Bruce Guenther on the Merits of Denomenational Disunity

Near the conclusion of an essay entitled “Life in a Muddy World: Historical and Theological Reflections on Denomenationalism,” Bruce Guenther writes that

postmodernism has generated an interest in particularities as a reaction to the imposition of totalizing metanarratives. We cannot express or embody our faith apart from cultural forms. This interest in cultural particularities creates a new opportunity for denominations, especially those that have a clear sense of their theological identity and vision, that can articulate it in a narrative form, and that can present it in a relational way, inviting people to be a part of a community that is participating in an ongoing story (or narrative).[1]

This quote most explicitly states some of the profoundly troubling assumptions and tendencies Guenther exhibits throughout his essay, which seem to be generally pervasive in articulations of believers’ church ecclesiology. Before getting to the substance of my concern I wish to make two general observations.

First, if Guenther reads “postmodernity” to say that because we will always “embody our faith” in a manner clothed by our particular cultural identity we ought to renounce the effort for world-wide communion (while still “inviting” others to adopt our particular identity), he misses one of its crucial tenets, especially in its Derridian manifestations. Derrida’s reflections on im/possibility are not a nihilistic resignation to “the way things are.” Rather, as Peter Blum has argued (in an explicit believers’ church context), it is precisely im/possibility that enables an intentionality that in turn makes the impossible possible.

Second, Guenther simply assumes the legitimacy of “postmodernism”; that is, that postmodernity is here to stay, that its assessment of our time is correct, and that it is therefore proper for the church to conform to its assessment. This observation is of greater importance to the issue of believers’ church ecclesiology. For, even if Guenther is correct in his assumption that postmodernity offers a valid assessment of our world (in which case, he’s merely lazy), this ought not to lead to a necessary endorsement on our part. The world is also full of structural violence and injustice; this does not mean we should endorse the church’s complicity and involvement in such structures. I think for example of Will Campbell, who spent a lifetime prophetically decrying the separation of southern “black” and “white” churches, a separation drawn along cultural (racist!) lines that enabled (and still enables) the church “to adjust to a pluralistic cultural reality” (Guenther, 72). I have reservations with many aspects of Alain Badiou’s philosophical project (at least, insofar as I understand it), but he is surely correct when he writes that in the face of postmodern identitarian logic “St Paul’s statement rings out….A genuinely stupefying statement when one knows the rules of the ancient world: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female’ (Gal. 3.28)!”[2]

However, these observations only gesture at what I find most problematic in Guenther’s paper: Guenther seems to equate (certain forms of) the disunity amongst denominations with biblical diversity and denominational unity with uniformity; for some reason, he cannot conceive of deep diversity that exists in communion. (It is worth noting that earlier in the same volume Sheila Klassen-Wiebe strays into the same fallacy when she argues that the denomenational reality of the church is not cause for lament, but a gift of diversity from God (eg. Klassen-Wiebe, 8, 28)).

Guenther argues that “differences [by which he means denominational differences] can be useful….Diversity can contribute to a more fully orbed theology” (Guenther, 67-68). He notes that the church must adopt different structures and strategies in order to be faithful in various cultural contexts. The two biblical images he looks at, the body of Christ and the various nations gathered at the throne of God in Revelation 7, are particularly illustrative of his erroneous framework. The body of Christ, he claims, does not suggest uniformity, but rather, denominational difference. Likewise, he suggests that the various nations in Revelation 7 may imply “denominational diversity” (Guenther, 72n55).

The almost tragic fact of the matter is that Guenther is correct in these observations. Difference, even irreconcilable difference, can be fruitful, the church does not have one eternal shape or form, and there are a plethora of biblical images that suggest a diverse church. However, this difference is always presented within a concrete unity. The various nations gather together in common worship; the body parts belong to one body; the Gentile churches collect money for “the poor” in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8); Paul commands harmonious commensality amongst the hopelessly warring Jewish and Greek factions in the Roman church (Romans 14-15:22) and egalitarian table fellowship amongst the socially divided Corinthian church (1 Cor. 11:17-34); before receiving their different commissions in John 21, Peter and the beloved disciple enjoy table fellowship with the resurrected Christ. The list could go on, but this should make sufficiently clear that while difference in the church is to be celebrated, it is sin when practiced outside of communion.

Guenther would seem to think that at this point I am arguing for some form of uniformity, perhaps masked as difference. Yet, it is hardly striking to point out that many of today’s denominations exist in communion despite deep divides; sometimes these differences are harmful, but at times they are fruitful. Along this line of reasoning, Stanley Hauerwas notes that “If you think Rome is the office of uniformity, then you have never been in the same room with Jesuits and Dominicans.”[3] Perhaps the most profound aspect of Christian communion is the diversity it ought to and can encompass; when we relegate this diversity to those with whom we are not in communion – to those who can beside, but not alongside, us practice their gospel in their own way – we limit the power of difference and cheapen the gospel.

[1] New Perspectives in Believers Church Ecclesiology, eds. Abe Dueck, Helmut Harder, and Karl Koop, (Winnipeg: CMU Press: 2010), 71-72. Hereafter cited in text.

[2] Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 9.

[3] Christianity, Democracy, and the Radical Ordinary: Conversations Between a Radical Democrat and a Christian (Eugene: Cascade Books, 2008), 325.


9 comments on “Bruce Guenther on the Merits of Denomenational Disunity

  1. Nice piece. A couple of comments. First I wonder if you are moving too quickly with your Derrida reference. I read Blum’s article (and should probably re-read it) and I don’t think he moves that quickly from impossibility to possibility. I would focus more on what the way Blum phrases it which I think is that impossibility can be when things become interesting. In your brevity you may be read as instrumentalizing impossibility as possibility.
    I also find it interesting that many recent attempts to revisit authority or universalism go the RC church. I am not saying you are finding it solely there but I think we need to give more attention to why folks are doing that.
    I definitely think we still do need to draw attention to people who too quickly accept our present state as ‘postmodern’ without facing the realities of seemingly unrelenting and apparently universalizing capitalist project.
    Thanks for the thoughts.

    • geraldens says:

      David, thanks for the corrective on Derrida/Blum. It does sound as if I am instrumentalizing impossibility, which I did not intend to do. I was more or less simply irked by the fact that Guenther would term-drop “postmodernity” and then move on as if that would justify his case.

      I mentioned Catholicism not so much in an attempt to revisit the question of authority as to demonstrate that even in a context where authority, universality, and unity seem to have the last (and, we sometimes think, only) word, genuine difference can flourish. But you are also right that we should certainly be looking at this interplay of difference and unity within our own denominations and congregations.

  2. Kampen says:

    I.e., you are pushing against unity without difference on the one hand and difference without unity on the other?

    • geraldens says:

      In short, yes. Though, once you put it that way you have to think carefully about how you define unity. I am opposed to people celebrating difference when there is not a generous and intentional engagement between that difference; Guenther seems to go even further, implying that difference can only exist without generous engagement. I think that another name for that generous engagement can and should be communion.

  3. Theophilus says:

    I don’t know how familiar you are with Bruce Guenther’s biographical details, but the work he does would put the lie to the notion that he believes that denominations cannot practice intercommunion. Bruce was born as an Old Colony Mennonite, studied at Winnipeg Bible College (now Providence University College), an interdenominational school, and has worked for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, an ecumenical parachurch organization. As the president of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary-Canada, he currently heads an organization that shares facilities and faculty with schools affiliated with Mennonite Church Canada, the Evangelical Free Church of Canada, the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches, the Baptist General Conference of Canada, and the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Saying that “he cannot conceive of deep diversity that exists in communion” is unsubstantiated by the text under consideration, and contrary his lived reality. I think you’re tilting at windmills, latching onto particular instances of vocabulary, ascribing them meanings not inherent to the text, and then using these understood meanings as grounds to attack the whole piece. I don’t think you’re attacking something that isn’t seriously problematic, but I think you’re projecting the problem onto the text without warrant.

    • geraldens says:

      Guenther’s biography is helpful. It brings out some points that may (and in my reading did) fall to the background against some of his stronger emphases – such as when he points to “the growing level of collaboration among denominations in Canada” (p.69).

      Yet, I do remain at least somewhat wary. It is not that I think the attempt to show that “denominationalism is not beyond redemption” is necessarily flawed (p.57). Nor do I think that Guenther is unable to conceive of inter-denominational cooperation. Rather, it is in the manner in which he executes his defence of denominationalism. Here, I believe he reflects a certain level of complacency and even contentedness with the current denominational state of the church (whatever his intentions may have been), in which much that is divisive or only constitutes a limitted cooperation remains.

      Several aspects of Guenther’s essay give rise to this sense of complacency/contentedness.

      First, while I may have spoken too strongly in implying that Guenther is not able to conceive of cooperation between denominations, he does consistently offer this strange equation of denominational Christianity and biblically mandated diversity. Diversity is too often seen as only possible with a variety of denominations, and an institutional, structurally united church is too often seen as enabling only uniformity. The variety of expressions Christianity has embodied depending on its setting (p.61), the inevitability of “doctrinal differences among Christians” (p.63), the “theological distinctive that each denomination embodies” (p.66), the fact that “differences among Christians can be useful” (p.67), the reality that “the true church of Christ can never fully be represented by any single ecclesiastical structure” (p.68), and the lack of uniformity within the biblical images of the body of Christ and nations gathered at the throne of God in Revelation 7 (p.71, 72n55) are all points Guenther uses to justify the current denominational context of the church. For Guenther, this principle of diversity “serves as a helpful antidote…to those who insist that genuine ecumenism requires all Christians to be a part of one institutional structure” (p.64). This suggests, quite strongly, that if we are to have diversity we must have denominations. I quite simply do not see this connection. It may be that we have different understandings of what an institution might look like, but if we take it to be at a minimum a visible, concrete, and structured manifestation of Christian unity amidst its great diversity, then it is not at all clear to me why multiple denominations are required. Why can difference not be held within a concrete, fellowshipping, body?

      Guenther quotes Jeremiah Burroughs, who states that “Sparks are beaten by the flints striking together….If you will have truths argued out you must be content to bear with some opposition for the time” (67-68). I agree with this statement. But to simply use it as a defence of denominationalism seems to ignore the simultaneous need for unity (or perhaps better, proximity). Members of a congregation assemble under the same roof; denominations (one hopes) function to extend this concrete unity (proximity) across congregations. Flints must strike together if they are to spark flame.

      You mention the possibility of intercommunion. To me this holds a great deal potential for imagining how Christians might hold together the call to unity and difference. Perhaps this is what Guenther is pushing towards, but if so it is hard see. He states that “true unity should be expressed through cooperation between denominations” (p.69) and “demand(s) of us mutual respect, and a degree of fellowship and visible cooperation” (p.71). While cooperation and a degree of fellowship is to be commended I am not convinced that that would constitute communion. (Again, my point here is not that Guenther is incapable of envisioning intercommunion, but that he seems content if it is not present.)

      Second, Guenther’s essay contains absolutely no lament (or call for lament) over the divided nature of the church. The closest he comes to this is when admits that “at times [denominationalism] has facilitated conflict and the fragmentation of unity among Christians” (p.62), and when, in what amounts to a passing comment, he wonders if Burroughs would have been more careful in defending petty denominational splits “if he could have anticipated the tremendous proliferation of denominations that has taken place in the last century and the way this has damaged the credibility of Christianity” (p.67). However, any theme along this line is quickly dropped in favour of further arguments for the validity of our current denominational setting. Likewise, while often praising denominationalism for facilitating a genuinely voluntary membership (e.g., p. 62, 70), he does not consider how denominationalism might reflect an inability on the part of non-hierarchical churches to keep the conversation going, so to speak; that is, that rampant denominationalism might reflect a tendency among the believers church to devolve into isolated pockets of uniformity. In any case, given that in many ways Christianity is still deeply divided and not practicing table fellowship, to only affirm the merits of denominationalism seems quite off-balance.

      Third, and related to my second point, there is very little in Guenther’s essay that might constitute a call to further cooperation or fellowship. He is content to assert that “denominational diversity is not necessarily schism” (p.69). While this statement and other similar claims that affirm the need for cooperation do implicitly point towards a further action on our part, these are not spelled out under any sort of challenge or injunction to the church. Simply asserting that denominationalism need not be bad and is often (the only way to be) good gives rise to a strong sense that things are just fine the way they are today. Guenther, nowhere calls for more or continued or more intentional inter-denominational conversation, cooperation, or communion.

      Finally, the way Guenther affirms the validity of a strong identity beyond, or in addition to, or as a part of a Christian identity continues to unnerve me. (In addition to my original block quote, see pages 65-66). You may notice that I have been backing off on some of my initial claims. I think that part of the reason I reacted so strongly to Guenther is that he begins by orienting himself against H. Richard Niebuhr, whose stinging critique of denominationalism focussed on the fact that, for the most part, denominational divides are a result of social (racial) and economic factors, not theological issues (p.53, 60). Thus, Guenther’s claim that postmodernity legitimates denominational divides along cultural lines drew associations with the lines of injustice present in the early and mid 20th century American church. However, even in a different, more equitable, context, I remain uneasy with such strong emphasis on (cultural) identity. It seems to contain a logic that is counter to many Christian convictions and practices of unity; particularly without structures/practices in place that might cause intermingling amongst this difference I worry that it may fuel various communities to absolutize themselves, becoming more self-sufficient and more uniform.

      Whatever Guenther’s capacity for imagining interdenominational cooperation may be, I still think that this essay constitutes little more than a pat on the back for those of us living in denominational Christianity. In a context in which we are frequently told to “be who you are, identify with a community that is the SAME as you,” I worry that such an affirmation might not only be unnecessary, but also dangerous.

      • Theophilus says:

        A couple of comments come to mind after reading your response. The first has to do with the meaning of the term “denomination.” Niebuhr’s work, to which Guenther is responding, was a development of the church-sect typology developed by Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, and which was a simple two-pole spectrum. This typology has no place in it for denominationalism as such, and allows placement of particular denominations on various places on the church-sect continuum. More current work in the sociology of religion has expanded the simple typology of Weber and Troeltsch. One such model is that of Roy Wallis, a brief summary of which can be found here. In the MB circles in which Guenther is a part, this sort of typology has become very influential through Richard Kyle’s seminal work “From Sect to Denomination: Church Types and Their Implications for Mennonite Brethren History”; the way Kyle narrates MB history is evident in the title of the work. The critical element in the denominational classification is that, sociologically, one of the defining features of denominations is their self-conception of being pluralistically, rather than uniquely, legitimate — that is, denominations do not view themselves as exclusive vehicles of God’s truth. Denominations may then enjoy fraternal and collegial relations with other denominations, such as those between our two denominations, the Mennonite Brethren and Mennonite Church Canada. If Guenther’s remarks about denominationalism are read in a sociological sense, they take on a very different sound to them, being a defence of denominationalism against a sectarianism that precludes such fraternal and collegial relations with those who believe differently. In my reading, it is in this light that his writing makes the most sense.

        Having said that, I share your misgivings about the predominantly socioeconomically homogenous nature of many denominations. I would hope that the task of preaching to the rich and poor together would not be abandoned.

        My second thought had to do with the ways we are using the term “communion” and related terms. I was using that term to refer to table fellowship, and “intercommunion” to refer to denominations or other church bodies that have mutually recognized table fellowship between each other. For instance, Lutherans and Anglicans have recently allowed for this. Closer to home, here in Winnipeg, the One Heart ecumenical worship service at the MTS Centre on January 8, at which a broad cross-section of the free church tradition in Winnipeg was present, celebrated communion. In that instance, intercommunion was practiced between all the traditions present at that event. I get the sense that you were using the word “communion” to mean something not limited to table fellowship, as I was.

        What I perceive is that you and Guenther have different conceptual models of what church unity ought to look like. You seem to exhibit a preference for greater institutional unity, while Guenther looks to be pressing for greater collegiality instead. Does that strike you as a fair assessment?

  4. geraldens says:

    Yeah. That sounds about right. I would want to be careful about how we understand institutional unity, particularly considering Kampen’s recent post, which I think is spot on. I would not want the word institution to convey a either sense of necessary hierarchy or an attempt at self establishment.

    Your note on the word communion is also helpful. I was thinking in part of mutually recognized table fellowship between denominations. However, I also believe that table fellowship should imply other ecclesial practices (along the lines of what Yoder outlines in Body Politics – binding and loosing, breaking bread together, baptism, sharing of gifts, and open meetings). While I am sure that for many the instances of intercommunion you mention have been immensly powerful, I know, for example, of some Lutherans and Anglicans who have commented on a certain artificiality in the table fellowship between their two denominations.

    • Theophilus says:

      That sounds about right to me. I think it’s also interesting to note, particularly in light of the One Heart event, that shared table fellowship is sometimes possible where other shared practices are not. For instance, at One Heart I shared communion with Anglicans, even though my church’s practice of rebaptizing people who were baptized as infants implies some sort of rejection of Anglican (and other) practices of baptism. I still think it’s good to share communion with Anglicans as a Mennonite, but I am not at all prepared to affirm Anglican infant baptism as an equally good practice in comparison to the baptism practiced upon confession of faith in my own tradition. Mutatis mutandis, I expect many Anglicans would feel the same way about Mennonite practices of baptism. Intercommunion, then, could be a sign of recognition of shared faith between ecclesial traditions that still have significant incompatibilities regarding other practices of faith.

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