[Note: This is a blog entry about a particular front of the culture war, that being my own religious tradition. Nonetheless, it is a subject of greater interest (and many readers of my blog are members of the Church of God community anyway) and so I thought it worthwhile to write an entry examining a new way to look at an old problem, for greater depth of understanding.]
Every once in a while, my math nerdiness comes in handy in explaining historical and sociological phenomena, though probably not often enough. For the last few months a fierce debate over worldviews has arisen within my church (a subject of many blog entries to date) in which one side has been labled as “traditionalist” and the other side has been labeled as “progressive.” These particular labels have been assumed to be in two and only two camps, as if people are at different points of a single line extending in our religious tradition from absolutely traditional (say, the Restored Church of God or Philadelphia Church of God) to moderately traditional (Living Church of God or the new Church of God, a Worldwide Association) to moderately progressive (the United Church of God) to very progressive (International Church of God, Christian Educational Ministries, and various independent groups). This is the sort of image that exists in the heads of many people.
It is my belief that such an image is inaccurate. In place of a single line, I would like to propose a three-dimensional space, creating a bigger box to determine the approach of people as “traditional” and “progressive” in ways that allow for a greater understanding of where we as individuals (and our organizations) fit into the bigger picture. Let us construct three axes (if I were more visual of a person I would have a handy graph here). Let the x-axis be traditional in the sense of doctrinal integrity, with the positive direction being greater interest in biblical fidelity and the negative direction being a greater insistence on nonbiblical traditions, or what we would call ‘pet doctrines.’ Let the y-axis be traditional in the sense of outward direction or application. A positive direction would mean greater interest in proclaiming the work to the world and in applying it in all walks of life, while a negative direction would be a more insular focus, focusing on the birthdays and anniversaries of members or the comfortable lifestyle of the pastor without the same drive to share the truths of God with the outside world. Let the z-axis be one’s views on structure or government, with a positive direction meaning a greater desire to spread personal responsibility, accountability, and leadership to as broad a base of members as possible and the negative direction meaning a desire to restrict active responsibility to as small a group as possible, either a clique of ministers or a one-man leader.
The resulting picture would no longer be a line on which people stood, but would be a fairly large sized box. Instead of having two different labels (progressive or traditionalist) it would have eight different areas where one could be. For example, I am someone who cares deeply about biblical fidelity, preaching the Gospel to the world and applying it as broadly as possible, as well as providing opportunities for leadership and input to as broad a group of people as possible. I would therefore be on the positive side of the axis in all three categories (this is not coincidental—he who draws the box gets to make the rules and set the conventions). Such a picture would allow a much better understanding of where people and organizations stand on important key issues of debate, as they would show a strong difference between various positions, showing the multiple axes of disagreement rather than limiting the discussion by only labeling one axis.
What is the purpose of such an exercise? By understanding where in the three-dimensional space of the concerns of doctrine, focus, and structure, we can better understand ourselves, those we disagree with, and what sort of effort needs to be made to explain where we come from and get to where we are going. By doing so we are encouraged to think more broadly rather than with simple and inaccurate labels, and to come to a more balanced and nuanced view of our brethren and our organizations. Now that we have defined a three-dimensional box, though, let us look at where various church organizations fit into it. This is not intended as a slam in any way, just as an exercise in analytical geometry.
First, let us examine the United Chruch of God, because that is where I attend. The United Church of God is “traditional” on doctrine with very strong constitutional limitations on the change of doctrine, it is outer-foced on preaching the Gospel and in applying God’s law to the personal lives of believers, and it is moderately progressive in allowing input to a broad group of people, even though it is organized so that only credentialed elders have a vote. Therefore, United as a whole would be in the section of space that is positive in all directions, but only slightly so in the aspect of structure.
Let us now examine the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, a new splinter group off of United that is having its first meeting this weekend . This particular organization would appear to have a doctrinal position that is similar to United, but probably without the constitutional safeguards that exist, making it equal to less positive on the direction of doctrinal fidelity. Its focus is more on the comfort of the ministry rather than a proclamation of the work, making it less positive on the “outer-focus” axis, and is also likely to be far more hierarchial than United is, making it negative in that direction, though not too extreme on that direction given its desire for a broad base of ministerial (especially paid ministerial and regional pastor) support. This is only a projection, but a reasonable one based on the events of the last few months, and is subject to revision if things are not as they have appeared.
Moving into more sure ground of where organizations stand, let us now examine the Philadelphia Church of God. It too has a strong view of doctrinal fidelity, so it would be very positive on that axis and is very focused on preaching a work with a television show that my stepfather cannot stop raving about, much to the annoyance of other members of the household. On the other hand, Philadelphia is very rigidly one-man rule, and not tolerant of other organizations at all, making it very negative on that direction. Note, though, that despite its distance from United that it shares two of the three areas, making it a closer cousin in many ways than the Church of God, a Worldwide Association may be, in terms of total three-dimensional distance.
Let us also note the Living Church of God, where my father attended before his death some years ago. The Living Church of God, like United, is very highly concerned with the integrity of doctrine within its system, and so would be very high on the positive direction, and is also (like United and Philadelphia) very focused on doing a work through various media. It, however, like United, is near the axis on the slightly negative side, given its presence of a board and its focus on personal responsibility for the members but its greater one-man rule than United. Nonetheless, it is not far apart on any of the axes, making the Living Church of God a very close “relative” to United in terms of where it exists on three-dimensional space, even if slightly less congenial to myself personally.
The closer the position on all three axes, the closer the organization, and the more (in theory) that the groups have in common. It would make sense that the most could be done in partnership with other people and groups that are in the same area of space on all three axes, as it would appear in the Church of God that the “structure” axis is particularly hostile even where the actual distances on either side may be small. For example, there is vastly less hostility between United and the independent congregations who are far higher on the scale of progressive in government than among any on the other side of the axis towards greater one-man government and a more rigid distance between the laity and the church leadership. Groups and people on different sides of any of the three axes altogether, appear as heretics, either for their lack of doctrinal firmness, for their lack of focus on preaching the Gospel, or for their differences in structure.
These would appear to have profound implications. For one, people may have far different priorities than their organization and have a great deal of latent distance between them and the church they attend (for example, they may be very inner focused in an organization that is directed out towards doing a work, or vice versa). For another, organizations are likely to contain people from many different areas of space, but are likely to be in tension where people are on different sides of the various axes in ways that are likely to blow up in a big way, eventually. For example, an understanding that a body of ministers in United included a greater tolerance for heretical beliefs (like Christ as a created being), a hostility towards personal responsibility and a love of hierarchy and power, and a disinterest in preaching a work if that meant any possible threat to one’s income as a paid minister would made the split in United over the past few months look as inevitable as the ending of a Greek tragedy. We live and we learn, I suppose.
Where do we go from here? First of all, we can examine ourselves to learn where we stand (and where those around us stand) so that we may be more aware of and conscious of our own religious “worldviews” and those who are truly in the same ground that we are on a variety of issues. Furthermore, knowing where we stand creates a heavier personal responsibility on us to live according to our own beliefs. Let us understand ourselves and others better, and so be more profitable servants of God, and more wise and discerning concerning other people.