For there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.
-1 Corinthians 11:19
The Question of the Irish Gay Marriage Referendum
It seems that the Irish Gay Marriage referendum is having a profound effect upon the Roman Catholic consciousness. Ireland used to be considered one of the strongholds of Roman Catholicism in a increasingly de-christianised Europe. Some of the particular features of this event which makes it remarkable is that the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Ireland was ultimately the decision of the Irish people itself. In many, if not most cases, same-sex marriage is normally forced unto the nation or state through activist judges and/or political maneuvering (I believe even in England itself David Cameron forced through the ssm legislation with a three-line whip.) Thus for the people itself, and a people who are supposedly fiercely Roman Catholic, to have taken a stance so at variant to their faith raises profound questions about the divergence of the faith of the people on the ground and the official ecclesiastical structures. And of course, this time they can’t blame Protestants too as their other more Protestant neighbours to the north, Northern Ireland, alone of all the British Isles have resisted the move towards legalising ssm.
Often as an apologetic point, I’ve exaggerated the divergence between the official pontifications and the living faith of the people on the ground by arguing that if the Roman Catholic Church were to begin an inquisition of its members by excommunicating all who hold beliefs incompatible with the “official documents”, the number of Roman Catholics left wouldn’t be able to fill a small town. This point has been noted even by Roman Catholics themselves, but has often been dismissed. The Irish gay marriage referendum exemplifies this divergence in very stark, and some might feel, disturbing ways.
I wish therefore in this note to discuss the point and purpose of denominations, particularly the point, function and workings of canonical polities and ecclesiastical corporations, and finally to make some observations as to why it is better to have a thousand denominations rather than to live under the cloak of a united canonical polity which merely disguises a chaos of divergent beliefs.
What does Canon Law do?
Let us stipulate that a denomination is synonymous with an ecclesiastical corporation. (Thus we avoid issues of how a denomination can encompass different ecclesiastical corporations, such as between the Episcopal Church of the USA and the Anglican Church of North America.) What is an ecclesiastical corporation? At its most basic level, it is a legal entity, it is composed of constitutions, canons or laws, officials who run the corporation and members who make up the corporation.
Now what is the point of having canons, official standards, catechisms, etc? Now we might be tempted to say, “To tell or instruct the faithful as to what to believe or do.” But this answer won’t do because that’s not how the law works. The law normally, as a matter of fact, doesn’t directly tell the people what to do. No citizen of a nation knows what to do legally by reading the Book of Statues, or the Code of Civil Law or whatever. People generally know what to do through a combination of common sense, custom and manners, social stigma and censure, etc. The Law doesn’t regulate people by directly instructing the people, nobody learns to abide by the Law by reading statute books. The Law regulates behaviour by being enforced, by making an example of law breakers and thereby deterring erroneous behaviour.
Thus, the law works primarily by coercion, not by instruction. The problems for ecclesiastical corporations become evident at once. Most Roman Catholics have never read the Catechism of the Catholic Church from cover to cover, and those who have an even smaller number actually subscribe to all their tenets. Neither do the majority of Roman Catholics receive their instruction from the Code of Canon Law. So how exactly do these official standards or canons “tell people what to do/believe”? At most one can say that the official standards or canons directly tell only the clerics what to do or believe. Therefore ultimately these standards have to be mediated through clerical officials who are the only ones who directly receive the canonical instructions and are able to break down their teachings for the masses to consume as well as to actually enforce the canons when we have erring members. Therein lies the key problem.
The canons are rarely enforced and given how so many clerics’s teachings diverges from official documents, one wonders what is the point of having those documents in the first place. In effect, the official standards and canons do not tell anyone what to do or believe (not counting the clerics of course and even then their adherence are often suspect). Remember, the law regulates behaviour, not be instruction, but by enforcement. But of course if the canons are never enforced, then they are not a guide for anything. The official standards and canons are in fact a dead letter, one can disagree with every single one of their tenets and still be a member of a denomination, sometimes even a bishop or cardinal!
What is the Point of Denominations and/or Official Standards?
Given the fact that denominations and/or official standards in fact do not tell anyone what to do or believe, what is their purpose? What is their use for us as Christians?
I would argue that denominations and/or official standards function more like “brand names” than anything theologically exalted, as prudential and/or relative guides for others to know what to expect a particular congregation to believe or practice, but it doesn’t tell us what God himself expects. (Remember, no denominational standard was ever written to tell people directly what to do or believe.) Denominational standards aren’t a divine command from God himself, at least, not directly. Brand names coordinates our expectations and are indicators or guides as to what we can expect when we buy a certain product. Likewise denominational brand names coordinates our expectations (and not tell us God’s expectations!) about particular congregations and are a guide or indicator as to what we can expect should we visit a congregation bearing that denominational label or want to be a part of it.
When a church therefore adopts a certain denominational label or writes creeds, confessions or canons, they aren’t trying to realise God’s kingdom on earth, they aren’t even trying to make the Church more “visible”, they are simply informing people what to expect when people come to visit or want to join, that is all. The pieces of paper are in themselves meaningless, there is no “thus saith the Lord”, they are not direct addresses from God to the people of God. They are merely indicators, of varying reliability, of the congregation’s beliefs and practices. The purpose is entirely prudential and pragmatic.
Of course, the extent to which a denominational brand name is a reliable indicator of its congregation’s actual beliefs and practices would vary from particular case to particular case, dependent upon the extent to which their canons and confessions are enforced. A denominational brand name is meaningless when its canons are rarely enforced, they are therefore only reliable in cases where there is active enforcement and use of the standards. When such enforcement is absent, the denominational brand name is more or less pointless. Denominational brand names thus, for example, are more meaningful for a conservative Protestant denomination which vigorously teaches their catechism and confessions than for some Roman Catholic parish where the priest completely ignores the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Conclusion: Let a Thousand Denominations Bloom
Seeing therefore that denominations, ecclesiastical corporations and canonical standards exist merely as reliable indicators of what one can expect of a congregation, therefore we can easily take the next step of inference: It is better to have a thousand denominations where the standards are enforced and their brand names work as reliable indicators of their congregation’s actual beliefs and practices than to have a single unified canonical structure screening an utter chaos of a plurality of beliefs and practices. In the latter case, the canonical structures are meaningless and do not perform their function to provide reliable indicators of what their congregation believes or practices. Whereas in the former case separation from those who disagree at least allows us to have realistic expectations of that congregation’s actual beliefs and practices.
One of the primary worries about a plurality of denominations is that we’ll seem to be conflicted, disharmonious lacking in unity, etc. We need to ask ourselves what sort of unity we want the world to see. Do we want to the world to see us united in particular works of charity, fellowship and good deeds or unity in pieces of paper agreed on by church bureaucrats? When Christians cooperate with one another in good works and charity, that is the sort of unity which pleases God and which we want the world to see. What does the world care about agreements between church bureaucrats over meaningless pieces of papers?
Another concern is that but if you have so many different denominations, how can we know what to do or believe? Which one is “right”? Let’s hear it from St John Chrysostom concerning exactly the same problem:
What then shall we say to the heathen? There comes a heathen and says, I wish to become a Christian, but I know not whom to join: there is much fighting and faction among you, much confusion: which doctrine am I to choose? How shall we answer him? Each of you (says he) asserts, ‘ I speak the truth.’ (b) No doubt: this is in our favor. For if we told you to be persuaded by arguments, you might well be perplexed: but if we bid you believe the Scriptures, and these are simple and true, the decision is easy for you. If any agree with the Scriptures, he is the Christian; if any fight against them, he is far from this rule. (a) But which am I to believe, knowing as I do nothing at all of the Scriptures? The others also allege the same thing for themselves. What then (c)if the other come, and say that the Scripture has this, and you that it has something different, and you interpret the Scriptures diversely, dragging their sense (each his own way)? And you then, I ask, have you no understanding, no judgment? And how should I be able (to decide), says he, I who do not even know how to judge of your doctrines? I wish to become a learner, and you are making me immediately a teacher. If he say this, what, say you, are we to answer him? How shall we persuade him? Let us ask whether all this be not mere pretence and subterfuge. Let us ask whether he has decided (κατέγνωκε) against the heathen (that they are wrong). The fact he will assuredly affirm, for of course, if he had not so decided, he would not have come to (enquire about) our matters: let us ask the grounds on which he has decided, for to be sure he has not settled the matter out of hand. Clearly he will say, Because (their gods) are creatures, and are not the uncreated God. Good. If then he find this in the other parties (αἰρέσεις), but among us the contrary, what argument need we? We all confess that Christ is God. But let us see who fight (against this truth), and who not.
-Homily 33 on the Acts of the Apostles
Thus we follow Chrysostom entirely Protestant point. We appeal to the Scriptures and our “judgement” or reason to discern the truth. Everyone must use their reason, their common sense and their own private judgement, to discern the Word of God for themselves, to study it to the best of their abilities and to the full conviction of their conscience, as to what is the truth. Having arrived at what you believe and are convinced is true, you persuade others of the truth through the use of reason and argument, both the believers and the non-believers. Let other denominations and other Christians worry about their own faith and their own conscience, they answer to God, not you. You do your duty to the people whom God has placed immediately in your lives and let God worry about other people.
Ultimately remember the Protestant tenet that we are justified by faith alone in Christ, we are not justified by believing in justification by faith alone or some niggardly theological point. These theological points would have pastoral or practical effects upon our faith no doubt. However, they are not so crucial as to damn or save a person who slips upon a single point. We are justified ultimately by believing in a person, a living God, not in believing in creeds or propositions no matter how important they maybe to our spiritual lives.
Therefore, let a thousand denominations bloom, let every Christian denomination confess and declare their convictions according to their conscience, and let us, using our God given reason and divinely reveled Scriptures, judge and weigh their claims to the satisfaction of our conscience and in fear and trembling before Jesus Christ to whom alone all Christians shall be required to give a good answer. And let us not seek to disguise our true opinions or beliefs under the cover of a misleading ecclesiological label.
Let me end off with these words from the Calvinist International:
The evangelical doctrine of the universal priesthood has become merely nominal in many Reformed churches, which is why a number of Reformed people are predisposed to admiration of Rome. We need to reaffirm this fundamental doctrine, and its corollary of the representative character of the ministry. We must become more truly Calvinian on this score, by becoming more “Lutheran” and less clericalist. We should reject false definitions of the unity of the church, and recognize its actual unity on the ground, which underlies all the legitimate congregational forms and their modes of denominational association. We must also recognize the liberty of the Christian people to freely gather around the Word as center, without artificial ecclesial borders being enforced and policed by a clergy claiming a divine right authority. If the Smith family has good reason to be at St. Adiaphoron Lutheran Church, and their neighbors the Jones family has good reason to be at Putting Green Presbyterian across the street from it, so far from being a scandal, this is actually a fine thing.
Where all of this practically takes us is what many political scientists and historians have described as the culture of persuasion. We do not look to a political institution or other coercive power to artificially provide unity and certainty. There is no magic “key” to unity in external diversity. Rather, we respect the rights of conscience and seek to persuade others through the right use of reason and Biblical exegesis, confident that freedom and charity lead to the only unity worth having.
But we are still Calvinists as well, and our optimistic outlook is actually based in our view of God. He is sovereign, absolutely ordaining our ways, and He has said that He is the rock which fills the whole world, His knowledge covers the earth as the waters cover the seas. That is the only irresistible unity we look to, believing it to exist presently through the Holy Spirit and believing it to work its way outward more and more, as that Spirit effectively works in the lives of believers, and ultimately into the ends of all the earth.