The Bipolar Church

So after a week without my computer because the hard drive stopped followed by almost hurricane-force winds in a weekend storm, I was able to start writing on my dissertation agin. (Yea!) I worked myself into a strange spot, but I had fun with it. This TheoThru will then be an excerpt from my in-progress dissertation, The Actors are Come Hither , which explores the relationship between baptism and communion.


The church, in its sacramental practices, is bipolar.

The church is bipolar in sacramental practices because there are two of the practices at the center of public Christian worship around which the rest move. Communion and baptism together provide the dynamic energy for the church’s participation in God’s mission. Baptism brings people into the church, and communion sends the church out into the world. Baptism assures people of their salvation, and communion convicts the church with how much the world needs this good news. Baptism establishes people’s personal relationships with God, and communion establishes God’s communal relationship with the church for the sake of the world. In the midst of this bipolar dynamic, other sacramental practices emerge as moments of public Christian worship.

The church is bipolar in sacramental practices because ecumenical discussions about baptism and communion have divided the church as much as such discussions have helped to bring various denominations together. If baptism and communion are held within a unipolar approach, allowing for only one as the primary sacramental practice, then manic-depressive cycles develop within denominations and in ecumenical dialogue.

Within and Between

Denominations that have a unipolar communion approach often focus on the relationship between God and the world, leading to expressions of Christianity reflecting autolaborological fundamentalism through social justice action—the manic phase. These same denominations also experience depressive phases, when the unipolar communion approach becomes a focus on God’s sacrifice for us in the death of Jesus and how much the individual owes God—most often expressed in monastic movements that emphasize withdraw from the world for the sake of spiritual perfection.

Denominations that have a unipolar baptism approach often focus on moral perfection expressed in the relationship between the individual and God, with a heavy emphasis on choosing Jesus, while they create a congregational ghetto as a safe place for their members to withdraw from the world—the manic phase, and another kind of autolaborological fundamentalism. These denominations experience the depressive phase as individuals question the faith, a questioning that sometimes leads to individuals leaving the congregation, and sometimes the church, entirely.

Ecumenical conversation around sacramental practices also present manic-depressive expressions. The depressive expression is most generally evident in the lack of dialogue about sacramental practices between denominations with different unipolar emphases—an expression of morphological fundamentalism. The manic expression can be found in ecumenical documents of structural agreement where denominations that share a unipolar emphasis strive for some form of structural unity through specific practices—another expression of morphological fundamentalism. This manic expression can also be found in schismatic separations of denominations around claims of not being pure enough in practices—yet another expression of morphological fundamentalism.


All of these manic-depressive cycles show a need for a bipolar approach to sacramental practices around baptism and communion, which can help counter both parts of the cycle. A focus on baptism makes room for practices that attend to the relationship between God and the person, while a focus on communion makes room for practices that attend to the relationship between the person and the world because of God. Moving back and forth between these two sacramental practices can help denominations stave off the tendency toward autolaborological fundamentalism within the denomination and morphological fundamentalism in ecumenical conversations.