Science in Christian Perspective



Intra-Denominational Conflict in American Religion: Insights from Classical Sociological Theory

Larry Riedinger

Dept. of Behavioral & Social Sciences
Southwest Baptist University
Bolivar, MO 65613-2496

From: PSCF 40 (December 1988): 232-234.

When I embraced the Living Christ as my savior in 1970, 1 was in telephone engineering with Western Electric. I had little church background and the only religious conflicts known to me were the issues of prayer under the aegis of the State and the use of public school buses for transporting Catholic school students. Little did I know that in a few short years theology and sociology would be my major concerns, and that I would be living through a long, bitter religious struggle as my conversion happened to be in a Southern Baptist church.

The overt issues in the struggle are many and have changed several times over the last fifteen to twenty years. Broadly speaking, they fit fairly well into the traditional Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies. But, there is a newer religio-politico-ethical dimension that shows some similarity to th6 drastic differences between two nationally prominent Baptists: Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson. As I noted, the overt issues have changed. However, the struggle continues, with increasing intensity, and with no overt issues being resolved. That fact was my first clue that there was something underlying the struggle that was missed by Most people, including myself. That "something" will be addressed in the bulk of this paper.

In the last ten years, the struggle has polarized the Convention to the extent of forcing many wonderful people into theological "parties" (cf., I Corinthians 1:10-16), as if doctrinal purity is God's foremost concern (cf., Matthew 25:31-46, 7:13-29). This whole process has been sad and painful-as well as baffling. However, a year or so ago, in the middle of my graduate work, I came upon some classical sociological theorists who provided some useful insights into what was happening. It seemed that the process could be viewed, largely, as a normal fact of democratic organizational life. This was a striking idea and seemed to make more sense the more I thought about it. It certainly was more revealing than the "Fundamentalist Grab for Power!" and "Liberals Deny the Word of God!" "theories" championed by many combatants.

While investigating the idea further, it occurred to me that Southern Baptists were not alone in this struggle. It thus seemed worthwhile to share this perspective on organizational change with my fellow ASA members, who, regardless of denominational affiliation, might find it useful for understanding conflicts in their own church bodies.1

For that reason and others, I will not deal with the issues as defined by the parties. My primary purpose is to present a viewpoint that is useful for all believers, and the "official issues," in my opinion, are not helpful for understanding the dynamics of conflict. I also want to avoid the usual emotive terms and so more easily build toward some thoughts on how Christians in intellectual disciplines can be peacemakers before, during, and after major conflicts in their denominations.2

My primary guides are Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto: European theorists not well known outside sociology.3 Max Weber and Karl Marx colored my thinking but are not major sources for this paper. 4

Sociologically speaking, many American denominations, despite polity distinctives, could be viewed as large, democratic, voluntary membership organizations. This social fact sets the stage for the whole process. For an organization to be democratic, individual effect on decisions is essential. With small numbers of people, direct personal involvement is not very difficult. However, when the numbers reach just a few hundred, direct democracy becomes virtually impossible.

As size begins to block effective action, there is a commonsense realization that there must be full-time leaders to carry on the day-to-day work and streamline operations. In earlier times it would have been clear that some of the members had high interest and skills. These would have already tended to dominate the life of the organization and so quite naturally would be the group from which the leaders would be chosen. The other members would rely upon them for information, "minding the store," and holding regular meetings to discuss major issues. Some of these people simply rise to power due to real and perceived abilities. Others desire power and succeed due to real abilities and/or guile. In either case, they get power due to characteristics that set them apart from the rank and file.

The leaders now find themselves in a different world. Because of their status they begin to "run with a new crowd" and, quite naturally, are influenced by the values and mores of this class made up of other organizational leaders. This situation gradually leads them to view the world differently than the members, plus they learn the realities of getting things done in the "real world." As time goes on the differences get greater until they become noticeable enough to arouse suspicions in the membership.

There are also other factors operating. Desirable leadership qualities include innovative thinking and practical savvy. These are good for solving technical and political problems and making new applications of old ideas. Innovation, though, means change, and there's the rub. Most of us want rapid technical and economic change without changes in social (status/value) relations-an impossible dream in my view. Given that many hold their social relations to be theologically derived or justified, we can understand why anxiety/hostility is aroused by change-valid or not. Enough innovation on the part of the leaders, and they are ripe for being accused-rightly or wrongly-as the source of the trouble.

Since the leaders have the time and facilities to organize and control information, they generally have little difficulty fending off attacks as long as the majority of active members believe them - correctly or not. Attackers can be labelled variously as "Johnny-Come-Latelies," "well meaning but misdirected," "radicals," etc.

As time goes on, the class differences become ever greater so it becomes more and more difficult for the leaders to legitimize their actions in the eyes of the members. Even the regular electoral processes may not ease tensions. The "new blood" tends to be chosen from above more than from below as the leaders groom, through established channels, those who are "assets to the organization," or coopt potential threats to the status quo.

Working parallel to that process is a gradual policy shift which is hard for the rank and file to see since it occurs in small-duly approved-increments. The reason for the approval is that most of the shift is actually in line with the organization's ideals and objectives and simply represents adjustments to conditions not at issue in earlier times. The dark side of this change comes from the accumulated effects of two facts of life. First, there is always some disagreement with any change and second, not all changes are correct. When the shift is perceived by enough of the body politic, or it is sensed that "things just aren't like they used to be," a major struggle for a return to a "rose-colored past" is on the horizon.

By this time, there is enough dissatisfaction among the members to fuel a reaction. The changes causing this come from inside and/or outside, and the leaders are perceived as unwilling or unable to cope in ways thought appropriate by the members. We see conservative control/security needs rise to prominence as well as persons who can take advantage of them. Those needs are a solid base from which to challenge the "powers that be."

The technique is to elevate, in the minds of the dissatisfied, an ideal as if it (correctly or not) was the key to success in the early organization. It must also be shown that recent leadership has departed from that "historic position" and is thus illegitimate.

The conservative bandwagon sweeps the new people into office where they begin to steer a new course. (Note that bandwagons tend to be formed around simplistic and extreme positions. Who ever heard of a zealous crusade for moderation?) But do the new leaders "live happily ever after"?

One way of looking at this is to view reactionaries as strong in ideology but weak in innovation and therefore easily displaced by leaders who can get things done in the real world. Another perspective posits the world of leadership as confronting the new leaders with the same values and mores it presented to the old leaders. It thereby changes them too, and repeats the process.' I suspect there is validity "in understanding new and old leaders through both internal qualities and external class relations.

From this vantage point, it appears that democratic organizations are doomed to a constant cyclical pattern or, more hopefully, an upward spiral. This brings me to the final part of the discussion and the point of interest to Christian academicians.

Role of Christian Educators

The subculture of academe has many demands. It is thus easy for teachers to concentrate on issues confined to that culture and lose touch with "outsiders." This process is not bad as such, but it is a major factor supporting the concepts called "US" and "THEM" around the world. All class (cross-cultural) relations have that quality. In light of this, what can we do?

The first thing is to keep on teaching. That helps students see beyond the confines of their backgrounds. Being able to see farther can enable them to better evaluate leadership decisions and those who challenge them. They may also be less likely to fall prey to waves of popular sentiment.

But what about those who did not pursue higher education? Do college professors have any responsibility to them? Can something be done to reduce the social gap between "the intellectuals" and "just plain folks," or blur the distinctions between "us" and "them"? I believe so, and it may be that James 2:1-13 can be helpful.

Members of all social groupings tend to be more comfortable with "their own kind." They also tend to fear, and devalue, those of whom they are not well informed or are outside their common experience. The suspicions founded on lack of knowledge may be reduced somewhat if knowledgeable persons make it a point to share their perspectives, whenever appropriate, exercising care to avoid both erudition and condescension. Many welcome this between disciplines, but it can be useful across social lines as well. And it works both ways. Each side can be enriched by seeing through the eyes of the other.6

Writing is another technique that could be used to communicate to those outside academe. (There is already plenty of writing by and for those inside!) In the last year or so the ASA Newsletter has noted that using letters to editors is a good way to clear the air in the Creationism/Evolutionism debate. That is an excellent example of cross-professional writing. But what about other subjects at issue? Many people write letters to editors. Instead of scorning the obvious ignorance of many of them, it would be more helpful to write correctives focusing on one issue at a time and in plain language. In my experience this has produced some happy and gratifying results.

Concluding Remarks

And what, sociologically speaking, might be gained by weakening the barriers between the leadership/teaching and membership classes? Doubtless there will still be conflict, but with fewer group distinctions mutual understanding should be better, thus lessening hostilities. This is remarkably similar to "love covers a multitude of sins" (Proverbs 10: I 2b; I Peter 4:8).

Biblically speaking, bitter conflict and a party spirit are antithetical to the very identity of the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 1:10-4:21). Why else did our Lord say: "Love one another! As I have loved you, you also love one another. By that love you will be identified as my disciples" (John 13:34b,35a)? Apparently personal and class relations within the Body say much about its true identity. So it seems that, despite the difficulties (Matthew 5:6-10), working at reducing the size of the class gap makes not only political sense, but spiritual sense as well.


1For related information and studies see Ammerman; Barrow; Beckford; Bruce; Cohen & Ben-Yehuda; Fox; Liebman & Wuthnow; Moberg; Niebuhr; O'Dea, Perkins; Wilson.

2Even though what follows focuses on organizational leadership it is clear from Baptist and Lutheran experience that teachers tend to be included in the agenda of conservative challengers.

3Thy did most of their work in the years surrounding WWI. Michels, a German, is best known for his "Iron Law of Oligarchy" which has been well supported by subsequent research (Collins & Makowsky, P. 215). It provides the primary structure for this paper. Pareto, an Italian, questioned why changes in who exercised power never created social improvement, and proposed a socio-psychologically oriented explanation.

4To aid clarity I have applied ideas from them all in a narrative form. Each has made important contributions to our understanding of conflict. if any wish to access the information, my most important sources are listed below.

5Isolationism is a factor which could slow the process. This can come from emphasizing "the separated life" to the point of avoiding all association with "the world" and even other churches. If the old leadership was seen as contaminated by modernity, etc., it would justify a more insular existence on the part of the new leaders.

6At times this process is anything but easy, but perhaps those are the most important times.


Ammerman, Nancy T. "The New South and the New Baptists. " The Christian Century 103(17), 14 May 1986, pp. 486-488.

Ashley, David & David M. Orenstein. Sociological Theory: Clinical Statements. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1985. [An excellent biographical approach to Pareto (pp. 29"29).]

Barrow, Clyde. "Intellectuals in Contemporary Social Theory: A Radical Critique." Sociological Inquiry 57(4), Fall 1987, pp. 415-430. Beckford, James A. "The Restoration of 'Power' to the Sociology of Religion.' Sociological Analysis 44(l), Spring 1983, pp. 11-32.

Bruce, Steve. "Authority and Fission: The Protestants' Divisions."British Journal of Sociology 36(4), December 1985, pp. 592-603.

Cohen, Erik & Nachman Ben-Yehuda. "Counter-Cultural Movements and Totalitarian Democracy." Sociological Inquiry 57(4), Fall 1987, pp. 372-393

Collins, Randall & Michael Makowsky. The Discovery of Society (3rd ed.). New York: Random House, 1984. [A good introduction to both Pareto and Michels (pp. l98-204, 213-218).]

Fox, Richard. "The Liberal Ethic and the Spirit of Protestantism. The Center Magazine 20(5), Sep/Oct 1987, pp. 4-14.

Lengermann, Patricia M. Definition of Sociology: A Historical Approach. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill, 1974. [Pareto's thought applied to class conflict (pp. 238-241).]

Liebman, Robert & Robert Wuthnow (eds.). The New Christian Right: Mobilization and Legitimation. New York: Aldine Publishing CO., 1983.

Moberg, David 0. The Church as a Social Institution: The Sociology of An American Religion (2nd ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984. [Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy (pp. 280-294).] Niebuhr, H. Richard. The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Cleveland,

OH: World Publishing, 1957. [Sociecnomic influences on organized religion (passim).]

O'Dea, Thomas F. The Sociology of Religion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall, 1966. [Problems that are "natural" for organized religion (pp. 90-97).]

Perkins, Richard. Looking Both Ways: Exploring the interface Between Christianity and Sociology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987. [A cogent discussion of ideologies and "common sense" that is well worth remembering when we are confronted by "official issues" (pp. 97-117, 164-166).]

Wilson, Bryan. Religion in Sociological Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982. [An interesting discussion of social processes and forces in sects and denominations (pp. 89-120).]

Zeitlin, Irving M. Idealogy and the Development of Social Theory (2nd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1981. [Michels' hope for reducing sources of conflict and moving toward more stable democracy (pp. 233-249).]