On the Failure of the Church, Then & Now


Today at Goodwill I picked up a true church nerd gem: an antique Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church, circa 1952.  Included in that Discipline was the 1939 document affirming the unification of the Methodist Episcopal (M.E for short) Church, M.E. Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.  It was fascinating to read, especially as I thought of the arguments that precipitated those splits.

In Broken Churches, Broken Nation, former Wesley Seminary professor of church history CC Goen argues that the split of the major denominations in the 1840’s – Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian – paved the way for the eventual sundering of the nation in the 1860’s and the brutal war that followed.  He cites numerous commentators of the time who expressed (highly prescient) fear that the natural result of schism in the church would be a tear in the fabric of the nation itself.

In his closing chapter, Goen offers conclusions about the failure of leadership that led to those denominational splits:

The real problem was the perception on the part of the evangelicals that an antislavery church would necessarily remain a very small church…the churches’ growth strategy depended upon their not requiring converts to face the hard moral discipline demanded by Christian sensitivity to the evil of human bondage.  So long as God seemed to smile on their zeal to bring in the unchurched, it was difficult to entertain any charge of fundamental wrongdoing…When Uncle Tom’s Cabin became as popular on stage as in book form, abolitionists noted wryly that “the theater became antislavery before many churches did.” (146-147)

Moreover, because the churches failed to lead the nation in coming to an amicable consensus around the issue of slavery, the country was left to find a political solution.  And while political solutions can be decisive legally, they do not necessarily change hearts and minds.  Goen quotes a 1961 work (hence the antiquated language) by historian Dwight Drummond:

…the failure of the churches at this point in our history forced the country to turn to political action against slavery, and political action destroyed slavery as a system but left the hearts of the slaveholders unregenerate and left oppression of the free Negro little less of an evil than slavery had been. (170)

Today, now as then, we are attempting to solve deep fissures in our national conscience with political action.  Also today, the church is failing her vocation to be both a graceful and an authoritative voice in the world.  The largest, most influential groups of Christians in Antebellum America were torn along sectional lines, and their Biblical interpretation and Christian ethics were largely determined by their social location.  Today, little has changed.

My own United Methodist corner of the Body is bitterly divided – between the Southeast and the rest of the country, between the the Western nations and the global South.  Again, social location seems to be triumphant, and we seem unable to ascertain a word of wisdom from the Spirit.

There must be a better way than parroting the worst of partisan culture, as we get with the “confessing” or “evangelical” renewal groups to fight the encroaching “progressive” or “liberal” interests in the other group.  As I read Goen’s book, and reflect upon our own situation, I was reminded of that great scene from War Games from many years ago which concludes, “the only winning move is not to play.”

A topic to develop for another time: isn’t it interesting how, centuries ago, Americans recognized that the key to church growth was not challenging the prevailing assumptions of those they sought to evangelize? Some things never change, I suppose…

7 thoughts on “On the Failure of the Church, Then & Now”

  1. So without the suggesting that the church is too important, does our country’s history become another reason to avoid schism? If a schism led to the Civil War, can we assume that a church schism today will inevitably lead to another country schism?

  2. I WILL say that the political divisions of the country over LGBT issues are not as deep (or as regionally focused) as they were over slavery. The entire U.S. economy is not bound up in the nation’s support (or rejection) of marriage equality. The Church (both the UMC and the larger Church) will continue to argue about it for a while longer, but the larger society has pretty much already “settled” it.

  3. The perspective of the book, and certainly many of the sentiments expressed by Christians as described in Goen’s work, is a bit too Constantinian for my taste. Of course the church today – no church, let alone the Mainline denominations – does not have the influence that the church of the mid-19th century did. For me what is more important is the witness of the church: if we, of all people, cannot show that unity with diversity is possible, then what hope is there for the rest of the world?

    I think you are right in suggesting the divisions over LGBT issues are not as regional. The better analogue to these issues is probably abortion, rather than slavery. Still, I think the point holds: when we settle contentious matters with political force rather than moral consensus, the results are less than satisfying. An important question here also, is to what extent does the Church in all its instantiations still have the ability, let alone the courage, to go against the tide of the culture? In so many ways the early church was an alternative community, and I’m not sure that aspect of the church is often present in our tribe. The early Methodists were anti-slavery, but quickly compromised as it hindered church growth (i.e. evangelization). It’s a devil’s bargain we have made too much.

  4. I’m not a fan of war, nor do I think church spits are a good thing. Yet, I’m not so sure that I’d affirm the delay of abolition, just so the Christians could have maintained greater unity.

  5. Karl, that would not be my solution either. I’m more interested in why the Southern Christians at that time were more influenced, despite their evangelical fervor, by being Southern than they were by the gospel.

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