From Catacomb to Basilica: The Dilemma of Oldline Protestantism

by Leonard I. Sweet

Leonard I. Sweet is president of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 2, 01988, p. 981. 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.


The greatest challenge facing oldline Protestantism today is whether within our life and thought we will welcome movements that buck the currents of establishmentarianism, Christendom and modernity and that call the church to speak once again the “language of dissent” to a culture and church of compliance and consumption.

In the film made to celebrate its 125th anniversary, the International Red Cross officially designated itself a "movement," and incorporated that identity into its title. Not wanting to be known as an "organization" or "association," the world’s largest humanitarian society prefers to call itself the International Movement of the Red Cross. If oldline Protestant churches are to become anything more than dead bodies for anthropologists to study, a decision similar to that of the Red Cross, backed by real resolve, could be the most important action the churches could take.

There have been many moments in the history of my denomination -- United Methodist -- when its members could have responded to questions about church affiliation with "I don’t belong to a denomination, I belong to a movement." No more. Just as a college, founded by a denomination, reaches for respectability, severs its church ties and becomes a secular university, and just as a colony, settled by citizens of a motherland, rebels and becomes a nation, so a dynamic spiritual movement tends to become one more institution, one more system, one more bureaucracy. Methodism arose first in England to renew the Anglican establishment, which had become an end in itself rather than a means of drawing people into the worship and adoration of God. It then was transplanted to America with the ambition "to reform this continent and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land." But now it has itself become another establishment, or what the Bible calls "temple religion."

Of course, there is no such thing as templeless religion. In the words of the Psalmist, "God settleth the solitary in families" (68:61) God sets the individual in community. Freedom needs form; spirit needs structure. A structure provides the base which enables creativity and freedom. In the words of John Bowker, structure and system permit us "powerful and creative explorations of the implications of the system in art, music, iconography, architecture, self-sacrificing lives and the like" (Licensed Insanities, p. 137) But when structures stop moving, they become self-absorbed, oppressive and conformist. Without the heartbeat of a movement, structures are rendered lifeless -- with rigid metabolic rates, frigid body temperatures and low blood pressure.

Granted, there have always been establishments in the sense that establishment power pilots a movement. But there is a difference between establishment power within a movement and an established institution. Once a movement becomes an establishment institution, it is problematic whether it can ever be transformed into a movement again. Sociologists insist that once a denomination, always a denomination. Maybe; maybe not. But an establishment can surely be renewed by a movement. In fact, John Wesley believed that a denominational identity was prerequisite to church revitalization. That is why he remained within the Church of England all of his life. One of the greatest needs of oldline churches today is for faithful movements of the Spirit that can breathe new life into the dry bones of the denominational establishments.

How did oldline Protestantism become an assortment of establishment "temple religions"? After a heart attack nearly carried him off the entertainment circuit permanently, comedian George Carlin returned to his routine with these words: "God gave me a good heart -- but my arteries suck." Similarly, God has preserved a good heart for our churches, but our arteries have been ruined by a cholesterol-rich diet of Christendom. James 1:8 reads: "He is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways." The word for "double-minded" appears only twice in the New Testament. It literally means "two-souled": a bigamist, a person with two loves, a person serving two masters, loving spiritual and worldly things at the same time. The results of "doublemindedness" are collapse of the interior, a crumbling from within, a severe values implosion and identity confusion.

To affirm one’s faith as a Christian is to accept a minority identity as part of a counterculture and counterchurch. We don’t live in a secular society; we live in a pagan society that is resistant to the gospel, a gospel which calls the church to perpetual criticism of the social and political order. Or as Yahweh told Pharaoh: "I will make a distinction between my people and your people" (Exod. 8:23) Oldline Protestants are now taught to be proud of their skill in "plundering the Egyptians." But God warned the Israelites not to engage in such activity because to do so could compromise their integrity and identity as Yahweh’s people. Sure enough, when the Hebrews did plunder the Egyptians, they did more than evangelize behind enemy lines or trespass on alien turf. They went out too far. They got in too deep. They poached. Before they knew it, they had created a golden calf.

In our reach for cultural respectability and power, we oldline Protestants have acquiesced in the golden-calf vision of Christendom, becoming warp and woof of the reigning political and social fabric rather than becoming weavers of a new kingdom community. We have abandoned our identity as a counterculture/counterchurch movement with a dissident piety and distinctive style of life. We have accommodated the church to what Isaiah says the people always want of their prophets: "Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things" (Isa. 30:10) We have, in short, forgotten how hard it is to do God’s work without God.

"The Only Remedy for Declining Membership" is the title of an editorial that appeared in the February 15, 1900, issue of the Christian Advocate. The 3-million-member Methodist Episcopal Church had just gone through a year (1899) which added fewer than 7,000 new members to the church roster. Church officials were startled and alarmed by this portentous "membership decline" -- a problem which "has not been frequent in our history." But Advocate editor James Buckley contended that the worst thing Methodists could do would be to engage in "misdirected inquiry into the cause" when "the simplicity of the problem" was so obvious. In words that are even more true today than when they were written 88 years ago, the editor declared that "it is not primarily members of the visible Church that are to be sought, but true disciples of CHRIST and servants of the most high God."

People take part in temple religion because it is encouraged by, and is a constituent part of, their realm religion. But people become disciples of Jesus Christ because their world has been turned upside down by the winds of a loving God who "puts a new spirit within us," which can resist those spirits blowing about us, spirits which must blow away without us. Or, in a phrase of Flannery O’Connor’s sharp enough to cut ice: "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd."

How many of us are swimming with the tide of our time rather than taking the much harder route of bucking against the currents and false directions of modernity? As T. S. Eliot put it in The Family Reunion, "In a world of fugitives the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away. If the truth has made us "odd," if we have not accommodated ourselves out of all recognition, then it will appear to some people that we’re running away, that we’re living an escapist existence, that we’re outsiders, even outlaws -- whereas the truth is that we’re the insiders, because we’re bearing God’s reality, not the world’s. We are the true establishment, because we are building and inhabiting God’s basilica, the commonwealth of eternity, not earth.

To take but one example: Where does it say in the Bible that majority rules? The nation governs its life in this way, and it should. But just because the state so governs, should the church also? Where in the Bible did God ever need a majority for anything? In one circumstance, majority ruled and got Barabbas.

A bureaucratized church structure rewards leaders who display the courage of its conventions rather than the courage of their convictions. Like all highly organized systems, ecclesiocracies are more concerned about whether their leaders are operating within a programmed, "professional" context than about whether their leaders’ God-given gifts are allowed to flourish and make their special contributions to the body of Christ. Dag Hammarskjold was an exception that proves the rule -- one of the few model bureaucrats who refused to be ensnared by organizational sharks and imprisoned in official channels. The "professional" model of ministry reflects the ladder-to-the-skies syndrome of the rest of the culture. The ministry as a "profession" rather than a calling has encouraged the rush toward ecclesiastical preferment, with clergy jostling one another like bumper cars in order to secure the most prestigious placements.

In terms of lay leadership, the picture is even grimmer. In a recent joint episcopal address titled "The Church at Worship, the Church at Work," the United Methodist bishops of the Northeast Jurisdiction comment on the "debilitating syndrome" whereby "far too many congregations are damaged by lay apathy and clergy domination." Ministry belongs to people in the pew, not to people in the pulpit. In fact, "clergy" and "lay" are fundamentally an establishment’s division of labor, not a movement’s preoccupation. Establishment ecclesiocracies have not proved themselves adequate to the task of finding either fulfilling or full-time work for laymen and laywomen other than that of the maintenance of its structure. Lay education is time-warped in its covered-wagon, Sunday-school days. with "serious readers" of biblical studies, church history and theology embarrassingly absent. No wonder religious alternatives that many find more attractive than denominations -- New Age, for example -- are appearing on the horizon. And no wonder almost 15 percent of all Protestant giving goes to parachurch agencies.

United Methodist historian Franklin H. Littell reminds us that the great heresies of the early church came from the churches that were the most established, most complacent and most static, not from the church’s growing edges where believers were busy evangelizing, organizing and building new disciple communities. The very terms "liberal" and "conservative" are less an index of theology than of theology’s cultural involvement and captivity. The left/right typology would be less problematic if it were triangular rather than flat and linear -- right, left and apex rather than right, left and center. "Left" and "right" are the stationary, sedentary categories of an establishment that is at tug-of-war with itself and going nowhere. The only categories of a movement that matter are not "Are you on the right?" or Are you on the left?" but "Are you at the front?" or "Are you at the rear?" And if one is at the front in ministry, if one is on the frontiers of mission, then different accusations will be heard than those of "liberal" or "conservative." "Oh you man without a handle," Henry James, Sr., once complained to movement leader Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Oh you man who fits no formula," the establishment complained to another movement leader -- Jesus Christ.

If "Christendom" is the most damming and damning force in American religious life today, "outsiderhood" is the most creative and dynamic force in American religious history. So argues Cornell historian R. Laurence Moore in his recent Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. What makes American religion so vigorous and "normal" is not establishment denominations but movements within America’s denominations. The American religious system may be said to be "working" only "when it is creating cracks within denominations, when it is producing novelty, even when it is fueling antagonisms." Management theorist and corporate guru Tom Peters, in the well-titled book Thriving on Chaos, argues that leaders who do not engage in daily public acts of "bureaucracy bashing" are neither doing their job nor displaying loyalty to the corporation. Can oldline Protestant churches be as unabashedly self-critical and daring about institutional failings as Mikhail Gorbachev is in his Perestroika: New Thinking for Our Country and the World?

The greatest challenge facing oldline Protestantism today is whether within our life and thought we will welcome movements that buck the currents of establishmentarianism, Christendom and modernity and that call the church to speak once again the "language of dissent" to a culture and church of compliance and consumption. It will not be easy to stop accommodating Christendom and start accommodating both bothersome faith movements -- which are the enemy of complacency -- and nettlesome, nonconformist leaders who pursue vision quests and new religious practices with passionate intensity. An establishment’s most important values are stability and security, rules and regulations. The most important values of a movement, however, are change and innovation, and its most important contribution is that it keep on moving. What organization is to an establishment, mobilization is to a movement. And mobilization threatens establishments.

Will we nurture movements that are neither a division of nor a diversion from the denomination? Will we support a movement’s unity, which is different from the unity of an establishment? Will we find a home in our midst for leaders of faith movements -- the Peter Cartwrights and Frances Willards of the 21st century -- who inspire us by living out the two greatest moral lessons of life: "to hear" (which can produce "martyrs") and "to dare" (which can produce "heroes") ? Will we tolerate servant leaders who are image-breakers as well as image-makers, ridding our denominational system of images that are coarsening and corrupting the church’s soul? Will we encourage leaders who build congregational life around the discernment-of-spirits model of decision-making instead of the majority-rules model, who move forward by engaging in prophecy instead of strategic planning, who embrace the Order of St. Paul and the Order of St. Luke more than the Order of St. Robert?

A vitalized denomination is a church emboldened and empowered by a movement mentality and spirituality. We have come a long way from the catacombs to the basilicas, from the brush arbors to the cathedrals. It is time to explore the catacombs and brush arbors once again, and be gripped by, and restored to, the spirit of high adventure in the Christian life.