Sectarianism: All mouth and blind obedience.The January issue of “Christianity” magazine has an interview with Christian palaeontologist Mike Taylor. During the interview Taylor comments on the polarised quarrels in North America between Creationists and Evolutionists. Viz:
They are a complete waste of time and energy. Scientists who should be doing valuable work are distracted into refuting frankly loony ‘science’. Worse still Christians who should be spreading the love of Christ are distracted into a fruitless argument that has nothing to do with the Gospel, and can only be a hindrance to scientists who might otherwise be open to Christ. It really is the most appallingly pointless and destructive conflict – all the more so because it’s between two sides that aren’t even opposed, as they would realize if they’d only listen to each other.
I’m certainly sympathetic toward Taylor’s impatience! The time of professional scientists (not to mention tax payer’s money) is clearly not well spent refuting the crank-science of fundamentalists. I’m also sympathetic toward Taylor’s regret at the pointlessness of it all, especially when the quarrel is between Christians. However, I think Taylor is rather too hopeful in his assessment that it’s between two sides that aren’t even opposed, as they would realize if they’d only listen to each other. For many fundamentalists this issue is very much bound up with their version of Christianity and they have a world view that obliges them to proactively crusade against Christians whose views differ from their own. Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham, need I say, is my textbook example; you won’t get him to accept that this is a fruitless argument. For him it is the stuff of the Gospel and those who do not share his views he thinks of as compromisers who are turning people away from church and the true gospel. Given extremism of this intensity any reasonable Christian who respects science and reason will find themselves in conflict with fideist fundamentalists whether (s)he likes it or not.
If we should have any doubt that Ham’s concept of the gospel is inextricably linked to his Young Earth Creationism (YEC) we only need read his blog post of 28 December and entitled A No-Literal-Adam Evolutionary Christmas “Gospel” Message. In this post he refers to a Christmas message from Faraday institute director Dr Denis Alexander as an “anti-gospel message”. Further, in a blog post dated 30 December and entitled Which Jesus Do You Really Believe In? we read the following:
Steve shows that today many Christian scholars who identify themselves as theological conservatives and evangelicals are preaching a Jesus different from the Jesus of the Bible. In order to accommodate their personal belief that millions-of-years-evolution is true, they are essentially re-writing major doctrines and accounts in the holy Scriptures from beginning to end. Many no longer believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a literal sin in a literal the Garden of Eden, a literal Ark and Flood, or that the Jesus created the world as recorded in the Old Testament and as He says He did in the New Testament
Consistent with a sect that is reacting to a hostile world by hardening its position in order to prevent its message being compromised, YEC philosophy is now getting explicit recognition in the statement of faith of those who attach themselves to it. In Ham’s blog post dated 26 Dec and entitled President of Creationist College Visits Museum with Family we read:
The college, which started in 1968 and is now a Bible/liberal arts school, has the following sentence in its statement of faith: “We believe in . . . Six creation days of twenty-four hours each.”
The sentiment is clear: For Ham salvation demands a belief in a creation period of literally 6 x 86400 seconds; essentially the core message that Ham’s Answers in Genesis organization is preaching – in his view to deny YEC is to deny Jesus and perhaps even jeopardize one’s salvation. This consolidation of the collective identity of a religious group in a ritualized gathering around a particular set of proprietary observances thought to be bound up with salvation (in this case YEC) interests me greatly; it is a stage in the formation of a cult.
Since my first identification with the Christian cause I have given a certain amount of time to the study of Christianity’s many sub-sects and cults. Let me be frank here. After being happily and merrily “converted” in the mid seventies my subsequent soon after discovery of the numerous cultish and sectarian expressions of Christianity was a big and unexpected shock; yes I really was naive enough to think that all was going to be sweetness, light and harmony in Christian circles. After all, I was given to understand that the radical message of Christianity was that faith wasn’t about an uptight and jealous guarding of proprietary religious observance and practice, but rather the acceptance of a very embracing message of grace, repentance, forgiveness, and relationship followed by a clear conscience. But here were people who were reintroducing no end of finicky observances and proprietary beliefs back into church, by using the Bible as if it was a collection of legal articles. They left little doubt that if their views were not followed whole heartedly it could endanger one's salvation. For them the guilt trip was very much back on the pilgrim's itinerary and constituted the coercive means by which they eased in their beliefs. I have to say that as far as I was concerned these people were (and still are) the biggest challenge Christianity faces to its authenticity and truth as one can find and so I threw myself into a study of the subject.
Below I provide a list of some of the partisan Christian groups I have been acquainted with. They occupy different places on the sect-cult spectrum and have varied degrees of social integration, strictness and recognizable identity; some have a fuzzier definition than others and some are movements within movements. However, they are all marked by offering particular observance novelties and/or spiritual elixirs that they regard as at the very least helpful to salvation, if not essential to it. The list below is roughly in the chronological order of my acquaintance with these movements. The bias toward protestant sects is a sign of my being in the protestant West.
Children of God.
Strict and Traditional Brethren
Strict and Traditional Evangelicals
Herbert Armstrong and the Plain Truth
The Jesus Army
Gnostic and fideist charismatics
The Snake Handlers sect.
Toronto Blessing revival
Barry Smith: Millennium Bug prophet
Gold dust and angel feathers Charismatics.
Extreme orthodox groups.
Answers in Genesis.
Strict and Particular Baptists
Todd Bentley’s Lakeland revival
The Witness Lee Brotherhood
The Geocentric Christians
Christian Flat Earthers (Now defunct?)
Real Catholics (Michael Voris)
William Tapley, end of world prophet 2010
Harold Camping, end of world prophet 2011
I don’t think anyone needs to be told that this list is by no means exhaustive. If one looks hard enough new species of Christian cult or sect, each with their own specialized hobby horses, will creep out from under every stone one turns. When presented with such a smorgasbord of types one seeks general ideas and themes to simplify and explain the phenomenon. To this end we can identify commonalities in the social dynamics that exists amongst the sects: The observations I have made above about Answers in Genesis are a case in point. Here we find a group whose specialist message is being rejected by the vast majority of Christians. In fact the 1960s “restoration” of YEC beliefs seems to be running out of steam and Christians are failing to accept YEC’s travesty of science. The reaction of those who have huge stakes in the movement (like Ken Ham) is to get more strident and extreme in their pronouncements as they find a need to derive an inverted self esteem from an increasing awareness of themselves as a "peculiar remnant" people. Thus, isolation leads to entrenchment and in turn a clearer definition of an eccentric faith. This seems to be the common polarizing dynamic that is a precursor to the sectification and ultimately cultification of a Christian movement; either that or the movement bombs because only unshakeable and proactive self-belief can survive marginalization by the rest of the Christian community. There is an inverted pride in being a small vociferous purist movement that sees itself as an uncompromising anchorage of truth in a sea of error.
There is another commonality I have noticed from my experience with sects and cults that I would like to share here and which is relevant to Taylor’s otherwise admirable sentiment that the two sides need only listen to one another. Listen to one another? Forget it! In the sectarian mind failure to enthusiastically and uncritically embrace the uncompromising sectarian message, whether it is about the latest form of restorationist teaching, blessing, or revival, is to play fast and loose with God and risk Divine displeasure. In this sense, then, sectarians think of themselves as God’s mouthpiece that must be obeyed. Therefore an attempt to negotiate with them will register as a failure to respond adequately to their message and will be regarded as at best a sign of spiritual impediment and at worst manifestation of willful sin. Their message is non-negotiable. They therefore harbour a deep suspicion of the motives of all who disagree with them and they find it difficult if not impossible to accept that anyone can dissent and still have a clear conscience; dissidents are likely to be thought of as consciously and deliberately resisting the Holy Spirit.
It is this hardline attitude of the sectarian toward prevaricators that unfortunately makes Taylor’s desire for conciliation unlikely to be fulfilled. The out and out sectarian takes himself very seriously indeed and if his views are not taken on board he will, after a time, retreat in sullen righteous indignation; neutrality is simply not an option with him and even an impartial noncommittal attitude is equated with rebellion against God. He will feel every right to echo divine anger toward the dissenter; you can sometimes see it in sectarian faces. As effectively “God’s mouthpiece” sectarians have no pride problems with making claims of breathtaking arrogance and yet, paradoxically, at the same time think of themselves as humble, devout, unquestioning vessels of the Almighty’s purposes. Whenever I deal with sectarians who make a show of their piety I always think of an epitaph that one can find on a tomb in St. Stephens church in Norwich:
A scholar without pride, a Christian without bigotry, devout without ostentation.
St Stephens Church, Norwich, holds a lesson for sectarian Christianity.