methodists and the Southern Methodists. The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Caldwell says, split from the PCUSA in 1973 when the PCA insisted upon retaining what it called the "traditional position" of women in the church.

Caldwell points out that every decade sees its own hot-button social issue. In the forties and fifties the Protestants became involved in an ecumenical movement to strengthen Jewish/Christian relations. In the sixties they battled over civil rights and peace, and in the seventies the issues were gender roles. The 1980s saw more gender politics and the beginning of the debate about appropriate homosexual and lesbian participation, which continued through the nineties and into the new millennium.

Whether it's women's rights or gay rights, church divisions have something different at their core.

Whatever the cultural conflict, says Jeffrey Mann, an assistant professor of religion at Pennsylvania's Susquehanna University, "It's not ultimately about civil rights or peace or gender or gay rights it's ultimately about biblical authority." Mann says that whenever a hot social issue is raised within the congregations and denominations it connects with the issue of biblical authority and the rumblings of schism start.

Biblical criticism deals with interpretation of Scriptures in light of how authoritative the Bible is seen to be. Mann explains that there are basically two major approaches to Scripture interpretation and biblical exegesis. On the one hand, he says, there is a group most often identified by the mainstream as "conservative." It has a "significantly higher view of the authority of Scripture," says Mann. On the other hand there is a group most often identified as "liberal," which according to Mann interprets the Bible "through the lens of history and culture."

However, the theological labels of conservative and liberal tend to be confusing because of their cultural and political connotations, says Ron Benefiel, president of the Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. He views what others call theologically conservative as an "exclusivist" view. What others call liberal, Benefiel says, more accurately might be referred to as "pluralist."

Mark Bailey, president of Dallas Theological Seminary, unpacked the "exclusivist" view for Insight. According to Bailey, the exclusivist sees the Bible as the inspired Word of God and "without error" inerrant. …

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