Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 16, 1967

The Present In Perspective

A Professional Historian's View Of The Church Today

David Edwin Harrell, Jr.

The struggles of recent years have certainly taught us that the necessary ingredients for maintaining the purity of the faith are a knowledge of the Bible and the courage to stand upon it. There is only one way to test a question, only one way to decide an issue, and that is by the authority of the Scriptures. The time and effort expended by faithful gospel preachers in open minded study and unintimidated preaching on the current issues is the source of most of the good accomplished in the last few decades. I recognize that this is where the battle is fought; I hope that I have contributed to the cause.

It is true, however, that sometimes we can better understand the specifics of a subject if we have a view of the broader setting. Sometimes one can be so intent on a befuddling specific that he loses sight of the obvious. There is meaning in the truism that some cannot see the forest for the trees.

Within this context an historical and sociological study of the restoration movement offers some insights into the past and present problems of the church. This is not to say that one's faith should rest on historical foundations; it should be rooted in the Word of God. But good history, unbiased and objective, can tell us something about ourselves, and those who differ from us.

My book, Quest for a Christian America, which recently was published by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society, is a study of the first half-century of the restoration movement from an historical and sociological point of view. It is an honest effort at objective scholarship and has been received as such by the academic world. Some of the most prominent scholars in the country have reviewed the book in the leading historical journals. They have not always given the book unstinted praise, but they have generally been very kind, and all have accepted it as an honest, scholarly, and objective contribution to the literature of American history. I have, as an historian should, simply made an effort to tell the story of what early Disciples thought and did with regard to social issues. I think they were sometimes right; I think they were sometimes wrong; as an historian I simply did not judge.

I do believe, however, that there is a moral in the story that I told. It is my intention to clarify that moral, as I see it, in this series of articles. But before I lapse into polemics, let me simply state some facts that are apparent to every historian of the restoration.

The better scholars in the universities of the United States are not unaware of the problems and divisions that have taken place within the Disciples movement. As a matter of fact, religious divisions have long been a subject of interest to historians and sociologists of religion and these scholars have carefully catalogued the nature of these divisions. The classic pattern involved in a religious division is known as the "sect to denomination" process.

As briefly stated by Ernst Troeltsch, an eminent German historian, all new and fervent religious groups emerge as "sects." Troeltsch called the church of the first century a "sect. " "Sects, " according to Troeltsch and hundreds of others who have built on his work, have certain definable traits. Their members believe they have "the truth," they are strict morally, they believe themselves to be "the church," they are fervent, and exhibit other similar characteristics. While one is under no obligation to accept the name "sect, there is no question that my religious convictions belong in the conservative realm that sociologists describe with this term. I am not a member of a "sect," I am a Christian, and a member of "the church." But it is precisely this attitude which, to the modern scholar, means "sectarianism."

"Denomination" is the term used by sociologists to describe the other classic religious form in the United States. "Denominations" have a variety of distinguishable characteristics. They are tolerant of other "churches," they generally accept the moral standards of the society in which they exist, they are less dogmatic, less active, and more interested in the world around them.

Sociologists have long recognized that "sects" tend to evolve into "denominations. Countless groups which had their origins as conservative and exclusive churches have evolved in the course of a few generations into liberal and tolerant denominations. Of course, there is usually a small element in any division which clings to the old conservative convictions, refuses to make the transition to liberalism, and usually is forced to separate itself. Sometimes a group will make only a partial transition toward true denominationalism, accepting some changes in its traditional beliefs but be unwilling to make the full evolution. Sociologists classify these groups as "institutionalized sects."

While this explanation could be vastly extended, it is enough to say that scholars have carefully catalogued these types of religious reactions and have also made some provoking studies on the nature of these divisions. The different types of religious bodies attract different sociological and psychological types. "Sects" have a tendency to attract lower economic groups, the troubled, and people who .feel a deep psychological need for a fervent and spiritually-oriented religion. Denominations, on the other hand, appeal to the complacent, satisfied, the wealthier and more sophisticated people. While there are many individual exceptions to these generalizations, there is no question that they can be substantiated by facts.

The "sect-to-denomination," process which is so recurrent in American religious history, is an easily explained phenomenon once these facts are understood. A religious group that be gins as the fervent offspring of poor but honest people can change quite decisively in a few generations time. The successful grandchildren and great-grandchildren who have far exceeded their forebears financially, educationally, and socially are not likely to want the same kind of worship, the same kind of preachers, or the same kind of gospel that their ancestors loved. So they change the church. The "denomination" is the type of religious expression that suits their sociological and psychological needs.

All of this has a rather deterministic sound. It clearly implies that only certain types of people are attracted to pure and fervent religion. Someone asked me a few months ago if I was not saying in my book that if you were not poor you could not be a Christian. A liberal Churches of Christ historian accused me of saying that the only reason the conservative brethren rejected the instrument was because they were too poor to afford it. That is patently false. But what is true, and what is easily demonstrated by historical scholarship, is that the rich and the sophisticated tend to want a different kind of religion from the poor and the humble. Of course, there are individual exceptions; nor does this deny that they all may act on honest convictions. But who can deny that the humble and the proud are apt to hold to different convictions. The clear pattern is there.

This is no news to the Christian. The New Testament is literally loaded with this sociological message. Again and again Jesus said that his message was peculiarly directed to the poor (Luke 6:20-26; Mark 10;23-27; Matthew 11:4-5). James clearly states the case: "Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?" (James 2:5). In I Corinthians 1:26 the Apostle Paul includes not only wealth but also success and sophistication as barriers to spiritual success: "For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called." God has clearly revealed that his message would be influenced by social conditions. That such has been the case is a matter of record. The examination that follows of the nineteenth and twentieth century divisions of the church are, I believe, from a scholarly and historical point of view, unimpeachable. One might not like the consequences, but I do not see how he can avoid them, or ignore them.