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Why Sectarianism is Required

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.


  1. Tim F. wrote:


    As far as systematic theology goes, I’m largely sympathetic with this post. However, the more important question of sectarianism is related to how to be in the world, which you do begin to touch on, albeit rather abstractly. To be sure, Hauwerwas’s critique of liberalism is exactly right. But, so what? Naming and describing a problem is good, but insufficient.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t see many churches, including my own where I’m employed, doing what you’re talking about. I’ve been trying to convince my church of what you’re saying for years, and they sometimes get it on an abstract level, but our responses always seem insufficient. For example, we help homeless people through IHN and a food pantry, some of us grow our own vegetables and do other energy conserving stuff, etc, etc. However, it’s definitely the minority who are involved in this. Perhaps we should feel like we’re doing what you’re talking about, but it sure doesn’t seem like it.

    Again, this is not a dismissal of your theological argument. I think it’s true. But, then what? Obviously we keep doing the stuff I mentioned and even see these as the activities which primarily define us as Church–the primarly polity in our life. However, should we vote in the upcoming election with our country being in such bad shape? If so, for who, and why? The current administration has proven how much it matters who is the president. I know too many people who desparately need health care, and the church, let alone myself, is not in a position to provide that for them.



    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Tim, I guess my basic response is to say that there are churches doing all those sorts of things precisely as churches. To be sure they are a the minority, but that’s all the more reason why this stuff needs to be said. I think that the literature on the New Monasticism that is coming out now speaks to the concrete issues involved in actually doing these sorts of things in good ways. As a member of just such a community for over 6 years, I have found this sort of orientation to indeed be more than theoretical sophistry.

    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink
  3. Tim F. wrote:


    In no way did I mean to imply that what you said is sophistry. I think the witness of those you mention is tremendously faithful, and you are right to lift them up as exemplars.

    However, I’m not going to live in an intentional community and neither are most people in the church. Do we all need to move in together and live in intentional communities to do this? I doubt it. So, what should we do?

    Here’s a practical example, I had my small group read David Matzko McCarthy’s, “The Good Life” (a wonderful book!) and they didn’t get it. They thought it was too hard (both conceptually and to put into practice). All of these folks have been to college! What am I to do with that?



    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 10:52 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Of course, Tim. I honestly am not sure what you should do other than continue to try. I think the road of being the “loyal opposition” within a congregation of people who largely don’t get it is perhaps the hardest road to take. Honestly I don’t know how I could do without the sort of partnership throughout the congregation that I have been blessed with.

    But I have to believe that what I’ve experienced is not all that unique. I just don’t think that I or the people I am a part of that special or extraordinary. Maybe other people have more insights to share with you about what to do concretely where you are.

    Though, on one level I would perhaps want to dare to commend living in intentional community rather than simply letting such things be “exemplars” to be admired rather than potential imperatives for us to try to figure out how to obey.

    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 11:10 am | Permalink
  5. Kai Schraml wrote:

    I found this blog to be especially insightful. Thanks!

    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  6. Tim F. wrote:


    Allow me to be clearer here than in my previous post where I made it seem like I was seeking pastoral advice.

    Clearly stated, it seems you presume there is a “pure” gospel “out there” unwed to the world in some way. I wanted to hear how I was supposed to teach my small group about this “pure” gospel without translating anything. I’m not sure if your side stepping of this question is significant or not.

    Personally, I used to fear translation, but I don’t think it is something necessarily problematic. After all, the universality of Christianity is in its ability to be translated, quite literally, in fact. As Sanneh has pointed out, Christianity is translated from the beginning, from Aramaic into Greek, from Greek into Latin. I know you’re saying that people need to learn to speak Christianity. Of course, that’s true (especially in our culture), but we can’t just speak “Christianity” alone. What is that? I speak my Christianity in English and once in while in Latin. How ’bout you? :-)

    What language will we speak in the new creation? Even Jesus spoke in Aramaic or Greek in his resurrected body. Isn’t this significant?

    BTW, I find nothing wrong with commending living in community (after all exemplars are to be imitated!), as long as you don’t Kantianize it (or maybe I should fault the founder of my church, Luther, here) making it into a universal imperative, like many folks do. Here, Catholics are certainly wise in recognizing the validity of many valid forms of living faithfully, while still commending the vocational life.



    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  7. Questioning wrote:


    I have often found myself thinking such things, but questions from all quarters arise that I then find hard to answer. What of the continuity of the church? It seems that most churches at most times have not been constituted in such thickly sectarian forms. Are you then left claiming either that institutional/corporate bodilycontinuity is not the issue as much as some sort of free floating “faithfulness” or else insisting, a la the Baptist “trail of blood”, that there has always some faithful remnant typically not that of the mainline of the church (even before the Reformation)?
    What of the appearance of salvation in time? Is not the faithfulness of the church just one aspect of this salvation? I must confess to having grown exasperated to despairing of salvation being at all historical when I approached soteriological issues as maximizing sectarianism beyond Hauerwas, and Yoder for that matter. It was Newman who taught me to see the faithfulness of God in the Christians around me and to discern the salvation of God in our midst in just the actions of those Christians that constitutes the sin filled history of the church.
    I love and have written about the New Monasticism but any hint that all ought to live as such reeks of various sorts of privilege, e.g. freedom fom chronic and expensive illnesses.
    Furthermore, as your post makes clear Hauerwas, and I would argue Yoder, in fact only speak and spoke as you do here only when trying to shock those living with deep liberal blinders. The actual position is far more complex pulling from Biblical images of yeast leavening the whole lump as much as “resident aliens.” I wonder if we haven’t stopped to think why Hauerwas is so insistent that his positions are not sectarian rather than argue that sectarianism is no problem?

    I could summarize most of my worries which arose from within a very similar position as yours by correlating the deep ecclesial frustration of most American theology students I know, including myself, and coming terms with and being genuinely thankful that Donatism has been rejected by the church as heresy. Witness is not only still possible, but something integral to that witness may actually be thereby served.

    Halden you are blessed to be a part of the church that you are, but theologizing that does not take into account the way that God is faithfully bringing very different parts of the church into his salvation, due to sin, wealth, weakness, etc. is perhaps not as much to be a prophet as to fail at being charitable. (I do not mean to imply by these claims that harsh judgment on the church, particularly those we have now in America, is not possible and indeed currentl quite necessary. Rather I hope that prudential judgment is given its due and theologians be willing to risk such judgment rather than win argument through theoretical restriction and closure as to what the church necessarily is.)


    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 2:00 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Tim, I of course do not think we can ever think in some sort of pristine, untainted form that is merely “Christian” and nothing else. What I tried to make clear in the post is that thinking Christianly incorporates all particularities within the universality of the church’s existence (ergo the claim to catholicity). Thus, what you describe as speaking our Christianity in English I would want to talk about as the polyvalence, or catholicity of redemption incorporating sectors of the world into itself, recapitulating all things in communion with the Triune God. This isn’t “translation” in the sense I’m against, which I understand as seeking to describe or render theological claims in non-theological idiom. If this is possible, Hauerwas is right to ask why we need the theological language in the first place.

    I do not think that there is a platonic ideal of the gospel off somewhere in the world of ideas. I do, however think that the gospel’s fullness lies beyond us, in God’s future, always exceeding our attempts at faithfulness. As such, I think we have to believe in some sort of “pure gospel” that is other than our attempts to embody it in diverse contexts. The call of discipleship and our stuttering attempts to answer that call can never be equated. The gospel transcends our responses to it and always calls them ever and again into question.

    I also recognize many modes of Christian living that can and should be commended. Obviously how we configure the shape of our lives as the church will be shaped greatly by the needs and realities of the specific location in question where a congregation is taking shape. However, what I was getting at is the sort of sentimental idealization that often attends our way of thinking about people living in community and the like. The people who live that way aren’t doing it to be an inspiring story that can evoke some emotion in other Christians who then go on to live their lives as they always have. They do it because they believe the gospel demands it of them in the context in which they live.

    While I certainly don’t think that intentional community is the only way, I do think that we must not shy away from making concrete statements about where and how we should live. That will look different depending on a great many things, but I want to resist the sort of untouchableness of our lives that reigns among most Christians in the West. It is the church’s business where I live and how I spend my money.

    Anon, I trust much of what I said to Tim will answer your questions. I certainly believe that God is active in many, many broken ecclesial vessels, indeed there is no such thing as an unbroken vessel. Ecclesial continuity is indeed vital, though, I don’t honestly think that any ecclesial body can make an unproblematic claim to such continuity. In the state of disunity that we are in such claims ring hollow to my ears. We are a house of dry bones, but the Spirit is always and ever again able to make them live.

    My only other response to you is to voice my disagreement with your notion that people with chronic and expensive illness cannot live communally. That is a failure of imagination. I have personally experienced life in community with just such people, including living communally with them to the point of death. Such things are not impossible, they just take work. Another good example are the L’Arche communities.

    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  9. Questioning wrote:

    “Failure of imagination”

    Of course I was not claiming that all persons with such illnesses cannot so live, but that there are those in the particularity of where they are and what they suffer for whom this is not possible. To insult their “imagination” is itself a failure to imagine how life may be sufficiently different that no combination of imagination and will can bring about monastic style comunity (this sounds voluntaristic). And yet to these God reaches with the gospel that is never without the church.

    This is exactly the failure of giving prudential reasoning its apropriate space that I gestured towards above. Without giving such space for practical reasoning, and therefore invoking splended imaginative capacities to account for the particularities of lives we know little to nothing of, we shut down disoursing about the actual lives we live and the salvation extended to us in space and time. Not, of course, that prudence would find me in the right, but the attempt to shut down possibilities and genuine argument by invoking an overdetermined theory of the church and its relationship to its habitat, in concert with a now platitudenouos appeal to imagination. Thus the manner in which eternal and universal salvation is being instantiated in the action and passion of one specific group of people in their particularity is taken, by said theories, to be itself the universal such that if the particularities of others have not (in history), do not (as for many of us now), or even cannot (as undoubtedly for some) conform to the former instantiation then the relevant particularities must either be expunged, or deneid by an appeal to lack of courage or imagination or whatever, or simply counted as unfaithful.

    I think attention to Hauerwas’ earlier work in action theory, moral psychology, and what Wittgenstein, Aristotle, and Aquinas similarly offer would be worth visiting.


    By the way I am a pacifest as well, but I find we do the same thing with pacifism so that we do not need to practically reason about the intransigent particularities of given disputes and confrontations. Its just easier to shut down the whole argumentative process isn’t it?

    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  10. Tim F. wrote:


    Thanks for you clarifications, and for the record I agree with Hauerwas and you about translation into non-theological idiom.

    The gospel is certainly more than our attempts to implement it, but it also includes them, otherwise we are speaking of an invisible church. I’m guessing you agree with this.

    I am also in agreement that Christianity speaks to how we spend our money and where we live. But, how we think through that seems most important. These things are not easily answered in a world where legitimate goods compete with each other. I worry that these important details aren’t given their due attention by you. I think this has to do with anon’s comment regarding severe and expensive illness.

    This is a sincere question, if a little off track, but it’s about how you seem to imagine the gospel: How do you live continuously under the judgment of the gospel that you describe, since, as you note, it “ever and again” calls us and our lives into question and can “never” be equated with our practice. Wow, we’re all constant failures. How is there Sabbath in that? Here’s my concern in this question: to understand discipleship as a trying, trying, and trying and working, working, and working never to obtain, even for a short duration sounds a lot like the American capitalist dream to me. Or at the very least, plays well into its ideology. Is not the gospel’s call to us sometimes and for periods of time: “Come to me all who are weary with heavy burdens and I will give you rest.”

    I guess in the end, I am still left wondering if despite your effort to define the Church and its ideal life over against the “old order” you do in fact define it in parallel ways to our culture.



    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  11. Questioning wrote:

    Just to clarify my point about overdetermined theories of the church world distinction and/or relationship…I recall someplace Reinhard Hutter writing that it is problematic to claim that the church must be counter-cultural because then the church is then dialectically determined by the world. Language like the church needing to be “maximally different from the world” is a problem. If the world is W’s America then perhaps that statement is correct, but if its Ghandi’s ashram then different yes, but maximally different? The church/world theory thereby articulated is not thinking prudentially, either in judgment or affirmation, about the world. The world is thus but the sinful dialectical opposite of the church of the fullness of the eschaton. But surely the world is a far more differentiated place than that.



    Thursday, July 17, 2008 at 5:24 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    Anon, I agree with you about prudential reasoning/discernment. I didn’t mean to portray otherwise. Nor did I mean for everything to sound overdetermined as you say. Rather I was trying to avoid the opposite error, that of underdetermination. There are some things that we must be able to say consistently and with conviction. Not saying I’ve identified those correctly, or that we can always know in advance what those things are.

    Tim, I did not mean to imply that we can never see the gospel taking shape in our embodied lives as church-community. Not by any stretch do I think that. I think we do indeed find Sabbath, precisely in our unfinishedness and incompleteness. I think that we find such rest, such tastes of fullness, in many unexpected ways. If you want to see my reflections on the passage about the easy yoke, see the post linked under “Favorites” in the sidebar entitled “The Metaphysics of Discipleship.”

    Friday, July 18, 2008 at 8:29 am | Permalink
  13. Kent Dunnington wrote:

    @ Questioning Anon

    “It was Newman who taught me to see the faithfulness of God in the Christians around me and to discern the salvation of God in our midst in just the actions of those Christians that constitutes the sin filled history of the church.”

    Which Newman text were you reading? This sounds like something I could be helped by.


    Friday, July 18, 2008 at 10:08 pm | Permalink
  14. graham wrote:

    Great post, Halden. I’ve never quite understood why Hauerwas resists the charge.

    Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 3:06 am | Permalink
  15. Questioning wrote:


    It was mostly, but not only “The Development of Doctrine.” As I read through it and wrestled with what was guiding Newman in his explorations. I finally settled on the notion that Newman was trying to read church history by a hermneutic of the faithfulness of God. This is not to say that I don’t find certain aspects of Newman’s treatment strained or problematic. However, I worked thru this text when I was unaware how my own Donatist leanings and deep frustration with any actual church were correlated.


    Yes. These days underdetermination of the church’s identity and life is the bigger problem. But I fear swinging to far the other way by myself and others who share similar concerns. I think the church’s life ought not be outright reactive, but rooted in the eternal act of the Triune life. Thus naming the church as “maximally different from the world” worries me that the church is thereby determined by simply being a negation of the world (which no doubt it often ought to be) and that the manifold ways that the world is the world is obscured.
    I think attention to Hauerwas’ insistence on how theology, sense/description, and practice are inter-related is why he cannot claim tout court that the church must be (always) sectarian, and thus I think you depart from him more in ways of theological seeing than even on substantial position at this point.


    Ethan (Anonymous)

    Saturday, July 19, 2008 at 5:25 am | Permalink

3 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] Published July 17, 2008 Stanley Hauerwas , sectarian Halden has put forth a post on the necessity of Sectarianism. I am rather sympathetic to such an argument. However, I think the discussion itself is somewhat [...]

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  3. The Necessity of Sectarianism | Theopolitical on Monday, July 21, 2008 at 9:19 am

    [...] Halden has a great post on Stanley Hauerwas’ sectarianism: 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. [...]

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