When the ministerial association in our town was struggling with the new reality of its internal diversity, one minister came up with a solution: a confession of faith to be signed by all members of the clergy who wished to join the group or continue their membership. When I, being an officer at the time, pointed out the exclusionary effect of such a loyalty oath and its violation of the association’s charter, the evangelical Christian majority left to form their own Christian association which certainly would no longer include a rabbi or a Buddhist “priest” (sensei). Neither would it include a Presbyterian unwilling (1) to sign a fundamentalist Christian confession or (2) to exclude the Jew and the Buddhist from conversation among the clergy. I was not alone in remaining with the suddenly much smaller group, and so the association split over the issue of inclusion.
People with exclusionary agendas prefer simple definitions of identity – in effect, branding. The ordained in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), are already committed to a carefully defined relation to eleven historic confessions of Christian faith. Our promise to be led by these confessions as we seek to “lead the people of God” very carefully balances conformity with freedom – freedom, not only to dissent, but to keep growing in the faith and engaging new struggles in new times. So, on the basis of that reality alone, I would not have signed another confession to which my adherence would remain unspecified, unbalanced, and declared in a rigid and simplistic positive answer to, “Yes or no?” I would, therefore, not have signed the confession even if I had believed on its terms all the things it insisted I believe on its terms, which I did not.
But there was more going on in that choice, and there remains to this day more to consider in such matters of identity. I am a Christian. But I am not a Christian sectarian. The only people I encounter who doubt that I am a Christian are Christian sectarians. I am not at war with Jews and Buddhists. Nor with Muslims or Hindus. Nor with atheists or agnostics. Neither do I have any desire to see Christian sectarianism dominate American society. When some group on Facebook wants as many people as they can recruit to “like” being Christian for, it seems to me, the purpose of flexing the muscle of a populous Christian sectarian identity in a complex society, I decline, having no desire to reassert Christian cultural establishment in the United States. Christianity is called to be a servant, not a master.
Christian sectarian identity is a thing very different from Christian faith. In the former, we see such manifestations as Christian militia. Christian sectarian identity is what the apostle Paul called “party spirit,” where party refers to a group with a divisive political agenda, not to a celebration. Look at the history of conflicts in Lebanon, as just one example, to see the brutal ways in which Christian sectarian identity can operate.
Identity branding is one powerful way in which people are forced into a mold however poor the fit or restricted the freedom of movement. When such branding is done from the outside, it is the work of prejudice and stereotyping: “They’re all the same.” When done from the inside, by the group itself, it is an imposition of conformity and repression. Either way, it is false. It also tends to be fearful and potentially belligerent.
I hope Christians and Christian churches in the United States will learn to distinguish their faith from Christian sectarianism. I hold that hope for the sake of the churches and the nation.