The Great Realignment

The landscape of American Protestantism is experiencing dramatic tectonic shifts, and so far we are only feeling the rumbles of what is happening under us.

An example: d365 is an online daily devotional that is currently moving through a “Journey to the Cross” to celebrate Lent.  Nothing unusual so far; in fact, d365 is a pretty nifty little devotional.  But when you look at the denominations that sponsor d365 things get much more curious.

On d365’s home page, it says that it is produced by Passport, an ecumenical organization, and sponsored by three denominations: The Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.  (On Passport’s Mission and Identity page, it says their “theological perspective respects the various church groups that are represented [Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran, etc.] and affirms the call of God on men and women equally.”)

So, as a way to see this dramatic shift, let’s make a brief, historical comparison among the three sponsoring denominations.

The Presbyterian Church (USA):

  • Polity – presbyterian
  • Theological Perspective – traditionally Reformed, also neo-orthodox
  • Property Ownership – local churches’ property held in trust by presbyteries
  • Baptismal Theology – pedobaptism (covenantal) baptism, sprinkling

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship:

  • Polity – strongly congregational
  • Theological Perspective – Baptist (some evangelicals)
  • Property Ownership – local control
  • Baptismal Theology – credobaptism, immersion

The Episcopal Church:

  • Polity – episcopal
  • Theological Perspective – Anglo-Catholic, some Reformed
  • Property Ownership – diocesan control
  • Baptismal Theology – pedobaptism, regenerative baptism, sprinkling

And if you add in the other denominations mentioned on Passport’s Web site, you add more diversity and/or confusion to the mix!  So what do these organizations have in common that they could, in good faith (according to their convictions), sponsor a common devotional?  What about differing theological emphases?  What about baptismal integrity?  What about ecclesiology?  Do those things not matter any more?

My contention is simple: There is a radical re-configuration of churches happening today in America.  The old, Reformation categories of theology and polity that have sorted Christians for 500 years are becoming less relevant today.  And the categories of ethics, social positions, and secular politics are becoming more relevant for Christian identity and the formation of missional alliances.  So, for instance, PCUSA Presbyterians are more likely to form mission partnerships with United Methodists (despite their divergent polities and traditional theological positions) than they are to venture out with, say, PCA Presbyterians–all because the first two agree on women’s issues, politics, goals of the kingdom of God, and a particular social model.  Likewise, evangelicals in the United Methodist Church probably have more in common with evangelicals in the Southern Baptist Convention than they do with theological liberals in their own denomination.

Of course, my observation is not new, and it’s not really all that ground-breaking.  The United Ministries in Higher Education model (e.g., The House at Missouri State University is sponsored by four self-described “progressive religious groups,” the Disciples of Christ, the ELCA, the UCC, and the PCUSA.) has been around for 40 years.  But I do believe that my contention is an implicit understanding of how things are today: that is, we relate to other Christians horizontally (across denominational boundaries) more than we do vertically (within denominational boundaries).  And it’s important that we acknowledge this tectonic shift.


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