Several years ago when my congregation attempted to join the local ministerial alliance (in a town right next door to Independence, Missouri), I was met by a coalition of fundamentalist and evangelical pastors intent on keeping out the (then) RLDS Church. Their reasoning ranged from claims we were “non-Christian” all the way to “not Christian enough” and, finally, to “it would just open the door for Mormons to want to join.”
As it turned out, they only wanted to talk about Joseph Smith. Apparently, our faith movement’s founder represented all that anybody needs to know about contemporary Latter Day Saint groups.
To shorten a long and rather nasty story, I’ll just skip to the part where representatives from United Methodist, Presbyterian, Disciples of Christ, and Roman Catholic Churches prevailed. A Methodist pastor put it this way: “Nobody asked me to prove I was ‘Christian enough’ to join, so why should we start now?”
Eventually most of the fundamentalists/evangelicals bolted from the alliance when an LDS representative was admitted a few years later. They formed their own group, which over time has dwindled in size and influence.
I mention this episode as a way to ask, “Do we expect to be misunderstood or misrepresented?” Is this a natural outgrowth of religious discrimination and persecution experienced by our forebears in the almost two centuries of our faith movement’s existence? Although nobody’s getting tarred and feathered these days (at least here in North America, as far as I’m aware), has suspicion become our default setting?
A few weeks ago I received what was, in actuality, a personal and professional compliment. Yet my first response was something along the lines of “What did he really mean by that?”
Bill Tammeus is the former religion/faith writer for the Kansas City Star. He is highly respected locally and nationally and was part of a team that won a Pulitzer for the Star years ago. He graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism a few years before I did. And he writes a monthly column for his own denomination’s magazine, the Presbyterian Outlook, a bi-weekly column for the National Catholic Reporter, and his daily blog, “Faith Matters,” is read by a wide audience.
In early July he featured my book, What Was Paul Thinking?, on that blog. As part of his comments about the book, he noted that it might just be the book to finally get the conversation about the New Perspective on Paul out of scholarly circles and into the hands of people in the pews where it really needs to be today. And then he added this paragraph:
One thing I found especially interesting about this book is that the author is a member of the Community of Christ, which used to be known as the Reorganized Church of Latter-day Saints, the smaller branch of the Mormons. But as far as I could tell nothing in Brown’s book is in any way different from the way a scholar who came from one of the traditional Christian branches (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) might have written it.
Wait a minute—What?
Several other Community of Christ members agreed with my initial assessment that that was at least a curious thing to say. A couple even thought it might be a veiled slam against the church.
I have since been assured by a highly respected friend, who is personally and professionally acquainted with Mr. Tammeus, that the comment was anything but a “slam.” In fact, my friend said it was a sincere and significant compliment to me, the church, and other Community of Christ members who’ve engaged in graduate-level religious studies. Furthermore, it bodes well for the church long-term.
You can read the entire blog entry here, if you want the complete context. But I’d like to return to my original concern with some questions:
1. Do we still have remnants of a “persecution complex” in the Community of Christ?
2. Will we ever be fully accepted as part of mainstream Christianity—and is that something we should even want anyway? By the way, just how significant was it to have the general secretary of the (U.S.) National Council of Churches address this year’s World Conference?
3. At what point do “different” and “distinct” cross over into “exclusionary”? Is there a slippery slope involved in all this somewhere?
4. What’s been the experience of other CofC members in seminaries, graduate schools, and other higher-education institutions? (My seminary experience was 30 years ago, so I’m certain something has changed.)
5. Will people outside the church (particularly in the media) ever just refer to our church name as Community of Christ without mentioning what it used to be?
Perhaps we in the Community of Christ fuss over the whole question of identity way too much. We’ve certainly spent a lot of time pondering who we are, who we aren’t, what makes us different or distinctive (two quite different things, I contend), what we believe, what we’ve discarded along the way, and what we’ve acquired on our faith journey. I can’t help but wonder if we’d put half that much energy into evangelism and mission (once again, two different things) how our life together might be different today.
I’ll back up your friend’s assessment of Bill. I’ve met him on a number of occassions and he is extremely open. He regularly attends the functions put on by the interfaith group I associate with and has lauded our work as well – maybe that’s why I like him.
Our interfaith group lost our evangelicals when we moved to interfaith from eccumenical. In so doing we expanded our focus from uniting Christian faiths, to questioning and responding to the call of faiths of all denominations to work within the community.
I have had no problems like that. Perhaps you are too close to Independence, Missouri, Rich.
Five years ago, I was president of the Independence (Kansas) Ministerial Association. True..we lost the Southern Baptists over it but gained about a dozen other churches that year and went from representing six churches to twenty two.
I am currently secretary/treasurer of the Coffeyville Ministerial Alliance. I have been for seven years. They just keep re-electing me.
But that’s southeast Kansas. By the way, our adult class is enjoying studying your book “What Was Paul Thinking?”
One of the residual effects of growing up RLDS for me is my attitude that I care very little about what others think of me, as long as those close to me are okay with who I am and what I am doing. My need to be accepted is not a key factor for my decisions in who I am and how I choose to believe.
We live in western Michigan, which is heavily populated with members of the Dutch Reformed churches. Our children went to a Christian school sponsored by the CRC, and after a couple of years, the new principle decided to talk with us because some members of the board decided we weren;t Christian enough to have our kids in the school. I agreed to meet with him under the condition that he ask our kids teachers whether they felt our kids were Christians or not. As we sat down to talk, I passed him our statements of belief (this has been 15 years ago) and asked him which of those statements he had trouble with, except for the statement about the Bokk of Mormon and continuing revelation. Nothing.
I then suggested they read their scriptures about Jesus saying that a tree is judged by its fruit, and that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit, and to compare that scripture with what he had heard about our kids. Nothing.
All of our kids graduated from that school, with varying levels of acceptance. Our daughters were well-accepted, but Daniel had a heck of a time there.
Stil, we have always been grateful for the opportunity to have our kids there. We never went through being tarred and feathered, and I appreciate the witness of those who came so close to dying (and probably wanted to) for what they believed.
For those who challenge my belief personally, I feel very comfortable to look at their own beliefs in light of the scriptures.
Ignorance persists in the world, and the desire to judge others is even more prevalent as it gives those who judge power over us (they think). Judgment leads to power over life and death, and those who would judge need to be very careful about making righteous judgment. Their reward is the very small world they live in and the even smaller god they worship, so I pity them.
Here is an interesting recent blog post by someone on this issue:
Interesting article, Matthew. Thanks for sharing.
ugh – if that’s mainstream Christian – count me out.
This writer’s ignorance is phenominal – I’m not sure where her ideas on our beliefs come from. I couldn’t even finish reading it.
It is as easy to look at fringes of any Christian denomination and locate hate-mongers as it is to look at fringes of Hinduism or Islam and find the same.
When Gandhi said he would become a Christian but for Christians, that was (to me) disingenuous. That is like saying that because we abuse the Constitution the Constitution is no good. Adherents to his faith behaved no better than the “Christians” who ruled over his people. It makes no sense.
I judge the Christian faith by Christ, not by those who claim the faith. I do not follow Christians, I follow Christ.
Thanks, Matt, for linking to this blog.
After reading it, I’m drawn to a paraphrase of that old, familiar camp song: “And we’ll know they are Christian by how much they look like us.” I think Doug has the right approach, to hold up Christ as the standard for “Christians” rather than institutional or individual expressions of Christianity.