I noted in one of my previous posts that I shall be writing a series of articles on my experiences with and critique of sectarianism in the Christian faith. This first installment suggests how readers may profit from these essays, gives a bit of an idea on the religious or theological standpoint I am speaking from, and provides a definition of sectarianism.
I am aware that my readers come from different philosophical/religio-cultural backgrounds so let me first consider how this series may be of use to them.
To a postmodernist skeptic, these articles may come simply as useless musings about myths. However, I say this can still serve her/him some for, if nothing else, it can illustrate how a theological metanarrative relates to certain ecclesiastical mini-narratives, and how the latter work in the lives of some who claim to have fully discovered the true nature of the proverbial elephant.
Those who consider themselves religious but not necessarily Christian may be able to use these writings to reflect on parallel discourses and experiences in their own religious environments. They may even be encouraged to share their own religious experiences and thus strike up a productive sharing of spiritual thoughts.
The once self-assured and active but now confused and/or disillusioned believers may find here a sense of encouragement in their continued quest for meaning. They can take these writings as an account of a fellow struggler in the faith who daily grapples with the same existential questions many others face, who can relate to those striving to transcend the canopy of historical accidents that has veiled their vision or somehow walled their world for a time, and who has been disillusioned over the rank sectarianism in Christianity but who just can't give up his faith in the transforming and uniting power of the Cross.
Other Christians who find themselves in a religious tradition different from what I have been exposed to may still be able to extract insights from this work which can help them see certain religious issues from a different yet familiar light. For as William Carl Ketcherside, one of my best-liked Christian scholars (and an ex- "wing commander of a narrow sect," as he liked to put it), wrote:
...there is a kinship in our state which makes what is said about one fragmented movement relevant to all of the others. We may not all be in the same boat but we are all in the same ocean....
Even though the doctrinal disagreements in one party have little relationship to those in another, at the center of our faith all of us are closer than we sometimes admit. It is as the spokes get farther from the hub that they tend to become farther apart.1
Former churchmates may find here reflections of a friend and brother on the same issues they have been struggling over with. This is for those who have begun to realize that certain "ungetoverable facts and truths" they have been taught may not really be nicely wrapped packages delivered straight from the throne of God but may actually be personal and cultural impositions of fallible powers-that-be. This seeks to encourage them to consider other possible reasons why, aside from simply being "worldly," a number of their members have defected. Hopefully, they will also be urged to reflect on the ceaseless intramural fightings in their respective fellowships and somehow do something more to help build a loving community of faith. In this way, their call for fellowship does not become the very ear plug of those they preach to.
Of course, I suppose that there are some former churchmates who might view a voice of dissent or call for reform like this as outrageous for being presumptuous. Well, I'd say even those who clapped with glee when a "false teacher," "wolf in our midst," "antiChrist" like me has finally left their chosen little flock can still profit from what I have to write here -- if nothing else, an entertaining series of rants by an oddball (or a loose cannon, if you please).
A Personal Backgrounder
Let me now draw up a short personal background which might shed light on my possible biases, the limits of my knowledge, my method of interrogation, the scope of my discussion, and the tenor of my critique.
I belong to a clan of the Banao tribe in Kalinga Province deeply rooted in the Episcopal/Anglican faith. Proof of this was the ordination of my uncle, the late Theodore U. Saboy, as "the first Kalinga Anglican priest."
I was christened a Catholic by a family friend, the noted Belgian priest Mike Haelterman, but ended up growing in a strong Baptistic/Evangelical community in Tabuk (now a city) from elementary to high school. I was baptized at age 12 by Donald Taber, a pioneering (Fundamental) Baptist preacher to the Mountain Province and Kalinga. Then I became an active member/lay preacher in a (1611 KJV/Benny Abante wing) Bible Baptist Church in Baguio City for a little over a year in college.
While in college, I started reading voraciously about the so-called "American Restoration Movement" and I was persuaded to join the (amillenial/non-charismatic/a capella) Church of Christ. I did voluntary preaching for this group immediately after my baptism. After earning my double degrees in secular school, I forsook my earlier plan to take up Law and instead studied at the Philippine Bible College (PBC) for my Associate in Theology (ATh) degree. I would receive my diploma 10 years later (the college at that time was reeling from a disastrous power struggle that left it unable to offer enough subjects for a bachelor's degree).
In my 12 years of association with this group, I found myself shuttling between full-time (about four years of intermittent ministry) and part-time preaching. In 2005, I resigned from a permanent government position being desirous of ending my protracted struggle over whether I was truly meant for full-time preaching or not. Shortly thereafter, my growing questions about some inconsistencies in the teachings and practices of the Church of Christ and my realization that I was not really meant for a sometimes money and numbers-driven evangelistic project led me to leave the ministry. Following a six-month ESL teaching in China, I was forced to return to the Philippines. A few months later, I tried to reconnect with the local Church of Christ in Baguio where I again eventually taught and preached in a voluntary capacity while earning my keep as an ESL teacher elsewhere.
In February of this year, I gave up my teaching post and preaching schedules at the college and the local congregation to yield to the wishes of a few self-styled "guardians of orthodoxy." They had been agitating for my "disfellowship" due to what they perceived as my "dangerous" and "liberal" convictions and teachings (more on this in the next few articles). At the same time, I also posted my goodbye letter to a global online discussion group largely composed of PBC alumni.
Although I have distanciated myself from the CoC as an institution, I still maintain good relations with many of its members here and abroad. These fine Christians have steered clear of or forsaken a legalistic, sectarian mindset so characteristic of many in this fellowship. This is to say, of course, that the brand of sectarianism I am about to critique is not characteristic of all Churches of Christ in the Philippines or elsewhere. Also, my critique shall not be limited to sectarian CoCs; other groups will be implicated in this study.
Sectarianism can have many connotations and pervades every secular and religious ideology, as well noted by anthropologist-poet Robin Fox and Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit in their respective essays on this topic.2 It does not only hug the hallowed walls of a church building or a temple -- it also struts the august halls of a legislature or judiciary, the polished rooms of academic institutions, the busy kitchens of fastfood restaurants, and the damp floors of public markets.
In this series, I employ the term following the definition given by Evangelical theologian Dr. Rex A. Koivisto:
[Sectarianism is] a narrowing down of the ground of acceptable Christian fellowship and cooperation due to a broadening of what is considered orthodox doctrine. It is therefore my (or my group's) refusing to allow for diversity in others and demanding conformity with all my views, as if my view (in full detail) alone had divine sanction. It is the notion that I, or my own specific group alone has a market on the truth, to the exclusion of others. 3
This definition relates to Margalit's description of sectarianism as a "mode of operation and a state of mind" which he explains thus:
The operation is that of splitting the party rather than splitting the difference. The state of mind is that of keeping your principled position uncompromised, come what may. Sectarianism is a disposition to view any compromise as a rotten compromise.4
Although in its original context the above quote may have referred primarily to sectarianism in politics, it certainly fits into the religious context being presently considered.
By "sectarians" I therefore mean those who claim, implicitly or explicitly, to have a corner on the truth or have every religious or biblical truth figured out; who believe only their group has the right to wear the name "Christian" and that only they are heaven bound; who criticize and condemn other Christian groups for not agreeing to every minutiae of a particular set of doctrines and practices that their religious party advocates; who require that unity be effected by conformity to the inflexible theological grid they have drawn up; who feel that they have fully "restored the one, true church" in our time and that their ecclesiastical system is in no need of doctrinal and/or moral reform; or who maintain that their (borrowed) religious ideology needs no contextualization and is to be imposed upon every stripe of culture.
In short, sectarians are enamored with the language of exclusivism.
1 William Carl Ketcherside, The Twisted Scriptures (DeFuniak Springs, FL: Diversity Press, 1992), 71.
2 Robin Fox, "Sects and Evolution," Society 41 (September/October) 2004: 36-46; Avishai Margalit, "Sectarianism," Dissent (Winter) 2008: 37-46. Available online @ http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=986.
3 Rex A. Koivisto, One Lord, One Faith: A Theology for Cross-Denominational Renewal (Wheaton, IL: BridgePoint, 1993), 44-45.
4 Margalit, 39.
♦ Related Articles: