Subversion, schism and reformation

Apparently the inevitable has happened this last week at the Baptist Union, as it has in so many denominations in the western world. Although I only have the story through a casual conversation, it seems as if a group has introduced a motion for the Union to allow the ordination of openly gay ministers, although there is as yet no official change in policy even on the 2014 affirmation of traditional marriage. In response, a petition has been started in defence of the historical view of marriage. Fisticuffs will follow.

This is almost exactly three years after I concluded that a shift away from the historical (and undoubtedly biblical) position was bound to happen in the denomination, given the tentative support given to it by the national leadership. As I have been banging that drum ever since, at least the leadership are somewhat prepared for trouble. COVID may even have given us a couple of extra years of grace.

This move will, almost inevitably, split the Baptist denomination as it has every other in which such a move has been made. Irenical attempts to be “inclusive” not only of sexual and gender minorities, but of all shades of Christian opinion on them, have inevitably failed. Inevitably, because they operate under different worldviews. The only partial exception I can think of is the British Methodists, who adopted a firm affirmation that marriage is between one man and one woman and an equally firm affirmation that it is between any two people – surely self-contradiction is never a stable option.

I predict that however the leadership of the BU leans (and it seems to be the habit of those who aspire to lead national denominations to lean towards compromise), there will be a call for “mutual understanding,” with the built-in result that those who do not concur with SSM will be accused of divisiveness and lack of love. I would suggest that the reason this is inevitable is that this is the way that not only most historical heresies, but most institutional subversion, works. Certainly, cancel culture shows us that this is the way that minority activism works in our own time: the unthinkable is leveraged to become thinkable, then permissible, and eventually compulsory. Once Lia Thomas is accepted, J. K. Rowling must be excluded.

Let me illustrate that with a cold case. In the late nineteenth century the SCM (Student Christian Movement) began as an Evangelical missionary movement. To quote a PhD thesis by Steve Bruce:

As it grew, the SCM extended its operations to the founding and servicing of Christian Unions in colleges and progressively abandoned its evangelical roots and come to play a major part in the development of liberalism and ecumenism. In the nineteen sixties it became more radical than liberal and developed an interest in Marxism and alternative life styles.

Nowadays, the SCM prides itself on its “inclusiveness” from its inception, eliding from the story the fact that the Christian Unions of Oxford and Cambridge, increasingly alarmed at the takeover by theological liberalism eventually left to form IVF (now UCCF) since they were no longer welcome.

The thing to note is that those turning against historical theology and embracing innovation did not simply leave to found a new organisation, but infiltrated the leadership roles in order to turn the whole movement to their view, whilst capitalising on its orthodox reputation. When those unable to accept the changes as orthodox removed their support, they could easily be accused of being at best bigots, and at worst, schismatics. And yet as we know from the subsequent history both of liberal Christianity and the SCM itself, the initial “inclusiveness” became a millstone around the neck of whatever remained that was distinctively Christian. When I was at Cambridge in the 1970s, the Evangelical CICCU had 400 members and the SCM was all but invisible – I can only recall knowing one member.

The BU are well aware of Charles Spurgeon’s “downgrade controversy,” which had similar causes and a similar dynamic, though not ending in the breakup of the union. I’ll wager that none of the BU leadership even remember the names of Spurgeon’s opponents, let alone supports their position against his. Can you think of any UK Baptist churches that enthusiastically embrace classic liberal theology?

One can see the same process of subversion in many parallel situations, including (for example) the current dissension within the US Southern Baptists over Critical Race Theory. Whatever else it is, CRT is an innovation not found in Scripture. But rather than found a new denomination espousing the syncretism of Christianity and Critical Theory, the activists have moved to gain influence over the Convention. Those objecting to this fundamental theological shift are accused of lack of love and exclusiveness (“It’s a gospel issue…”), and eventually are left with the option of remaining in an umbrella group promulgating the opposite of what it historically stood for, or leaving and being branded as a schismatic minority.

You can see the same thing in the Church of England as GAFCON has felt it necessary to separate from a denomination no longer holding to its founding thirty-nine articles. But the subversion strategy is age-old. If you read Augustine on the Pelagian controversy, you will see that Pelagius, rather than accusing the orthodox tradition of error and starting his own, used weasel-words to make his novel theology seem to be very little different from what the whole Church believed. Fortunately, he was called out on it.

As I have suggested, when the orthodox have been forced to withdraw from an organisation or denomination because of infiltration by theological novelty, the accusation from the infiltrators is usually that of “schism.” Schism is indeed a serious matter, and one of the tragedies of Christian history is the Great Schism of 1054 between Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. But this was fundamentally different from what we are discussing today, in that the two parties had, partly because of the linguistic divide of Greek and Latin, been developing somewhat separately for centuries. There were political and personal as well as theological differences to blame, but the main problem was that of churches that each saw their own distinctives as being the primitive pattern, rather than one party within a single church believing it had somehow discovered new truths that rendered the old ones obsolete.

So then, could the Protestant Reformation not be seen as a classic case that legitimizes what the proponents of gay marriage or CRT are attempting? Once again the answer is “No.” the difference is not primarily the claim that what the Reformers were advocating was, unlike gay marriage, the original teaching of Christ and the apostles (and the early church). This would be disputed by Roman Catholics, of course. The real difference is that those like Martin Luther made no serious attempt to minimise their differences from the “mainstream,” and to take over Christendom from within. Instead, they simply proclaimed that they were teaching neglected truth (which could be verified from the Bible by anyone who cared to check), and they pointed out what they saw as fundamental errors to be repented and abandoned by the Roman Church, lest it cease to be a true church at all.

The Catholics made much play on the Reformers’ “rending the seamless robe of Christ,” but if there is not a shared basis of faith, such as the primacy of Scripture, there is no proper garment anyway, but only a patchwork of holes. And I have no doubt whatsoever that gay marriage between followers of Christ cannot be legitimately deduced from Scripture, whereas its rejection can, on several grounds. The proponents have failed to make the case from Scripture, and must base their case on extra-biblical concepts such as inclusivity and the emotive application of biblical ones like compassion.

We all know that the Pope excommunicated Luther (and that he reciprocated by excommunicating the Pope, adding that time would tell whose excommunication stood in heaven’s court). To be a Baptist in anything more than name is to recognise that true churches are founded on the true biblical faith, regardless of human traditions and fashions. That faith was always counter-cultural. There are no denominations in heaven.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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5 Responses to Subversion, schism and reformation

  1. Levi says:

    Dear Jon

    I’m encouraged by your willingness to stare fully in the face the parallels between the CRT/woke subversion of Christian groups in our time, the etiology of which you’ve insightfully analysed and rightly decried theologically/ethically, with the unfolding of the Protestant Reformation (and other schisms) in the past. I’m not entirely convinced, however, that the depths, details and nuances of this comparison have been fully fathomed, or that the implications of the critique of the one has been satisfactorily answered as conclusions regarding the other.

    No doubt, a great deal of introspection and humility is required of one, over politicised matters of doctrine, and this is especially difficult to muster when one’s own cherished loyalties and principles are put in question, in the first place by a heretical subversion, and in the second, by one’s own reflection on the merits and demerits of the doctrine/institution itself, for better or worse triggered by a reaction against the subversion. You are a writer of tremendous integrity and insight, and so I do look forward to further musings on the topic, albeit cognisant of the anguish that these times of subversion are causing to men and women like yourself, of genuine good faith.

    I suppose you are already familiar with a number of notable, insightful English Protestants who have recently joined the Roman Catholic Church (I’m thinking of Dr Gavin Ashenden, in particular), as well as the arguments put forth by prominent converts in times past (Cardinal Newman, Chesterton, et al.). One man’s heresy is another man’s salvific hope. If it isn’t the authority of sheer will (collective or individual) that decides which is to be which, on what authority is it decided?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Levi, not only am I aware of Gavin Ashenden, but I corresponded with him just before he announced his move to Rome. Like Newman’s, I think the change reflects both the flavour of his own spirituality, and the inability to live with what his previous “home” has become. In other words, it’s an exchange of one set of compromises for another. Such is life.

      It’s never easy to be openly critical about one’s own community without losing convictions altogether and becoming merely cynical. We all do, and should, have convictions rooted in our own life-history, but that, in my view, gives a strong base from which to make more dispassionate judgements than do weaker reasons for belonging.

      As often as not, folks leave institutions because those institutions have changed what they stand for, rather than because the individual has had a major change of heart.

      In the OP, my main point is to differentiate the various modi operandi for change: as far as I can see a Catholic might well agree with that aspect of the Reformation, even whilst regarding the thing itself as heretical.

  2. Robert Byers says:

    I don’t like the term traditional marriage. There is only one thing. A man and a woman. the woman was only created for the man not to be lonely. not even reproduction.
    the union is the marriage. There is no such thing and is a evil repulsive thing for any union other then a man and woman. it should/must be only one union and no more.
    there is no place for debate. its gods idea, law, and mankinds historic conclusion. homosexual things of any sort is just immoral, even evil in results though not saying they are evil, and repulsive to any true man or woman. iT must be made illegal in any and every way or rather suppressed into a quiet invisible thing.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Hungary’s the place to move to – Orban has just been re-elected with a 53% majority. Of course, our press regrets the success of an extreme right wing etc etc, but they would, wouldn’t they?

      It’s hard for the West to play the libertarian card when reporters working underground in Kharkov get blocked from Twitter for not agreeing with the mainstream narrative.

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