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  • Denominations as (Theological) Institutions: An Afterword
  • Joseph Webster

When is a church a church? What makes a church a denomination? What makes a denomination an institution? And what constitutes that institution: people, the law, money, divine approval, or something else? In asking questions such as these, Handman, Opas, Hardin, and MacLochlainn usefully address denominational forms as institutions, which has long been a sociological concern—most especially in the work of Goffman (1961)—but has arguably received comparatively little attention within the anthropology of Christianity. Taken together, then, the articles in this collection address not just questions about form and function, but also questions about how the self becomes built into structures that regard rules and norms as an important, even sacred expression of Christian life and truth.

The collective specificity of the ethnographic cases that we have been presented with is hard to miss: Lutheranism in New Guinea, Pentecostalism in Samoa, Methodism in the Philippines, and Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in Amazonia. Importantly, when Catholicism does make an empirical appearance, it is very often described in the context of its largely negative interpretation by non-Catholic (and often anti-Catholic) Christians. As such, it seems fair to begin by asking whether or not these articles address the Anthropology of Christianity, or actually the Anthropology of Protestantism? More than this, are we really talking [End Page 1123] about a specific kind of Protestantism, namely experientially intense Pentecostalism and Evangelicalism? To be clear, this observation need not be read as a critique, at least not as previously formulated by Hann (2007) in relation to what he calls “The Anthropology of Christianity per se.” Instead, the striking denominational (or perhaps, typological) similarity I find in these articles’ ethnographic cases may be read as a strength rather than a weakness.

This seems true insofar as the kind of ethnographic comparison I attempt below is able to proceed on a surer footing, given that some (but certainly not all) of the emic theological assumptions at play appear to be held in common. The tense relationship between Protestant ecclesiology and soteriology, for example, emerges as a trend across all four articles. If anything is to be gained analytically by echoing the concerns of our informants (and I think there is) then we might venture to pose a theological question such as: is religious division the product of the sins of pride, greed, and idolatry, or are such divisions the result of a godly insistence on the singularity of biblical truth? Rephrased anthropologically, we might ask: what are the institutional forms of Protestantism, and what differences do these forms make?

To this end, Courtney Handman’s article examines the colonial and more recent history of Christian mission in PNG, whereby denominational competition is both an empirical reality and an embarrassing and self-contradictory theological problem. Examining the strikingly self-aware commentaries of Lutheran missionary John Kuder, Handman shrewdly points out how denominational difference both matters a great deal and is seen as a product of unspiritual division—a division that is seen to undermine the universal claims of the gospel of salvation. Here, we are confronted with the Lutheran problematic of deciding whether the gospel of salvation is to be framed within denominational specificities or within a pan-Christian attachment to the person and work of Christ. While Kuder would surely want to claim the latter, it seems that the former keeps asserting itself in a context where disagreements with other groups calling themselves Christians forces these missionaries to make sense of who they are and what their message is, but always in relation to what they are not and what their mission is not. Crucial to this is Handman’s equally important observation that all this has a deeply paternalistic tone, namely that the children (that is, the natives) shouldn’t see the parents (that is, the denominationally divided missionaries) fighting. More than this, such a paternalistic desire [End Page 1124] for public unity is further colored by assertions of authority and higher truth claims, whereby “Father definitely knows best.”

But why this shame about denominationalism? My sense is that this emerges from something within the Protestant tradition in the way that truth is imagined to...