16 Feb 2009

A Taxonomy of Sectarianism …

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Books, Grace, Ministry, Monroe Hawley, Preaching, Restoration History, Sectarianism, Unity

One of the finest human beings known to me is Monroe Hawley. Monroe was a shaper of my thought long before I preached at Southside Church in Milwaukee where he was one of my shepherds (along with Wayne Alexander, Bruce Williams, and Al Gray). His books Redigging the Wells, The Focus of Our Faith, and Is Christ Divided? have blessed me immensely. I can honestly say that neither he nor I agree on every detail but a more gracious saint I have yet to meet. I mention Monroe because I took the time this weekend to reread his classic Is Christ Divided? in light of Todd Deaver’s Facing our Failure. I do believe that Monroe is right about one fundamental point: a sectarian spirit is the deadly enemy of Christian unity.

Interestingly enough rejection of “sectarianism” is part and parcel of the rhetorical DNA of Stone-Campbell churches. But as we saw in our previous post, Barton Stone noted that many who denied being sectarian simply had become “anti-sectarian sectarians.” Perhaps this is because we miss classify sectarianism. Most in our non-denomination denomination would make a near equation of “false” doctrine and sectarianism. But, interestingly enough, this is a false teaching. And if it were correct many in our fellowship might have the label for they teach such things as: the Holy Spirit operates and/or indwells only through the written word; that a person must have more than faith to be biblically baptized; etc; etc; etc. But what is a sectarian spirit? Here is a taxonomy of this accursed evil … with a nod to Monroe.

1) We betray a sectarian spirit when we display a party (i.e. denominational) loyalty concerned with defending the status quo rather than in the well-being of the entire church of God. A person might say “I’m Church of Christ all the way” or “The Church of Christ teaches …” this is pure sectarianism.

2) We betray a sectarian spirit when we equate our fellowship of believers with the entire church of God or the kingdom itself. Some have a laundry list of issues by which they think they can identify the members of the family of God. The church is thus identified with a group of congregations of which he/she approves.

3) We betray a sectarian spirit when we think we have “arrived.” We and we alone have the real truth. To put it another way we believe we have a “corner on truth.” All we do is read, believe and obey the Bible. Everyone else either does not believe or they simply disobey. But to quote Monroe “it is the height of presumption and arrogance to assume that any group of people is exempt from the possibility of misinterpretation.” But it is this attitude that lies behind our “brotherhood” Diotrepheses who consider themselves the defenders of God’s church.

4) Finally we betray a sectarian spirit in harsh and judgmental attitudes towards others. This personality trait is among the first to be decried by Thomas Campbell in his legendary Declaration & Address. Judging another is a “daring usurpation of the throne of Christ” TC baldly declared. What right do we think we have to pontificate the destiny of any person when Michael the archangel of God himself refused to that to the Evil One himself (Jude 9).

There are at least three ungodly behaviors that are nourished by sectarianism. Perhaps they have been touched on in some way above but I want to lay them out explicitly. If what I have said is true above it seems that sectarianism itself breeds, like a virus, these other spiritual issues …

Sectarianism breeds name calling. Rather than deal with a person as simply a brother or sister in Christ we label him or her as liberal, legalist, pseudo-add adjective, progressive, conservative, anti, compromiser, modernist, apostate … and even spiritual retards. “We” even have found ways to justify this behavior!

Sectarianism breeds paranoia. Sectarianism is the original root for conspiracy theories. Dan Brown did not invent them … sectarianism birthed them! Sectarianism lives in fear (yes fear). It awaits rather nervously every new book, new professor, article and sees these things as threats. Thus paranoia breeds unique combat language like fight, contend, battle, even “gospel bullets.” This paranoid fear often borders on irrational. I say this not just as a contemporary observer among Churches of Christ but with a look at the sweep of our history.

Sectarianism breeds isolation. Isolation is the natural corollary to fear. We don’t want to be contaminated by foreign ideas, teachings or be associated with those not quite as loyal as ourselves. We do not need to study for we have the truth. We rather “defend” the truth. Other points of view are sort of like biblical leprosy … they are cut off and quarantined. This is carried out in brotherhood papers and lectureship resulting in a certain amount of inbreeding as we isolate ourselves from one not as sound as we imagine ourselves to be.

Sectarianism is not a “conservative” or a “progressive” issue. It is a spiritual disease that strikes anywhere, at anytime, if we are not on guard. Sectarianism is not simply believing something that is wrong. It is a matter of the heart that destroys our walk with Spirit.

31 Responses to “A Taxonomy of Sectarianism …”

  1. David Says:

    I’ve never met Brother Hawley, but his books sparked an interest in non-sectarianism that continues to work on me almost 15 years after I first started to read them. You are a fortunate man to have been able to work with him.

  2. kingdomseeking Says:

    I was priviledged to meet Bro. Monroe Hawley last year at the Mid-West Preachers/Elders Retreat in Wisconsin. It was VERY clear how much his gracious and non-secterian leadership has had an impact in the upper mid-west.

    Grace and peace,


  3. Stoogelover Says:

    Are you saying we shouldn’t proclaim we are the only ones saved? Wait, I’m no longer with the churches of Christ!

    I’ve never met Bro. Hawley, but I have read some of his writings and they were beneficial to me.

    Good thoughts, Bobby.

  4. Steve Says:

    About a decade and a half ago I overheard one preacher say to another, as I walked by, “They’re church of Christ!” I immediately stopped and asked: “They’re church of Christ????” “Yes,” he said enthusiastically. Surmising that this needed to be carried further, I asked, “Do they do go a church of Christ church?” Less enthusiastically he answered, “Yes.” The other preacher started to smile, because he saw where this was going. I asked another question: “Does that church of Christ church have a church of Christ preacher?” Wrinkling his forehead in perplexity–surely I ought to know that answer, he gave the same response: “Yes.” The other preacher was starting to laugh, but I was afraid I was not going to get through, so I asked one final question that was much more lengthy: “Does the church of Christ preacher at the church of Christ church preach church of Christ sermons?” He gave the same affirmative answer, “Well, yes!” even though he appeared to be much annoyed at my inquiry. I concluded, “OK,” smiled and walked off. Humorous if it were not so tragic.

  5. Frank Bellizzi Says:


    I have to tell you that the big majority of Church of Christ preachers know better than to say something like “They’re Church of Christ.”

    Most of them have been trained well to say, “They’re members of the Lord’s church.” That way, they can be sectarian without sounding like they are.”

    The Church of Christ preacher you overheard needs to go back to his Church of Christ preacher’s school.

  6. Terry Says:

    “Spiritual retard?” That’s a new one to me. Now, someone has a new name to call me.

  7. Royce Ogle Says:

    Well done Bobby. You hit the proverbial nail on the head.

    Even in what many to be “progressive” churches the term “The Lord’s church” is still used. Although I have no way to prove what I believe, I have never heard that term used that it did not mean only churches of Christ only.

    One of the greatest enemies to truth is ingrained ignorance.


  8. Steve Says:

    How about upper case “C” versus lower case “c” — churches versus Churches of Christ? I remember reading an article way back in the early 70s by someone who pointed out that a Catholic priest of his acquaintance had a broken shift key on his typewriter. He always typed, “church”. Did that make him “non-denominational”? 🙂

  9. Doug Post Says:

    Is it sectarian to preach that baptism is not necessary to be saved, or to preach that the love of God demands to keep company with said folks? Who is sectarian?

  10. Anonymous Says:

    You know, the problem with the constant criticism of the “Church of Christ” or “our brotherhood” is that it is always undefined. I belong to a local congregation. It designates itself a “Church of Christ.” I know what it teaches and practices and stands for. I know the people there. I eat the LS with them every Sunday. There are other bodies within 25 miles that also have “Church of Christ” on their door. Unless I am able to attend there for at least awhile and get to know the members and leadership I don’t believe I have any obligation or right to endorse them or to reject them as belonging to the “we” in the churches of Christ. Much less congregations 500 miles or 5,000 miles away. I am sure there are many of them to which I
    would not join myself without some changes. This is the beauty and genius of non-denominational (that is, congregational/local) Christianity. All of the critics would be better off taking a specific doctrine or practice that they think is unsound and attacking it–rather than “we” have been wrong because “we” have done x, y, or z.

  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Well brothers I am not sure I was criticizing God’s church. At least not in the sense of belittling or the like. And I don’t think I have done that.

    What I did do was talk about the evils of sectarianism in this post … and made it quite clear that it is not a progressive or conservative issue. Rather it is sinful nature issue. I know progressives who are sectarian and I know conservatives who are too. But sectarianism has certain traits and I simply discussed those.

    Bobby Valentine

  12. Missionary's Missionary Says:

    Monroe Hawley is a prince – saved by grace, he lives a grace-filled, gracious life. His wife, Julia, is a princess…They have done much good. Great post, Bobby..

  13. Matthew Says:

    This is really good stuff. Most people who deny this accusation, but will practice what you are talking about. Very good.

  14. Anonymous Says:

    Bobby sounds like many sectarians read your blog and commit. I am really trying hard (I really am) to hold my emotions in and not vent them when so many of your readers bash others. I certainly have done it myself. I am trying hard to refrain but it does make me angry/hurt when many of your readers seem to really enjoy making fun of things that I believe.

  15. Alan Says:

    Great article, Bobby. We all need to learn the lesson that we are fallible, that we are probably wrong about a few things. And we need to learn to accept one another without passing judgment over disputable matters.

  16. Terry Says:

    I hope you did not think I was attacking you or anything you believe. I was making fun of myself. I do not want to mock anyone or anyone’s sincere beliefs.

  17. kingdomseeking Says:

    I am sure some of the Prophets of old heard a chaste comment or two because they pointed out some things that had gone wrong.

    Grace and peace,


  18. Steve Says:

    Sonny, you expressed your anger at readers of this blog who made “fun of things I believe”. I reread the comments in this section three times and they were (1) praise for Hawley or (2) talking about sectarian terminology. I am the one who began the making fun of sectarian terminology in the comments section. Are you saying that you “believe in” using the phrase “church of Christ” or other terminology in a sectarian manner? Of course not, so I am perplexed as to the object of your anger. I believe I love the church and the truth as much as you. You sound as if you love it as much as me or anyone else writing in this blog. It was not my desire to provoke your anger and it makes me sad, but I really do not understand it. Like Bobby, my remarks were aimed at sectarianism, not at anything worth “believing in” or worth defending. I labeled a certain use of terminology as “sectarian”. You labeled many of the readers of this blog who makes comments as “sectarian”. Hmmm? Should I be angry at you? A previous anonymous poster said: “All of the critics would be better off taking a specific doctrine or practice that they think is unsound and attacking it.” That is what Bobby and I did. We wrote against the “practice” of sectarianism.

  19. Anonymous Says:

    yes, you wrote against the practice of sectarianism and then practiced it. I don’t want you to be angry with me. After reading my comment i think it sounds as if I am a “cry baby.” I’m not. But It works havoc with me to read your slander. I am sure you feel the same way when brethren slander the things you hold true in scripture. I guess I need to become a big boy and develop thicker skin. For some reason my heart has not allowed me to do that, yet.

  20. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Is it possible for a brother/sister or anyone at all to point out a fault or a perceived fault without being guilty of “slander”? This is how WIKI defines slander:

    “n law, defamation (also called calumny, libel, slander, and vilification) is thecommunication of a statement that makes a false claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. Slander refers to a malicious, false and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images.”

    So where did I or anyone else make a false claim? How did Steve slander you?

    When I read the Spiritual Sword, the Firm Foundation, Contending for the Faith or books like Behold the Pattern (Music), The Second Incarnation: A Pattern for Apostasy (Cates) or … the list can get long brother … there is NOTHING of that kind of slander that has even remotely appeared on this blog either in a post or a comment.

    To argue for a brother/sister to complain because they have been asked to examine themselves is interesting. Why is it ok, brother, to DEMAND that of the Baptist folks down the road but excuse ourselves from it? Why is it ok to point our their perceived error but it is slander or a personal attack if we look at our own navel?

    Now I ask you where did I slander anyone? Who? Where?

    Now I hope I have not been offensive for that is not my intent. But I am somewhat amazed at our efforts to protect ourselves from having to see if these things are so. One wonders if the Pharisees said to another Stephen … how dare you attack our fathers in the faith … you are really attacking God’s bride (and Israel was just as much God’s bride as the church is Christ’s!).

    One wonders.

    Shalom and blessings to you beloved brother.

    Bobby V

  21. Anonymous Says:

    Bobby, I agree that slander was a poor taste of words. I know you can’t take words back. So, ever how you can discard do so.

  22. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I do not fault you for your convictions. I simply asked for evidence that I have been unkind to anyone. Michael Greene believes I have disrespected Stone and Campbell through the use of “Stoned-Campbell” but I didn’t … unless I am dissin’ myself too!! Which I don’t think I am.

    The question that remains is are we allowed to examine ourselves? Are we allowed to try to understand how and where things come from? is it a sin to do that? is it disrespectful? I fail to understand how it can be.

    There is a difference … a large one … between being “critical” and “carping.”

    Bobby V

  23. purduepetty Says:

    Having been born, raised, re-born, and continue to mature in the church, I can attest to the good of a relationship with God and the bad of religious talk. I don’t know any of the parties writing here, although I’ve read one of Bobby’s books. Only he and God know his heart when writing boldly on the issues that have been forgotten or swept under the rug. There are two things I want to add that will hopefully keep things in perspectve.

    1. Anyone on any side of any issue cannot ever claim to have “cornered the market” on salvation or faith in God or obedience. That is like trying to put God in a box and pull him out when we need to prove ourselves worthy. I don’t believe Sonny or Bobby or Steve or anyone else on here is doing that. The truth is we all carry some cultural baggage with us tied to our past, and our experiences and beliefs are largely based on our experiences. In Bobby’s case, it is largely related to his “church heritage”, if I can use the term loosely, of the church of Christ. He isn’t attacking the church or the individual people, but rather he is trying to open our eyes and educate us on our faults and gently (and sometimes not so gently) help us remember our call is to obey God, not man or misinterpretations turned into tradition.

    2. We should all be careful when addressing anything like this on a blog site. None of us should believe we understand Bobby or anyone else because of some words on a screen and the occasional emotion filled comment. Bobby uses this site to educate those who would take the time to read it. If the readers aren’t careful, we could mistakenly take that constant one-way education to mean that he is arrogant. I truly don’t believe that to be the case, but again, only God knows his heart. The rest of us should be careful not to abuse the comment section as our place to vent or display mindless chatter or gossip, no matter if you agree with Bobby or not. If I write something that only tries to justify myself, I’m no better than the proverbial gossip queen at church that uses the prayer chain as a cloak for the slanderous grape vine.

    In peace and love,

  24. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    Thank you for your thoughtful words for everyone … especially for me. I do hope and pray that I do not sound arrogant. I will work harder on that …

    Bobby Valentine

  25. Steve Says:

    Sonny, what have I slandered that you hold to be true in scripture?

    For everyone, here is my prayer for tonight, which by coincidence is my reading from John Baillie’s marvelous book A Diary of Private Prayer (p. 15), as I work through it once again.

    My failure to be true even to my own accepted standards:
    My self-deception in face of temptation:
    My choosing of the worse when I know the better:
    O Lord, forgive.

    My failure to apply to myself the standards of conduct I demand of others:
    My blindness to the suffering of others and my slowness to be taught by my own:
    My complacence towards wrongs that do not touch my own case and my over-sensitiveness to those that do:
    My slowness to see the good in my fellows and to see the evil in myself:
    My hardness of heart toward my neighbours’ faults and my readiness to make allowance for my own:
    My unwillingness to believe that Thou hast called me to a small work and my brother to a great one:
    O Lord forgive.

    I have that section heavily marked. Over the last 20 years or so, it has convicted me every time I read that particular prayer. I hope it is a blessing to each of you.

  26. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Steve thank you for posting Baillie’s moving prayer. It has been some time since I have spent some time on my knees with Baillie … perhaps he is a partner who can bless me once again.

    Bobby V

  27. purduepetty Says:

    You definitely don’t come across as arrogant to me brother. Keep up the good and godly work, I’ve enjoyed your blog for 6 months now! 🙂

  28. Anonymous Says:

    Steve, I admit that slander was a bad judgment on my part. Bobby, Arrogant was not a part of the blog response.
    Steve, thanks for the prayer. I have (just) prayed that petition to The Father

  29. Broken Chains 4 All Says:

    One of the humbling, yet amazing, matters I have observed over the years concerning our “collective” walk as a fellowship has been our struggle to objectively evaluate our “spiritual position” or even our relevance, as it relates to the world. It is getting better in many respects (worse in some others)…but it is necessary to evaluate, re-evaluate on a regular basis. As I have shared from time to time, we (our congregation) are only a half a generation from “being in a rut”, becoming blinded, as it relates to matters of philosophy, tradition, and spirituality…

    Blessings, Don Middleton

  30. mattdabbs Says:

    There is a really interesting story told in “Roll Jordan Roll” by J.E. Choate (Keeble’s autobiography) on p.26-27,

    “There is an interesting side story in the Silver Point School that developed in 1915. In a meeting of the board of trustees of the Putnam County Normal and Industrial School (the Silver Point school) for Colored People, Aleck Campbell confessed a fault that the trustees unwittingly committed. To show their disapproval of the innovations in Christian worship and practices (they had the Christian Church particularly in mind), the board made a formal declaration registering their feelings. A.M. Burton told them that what they had done actually amounted to their writing a creed and the Bible already condemned all unscriptural practices. Aleck Campbell wrote the following statement for the Gospel Advocate:


    To the Gospel Advodcate: In the Gospel Advocate of October 29, 1914, there appears a report of a meeting of the trustees of the Putnam County Normal and Industrial School for colored people.

    After a careful consideration and mature deliberation upon my part, I have become convinced that the act of authorizing our names to be placed on the minutes saying that we will not fellowship certain preachers was denominational in its nature, and, though, I did not so consider it at the time, equivalent to writing a creed to govern the conduct or conscience of other men.

    Believing it to be preeminently proper to acknowledge our faults and to correct any evil that we may have done, I take this opportunity, as far as I am individually concerned, to rescind this action; and in so much as quite a good deal has been written in the Advocate concerning this matter, I will thank you to allow space for this statement.
    – Alexander Campbell

    I find that statement fascinating. While some would disagree with various doctrinal and cultural/racial positions held here, the thing I want to point out is how he considered his action of formally denying fellowship to preachers in other churches as denominational in and of itself. Anyone else find that interesting or have a take on that?

  31. Unknown Says:

    I’m thinking we ALL would be better off to return to the simple discipleship of Jesus,

    Let that be our focus and not “church.” Churches of men have focused way too much on which church?

    When we think church we think men.
    When we think Christ we think Christ.

    When we think Christ why not think follower of Jesus or disciple?

    We ALL could unite behind that.
    We will never even begin to unite the way most of us have been raised and trained to think ….church.


  1. Stoned-Campbell Disciple » Blog Archive » Unity & Heresy: Love of Party Position or Love of Truth, Regardless: Alexander Campbell, 1858

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