Denominations and Traditions: Thoughts on Differences

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“To stand within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge, but makes it possible.”

Hans Georg Gadamer

Today I spent a few hours working on my Mid-Program defense for my PhD program, I will be presenting it to my committee on May 14th. This entails laying out the key questions and motivations behind my research. It also includes what I’ve studied so far, where I am headed and how I will finish up (God help me!). It’s a good exercise but it’s rather grueling and kind of works against the way I am wired. When I was editing today I came across the word “denominations” which I had written awhile back and I instantly replaced it with the phrase “faith traditions.” Shocked by my initial response, I realized that I still have an allergy to the word.

I grew up Catholic, went to mass regularly, was baptized Catholic (as far as I know) and was confirmed as an adolescent. I did my time, literally, in parochial schools up through 8th grade and was devastated when my parents decided to stop going to mass and start taking us to some small store-front Charismatic church. I was by then pretty committed to my Catholic faith. Then I was indoctrinated in the non-denominational framework, where all denominations are evil! Boo!! And will steal your soul, because everyone in them is mindless and not really passionate about their faith, they just go because that’s where their parents went, or whatever.

I stopped believing this anti-denominational doctrine once I realized the importance of being a part of something bigger than one local congregation, and the amount of support, accountability, and richness of history involved with, well, denominations. But still, I don’t like the word. I prefer instead to talk about (faith) traditions for a couple reasons.

For one, the word denomination just has a bad rap for a lot of Americans. It sounds overly paternalistic, top-down and dated. Whereas tradition, at least to me, rings of something more alive, something that is potentially more organic and flat. Anyone can participate in a tradition. For instance, think of all those interested in aspects of the monastic tradition, who adopt this or that practice, but are not themselves wholly monastic.

A friend made a great point to me on twitter saying that denominations help to name something that would otherwise remain unnamed and unnamed things are ultimately untenable as movements. I think he was right to suggest the importance of naming something, this is a process we see happening again and again in the Bible. But still, the problem lies not in the fact of naming something, but rather that often everything can be lost but the name. Consequently, the denominational name simply becomes a placeholder for something that has become largely obsolete. Rather, tradition in the way I understand it stresses the (dis)continuity between our stories, the practices we engage in as Christians, our beliefs, and points to what texts, biblical and otherwise, are important in the formation of our communities.

Finally, denomination still signals, at least to me, a preference to structure and hierarchical authority. Here “denomination” is the opposite of “movement” or “organic.” A denomination was once a movement that has become top-heavy, bogged down by its irreplaceable and non-translatable history and text. Instead, a tradition is more like a way of perceiving our contemporary world and relating to our shared history, a way of interaction with and communication about God. It can remain fluid and translatable even when people within that tradition get caught up in denominational-isms.

This is what I like so much about the Quaker Everett Cattell who worked within the denominational structures of the Friends church, he was both a college president and a superintendent, but suggested that the heart of the tradition was not found in those structures but in the community’s organic relationship to God’s mission and fellowship with one another in the Spirit, both of which he felt would actually undercut our structures and challenge them to be re-thought according to our contemporary needs. My reading of Cattell is that he believed the only way to truly be a Quaker was to betray the structures in favor of obedience to God’s call to be for the world, and in doing so, we might in fact be truly Friends.

Following Cattell, I have very little interest in Quakerism, in as much as it is an ism. These things that are the “way we’ve always done them” can actually becomes obstacles to our believing in the power of God’s Spirit. The denominational nitty gritty, when it is left to its own devices and not rooted within the life of the tradition, only sustains structures often reinforcing the church’s role as a placeholder for our belief rather than a bottom-up community of people following God’s mission in the world. I want to be a part of a community that not only tells but also lives into the stories of those we call Quaker.

"Dear Woman, why do you involve me?" Mission Without Guarantees

In the fourth of his missiology lectures (see more on his third here) Steuernagel reflected on a few passages where we see Mary interacting with her son, Jesus. In John 2:3-5 it says:

“When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.””

Here Mary is not so much mother but any one of Jesus’ disciples leveraging to make their particular requests heard (cf. Mark 10:35-40). Continue reading "Dear Woman, why do you involve me?" Mission Without Guarantees

Everett Cattell: Communication As Witness (pt. 4)

Series contents | Intro | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

A 6th century mosaic of :en:Jesus at Church Sa...Image via Wikipedia

A good theological understanding of communication begins with the incarnation and John 1; Quaker Missionary Everett Cattell covers this thoroughly before moving onto a more in depth discussion of what it means for the Christian missionary to communicate, or witness for/to the Gospel. Maturion in the Greek means “to bear in mind,” or “to remember.” As its usage progressed throughout history it became a legal word having to do with establishing facts in court. Later it was broadened even further, from giving evidence concerning observable facts to giving witness to one’s views, truths, or convictions” (Christian Mission, 1981:58). It is this latter definition that Cattell picks up on. Continue reading Everett Cattell: Communication As Witness (pt. 4)

Everett Cattell's Principle of Authority (pt. 3)

Series contents | Intro | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five

Mustard Seeds and the Kingdom

Cattell’s understanding of authority is derived from Christ, who is the head of the church. He argues that there is a tendency in the church to choose some one authority over another. Christ as head relativizes arguments over authority of Scripture, tradition, Spirit, etc. Rather we “must see the organic whole and each part functioning within the total organism, and each organ receiving its relative authority from that which is Christ” (Cattell, 8). This statement sounds close to post-foundationalism (a philosophical-theological movement newly espoused the later half of the twentieth-century). Continue reading Everett Cattell's Principle of Authority (pt. 3)

Wilbert Shenk on Ecclesiology and Mission

In discussing how particular, newly planted and non-Western, churches could potentially develop “in loco an ecclesiology at once biblically and theologically responsive,” mission historian and theologian, Wilbert Shenk argues that ecclesiology has in the past often been ignored or fallen secondary to the primacy of evangelism and conversion of individuals. This is largely due to the overwhelming influence of revivalist theology stemming from the “Great Century.” However, this need not be the case. Instead, soteriology ought not to be developed apart from ecclesiology and thus what is needed is a full-fledged understanding of the local church as well as the church universal. His key point is well worth meditating on:

The church is more than a collection of saved individuals. The body of Christ is a corporate expression of the living Christ. It comes to concretion in particular cultures and among particular peoples. It is a worshiping, serving fellowship which witnesses to the world of God’s righteousness now become manifest in its midst. But no local fellowship, no association of churches, no national church is complete in itself. The church  universal embraces each local fellowship, bringing it to the completeness of which it is incapable so long as it remains alone. The church universal is both empirical reality and eschatological hope. It ever stands in a tension with the sociopolitical order. One strand of the missionary dynamic is that the body of Christ is not yet complete. Christ as head of the church impels his body to continue working to complete the body. This clearly calls for the witness to be carried to the four corners of the world.

Such an ecclesiology has immediate implications for the church as a disciplined community living under the lordship of Christ, a community of ethical discernment. The church as a missionary community is always aware of its pilgrim character, and its first loyalty is to Christ and his body in both its universal and local manifestation, rather than to the kingdoms of this world. Anything which might compromise its missionary task must be rejected. It witnesses to a kingdom which is of a different order from that of this world.

(Wilbert Shenk, Anabaptism and Mission, p.176-177)

Everett Cattel on the Great Commission (pt. 2)

Series contents | Intro | Part Two |

Cattell believes that mission must start from the Great Commission, not only a central theme in the New Testament, but a central theme throughout all of Scripture. He remarks that if the Gospels authors would not have penned the Great Commission, it would not matter because we would still have the implicit command to go (Cattell, 1981:1).  For Cattell, the Gospels offer a full picture of the the commission as it progressed through the various evangelist’s accounts. Mark’s version is a bit simplistic (Mark 16:15) in that it does not discuss disciple-making, which makes Matthew 18-20 a far more complete reading of the commission’s prescription by showing the need for an actual harvest in our missionary act (Cattell, 2). John’s gospel (20:21-22), being the latest and most developed, is what Cattell finally lands on as the central key to mission because of its focus on Jesus. Cattell suggests that Jesus becomes the primary example for the church’s mission, he says: Continue reading Everett Cattel on the Great Commission (pt. 2)

Everett Cattell: Quaker and Mission Theologian

Series contents | Intro | Part Two |

This is a part of a series I will be doing on Cattell and his contributions to the Friends Church and missiology.

Everett Cattell is an important figure when it comes to missiology within the Friends Church. He and his wife Catherine De Vol were sent to India in 1936 where they spent 21 years working together as missionaries. There he had the opportunity to work alongside a number of different missions organizations and even got to know Leslie Newbigin and Donald McGavran, two of missiology’s most influential people of the last 50 years.  In 1957, he and Catherine returned to the US where he was made the superintendent of Ohio Yearly Meeting (Damascus) for three years. In 1960, he became the president of Malone College in Canton, Ohio and worked there for 12 years (Abbott, 2006:41-42). Continue reading Everett Cattell: Quaker and Mission Theologian