American Ecumenism: Separatism, Separation and Schism

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 25, 1989, p. 958. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Christians must seek unity for intrinsic, not strategic, reasons.

The republican Christian, or the Christian republican -- the devotee of a republic -- lives with an apparent profound contradiction. On the one hand, the Christian charter, mandate and promise leave Christians no choice but to seek ways to realize and express oneness and unity in Christ. It is hard to avoid the explicitness of typical exhortations like those described by Paul in I Corinthians: "I appeal to you. . . that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you . . Is Christ divided?" (1:10,13) , and "For while there is jealousy’ and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely men?" (3:3,4)

On the other hand, the republic’s charter, mandate and promise leave no choice but to seek ways to realize and express diversity and multiplicity, based though these must often be in dissension and division. In the bicentennial year of the Bill of Rights one turns to the wisdom of James Madison: "In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights; it consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests and in the other in the multiplicity of sects."

The tension, or at least the perception of a tension, became clear to me a quarter of a century ago during Vatican Council days. Not being an official observer, I had supplemented my press pass, which provided no access to St. Peter’s, with a wangled pass for attending sessions. Prep school Latin carried me through several hours of these each morning, but toward noon, when attention wavered, I would join other wearied ones for coffee at little tables along the Via della Conciliazione leading to St. Peter’s Square.

One afternoon, as a couple of thousand empurpled bishops came lunch-bound through the great doors to their buses, an American Jewish observer, Joseph Lichten, turned to me and asked:

"If you were a Jew, would you want them and you to succeed?" (He identified me as an ecumenical Christian, part of the "you" that was cheering on the bishops as they tentatively reached toward us "separated brothers and sisters.")

Why not? Well, Lichten said, whenever Christians stopped fighting each other and united, they redirected their energy toward outside enemies and scapegoats. Jews usually suffered when, in Madison’s terms, the number of interests and sects decreased. I had a ready answer: Of course, I understood his concern. But this time, thanks to Pope John’s spirit, he should not worry. Christians seemed not to need new objects of hate in order to unite themselves. Second, he should not worry because such unity was not likely. And, third, I added with a tinge of jocularity, if Christians ever got together that much, they’d be leaving something out, and I’d want to be among the first protestants, the first sectarians. There’d be millions more. Those are sensible answers on strategic grounds. They do not, however, do justice to the substantive issue.

Both the First Amendment bicentennial and the current travails of Christian ecumenism have brought into focus the question of how the dual ideals of unity and diversity can coexist. Sharpening the focus further has been another event: the retirement of a respected colleague, historian C. C. Goen of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. While his may not be a household name -- we historians work with lights under bushels -- he has written several works of considerable influence and inspired the regard and affection that attracted a host of us to the seminary’s observance of this rite of passage. As I reread the Goen corpus I was struck by the way this classic theme of unity in tension with multiplicity had occupied Goen’s life work.

A strong impulse toward ecumenical unity emanates from the personal and spiritual writings of this self-described "maverick Baptist working for the United Methodists" in search of "catholic" reality within the "basic unity of . . . the church as the Body of Christ" ("Church History Is My Vocation." Religion in Life, 1975, pp. 291-301). But contradictions of this theme also appear, as they are likely to when exploring the grand themes of American religious life.

"Separatism" hisses out at us from the title of Goen’s masterwork. Revivalism and Separatism in New England. 1740-1800 (Yale University Press, 1962) Like all serious grand-scale historians of American religion, he had to deal with the periodic revivals, renewals and awakenings -- in this case the Great Awakening -- that disrupted unity and serenity in times of cultural revitalization. Out of the stresses of that Great time came the separating Baptists who dominate American Protestantism today and provided the tradition in which Goen is himself a maverick. He could as well have written on the Anglo-American ways of the Methodists for whom he has worked: their revivals led to "separatism" as well. Let’s see: that gives at least Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Christ -- in no certifiable order -- from which to choose. "Is Christ divided?"

"Separatism" belongs to the Protestant majority. The second sibilating sound in my title refers to the least avoidable theme in American religious history: separation, as in the (Jeffersonian) "separation of church and state," or the (Madisonian) "line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority." Like most of us. Goen found this theme illuminating for all his work. In an essay on "Baptists and Church-State Issues in the Twentieth Century," in the December 1987 American Baptist an issue he coedited, he gave fellow Baptists a well-deserved scolding for having forgotten their own contributions to separation of church and state and for the "serious erosion of ecclesiology which afflicts them. . . . Modern Baptists may find it hard to remember that early Baptists formed their identity primarily as a counter-cultural phenomenon in cultures whose pretensions to be ‘Christian’ they condemned as phony." Today, in his reading, Baptists are the phonies when they vote -- as Southern Baptist Convention majorities did -- to have government do their spiritual work for them by supporting, for instance, a school prayer amendment.

So Goen champions "separation" even though it is not only the age of freedom from the state, but also the inevitable and welcomed charter for the voluntary and hence divided church. Christendom. Establishment, the pre-separation way, had at least created the impression that it contributed to Christian unity by privileging a single church. Goen wishes and looks for unity. but through countercultural separated churches that will have and use freedom to experience separation also from each other. The tension remains.

My third term, schism, comes in a subtitle of another important work by Goen: Broken Churches. Broken Nation: Denominational Schisms and the Coming of the Civil War (Mercer University Press, 1985) a pioneering if not fully developed work on a theme pervasive in 19th-century American religion. The topic here is another disruption of unity. "Evangelical Christianity was a major bond of national unity for the United States" at first, especially as formed in the large "churches of the people":

Methodist, Baptist and Presbyterian, each with nationwide constituencies. But a cultural issue with sub-theological and anti-Christian implications, slavery, led to schism in all three groups. "The denominational schisms presaged and to some extent provoked the crisis of the Union in 1861" and led are you ready for another "s"? -- to "secession." National, evangelical and finally Christian unity suffered because of these heteronomous attachments. "Is Christ divided?" Yes, yet more.

Can one reconcile Goen’s seemingly contradictory theme of unity and separatism, separation and schism? A place to begin is to see the theme as stanzas of Goen’s American epic. Separatism did not necessarily violate Paul’s ideal of unity in Christ. It disrupted, instead, the imposed unity of Caesar. or Constantine. or Cotton. Lichten’s Jew -- rare in Goen’s old New England. but figuratively present as the "dissenter" -- disrupted not the unity of the body of Christ but of late stage Christendom. Most of the dissenters were not pure individualists, exponents of private religion. They tried to "renew the covenant," or to come up with a new voluntary covenanted community. They valued freedom more highly than unity. but most of them, when they were serious at least, intended this freedom to lead to a later, higher unity.

John Murray Cuddihy in The Ordeal of Civility reminds us how disruptive of Christian unity separation, as in "separation of church and state." was. Indeed, it violates what he calls, following Peter Gay, a "hunger for wholeness" in individuals and in society (as in the church) "Differentiation is the cutting edge of the modernization process, sundering cruelly what tradition had joined. . . it separates church from state (the Catholic trauma) ethnicity from religion (the Jewish trauma) . . . Differentiation slices through ancient primordial ties and identities. leaving crisis and ‘wholeness-hunger’ in its wake."

The effect is the same as with separatism in the voluntary churches of dissenters: there is to be no sword-enforced, legally coerced unity in the Body of Christ where there is this differentiation that most citizens welcome. This "cruel sundering" turned out to be healing surgery -- though crisis and wholeness-hunger of sorts remain. This "separation," which Baptist Goen cherishes, practically contributes to disunity, because laws establishing churches do provide coherence and impose unity. Yet the price of such unity is too high for freedom, truth and other values that Christians cherish.

The result of separatism and separation has been the proliferation of Paul-ist, Cephas-ite, Apollo-nian denominations that in their prosperity (contrast Europe’s dying establishment churches) suggest the values of capitalist competitive models for church life -- even if they seem to contradict the drive toward Christian unity. Yet for better and for worse, Americans have experienced not mere competition, mere disunity or mere pluralism. They have, in nation and in churches, sought to express what Justice Felix Frankfurter called "the binding tie of cohesive sentiment" through their many "agencies of mind and spirit," including the churches that would be the Church.

Schism disrupted unity; denominations aided the split between North and South in a bloody war. Some, in Goen’s reading, were moved by faithfulness to the gospel. More, on both sides, went along with and provided ideology and morale for pro-slavery or pro-Union-as-idol sentiment, which had little to do with the unifying Christian gospel in the first place. In this third instance, after the cruel sundering of the war, some, with Abraham Lincoln, began to seek the blessings, mixed though they were, of the reunited Union. The pre-Civil War schism is significant less because it disrupted unity and more because it tells Goen and us how culturally captive American churches are.

How do we then live with the contradictory tendencies by which those who are believers and republicans must live and choose to live? First, Christians today have to seek unity for intrinsic, not strategic, reasons -- which is more difficult to do. Much as the theme is overlooked or unwelcome, I cannot help noticing that the old Federal Council of Churches -- type moderate-to-liberal Protestant unity was easier, and thus what we call "mainline" church life was stronger, because cooperating Protestants used Catholicism as a foil. There is not enough Catholic-hating left for mainline Protestantism to keep one of its strongest causes, its binding forces, alive. Now Protestants, with Catholics and Orthodox, have to love unity for Christ’s sake. That’s more difficult.

Second, Orthodox, Protestants of mainline and evangelical sorts, and Catholics have grown more mutually accepting. When Billy Graham invites to his stage Catholic and United Methodist bishops, they accept, in one of a thousand taken-for-granted expressions of ecumenical gains that are congruent with Madison’s vision of civil security and multiplicity. These events also reinforce Christian unity.

Which means, third, that right under our noses in recent decades a new or revised version of Christian unity is being born. It is not a fully satisfying one; none will be. But instead of a grandly meshed, bureaucratically encompassing, cookie-cut, rubber-stamping model, emergent ecumenism is more like what the New Testament churches manifestly displayed: a "family of apostolic churches," mutually accepting and selectively cooperative, but with separate vocations, missions, traditions, flavors, senses.

How, in the end, does one answer the Lichtens and address the Madisons and St. Pauls? Tell the Lichtens not to worry: such Christian unity will not have coercive power. Tell them to recognize that new models of Christian unity are less encroaching, even if less neat than some -- including, no doubt, St. Paul -- would like. If it ever looks as if Christians have formed a Gush Emunim, a massive "bloc of the faithful," demand a recount, and know that new kinds of protestants and sectarians will instantly rise to challenge the bloc.

Christians live with what Alfred Schutz called "multiple realities," with what William James would observe were different foci of attention. Where there is contradiction, it need not lead to paralysis. Christians never were promised that they would move beyond "ambiguities, incongruities, and paradoxes" inside history; they have to discern ways to live with them. To quote Goen’s own concluding remarks on the problem of vocation that he himself set tip: "In spite of all obscurities, Christians can affirm that history is purposeful and that its meaning is disclosed, at least proleptically, in Jesus Christ. On the basis of this faith they can look forward in hope to the consummation of God’s kingdom beyond history. Though the church historian, as a person of like faith, must walk on common ground with all the pilgrim people of God, perhaps he or she may see just a bit more clearly as together they strain toward their first glimpse of that eternal ‘city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God’ (Heb.11:10)."