Is Hauerwas’s Ecclesiology Sectarian?

I have been struggling with a question for some time now: Is Stanley Hauerwas’s ecclesiology sectarian? Or more precisely, Should I call Stanley Hauerwas’s ecclesiology sectarian?

The first part of the argument of my book posits a postliberal ecclesiological spectrum between the positions of John Milbank and Stanely Hauerwas. The term “postliberal” calls to mind the work of George Lindbeck, who said that our religious “texts”—the Bible, creeds, liturgy, and other traditions and rituals—are not ways Christians try to explain the same experience of the one God, but they are truly different experiences. They mold the Christian imagination. We occupy a thought-world shared by a particular community.[1] John Milbank and Stanley Hauerwas conceive of that community in two different ways. Milbank wants a return to a kind of postmodern Christendom, a world in which no thought is thinkable without reference to Jesus Christ. For him, the mission of the church is to expose the violence inherent in all secular narratives and show how Christianity offers the only truly peaceful response to it. For Hauerwas, the mission of the church is to focus on being that peaceful community. I call Milbank’s approach more “triumphalist.” Back when this book was my dissertation, I called Hauerwas’s approach “sectarian.” Now I do not know what to call it.

Milbank's "Listening Face"
Milbank’s “Listening Face”

As an aside, let me be clear that I am not saying that Hauerwas and Milbank would agree with these descriptions. They would not think of themselves this way. My argument is actually that the logic of their doctrines of the church leave us with a church whose mission is either to conquer the world (ecclesiological triumphalism) or isolate itself from it (ecclesiological sectarianism).

There are few problems with describing Hauerwas’s ecclesiology as “sectarian,” perhaps the chief of which is that he hates that term.[2] So do his “partisans.” He thinks that when people say he is being sectarian, they mean that he doesn’t really care about the world, but that is not true. Hauerwas cares about the world. He just thinks that the best way for the church to serve the world is to focus on its own integrity. The church must be a community of love and peace that is distinct from the fear and violence of secular culture.

But it is that focus on its own distinction that makes “sectarian” such a good word for his ecclesiology. The term hearkens back to Troeltsch’s distinction between the “church” and the “sect.”

The sects on the other hand are comparatively small groups; they aspire after personal and inward perfection, and they aim at direct personal fellowship between the members of each group.

Gotta love Hauerwas's sense of humor!
Gotta love Hauerwas’s sense of humor!

So far so good. Numbers do not matter as much. But they are small insofar as Hauerwas really thinks a lot about the local community and its relationship to the church catholic. For him, a good church is not necessarily a big church. In fact, a church is often big because it “markets” itself in ways that Hauerwas would say entail some kind of betrayal of its core mission to work to embody the Kingdom of God.

Things get a little bit trickier when Troeltsch goes on to say:

Their attitude towards the world, the State, and Society may be indifferent, tolerant, or hostile, since they have no desire to control and incorporate these forms of social life; on the contrary, they tend to avoid them; their aim is usually either to tolerate their presence alongside of their own body, or even to replace these social institutions by their own society.[3]

Hauerwas is definitely not indifferent to “the world, the State, and Society.” Nor is he hostile (though his rhetoric can be at times). It is accurate to say that he is “tolerant” of these institutions. The church for him is a kind of alternative state/society. He describes it as a polis. It is, as noted above, called to be a prolepsis of the Kingdom of God. (I would not necessarily disagree with that point.)

Troeltsch’s definition of “sect” seems broad enough to accommodate Hauerwas quite nicely, but one might argue that it is also too broad. To this, I would say that general categories like Troeltsch’s are, by nature, general. He refers to it as a type, like saying that “Humpback” is a type of whale. One might make the same claim about the “church” type too. Troeltsch is basically saying, “There are two kinds of people in this world…”

The word “sect” can have a negative connotation. It is that connotation that I am worried about. For one, I do not want my reader to misunderstand my critique of Hauerwas, which I do see as a friendly critique. There are things about Hauerwas’s ecclesiology that I think he gets right, in particular his focus on what I call “ecclesial identity.” Nor do I want fans of Hauerwas to be immediately turned off by the term “sect” and not pay attention to anything else I say. Though I am not as much worried about that as I am about how I would open myself up to being accused of making a straw man argument. Saying “sect” is a way of exposing my soft underbelly.  While one cannot be too worried about criticisms readers might make about what one writes, saying “sect” does send a signal that I should not be taken seriously, and I do not want that.

But I may go with the word “sect” anyway. Here is why. For one, I cannot come up with a great alternative to it. I thought about the word “localist,” but I am not sure that gets me much more traction than “sectarian.” Both terms could imply that Hauerwas is indifferent to what happens in the world around him. The word is also pretty darn clumsy. It just “feels” awkward. Furthermore, I wonder if I am not letting the misunderstandings of people drive my argument too much. What I mean is, “sect” can have a fairly benign meaning. Yes, one can say it with a sneer, in much the same way Hauerwas says “liberal” or some people say “Democrat” or “Republican.” The way a physician uses the word “retarded” is going to be different than an eighth grader (or someone with the emotional maturity of one). Broad misuse of a term does not necessarily mean we should avoid it altogether. Then again, sometimes it does. The “N-word” used to mean “lazy person,” but now it has such a negative connotation that I am not even willing to write it. It is all but unmoored from its more “archaic” meaning. Maybe “sect” is the same way. But every time I think about this question, I end up in a long debate with myself. So maybe I should go with my gut. Despite Hauerwas’s intentions, his ecclesiology ends up being sectarian. If he can only hear the word as an insult, then maybe that’s his problem.

Or not?

If you have any alternatives, I am more than happy to listen.



[1] George A. Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age (Louisville: Westerminster John Knox, 1984).

[2] See Stanley Hauerwas, “Will the Real Sectarian Stand up,” Theology Today 44, no. 1 (1987): 94.

[3] Ernst Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (New York: MacMillan, 1931), 330.



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