Mapping the Community of Christ Terrain of Identities

Recently, Matt Frizzell posted an article on this blog reflecting on the differing possible identities for the Community of Christ. I have been reflecting on his article for some time now and considering what the dimensions of the Community of Christ identity are. Too often we have simplified the conflicts in the church down to a “Liberal-Conservative Split” which I think misses a lot of nuance. I have come up with a basic typology (ever the political scientist!) based on two dimensions:

1) a “Latter Day Saint/Protestant Axis”, based on a person’s attachment to the RLDS tradition, scripture, doctrine and story as opposed to a more conventional Protestant theology.

2) a “Fideist/Rationalist Axis” based on a person’s trust in reason, science and scholarship versus a sense that faith must come before and above reason (a kind of scholasticism).

This is what I get:

Latter Day Saint Protestant
Fideist Traditional RLDS Evangelical/Pentecostal
Rationalist Post-Modern RLDS Liberal

The primary dispute in North America for the last 40-50 years has been between the Traditional RLDSers and Liberals. However, in the last 10-20 years, the other two groups have grown in power.

The people I call Post-Modern RLDSers are people who believe strongly in the value of the traditional texts, stories and culture but have adopted a rationalistic approach to them. For instance, they may accept the liberal critical scholarship of the traditional RLDS story and doctrine, but still believe it holds value as a ‘broken but useful myth.’ They would argue that the Community of Christ has as much right to a distinctive religio-cultural identity as any other religious movement. Many of these people are actually liberal converts from Mormonism. They are particularly influential in the younger generation of Community of Christ intellectuals.

The evangelical/pentecostal bloc is, I think, the ‘sleeping giant’. As scholars of global Christianity have shown, evangelicalism and pentecostalism have had a immense revival in the last 40 years, particularly in the developing world. Some believe this is because a strict, emotive and conservative faith offers ready answers to the large scale social, political and economic disruptions in people’s lives. I believe the Community of Christ has not yet fully come to terms with the reality that its growth is largely happening outside its traditional core, where most converts come from an evangelical and/or pentecostal background.

Throughout the political life of the church these groups interact, conflict, compromise and make alliances. For many years, there was an alliance of sorts between the North American Liberals in the HQ leadership and the evangelical leaders in the developing world. This was because they both saw a benefit in deconstructing the traditional RLDS story and doctrine. However, there are substantive disagreements between the Liberals and Evangelicals (particularly over the issue of sexuality) that are beginning to create fissures in this alliance. Many evangelicals from the developing world are beginning to realize that they may hold certain doctrinal things in common with the traditional RLDSers, particularly about personal morality. We are also seeing a differentiation between the Liberals and Post-Modern RLDSers over the value of the RLDS ‘distinctives’, despite an affinity for rationalistic approaches to thinking about faith.

In short, I think it is important to talk of Community of Christ identities, rather than one monolithic Community of Christ identity. The future makeup of the church will depend on the shifting power, conflict and alliances between these four groups.


10 comments on “Mapping the Community of Christ Terrain of Identities

  1. mattfrizzell says:


    I’m glad you posted more about this. I want to share the following points of affirmation and inquiry.

    Plural identities. You are more than right to talk about identities versus identity. More than reflecting the reality of a worldwide church, plural identities need to a part of our theological orientation and view of church polity. The battle to define a homogeneous identity is almost always a battle for dominance imposed “from above.” It’s interesting to see the very name of the church, Community of Christ, in this tension. Perhaps, what we can learn to say about Community of Christ is that what is ultimately unique about a community in Christ is its capacity to be a community of communities. If so, some fundamental things about our hierarchical priesthood structure and the way it is reflected in our identity structure and polity may need to shift for the CofC.

    Evangelical pluralism? Really? I am curious to see if an evangelical/pentecostal understanding of CofC identity can tolerate such plurality. In the politics of U.S. religious identity, this is difficult. My experience is that the sectarian understanding of scriptural and religious authority that accompanies evangelicalism in the U.S. is also exported overseas. This, I believe, is where liberalism – less as a theological leaning and more a spirituality of tolerance for difference and pluralism – may play a role. The alternatives are difficult to imagine or articulate outside a return to the power struggle to define THE CofC identity as I noted above.

    The imperative to retrieve the Spirit of the evangel and Pentecost, especially its experience and message for community. I think the spirit of evangelicalism and experientialism of pentecostalism is diminished in the CofC, even consciously restricted, by a (relatively unconscious) clash between the experiential nature of evangelical/pentecostal Christianity and rationality of Enlightenment (i.e. liberal) theology in the church. This is largely a product of the influx of modern spirituality, not traditional Christian spirituality. In light of this false dichotomy, I believe it is imperative that the CofC recover the evangel’s Spirit in its message, and the spiritual experience – as well as community created – at Pentecost. It can help us.

    Currently, I believe the CofC’s evangelical message (i.e. its good news!) of Christ’s community and call to uncommon discipleship is weakened by a conceptual approach to discipleship and therapeutic approach to personal spirituality. There is evidence of this both at World Church events and its published resources. While it is certainly not black and white, we still can think of how spirituality and worship is expressed at World Conference between U.S. and the developing world.

    If the CofC can strengthen the connection of its scriptural and historical roots in this kind of experiential spirituality in community, and connect it to our collective call to an uncommon community and work God’s peace and justice, we can reinvigorate our evangelical roots in a way that overcomes the sectarian/tribal tendencies of evangelicalism/Pentecostalism. In this way, the Spirit of evangelicalism and pentecostalism is essential to CofC’s future. It prophetically challenges both liberals and rationalists toward a postmodern approach to the CofC in a way that retrieves, even if critically, the evangelical roots and pentecostal spirituality of the Restoration movement in the first and 19th centuries.

  2. Margie Miller says:

    I believe our evangelistic message should be more on building communities of peace and justice and less on personal salvation. The first is healthy and outgoing and stresses the salvation of society in this life but the second has a selfish motive. It’s all about “me” and “mine” and where we will end up after death.

    Jesus concentrated on personal change only in person’s attitudes and tried to stress the importance of those changing attitudes as they impacted others.

    When we convert Pentecostals, we should also try to convert them away from the “personal salvation” theology.

  3. John Hamer says:

    With the proviso that we’re no longer being unduly mean or self-righteous about it, I’m fairly satisfied to retain enough of our negative identity to keep our boundaries in place. I think our experience in the past decades shows that if we abandon the ramparts entirely, we lose coherence.

    I think we will always be defining ourselves against the LDS Church. Given our common origin, our structure, and our canon of scripture, we will continue to have to explain how we’re different from “the Mormons.” Fortunately, the distinctions there are easy enough: we don’t believe in multiple Gods with physical bodies, we aren’t scriptural literalists, and congregationally and denominationally we operate as free mixed-republic system instead of a completely top-down theocratic oligarchy.

    And, whereas I’m supportive of the liberal, mainline Protestant churches (but not Evangelical or Fundamentalist churches), I still think we can and should define ourselves against Protestants, in general, to a degree where we maintain our own identity. Specifically, we are not scriptural authoritarians and we have an open and growing canon that we do not worship (D&C 163:7b).

    Retaining those “negatives” as boundary markers, we then have all kinds of positive things we can say about our own positive identity, as encapsulated and articulated in the Enduring Principles.

    I think you need the negative boundaries in order to maintain individual identity, but you also need something penned up inside with you, so that the identity you’ve built has positive value. I think we have both components.

    As exciting as the grand questions are, I’ve also become aware that my main focus needs to be getting people in the door. On the micro- level, how do I get more people to attend my own congregation in downtown Toronto?

    One of the ways we do it is by having our congregation be welcoming of multiple, competing, and even contradictory beliefs. People in my congregation believe diametrically opposite things than I do (for example, we have old-line RLDS Book of Mormon historical literalists and we have new members whose beliefs are in keeping with their African Evangelical Protestant heritage). Despite this diversity, we can have unity and the blessings of community, if let everyone express their beliefs and are respectful of each other — thus including the Plural Identities that both Matts mention.

  4. Margie Miller says:

    Your congregation sounds a lot like mine, John. We too have a wide diversity of belief systems represented and we are very open and accepting of all of those points of view.

    My congregation is just like extended family.

  5. FireTag says:

    Very good thinking, Matt B. That second dimension matters.

    • Most of my life I have listen to people talking about how churches should be. But all the words in the world cannot define the Body of Christ which by definition is infinite thus not able to be defined with finite words. We can only experience words. Jesus said, “you Samaritans worship on this mountain, we Jews worship in the temple. But in the last days my people will worship in Spirit and in Truth.” Implying neither. Of course the D&C says in the last days each man will speak for God himself. But I suppose that will come when we no longer crave a king or a president or a prophet but crave only a relationship.

      I see that while I cannot define love as it is infinite, I can experience it. I also see that when I try to think my way through salvation or church or community or church structure I am by definition wrong in my thought as are all of us. We need not thought but experience and relationship. We need not rules but noetic experience which we can share. Our monkey brain can never know, only the part of us that is Christ;s Spirit can know as this is infinite which can know the infinite itself. I find myself experiencing joy as I hope. Doug

    • FireTag says:

      And tell your Mom we’re keeping your Dad’s safety in our prayers.

  6. mjhahn says:

    I know I am coming a bit late to the conversation but Matthew’s ‘Identities Quadrilateral’ (my term) is intriguing. I struggled to place myself into one of the quadrants based on his definitions and found myself incapable of doing so. As I pondered how I might define myself in terms of my identity as a 6th generation Community of Christ/RLDS, I came to agree more and more that Matthew’s thesis of ‘identities’ is right on. I also think there can be a case made for multiple identities within our denomination from it’s very founding yet never more profound and articulate as now.

    So while it may be a bit nick-pickish, I would like to add a couple of additional identities that I think represent ends of the spectrum. Where they might fall in the matrix is unknown to me – perhaps they don’t. The first is the end that says that all roads lead to God. From my perspective, this is not a Christian idea but rather a liberal idea. While Matt Frizzell might have meant something different, I think this is a manifestation of what he said in his response above as “largely a product of the influx of modern spirituality, not traditional Christian spirituality.” Perhaps this is really an extreme liberalism that is a manifestation of ones inability to decide what to believe.

    The second extreme is that which identifies Jesus within his Jewish roots rather than his Christian ones. But more than this, it is not even about Jesus but about the Christ event – the Christ mythology. Life is full of struggles and ambiguities, and this creates a sense of insecurity. (There are joys in life as well but I’m not convinced they address the ambiguities of life.)It is the life of struggle as opposed to the life of joy that creates, what the Rev. Joseph Mathews calls the “Messiah image”.

    Mathews was the founder of the Ecumenical Institute in Chicago in the early 1960’s, that has morphed into the Institute of Cultural Affairs. His paper, “The Christ of History” is an interesting essay on the “Christ-Event”. It has changed how I look at Jesus and the faith that I profess. This is the end of the spectrum that identifies with a pre-Christian Jesus. As I’ve struggled to articulate this idea the more it sounds very liberal too.

    In any case, I found this all very interesting and useful in struggling with who we are now as a community of faith and where we are headed. I have found myself in one of the four quadrants at one time or another throughout my life. I hope that exemplifies my life of faith more as a journey than one of indecision. For me, true spirituality is about change not constancy.

  7. […] a variety of previous posts I have reflected on the implications of the Community of Christ’s decline in its traditional […]

  8. Arlyn Stewart says:

    I enjoyed the words of mjhahn, which aroused reflection. Setting aside identity issues (if that is possible) my memories are full of positive experience and given the model of my father to embrace the positive… there are positive affirmations.

    One of those is because the RLDS experience didn’t parallel the American protestant… it avoided some of the evolution of the American protestant movement, most specifically the accentuation of grace salvation and focus to an after life.

    I yet recall a theme segment of my Elder grandfather’s confirmation prayer, to value goodness. Goodness was a dominant theme and in my memory was the soul of the local community, which portrayed it to be the essence of Jesus Christ. In that regard, the RLDS tradition seemed to square to the human dichotomy of choice between good or bad, which life has witnessed to me to be primary. Margie Miller above says similar.

    The fairly recent revelation that large numbers of youth (higher in evangelical communities) are disengaging Christianity because it doesn’t address their life issues (this life)… to me is an indictment that focus on the after life missed/misses the mark. Meanwhile the Saints whether by accident or intention, hadn’t followed the protestant tangent. I’m thankful they didn’t, having become a benefactor of being nurtured by a RLDS community who taught me the value of goodness.

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