Frank Schaefer, Phil Robertson and the Myth of Christian Unity

In case you were so caught up in the runup to the holidays, two seemingly unrelated things happened that challenge some of our cultural understandings of religion: Frank Schaefer, the United Methodist pastor who officiated his son’s gay wedding, was stripped of his clergy credentials for violating the teachings and discipline of his denomination and Phil Robertson, Duck Dynasty star was also, in a manner of speaking, defrocked.

A&E put the outspoken patriarch of the Robertson family “on hiatus from filming indefinitely,” for anti-gay and racially-insensitive comments made in an interview published in GQ. (Although as Sarah Posner has noted here on RD, “his conservative religious views have been no secret.”)

Both events have been the subject of intense, at times vitriolic, discussion on social media, especially, of course, among those who identify in one way or another as Christian. Both events have made clear once again the differences between “socially liberal” and “socially conservative” Christians when it comes to issues related especially to sexuality, with both sides appealing to the Bible in support of their opposing views.

Some of my more pastorally minded friends have intervened, urging mutual understanding and stressing unity among Christians. The sentiment generally goes something like, “Sure, we may disagree when it comes to issues such as homosexuality, but let’s remember that at the end of the day we all serve the same God.”

It’s a nice sentiment, one that is often appealed to to remind Christians that the church is, ultimately, “one body,” united in its common confession and worship of Jesus Christ, whom Christians take as God incarnate. In other words, the appeal is to some sort of transcendent commonality that unites the Christians across time and place despite differences, including differences on issues related to sexuality.

I’ve often wondered, however, if such a claim is accurate. Sure, it has theological merit and backing, but it tends to cover over the real differences that divide individuals and groups that identify themselves as Christian. I would suggest that if  we attend to these differences, there’s often not much in common between Christians who identity as “socially liberal” and “socially conservative.” In other words, I’d suggest that when disagreements among Christians flare up as they have in the past few days, we are not witnessing different expressions of an underlying, unitary tradition called Christianity. We are, rather, dealing with different “religions,” as separate from each other as one “religion” is normally taken from another.

Sure, “socially liberal” and “socially conservative” Christians share, to a certain extent and differences aside, a common book, a common language, and common practices. But if we dig further, if we do a little “thick description” as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz urged us, the extent of the commonalities is not at all clear. For instance, all Christians in one way or another take the Bible as a locus of authority, but how the Bible is read and how it functions as authoritative varies significantly for individuals and in denominations.

We only need to look at the difference between Frank Schaefer and Phil Robertson to see that this is the case. We often frame such differences as differences of interpretation, but perhaps it would be better to ask the question: Are they (Schaefer and Robertson, “liberal Christians” and “conservative Christians”) really reading the same book? I’m not so sure that they are.

Or take a practice such as baptism, which is, again, ubiquitous among those who identify as Christian. Is baptism in a Southern Baptist church the same things as in an Episcopal Church? At one level it is, since the practice in both contexts ultimately derives from a common source, Jesus’ baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But there is considerable difference between the two in when baptism is usually performed (believer/infant), how it functions (ordinance/sacrament), and its relationship to different understandings of community, sin, and salvation. Material similarities, in other words, don’t necessarily mean that the practice is the same across contexts.

We could provide many more examples, and all of these would lead to one question: are “liberal Christians” and “conservative Christians” worshipping the same God? Again, I’m not so sure.

Such questions are sure to make many—on all sides—uncomfortable. But if we really want to understand the vast differences among those who identify as Christian, we should, perhaps, start thinking about these differences not in terms of degree, but in kind. That may not be theologically satisfying, at least initially, but it may be more descriptively accurate.