Recently a good friend of mine embroiled in a denominational split said, “theology is everything.”
My mother’s maiden name was Mullins, recently I traced the ancestry of that name back to its entry point into the colonies in the late 1600s. The name had originally been des Moulines (French) and belonged to a family of Hugenots who had fled France to England (and then on to the Americas) to avoid Catholic persecution. They came to America, like so many, seeking religious freedom, having failed to convince French and broader Catholicism to reform its theology. They had at one point had a voice in attempting to reform the European church (along with the earliest Reformers), but had finally found that their voice was no tot be heard, and in fact their voice was repressed. This of course has been the history of much of Christianity, a constant ebb and tide of reformers, heretics, “repressions,” and adjustments of theology. Theology is everything.
Albert O. Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States proposes the economic model of exit and voice as ways of correcting discontent of buyers and receivers of services against the flailing abilities to produce of firms and organizations. Traditional economics has proposed often a survival of the fittest mentality in terms of exit. If a company cannot meet the quality standards or demand of its customers in a free market, said customers will exit and seek those goods or service elsewhere. Of course, the beginning stages of exit may in fact signal the organization that something is wrong, and they may be able to address the issues, improving their organization and retain and regain customers. Hirschman sees exit as valid, but as potentially, especially in the cases of governments and organization, limiting in its effectiveness. Here Hirschman proposes voice as a more viable option as it allows for avoiding deterioration and collapse in society. Voice is “for the customer or member to make an attempt at changing the practices, policies, and outputs of the firm from which one buys from or of the organization of which one belongs (30).” That is voice can stave off the negative effects of exit, and help firms and organizations be more successful and useful, avoiding an unending cycle of collapse. Voice is productive and creative. Hirschman however stresses that voice is also more difficult of an option, not guaranteed to succeed, and that ultimately exit must be retained as the final solution.
One can see the tension between exit and voice magnified in the Arab Spring and its subsequent spasms of revolution and war. People want their voices to be heard, to change the system, but when the voices are not considered (at the nation state and ethnic level) there is an almost nihilistic exit choice, as the only options become fleeing one’s geographical identity, or to exterminate those who oppose you.
As the church, what are we to make of this? Certainly, in a corporate sense, theological exit, voice, and loyalty have been in play for thousands of years. We need only to witness the monastics, Cathars, Hussites, Hugenots, Waldensians, the Reformers, and the constant spinning off and dividing since. This compared with Christ’s call for the unity of his body creates a serious tension for the church. At a theological, or even an organizational impasse, is exit ever really an option? Obviously as a Protestant, I owe almost all of my spiritual heritage (or at least the last 500 years or so) to the option of exit. Much of America was settled on the principal of exit from organizations and systems that people had been trying to influence for change for quite some time. I come from a long line of leavers. But, it seems to me that voice must always be the first option, and the most longsuffering. We have to fight long and hard for our theological voice to be heard, and for the work of the Holy Spirit to evoke organizational change. Still, after much grace, prayer, attempts at expressing voice that can lead to change, there must sometimes come a time when in graciousness and compassion, we decide that our theology no longer fits with the wider organization, and in deep grief exit.
The evangelical churches of my current denomination are currently facing this very crisis. After over 20 years of attempting to be an orthodox theological voice in the denomination to affect change, most of the evangelical leaders and churches have come to the same conclusion. The denomination continues to drift away from its historic roots, away from its call to preach the gospel in word and deed, and is increasingly becoming more antagonistic towards the evangelical wing. Pep talks on the importance of theological tolerance and diversity in unity, ring hollow when certain churches are blocked from ordaining certain potential clergy because their seminaries are blacklisted. What is more, in some cases area leadership has attempted to remove pastors and leadership (elected and called by the local congregation) that they have viewed as in contradiction to the national church’s wishes. There are a hundred talking points and issues, but the core problem stems from a massive divergence of theology, down to the core question and imposition of what the church “ought” to be. Theology is everything.
For me, and many of my friends, the exit option is clear. The voice option has failed to change the organization, and what is more, the national church is no longer serving in the interests of many local congregations. Organizational exit and disassociation seem to be the quickest and safest route to preserving the theological and organizational integrity of my and many other’s churches.
Do you believe in theological exit, and if so, what is deciding factor in taking that option?
My prayer is that the option of theological exit will bring renewal and new opportunities for growth, creativity, and mission. That in the face of nihilistic exit, God can resurrect both sides to his glory.