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MAINLINE PROTESTANT DENOMINATIONS: INTERNAL CONFLICTS

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Conflicts within denominations: 

Within North American culture, social conservatives and liberals hold conflicting views about many topics with a religious, moral or ethical component. Perhaps the currently most divisive are debates over equal rights for homosexuals, and bisexuals and abortion access. These differences between conservatives and liberals are naturally reflected within Christian denominations. Many Christians now hold diverse beliefs about the nature of sexual orientation, the role of women, and other topics. Some hold traditional gender and theological views; others have adapted their theology to accommodate findings of human sexuality and biblical criticism. Many members want to remain in the denomination in which they were raised. The result is that liberals and conservatives within many denominations have different visions of the future for their faith group. The result is often intense conflict and even potential schism.

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Divisions within Christianity: 

Some theologians view Christianity as being composed of two or more quite different religions, -- one conservative and one liberal. Each is viewed as sharing the same name and the same Bible. But they make dissimilar assumptions about the Bible and thus interpret it differently

Other theologians and commentators divide Christianity into three wings: conservative, mainline and liberal.

bulletAmong the conservative wing, there is general unanimity of belief on the above-mentioned topics. Probably in excess of 90% of the membership oppose the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy for economic reasons. Homosexual behavior is generally despised as profoundly sinful, and is believed to be hated by God. Conflict tends to be more often over numerous fine points of theology, like:
bulletUnder what conditions -- if any -- should a Christian couple be allowed to divorce and remarry, or
bulletWhether a person who does not speak in tongues has been truly saved.
bulletAmong the liberal wing, there is a wide range of individual beliefs about deity, humanity and the rest of the universe. But these denominations are accustomed to such differences of opinion among their membership. They handle them in stride.
bulletWithin mainline denominations, particularly among Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Methodist faith groups, many intense conflicts are emerging. Such discord is inevitable. The denominations are finding themselves increasingly divided between liberal and conservative factions, each of which has a different vision for the future.

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Clergy - laity conflict in beliefs:

Another level of serious conflict occurs between the clergy and laity of some mainline a few liberal denominations. Generally speaking, many church members have been brought up to believe in heaven and in the literal truth of Jesus' virgin birth, divinity and resurrection. Some believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, and other historical beliefs. However, most clergy have attended theological colleges and many have developed personal beliefs that reflect current liberal Biblical scholarship. They reject many of the traditional doctrines of the church. This produces a conflict among clergy, between their need to preach the truth as they see it, and their need to support the basic beliefs of their denomination, and avoid controversy.

At stake can be the unity of the congregation and denomination. There is no simple solution to this problem. Most conservative congregations do not experience this problem. Belief among the laity and clergy is much more homogeneous. Very liberal denominations welcome and value diversity of opinion; differences in belief are not threatening to them.

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Examples of intra-denominational conflict:

bulletStarting in 1996, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has experienced major conflicts over gay / lesbian ordinations and union ceremonies. Membership votes reveal a major split: The northern presbyteries on the East and West coast voted solidly in favor of homosexual inclusive policies; the Southern Presbyteries voted solidly against; the Midwest is split.
bulletThe Episcopal Church is currently undergoing a major strain. The Episcopal Synod of America (ESA), a renewal group representing conservative elements within the denomination are in effect creating a parallel Episcopal Church within the United States. They were motivated primarily over sexual matters: the ordination of women, and the gradual shift within the original Episcopal Church towards the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The Roman Catholic Church is not normally considered a mainline denomination, and is certainly not Protestant. But its experience is similar to mainline Protestant denominations. Is is going through a period of considerable internal dissention:

bulletThe Roman Catholic Church forms the largest single Christian denomination in North America. Their dissention is  largely related to sexual matters: female ordination, married clergy, birth control, abortion, pre-marital sex, etc. Here the split is largely between the People of God (the general church membership) and Vatican policy.

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How denominations handled past internal conflicts:

There have been a few topics that have seriously divided mainline denominations in the past. Perhaps the four most important were frictions between:

bulletThose who believed that the owning of slaves was permitted on theological grounds, and wanted the institution of slavery to be continued, vs. the abolitionists.
bulletThose who believed that the Bible prohibits female ordination, and those who wanted the clergy to be open to all competent heterosexuals who feel a call to the ministry -- both men and women.
bulletWhether the Bible should be interpreted as the inerrant Word of God, or as a historical document subject to critical analysis.
bulletThose who believed that God favored segregation on the basis of race, and those who favored racial integration.

History has shown that mainline denominations have been able to accommodate considerable internal division over long periods of time. However, conflict can become so serious and prolonged that a schism was the only way to resolve the debate. Schism is now being actively discussed in some mainline denominations, mainly concerning the role of gays and lesbians within the denomination.

This series of essays in this section will deal mainly with internal conservative-liberal conflicts within mainline denominations. 

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Copyright © 2002 incl., by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-JUL-6
Author: B.A. Robinson

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