"Just say NO" to sectarianism
By Rev. Dr. Robert (Bob) Hunter
When I was a new believer, I landed a job in a produce market working the docks shuffling lettuce from a truck to the store shelf. The market was owned by members of a conservative Mennonite fellowship in Northeastern Ohio. They were skeptical of my newfound faith and suggested I adopt a stricter set of beliefs and lifestyle choices. As a new disciple, I was impressionable and thought maybe they were right. I visited the church to learn about this narrower path of faith. Visitors were permitted to attend by personal invitation and observe, but not participate. I immediately felt like an outsider and the dress code in operation produced anxiety for this self-conscious nineteen-year-old attender. At a later date, back at work, the market’s owner arrived in his black four door sedan with a new set of tires purchased from a local automotive shop. “I instructed shop technicians to reverse the tire white walls to the inside of the wheel well in order to avoid a ‘worldly’ appearance” he said. There were other behaviors and attitudes displayed that convinced me to move my employment. Even though I didn’t have the correct terminology, I was able to identify my employer’s faith as exclusively sectarian. I realized I was an outsider and I would always be an outsider.
Not all sectarianism is as extreme as example above, but expressions of it find their way into major movements of Christianity. How does it happen you might ask? I think in many cases it is the result of Christians seeking a purer expression of the Church and simply going about it the wrong way. Haven’t we all thought to ourselves, “Why can’t everyone experience faith this way? Or, how can we make all worship services as meaningful as this one?” With good intentions, we idealize our faith encounters and idolize our experiences. When we universalize those experiences and attempt to impose them on others, the spiritual disease of sectarianism is born. It’s that subtle.
Holiness movements, in particular, are vulnerable to the allure of sectarianism. We carry histories of great revivals and covertly, sectarianism sneaks its way into our thinking and before we can sneeze, thoughts of ‘bottling up the truth to keep it safe’ rear their ugly head. Even more dangerous, small groups of people with similar experiences organize, fellowship, and proclaim themselves guardians of the faith. Legalism, separatism, and self-righteousness are often the end result. Sectarian Christians function like religious partisans holding remnant parties and gatherings for select participants. A ‘you’re not like us’ notion prevails in some instances which actually undermines the holiness message.
Is there such thing as sectarian-proof Christianity? Probably not, sectarianism is no respecter of persons and movements of Christianity are soon drawn to systematize for the sake of self-preservation. But we should still fight against it and resist the drift toward sectarianism, especially in the holiness church. Among movements of Christianity, we hail from Wesley whose thunderous call to maintain a “catholic spirit” should be a reminder to seek unity in essentials. Moreover, Wesley’s plea to consider “the world my parish” is one intended to move us outside the comfortable confines of our faith. Accordingly, “The world my parish” is not my little corner of Christianity that thinks like me, votes like me, and acts like me. “The world my parish” is every living creature hearing the gospel, minus the sectarian pre-conditions attached to it. It’s saying to the world, “I have something I CAN’T bottle up and keep safe, and you might be interested.” Wesleyan faith, at its heart, is truly anti-sectarian.
Sectarianism’s biggest threat to us is in how it depicts God. Sectarian ways of thinking transmit an impoverished portrayal of God whose mercy is not wide and love is not deep. Whether this view is the cause, effect, or combination thereof, an impoverished vision of God poses a serious threat to evangelism and discipleship efforts. And as one might expect, a God primarily interested uniformity and not diversity is pretty small. As such, a problem so deeply rooted in one’s doctrine of God is bound to have an adverse effect on the maturation rate of Christians. It may be one of the reasons we are losing younger Christians. Emerging generations are leaving the evangelical faith of their fathers and mothers at an alarming rate. Imagine how disheartening for a young adult to discover the deeply sectarian faith of their youth had no bearing, relevance, and impact on the world outside of its own factional existence? I’ve had many conversations with young adults for whom the rigidity and narrowness of their evangelical upbringing impoverished their faith leaving them with an impotent God. The sectarian faith of their rearing did not yield a satisfying and sustainable view of God, thus they abandoned the Christian faith altogether.
How do we fix this problem? I contend we must re-envision God! We crush the sectarian spirit when we sit with God and dare to see the world through the eyes of Jesus who rebuked the sectarians of his day. In the spirit of Jesus, Paul continues what was started by our Lord in rebuking sectarian spirits as they arise. Take the “who’s following who?” controversy of 1 Cor. 3, into consideration. There and in many other places, Paul rejected factional behaviors and attitudes linking it to works of the flesh. Suffice it to say, the solution is a different way of thinking about God. The God of sectarianism is a faulty and flawed version of God that needs to be repented of. The early church, Paul argued, was not a sectarian enterprise. The early church served a God with much bigger ambitions and its mission eclipsed factional behaviors produced by human arrogance.
What can you do? Take head my friends! Refuse to participate in sectarian thinking in all its subtle forms. Guard your heart against the temptation to bottle up your version of God and keep it safe while encouraging others to do the same. There’s no sectarian proof church, but in humility we can certainly become less arrogant, exclusive, and divisive.