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.”
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.