Christian TraditionsSacraments

Spaces for Dissent?

I’ve always been intrigued by the phenomenon of “Catholics in dissent”—those who claim affiliation with the Catholic Church, but aren’t shy about registering their opposition to certain more-or-less authoritative teachings. At least some commentators have argued that “in order to protect the intellectual vitality of the Church’s understanding of itself, responsible dissent is not only allowed, it is required.”

As a low-level dissenter from the official doctrine of my denomination—I don’t adhere to the view that the world was created in six days, although the church officially recognizes that disagreement on this point is permissible—I’ve reflected a lot on how broadly parameters of agreement should be set. (The constellation of fringe Reformed communities, endlessly stewing in technical debates over Scottish Presbyterian history, exemplifies the absurdity to which an obsession with maximum in-group purity can lead.)

Obviously there are limits to how far “dissent” can extend. Intra-Catholic controversy over the interpretation of Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia exhortation has raged for months, resulting in different dioceses advancing mutually incompatible readings of the text. Likewise, the Anglican Communion and United Methodist Church—both of which have witnessed subgroups deviate from formal church orthodoxy—are struggling to stave off seemingly inevitable schisms over LGBT issues.

Naturally, any group must at some point draw hard lines in order to maintain its institutional integrity…but how aggressive should this process be? I’m increasingly inclined to think there’s a powerful connection between church groups’ respective baptismal theologies and their capacity to withstand internal disagreements.

Paedobaptism is something not personally chosen; children are brought into the life of the church by those who came before them, and are raised within it as members of the church family. Those churches that incorporate confirmation rites do so to recognize changing levels of participation within an existing familial framework (it’s not as if one is not a member of the church prior to confirmation). Churches that follow this paradigm aren’t operating according to a corporate-type model, but are instead affirming that life in the church—and baptism itself—is an unearned gift one receives from others. In light of these dynamics, internal disputes about doctrine are, in a sense, intrafamilial. I suggest that when all parties involved recognize their co-participation in a family not chosen by them but gifted to them, some range of intra-institutional “dissent” can exist without immediately triggering community breakup.

By contrast, credobaptism conditions church participation on individual conscious assent to a set of propositions. (Some churches have even taken the credobaptist logic a step further, requiring “membership covenants” that bear a striking resemblance to legal contracts.) Under this regime, membership isn’t conceived of as a process or continuum—that is, baptism brings one into the family of God, and is “confirmed” through confirmation—but rather conceptualized in terms of a binary in/out designation. This means that doctrinal disagreement among members likely won’t manifest as an opportunity for learning and engagement, but rather as a breach of terms. When disagreements arise, then, the structural incentives point toward immediate disaffiliation—packing up shop and finding a new church across town. If pure “efficiency” is the goal, a hard-edged approach to any internal dissent is certainly the way to go…but in the ecclesiastical context, this model seems to undermine the possibility of institutional continuity over time.

I am not making an argument for the doctrinal normativity of one baptismal approach, but it seems to me that, at least sociologically, the paedobaptist paradigm has much to commend it. It’s “easier” to fire a dissident employee than to sever ties with a family member, and insofar as the capacity to withstand some degree of internal flux is a necessary precondition of institutional longevity, it seems prudent to conceive of the church as more a family than a corporation.

As one might expect, in paedobaptist churches that understand membership in familial terms, separations and schisms will be much slower and much more painful—as Catholic and mainline Protestant traditions are experiencing across the globe. Yet at the same time, that process carries with it a distinct historical gravitas lacking in a more corporate, consumer-oriented approach. The severing of family bonds is a much direr event than an allegation of contractual nonadherence, and that realization grants a distinct urgency to the question of what doctrines are core and non-negotiable. Accordingly, paedobaptist churches undergoing splits operate from a perspective more thoroughly informed by a comprehensive understanding of their respective traditions.

Such comprehensive understanding is, tragically, increasingly rare. But even in the face of tragic intra-group fragmentation,engagement with that heritage has a value all its own.

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John Ehrett

John Ehrett

A native of Dallas, Texas, John currently lives in Los Angeles, California. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School and a certificate in Theology and Ministry from Princeton Seminary.

  • J. Dickey

    Your article offers some helpful categories that resonated with my personal experience. I was raised UMC, but I find myself rubbing shoulders socially with lots of Reformed-Southern Baptist folks around town. When we disagree on topics, I realize that our disagreements often come from very different ideas about the nature of church membership. Thanks for sharing these ideas.