Perhaps the recurring criticism of the work of Stanley Hauerwas is that his position is ultimately sectarian. The constant sparring between Hauerwas and his critics, from James Gustafson to Jeffrey Stout, always orbits around the pernicious issue of whether or not Hauerwas is sectarian. In response to his critics, Hauerwas has consistently denied that he is sectarian. “I do not see why the position for which I have argued forces the church to withdraw from public policy matters”, Hauerwas consistently claims. For him, there is no reason to assume that the church’s priority as a polis of peaceableness should prohibit Christians from participating in the machinations of states “unless you think that public policy always involves questions of violence and/or coercion.”
Hauerwas’s critics have, of course, not been satisfied by this. This is so because, as Hauerwas rightly notes, political liberalism can tolerate no interdicting loyalties that could even potentially supersede it. “Liberalism is not simply a theory of government but a theory of society that is imperial in its demands.” Anyone who is willing to clearly articulate in a substantive manner that there are loyalties higher than that of the state and market is always-already labeled a sectarian by those who live under the desire to shore up the imperium, to preserve democracy, to work from within the system (e.g. Jeffrey Stout).
However, Robert Brimlow, in his critique of Hauerwas, does not argue that his theology is suspect for being sectarian, rather he insists that “he is not quite sectarian enough.” For Brimlow sectarianism, far from being a problem into which a christological and ecclesiocentric ethic might fall, is in fact an imperative for the church striving for faithful discipleship. He notes MacIntyre’s argument regarding the dillemma facing contemporary theology: either the theologian will not try to translate theology into a wider idiom and simply be content with a “closed circle” within which Christians simply talk to one another in their own distinctive ethos and culture, or the theologian will take one of two other paths. First, the theologian may fail in translating theology into a wider idiom, and the result is the same as not trying to do so. Second, they may succeed in translating theology into a wider idiom which results in the evacuation of positive theological content from public theology. It produces nothing but a theistic vocabulary with atheistic substance.
In contrast to contemporary sensibility, the first option, that of the church being a closed circle is actually completely unproblematic. There is no reason to assume that closed circles are bad things. For example, no one believes that Francophones are problematic for not knowing English; if people from outside the Francophone community wish to enter into the life of the French-speaking world they have to learn French. This does not constitute some sort of xenophobic closedness on the part of Francophones. Why should the community of the church be any different? The church’s missional mandate is served, not by an attempt to alleviate its difference, even separation from the world, but rather precisely by its differentness and separateness. The notion of Christians speaking to one another as Christians, and doing so Christianly, in an exclusive community is a nonproblem. It is as absurd an antithesis as insisting that Francophones speaking only to other Francophones in French is a xenophobic repudiation of the world.
In other words, it is absolutely essential that the church be sectarian if it is going to truly be the church. Attempts to mitigate sectarianism are attempts to make the church and Christianity less churchly and less Christian. As such, these impulses must be rejected for the sake of faithful discipleship. Moreover, the sectarian imperative does not mean the withdrawal of the church from the world. Rather it is a call to a more radical way of being worldly, of doing world. For the church to be faithfully sectarian, the church must embody within itself the fullness of humanity being restored in the image of the new creation. The sectarian imperative is wedded to a strong assertion of catholicity. The church is necessarily separate from the state and the other principalities and powers of this world precisely because they constitute the old order under sin which is passing away while the church embodies the in-breaking of God’s apocalyptic kingdom which embraces, incorporates, and enfolds all created reality by transforming it within its own life. It is the church, rather than the “world” which is the wide space. The reason the church must be sectarian is not because the world is too big, too dirty, or too messy; it is because it is too provincial, too small, too sanitized, too inoculated. The church, not the world under the powers is the broad place in which life can be actualized before God in the true and ultimate sense of worldliness. In short, what we think of as world is merely the thrashing vestiges of defeated powers fading toward nothingness and defeat. The church is the world being recreated through the Spirit of the risen and ascended Messiah.
None of this is a rejection of the church’s missional mandate. Rather it is the only way to be missionally faithful. The church’s mission is to embody and proclaim the coming of the new creation in its own life. The goal of the church is to make disciples of all nations. This commission can only be fulfilled when our difference from the nations is as maximal as the difference between the death and resurrection, the old creation and the new. In short, the only way to be missional is to be a sectarian, indeed it is the only way to love the world. For the church’s faithfulness, it seems that sectarianism is required.