Friday, October 22, 2010

Bridging the Divide?

A generation ago, Protestantism could be roughly divided into two groups, theologically speaking:
  • Evangelicals. For evangelicals (who would rarely self-identify as "Protestant"), Christianity can be boiled down to the Bible and the Spirit-filled individual.  Everyone who accepts Jesus as Savior is filled with the Holy Spirit and is empowered to interpret the Bible according to its plain meaning and their own conscience. (You begin to see why there are so many varieties of Baptists and Pentecostals...)
  • Historic Protestants.  For historic Protestants, Christianity can be boiled down to the Bible and Spirit-filled tradition.  Everyone who accepts Jesus as Savior is filled with the Holy Spirit and is empowered to interpret the Bible within the boundaries of historic Christianity as expressed in the great creeds and catechisms of the Church (though the specific catechisms may vary by denomination). 
Like any generalization - especially of a complex thing like religion - there are exceptions to this classification.  But for the most part, this division held true, with ecumenical dialogue and cooperation mainly occurring within each group's respective circle of like-minded Christians.

Historic Protestants were generally part of the World Council of Churches and also members of their own "confessional family" like the Anglican Communion, Lutheran World Federation, World Methodist Council, and World Communion of Reformed Churches.  While some visible church unions did occur, historic Protestants tended to cooperate on social justice issues.

Evangelicals, who had rejected membership in the World Council of Churches, organized their own ecumenical confederations like the World Evangelical Alliance and Pentecostal World Fellowship - aimed not at visible church unions or social justice, but cooperation in missions and evangelism.

Now, however, I believe we are witnessing the blurring of these former lines of ecumenical cooperation.  This is the "realignment" of American religion around human sexuality that is erasing the middle ground that historic Protestants used to occupy in the United States.  For example, you now have Lutherans and Anglicans who identify more with evangelicals and Catholics than with fellow historic Protestants who happen to support the ordination of LGBT persons.  This realignment threatens to dismember the former unity over what it means to be "Anglican" or "Lutheran" in favor of a more individualistic interpretation of what "I think" the Bible teaches about human sexuality.

Still, there are voices that are reaching across this new divide as well as the old one.  It just so happens that two of the most compelling ecumenical Protestant voices are Lutherans.

According to an article by the Christian Post, Bishop Mark S. Hanson, president of the Lutheran World Federation and presiding bishop of the ELCA, recently "encouraged Christians to begin the conversation by identifying what they have in common – such as 'we are all sexual beings' – rather than from a position of judgment.  He expressed concerns over emerging conversations in some Lutheran churches about what it means to be truly Lutheran.  'I sense that there is a growing desire on the part of some to look at our rich, shared confessions not as a reason for conversation about how we can live in that confessional tradition, but rather as a way of determining who is truly Lutheran and who is not,' he said, noting that he desires to see full unity among Lutherans themselves. 'That would be an unfortunate breakdown.'  Hanson called for not only affirming the theological and confessional foundations they share as Lutherans, but also for renewing a commitment 'that to be Lutheran is to be both evangelical and ecumenical.'"

Meanwhile, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, a Norwegian Lutheran and general secretary of the World Council of Churches, has concentrated much of his efforts on reaching out to evangelicals and Pentecostals.  Rev. Tveit gave the first ever addresses by a WCC general secretary at the assemblies of the World Pentecostal Alliance and the ongoing Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization in Cape Town, which, according to the Christian Century, originated as "an evangelical counterpart to the ecumenical WCC."
In his address on opening day, Rev. Tveit stressed the need for evangelicals and historic Protestants to learn from each other in order to participate together in God's mission.  "We are called to be one, to be reconciled, so that the world may believe that God reconciles the world to himself in Christ."  "Hinting at a history of wariness be­tween evangelicals, Pentecostals, and the World Council of Churches, he said that 'the distance between Lausanne and Geneva is not very far, and it should not be. Let us keep the road open and the dialogue going.'"  

What do you think?  Can the old divide between evangelicals and historic Protestants be bridged?  Can the unfolding divide over human sexuality be prevented?

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Lutherans and the Vanishing Middle Ground

Lutherans in the Middle
 Lutheranism has long represented the middle ground in American Christianity.  Although initially viewed as outside the mainstream of English-speaking Protestantism, German and Scandinavian Lutherans came to join the ranks of other mainline Protestants - especially in the Midwest or the "American Heartland."

Today, when people think of Lutherans, many think of Garrison Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" and the bland residents of the fictional Lake Wobegon, "the little town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve ... where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average."  Like their Methodist and Presbyterian cousins, Lutherans are not likely to wear their religion on their sleeves and therefore lack the chutzpah of the megachurches and Pentecostals on their right or the United Church of Christ and Episcopalians on their left.  In other words, Lutherans are "nice" but not especially interesting - which has positioned them solidly in the middle ground of American religious life.

Perhaps because of their place in the middle, the Lutherans have done the best job of any Protestant denomination at working for Christian unity.  When efforts at creating a visibly united Protestant church in America fell through in the late twentieth century, the Lutherans forged ahead with talks aimed at "full communion" - a common confession of the Christian faith and mutual recognition of baptism, ministry, and sharing of the Lord's Supper.   Remarkably, the largest Lutheran church in the country with 4.7 million members, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), has reached full communion agreements with the following churches:
  • Three Reformed churches in 1997: the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ (formerly the Congregationalists or the "Puritans"), and the Reformed Church in America (Dutch Reformed roots)
  • The Episcopal Church and the Moravian Church (German Pietists) in 1999
  • The United Methodist Church in 2009

The Vanishing Middle?
Then, last August, the Lutherans (ELCA) shocked Christians around the world at their general assembly by voting to ordain openly gay people in "life-long, monogamous relationships."  What's more, this was not a frivolous, emotional decision - but a conclusion reached after eight years of study and deliberation over the theological issues surrounding human sexuality (a very "Lutheran" way to go about things).  Suddenly, the plain old "Lake Wobegon" Lutherans were receiving international attention as the largest church in the world to officially approve the ordination of homosexuals.

Richard Mouw, president of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary, noted that the ELCA's decision was especially "jarring and significant" because "it is viewed as one of the more Reformation-rooted, broadly orthodox denominations and takes its theology's a huge, huge departure for a church like that."  He went on to predict a "new ecumenical dialogue on the right" uniting conservatives opposed to homosexual ordination from across denominations.

Meanwhile, ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson issued a sincere Rowan Williams-esque plea for unity and conversation, stressing that conservative churches would not be compelled to hire gay clergy and imploring Lutherans not to "walk away" from one another.  But those who support the ELCA's decision like Barbara Wheeler, former president of Auburn Theological Seminary, were quick to point out that "if gays and lesbians could stick it out in mainline churches whose official teachings were dismissive of their faithfulness and even their personhood, so can disappointed of the mainline's strengths is to be a 'big tent.'"

It appears, however, that the tent may have stretched to the breaking point.  Only months after the ELCA's decision, conservative members announced a "reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism" and they were splitting to form their own new denomination - the North American Lutheran Church.  "We are not leaving the ELCA.  The ELCA has left us," said one member of the committee to form the new church.  Interestingly, the breakaway ELCA Lutherans decided not to merge with other conservative denominations like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod because those churches do not ordain women. 

Now that two major "mainstream" Protestant churches have split, it seems clear that we are witnessing Christian unity in America being "reconfigured" between those who are in favor of ordination of homosexuals and those who are not.  The middle ground that the Lutherans and other mainline Protestants used to occupy in American religious life has vanished.  In a new and increasingly polarized Protestantism, what will Christian unity look like?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Can a Protestant wear a Crucifix?

The cross is the central symbol of Christianity around the world.  And yet, we Christians are divided on what exactly our crosses look like.  Some, like the Orthodox, have extra lines running through the cross.  Many Reformed Christians favor the Celtic cross, with a circle running around the center of the cross section.  And I can always spot a United Methodist church when driving along the highway by their signature cross and flame.

But the most noticeable difference among Christians when it comes to the cross is whether or not it has the body of Jesus hanging on it.  For most people (at least in this country), the empty cross is Protestant.  The crucifix is Catholic.  Derek Kubilus, a Methodist minister in Ohio and a friend from divinity school, offers his own personal perspective on why Protestants can embrace the "Catholic" crucifix as an important way to "remember the body."

Ephesians 4:4- “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

I can't remember one day in my life when my body did not feel pain. Having been born with an orthopedic problem in my foot, I've awakened every morning of my life with stiffness and pain shooting from my right ankle. Sometimes it gets better throughout the day; sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes my limp is barely noticeable; sometimes I have to walk with a cane just to keep from falling over. So even as a young child, I remember wondering why God would allow me, supposedly one of God's beloved children, to feel so much pain.

Now I've been a Methodist all my life, and I'm well aware that Methodists typically hang only empty crosses from their necks and the walls of their churches. Most people will tell you that it's because the empty cross is a symbol of the empty tomb, that it's a symbol that represents the resurrection of Christ, and not just his crucifixion. All that may very well be true, but I'm not sure it's the whole story.

There's something creepy and morbid about a crucifix isn't there? I mean, who would wear a piece of jewelery shaped like a body dying in agony? Who would hang a beat-up, bleeding man from their wall? What kind of sick person could take inspiration from such a gruesome scene?

Well...I do. Being someone who's body has been wracked with pain, I take comfort in remembering that Christ had a body. I wear a crucifix under my shirt and over my robe because it's important for me to remember that Christ didn't have a body that was above pain, but that his body was just as capable of hurting and bleeding as my own. The crucifix helps me remember that I'm connected to Christ not just through the “one Spirit” but also through my very body. The miracle of Christ, the miracle of God's incarnation in a human body is that the same God who is “above all” is also “in all and through all,” even my own weak, hurting body.

The crucifix also tells me that bodies matter to God, that things like hunger, homelessness, and disease are important to God. Seeing the body of Christ helps to remind me of the suffering bodies of those all around us in the Akron and Cuyahoga Falls communities: those whose bodies are cold because they aren't covered with proper clothes or shelter, those whose bodies are starved with hunger, those whose bodies are addicted to chemicals that are slowly destroying them. Seeing the body of Christ hanging there, suffering, draws me closer to all those who suffer and it encourages me to see Jesus in their struggles, for “that which you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.”

Finally, the crucifix reminds me that the Church, the Body of Christ still on earth, is called to suffer. Living in our comfortable, wealthy society, it is perfectly acceptable for us to go through our whole lives and only work for the comfort ourselves and our individual families. But the suffering body hanging on the cross so close against my skin reminds me that I'm part of a community that has been called to “bear its cross,” a community which has been called to leave behind comfort, safety, and warm-fuzzy feelings for the sake of God's mission of salvation in the world. It helps me remember that that the world is fallen and that if we are to join Christ in his ministry to transform the world, then we must be willing to sacrifice something of ourselves.

So the next time you see my crucifix hanging from my neck, don't worry, I haven't become Roman Catholic. Just take a second to remember the Body and the suffering God it belongs to.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rome and Canterbury on Christian Unity

Two weeks ago, the pope stepped into Westminster Abbey.  Pope Benedict XVI joined the spiritual head of the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, along with representatives from all other major Christian groups in Great Britain for a service of evening prayer.  As Father Raymond J. de Souza put it, "sometimes words are inadequate to the moment, and this moment, carrying in itself nearly a thousand years of history, brought an abiding and expectant silence to Westminster Hall as Britain's political establishment waited for Pope Benedict XVI at the site where St. Thomas More and other martyrs were condemned to death for their Catholic faith."

At such a gathering, how could ecumenism be ignored?  In their addresses, both Benedict and Williams focused on Christian unity, revealing how each approaches questions surrounding the challenges of ecumenism in the 21st century.  At the suggestion of a close friend and future Episcopal priest, Joshua Caler, I share their reflections now with you in their own words.

Pope Benedict XVI:
Dear friends in Christ,

I thank the Lord for this opportunity to join you, the representatives of the Christian confessions present in Great Britain, in this magnificent Abbey Church dedicated to Saint Peter, whose architecture and history speak so eloquently of our common heritage of faith. Here we cannot help but be reminded of how greatly the Christian faith shaped the unity and culture of Europe and the heart and spirit of the English people. Here too, we are forcibly reminded that what we share, in Christ, is greater than what continues to divide us.

I am grateful to His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury for his kind greeting, and to the Dean and Chapter of this venerable Abbey for their cordial welcome. I thank the Lord for allowing me, as the Successor of Saint Peter in the See of Rome, to make this pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor. Edward, King of England, remains a model of Christian witness and an example of that true grandeur to which the Lord summons his disciples in the Scriptures we have just heard: the grandeur of a humility and obedience grounded in Christ’s own example (cf. Phil 2:6-8), the grandeur of a fidelity which does not hesitate to embrace the mystery of the Cross out of undying love for the divine Master and unfailing hope in his promises (cf. Mk 10:43-44).

This year, as we know, marks the hundredth anniversary of the modern ecumenical movement, which began with the Edinburgh Conference’s appeal for Christian unity as the prerequisite for a credible and convincing witness to the Gospel in our time. In commemorating this anniversary, we must give thanks for the remarkable progress made towards this noble goal through the efforts of committed Christians of every denomination. At the same time, however, we remain conscious of how much yet remains to be done. In a world marked by growing interdependence and solidarity, we are challenged to proclaim with renewed conviction the reality of our reconciliation and liberation in Christ, and to propose the truth of the Gospel as the key to an authentic and integral human development. In a society which has become increasingly indifferent or even hostile to the Christian message, we are all the more compelled to give a joyful and convincing account of the hope that is within us (cf. 1 Pet 3:15), and to present the Risen Lord as the response to the deepest questions and spiritual aspirations of the men and women of our time.

As we processed to the chancel at the beginning of this service, the choir sang that Christ is our “sure foundation”. He is the Eternal Son of God, of one substance with the Father, who took flesh, as the Creed states, “for us men and for our salvation”. He alone has the words of everlasting life. In him, as the Apostle teaches, “all things hold together” … “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:17,19).

Our commitment to Christian unity is born of nothing less than our faith in Christ, in this Christ, risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. It is the reality of Christ’s person, his saving work and above all the historical fact of his resurrection, which is the content of the apostolic kerygma and those credal formulas which, beginning in the New Testament itself, have guaranteed the integrity of its transmission. The Church’s unity, in a word, can never be other than a unity in the apostolic faith, in the faith entrusted to each new member of the Body of Christ during the rite of Baptism. It is this faith which unites us to the Lord, makes us sharers in his Holy Spirit, and thus, even now, sharers in the life of the Blessed Trinity, the model of the Church’s koinonia here below.

Dear friends, we are all aware of the challenges, the blessings, the disappointments and the signs of hope which have marked our ecumenical journey. Tonight we entrust all of these to the Lord, confident in his providence and the power of his grace. We know that the friendships we have forged, the dialogue which we have begun and the hope which guides us will provide strength and direction as we persevere on our common journey. At the same time, with evangelical realism, we must also recognize the challenges which confront us, not only along the path of Christian unity, but also in our task of proclaiming Christ in our day. Fidelity to the word of God, precisely because it is a true word, demands of us an obedience which leads us together to a deeper understanding of the Lord’s will, an obedience which must be free of intellectual conformism or facile accommodation to the spirit of the age. This is the word of encouragement which I wish to leave with you this evening, and I do so in fidelity to my ministry as the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Saint Peter, charged with a particular care for the unity of Christ’s flock.

Gathered in this ancient monastic church, we can recall the example of a great Englishman and churchman whom we honour in common: Saint Bede the Venerable. At the dawn of a new age in the life of society and of the Church, Bede understood both the importance of fidelity to the word of God as transmitted by the apostolic tradition, and the need for creative openness to new developments and to the demands of a sound implantation of the Gospel in contemporary language and culture.

This nation, and the Europe which Bede and his contemporaries helped to build, once again stands at the threshold of a new age. May Saint Bede’s example inspire the Christians of these lands to rediscover their shared legacy, to strengthen what they have in common, and to continue their efforts to grow in friendship. May the Risen Lord strengthen our efforts to mend the ruptures of the past and to meet the challenges of the present with hope in the future which, in his providence, he holds out to us and to our world. Amen.

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:
Your Holiness, Members of the Collegiate Body, distinguished guests, brothers and sisters in Christ:

Christians in Britain, especially in England, look back with the most fervent gratitude to the events of 597, when Augustine landed on these shores to preach the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons at the behest of Pope St Gregory the Great.  For Christians of all traditions and confessions, St Gregory is a figure of compelling attractiveness and spiritual authority – pastor and leader, scholar and exegete and spiritual guide.  The fact that the first preaching of the Gospel to the English peoples in the sixth and seventh centuries has its origins in his vision creates a special connection for us with the See of the Apostles Peter and Paul;  and Gregory's witness and legacy remain an immensely fruitful source of inspiration for our own mission in these dramatically different times.  Two dimensions of that vision may be of special importance as we reflect today on the significance of Your Holiness's visit to us.

St Gregory was the first to spell out for the faithful something of the magnitude of the gift given to Christ's Church through the life of St Benedict – to whom you, Your Holiness, have signalled your devotion in the choice of your name as Pope.  In St Gregory's Dialogues, we can trace the impact of St Benedict – an extraordinary man who, through a relatively brief Rule of life, opened up for the whole civilisation of Europe since the sixth century the possibility of living in joy and mutual service, in simplicity and self-denial, in a balanced pattern of labour and prayer in which every moment spoke of human dignity fully realised in surrender to a loving God. The Benedictine life proved a sure foundation not only for generations of monks and nuns, but for an entire culture in which productive work and contemplative silence and receptivity—human dignity and human freedom—were both honoured.

Our own culture, a culture in which so often it seems that 'love has grown cold', is one in which we can see the dehumanising effects of losing sight of Benedict's vision.  Work is so often an anxious and obsessive matter, as if our whole value as human beings depended upon it; and so, consequently, unemployment, still a scourge and a threat in these uncertain financial times, comes to seem like a loss of dignity and meaning in life.  We live in an age where there is a desperate need to recover the sense of the dignity of both labour and leisure and the necessity of a silent openness to God that allows our true character to grow and flourish by participating in an eternal love.

In a series of profound and eloquent encyclicals, you have explored these themes for our day, grounding everything in the eternal love of the Holy Trinity, challenging us to hope both for this world and the next, and analysing the ways in which our economic habits have trapped us in a reductive and unworthy style of human living.  In this building with its long Benedictine legacy, we acknowledge with gratitude your contribution to a Benedictine vision for our days, and pray that your time with us in Britain may help us all towards a renewal of the hope and energy we need as Christians to witness to our conviction that in their relation to God men and women may grow into the fullest freedom and beauty of spirit.

And in this, we are recalled also to the importance among the titles of the Bishops of Rome of St Gregory's own self-designation as 'servant of the servants of God' – surely the one title that points most directly to the example of the Lord who has called us. There is, we know, no authority in the Church that is not the authority of service:  that is, of building up the people of God to full maturity.  Christ's service is simply the way in which we meet his almighty power: the power to remake the world he has created, pouring out into our lives, individually and together, what we truly need in order to become fully what we are made to be – the image of the divine life.  It is that image which the pastor in the Church seeks to serve, bowing down in reverence before each human person in the knowledge of the glory for which he or she was made.

Christians have very diverse views about the nature of the vocation that belongs to the See of Rome.  Yet, as Your Holiness's great predecessor reminded us all in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint, we must learn to reflect together on how the historic ministry of the Roman Church and its chief pastor may speak to the Church catholic—East and West, global north and global south—of the authority of Christ and his apostles to build up the Body in love; how it may be realized as a ministry of patience and reverence towards all, a ministry of creative love and self-giving that leads us all into the same path of seeking not our own comfort or profit but the good of the entire human community and the glory of God the creator and redeemer.

We pray that your time with us will be a further step for all of us into the mystery of the cross and the resurrection, so that growing together we may become more effective channels for God's purpose to heal the wounds of humankind, and to restore once again both in our societies and our environment the likeness of his glory as revealed in the face of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Exciting News!

I apologize for the lack of updates over the past couple months. I think that I am finally adjusting into my new schedule as a pastor serving in my first appointment. As I have told many of you, there is nothing I would rather be doing every day...and I still can't believe I'm getting paid to love people!

Despite this blog silence, all has not stayed completely quiet on the ecumenical front. A couple months back, I decided to enter an essay contest for the National Council of Churches entitled: "Moving Forward Together: Visions of Young American Ecumenists." Approximately 10 essays were selected to appear in an anthology to be presented at the National Council of Churches Ecumenical Centennial Gathering in November - and then are intended to be published.

Drawing in part from my posts on this site, I wrote on the topic of unity -- and my essay was selected! I titled my essay "The Scandal of Main Street Steeples: Imagining Christian Unity in Postmodern America."

Also, over the next couple months, I'm going to start blogging again, this time addressing some of the more current ecumenical news concerning the various major Christian traditions. Check back often and be sure to keep the conversation going!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Beyond Denominations?

Over the past twenty years, a remarkable shift has taken place in American religion. While most of the large Christian denominations in the US went into decline, "nondenominational" Christianity - typified by megachurches like Lakewood, Saddleback, and Willow Creek - experienced an explosion of growth. Nondenominational churches grew from less than 200,000 adherents in 1990 to over 8,000,000 today. When grouped together with those who identify only as "Christian" or as "Evangelical", this group comprises 11.8% of the US population.

Part of the success of nondenominational churches has been their ability to harness the shifting winds toward postmodernism in American society. In a culture that chafes at authority, tradition, and establishment, any sign of "your grandmother's church" has to go. In the place of stained glass, hymns, pews, and robes, nondenominational congregations have embraced nondescript buildings, rock music, theater seating, and jeans in an effort to attract religious "seekers". Instead of conforming to the catechisms and creeds of a single dominant tradition like "Calvinism" or "Lutheranism" - nondenominational churches provide individuals who are frustrated with denominational divisions with the freedom to draw from a variety of Christian beliefs and practices.

In spite of their disillusionment with Christian denominationalism, these independent congregations see no reason to insist on visible unity. A national or worldwide structure over all the churches conflicts with a postmodern vision of the Church as a decentralized network of Spirit-led and Bible-listening believers.

So, then, is the nondenominational movement the answer to the scandal of denominations? Are we moving into a new age of post-denominational unity? While the culture may be moving toward a “post-denominational” future, I believe that denominations continue to have an important role to play in the quest for Christian unity.

First off, they confront the reality that the Christian Church is sadly but visibly divided. I am glad that so many Christians are eager to move past our denominational divisions – but if all local congregations drop their denominational labels and become “Grace Church” or “Bible Church,” this division does not go away – in fact, it is amplified (from 10 denominations to 1000 congregations)! Without a common history and tradition, people tend to create their own personal version of Christianity (or their pastor's version) – and any overarching unity that exists seems to resemble the surrounding culture more than Christianity.

Denominations provide a history, a language, a tradition in which to live out the Christian faith. Each denomination brings its own gifts to the larger body of Christ. In order for the Church to truly move toward a visible undivided (nondenominational) church, we must first listen to “the grace given to you in Christ” in our brothers and sisters who are committed to different traditions from our own. Then, we can struggle together to find creative ways of building common ground while remaining faithful to our own own tradition. This is difficult ecumenical work, but I believe it is the best way to take each of our denominations beautiful and unique voices and blend them into a unified, harmonious chorus.

Lastly, while postmodernism includes many positive developments - including the humility that is essential for Christian unity - more and more people are feeling adrift, isolated, and disconnected. It’s hard to devote your life to something when all truth is relative, when everything is ultimately meaningless. This is why I know many friends my age who are finding peace and rest in the Catholic and Orthodox churches, which claim historical apostolic authority. In my own experience, I feel deeply committed to my own Methodist tradition – and yet still realize that my denomination is only one small part of the Christian Church and that we are called to “be one".

The way to work toward healing the divisions of the Reformation (and beyond) is by understanding and appreciating the differences of the denominational traditions – not pretending they do not exist.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

There Already is One Church (It's Mine)

Growing up a fundamentalist Baptist, I was taught that ecumenism is a bad thing - that it threatened to water down the truth by uniting with false teaching. The roots of this conviction hail back to the beginning of the 20th century, when conservative Christians who were alarmed at rising modernistic trends in the churches (e.g., Darwinism, higher criticism, denial of the miraculous) reaffirmed traditional Protestant theology by staking out certain "fundamental" tenants of the Christian faith. These fundamentals included the inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth and resurrection of Christ, and atonement for sin through Christ's death on the cross.

As the century progressed, this original fundamentalist movement split into those who remained engaged in the world (present-day "evangelicals") and those who withdrew from the world in an effort to maintain purity (present-day "fundamentalists"). Within the second group, the list of fundamentals expanded beyond the initial understanding of what you believe to include things like what kind of Christian music you listen to, what Bible translation you read, and what clothes you wear. Furthermore, many fundamentalists began advocating what they called "secondary separation" - meaning that churches should not only separate from those they disagreed with, but also from like-minded Christians who had not adequately separated from those they disagreed with. As a result, for these fundamentalist Protestants, the "true Church" ended up consisting of their own local congregations (and perhaps a handful of other people who happened to agree with them on everything).

Key to understanding this fundamentalist separatist impulse is the connection between "the inspiration of Scripture" and "my church's interpretation of Scripture." Thus, other Christians could affirm the entire Nicene and Apostles' Creeds and still be labeled "apostate" because of their method of baptism or preferred Bible translation. In such an atmosphere, ecumenism is next to impossible because there are few to no other Christians left to unite with! In order to achieve true unity, fundamentalists insist that all other Christians must assimilate to the entirety of their congregation's particular interpretation of Scripture.

Although I have focused on fundamentalist Protestants, this model of Christian unity is held by most of the world's Catholic and Orthodox Christians as well. The list of non-negotiable "fundamentals" required for Christian unity is merely substituted for another. Pope Benedict caused a media firestorm in 2007 when he re-released a statement clarifying that Protestants cannot be true churches (in the proper sense) because they lack apostolic succession - ordination at the hands of bishops who are in unbroken unity with the first apostles of Jesus (see: Because of this defect, Protestant pastors lack valid ordination and therefore cannot perform valid sacraments. In order to achieve true unity, all other Christians must submit to the apostolic authority of the pope and accept re-ordination at the hands of Catholic bishops (which, at least at this point, would include assimilating to the entirety of Catholic doctrine). Similarly, the Orthodox insist on re-ordination at the hands of their bishops and complete submission to their doctrinal tradition.

Most Catholics and fundamentalist Protestants will concede that people can be true Christians even if they are outside the true Church. In the Vatican II document Unitatis Redintegratio, the Catholic Church clarified that those “who believe in Christ and have been rightly baptized” exist “in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Catholic Church” where their “sacred Christian rites...can truly engender a life of grace and give access to the communion of salvation.” Additionally, these communities have “by no means been deprived of meaning and importance in the mystery of salvation,” for “the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church.” In other words, there is sufficient overlap with the doctrine of the "one true Church" (be it Catholic or fundamentalist Protestant) to acknowledge that those in other communities can be "Christian" or "saved." However, more is needed - full doctrinal assimilation - in order to achieve Christian unity. In the meantime, there remains one true Church along with many Christians who have not yet fully assimilated to the truth of what it means to be the "Church."

Positively, this approach to Christian unity refuses to be satisfied with a cheap unity that waters down important doctrinal differences. However, if our differences are not essential to what it means to be "Christian," then why should they be essential to what it means to be united as "Church"? After all, to be baptized into Christ is to be a member of Christ's body, the Church. The picture that emerges from the assimilation model is a divided, disfigured Body of Christ - the true Church - with sundry lopped off parts of Christ's Body lying on the ground (Christians, perhaps, but not fully united to the Church). Ironically, such a gory image should provide the needed impetus for Christian unity that other models have failed to achieve.

Catholics, fundamentalists - what are your thoughts? Admittedly, this post is tainted by my own biases as a mainline Protestant. What would you offer as correctives to my analysis? How might you imagine a way forward that is faithful to your understanding of what it means to be Church?

Monday, May 10, 2010

A United Church of America?

The model for Christian unity that has been the most successful over the past century has been the "lowest common denominator" or the "Uniting church" movement.

Interestingly enough, the Uniting church movement has its roots in Christian evangelism. On the mission field, European/American distinctions between "Presbyterian" and "Baptist" seemed silly. Why impose the centuries-old wounds of the European church on a fledgling church in southern Africa?

So, in 1910, missionaries from across the globe converged in Edinburgh, Scotland for a Conference of World Mission and Evangelism. The chairman of the conference called for the "evangelism of the world in this generation" under the ecumenical motto taken from Jesus' prayer "that they may be one." Springing from this 1910 conference in Edinburgh, a growing consensus of missionaries viewed Christian divisions as the single greatest barrier to the spread of the Gospel.

This evangelical call to ecumenism led to the fusion of two or more churches across the world, many times from different confessional families. In these mergers, the uniting churches shed their denominational labels and joined together around a set of agreed upon doctrines. Typically, these unions involved Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists - most notably in Canada (1925), Thailand (1934), the Philippines (1948), Zambia (1965), and Australia (1977). Even more significantly, church unions in India included Anglicans - and thus episcopal structures of governance - first in the South (1947) and then in the North (1970). The Church of North India is the most comprehensive uniting church in the world - including Anglicans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Disciples of Christ, Methodists, Brethren, Presbyterians, and some Pentecostals.

If it could happen in India, why not America? Similar efforts aimed at full unity between Protestants in the US were made, but broke down for the following reasons:

1) Bishops: In both England and America, Presbyterians were reluctant to accept the need for bishops. Anglicans, for their part, insisted on the need for bishops, with some even calling for the re-ordination of pastors from non-episcopal traditions - a deal breaker for most Presbyterians and Methodists.

2) Bureaucracy: Especially in America, where the churches are still relatively large with thousands of congregations and millions of members, many feared that a united Protestant denomination with an accompanying bureaucracy would drag down the mission of local churches.

3) Shifting Emphasis: By the 1960s, the emphasis of an older generation of Protestant missionaries on Christian doctrine and Christian unity shifted as a younger generation focused more on political issues and unity between different religions. As a result, efforts at Christian unity have lost their sense of evangelical urgency, especially in the World Council of Churches.

4) Vatican II: Also in the 1960s, following the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church committed itself to full ecumenical dialogue with other Christians. Given the sheer size and historical self understanding of the Catholic Church, it did not make sense for them to become a member of a federation like the World Council of Churches. Instead, they began talks with other "world confessional families" - with Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Reformed. So, the conversation has shifted from unity between different Protestants to unity between Catholics and Protestant "families" (which has so far yielded few visible results).

5) Decline: In places where the church did manage to visibly unite, church unions often set off a period of steep membership decline. The United Church of Canada - one of the earliest uniting churches bringing together Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists - went from representing 6% of Canadians with over a million members in 1965 to representing less than 2% of the population with less than 600,000 members. At its current rate of decline, the United Church of Canada will cease to exist in the next twenty years. This has caused great alarm among potentially uniting churches in the United States (although they themselves are already declining), who warn that a watered down identity leads to a less compelling witness.

For all these reasons, the Uniting church movement has stagnated in the twenty-first century. Sadly, those churches that did manage to unite seem destined to be regarded as anomalies within Christianity - as simply one more denomination among many instead being part of a movement sweeping toward one visibly united Church.

What are your thoughts? Could the Uniting church movement be revived - or modified - for Protestants in our present context? Or was it hopelessly flawed from the outset?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Which Way Forward?

Over the past month or so, I have tried to express theologically why the movement toward full, visible unity is imperative for the Christian, and particularly for the Protestant. We cannot claim to worship a God who embraces the physical and remain satisfied with the spiritual. We cannot expect the world to believe in God's reconciliation if we are content to remain unreconciled to our sisters and brothers.

In spite of common blood and name, the Church is like a feuding family that is unwilling to forgive or forget, paralyzed by its past and unable to embrace a future together.

Now, I was a history major, so I'll be the first to say that the past matters. Some of the Church's divisions were born out of good reasons, perhaps even necessity. Most Catholics today will concede that Luther raised some valid grievances - points that were later addressed in the Council of Trent - but that the Church would have done well to keep him within the fold instead of forcing him out. My own tradition, though originally a renewal movement, was institutionalized when English bishops vindictively refused to ordain and send priests to American Methodists hungry for the sacraments. Today, many Anglicans and Methodists recognize this split as regrettable and steps have been taken - most strikingly in India - to restore their broken unity.

For those of us who "share in one Spirit," might we trust that God's grace is greater than our brokenness and imagine the original reasons for our schism (whether valid or invalid) being swallowed up by love and reconciliation in the present? Might we envision a reunited family, the past forgotten and a common identity embraced?

OK, you might be thinking, but what would this family reunion look like? What is the way forward?

First of all, it requires everyone to come to the table for conversation - even the uncle that you hate. The first step toward unity is the ability to listen in humility, to hear what someone else is saying. This, of course, doesn't mean you will necessarily agree with them, but there can be no possibility of reconciliation if the differing parties don't even know each other.

This is the great achievement of 20th century ecumenism - somehow, they were able to bring Christians from all stripes into the same room where they could get to know each other. In this room, many stereotypes and semantics were ironed out. Not all Catholics think they can save themselves! Not all Protestants think good works don't matter! Particular differences were clarified - but it became much harder to dismiss entire traditions when you looked in someone's eyes and saw the spirit of Jesus there.

In the wake of these conversations, three main strategies for unity have emerged among Christians:

1) Lowest Common Denominator - what are the things we hold in common? This "core" becomes the basis for unity and all other differences are either thrown out completely or judged to be non-essentials. This has been the approach adopted by "uniting" church movements among Protestants in Canada, Australia, India, and some other parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

2) Assimilation - one church is right (or the closest to right) and the rest are wrong or misguided (at least in regard to the things that keep them separate). All of the "wrong churches" must conform to the beliefs of the "right church", thus restoring unity. This has been the approach adopted by most Catholics, Orthodox, and various fundamentalist Protestant groups.

3) Non-denominational - local assemblies of believers are united by their common faith. This group agrees with #1 that there is a "core" that all Christians hold in common, but rejects the need for a single overarching structure in favor of a federation of local, independent churches. This approach is rapidly gaining prominence among young, postmodern Protestants in the United States.

In the next three weeks, I'll address each one of these options in more detail. Obviously, none of these models has yet led to full, visible unity among the churches, which is why I'll then offer my own vision for what a Christian family reunion might look like in the future.

The way forward seems uncertain. How might you imagine a reunited Christian family?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Disunity on Display

It was a beautiful, late summer morning, and I was driving a car full of groomsmen to my old roommate’s wedding ceremony. As we meandered through the tranquil countryside of upstate New York on the way to the church, the conversation turned to religion. The best man, sitting next to me in the passenger seat, asked about my studies in divinity school and we began talking about the differences between various Christian denominations. About halfway through our discussion, we followed Route 21 into the tiny village of Palmyra. There, at the intersection of Main and Canandaigua Streets, our eyes could not help but drift up to notice four soaring church spires that pierced the sky. On each corner of the intersection stood a different church – Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopal. The best man, who attended a suburban nondenominational congregation, remarked how he had never really thought about Christian disunity until he saw it dramatically displayed on that street corner.

That moment remains etched in my mind whenever I consider the importance of Christian ecumenism. As it turns out, another young man – Joseph Smith – was troubled by that very same intersection over a hundred years earlier. Born and raised in Palmyra, Smith’s frustration with the competing denominations in town contributed to his disillusionment with traditional Christianity. Thus the scandal of Christian division – embodied on a remote corner in New York – gave birth to the new religious movement of Mormonism.

What about you? Do you worship across the street from another church? What keeps us divided? How does our disunity effect our credibility or "witness" to the world?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Is Unity Realistic?

My good friend Derek recently made the comment on Facebook regarding the blog phenomenon in general: "your blog: nobody cares." In spite of the irony of his criticism being posted on a public forum, I think he has a point. A blog that seeks to address large, important questions - but that nobody reads - may be therapeutic for the writer, but in the end is kind of, well, pathetic.

That being said, I want to thank those of you who have been offering feedback and asking questions. While I am grateful for the chance to organize my thoughts on this subject and be able to refer back to them, my main purpose in writing is to encourage conversation and dialogue on the subject. So keep your comments coming! I will continue to develop my posts in ways that correspond with your questions/interests (you can also check out two polls listed on the right side of the page to help me with this).

In the past two posts, I have sought to convey why I think unity is essential to the Christian gospel (incarnation, reconciliation, evangelism) and therefore to the Christian understanding of "Church". For Protestants in particular, who are responsible for much of the Church's current visible disunity, ambivalence toward division is inexcusable. While most seem willing to acknowledge that unity is important for the Church's integrity (at least in theory), three very important questions are commonly raised.

1) Given the current state of the Church, is unity even realistic?
2) If we are to strive after unity, how might we envision a way forward?
3) What qualifies as "essential" versus "opinion" for Christians who seek to be united?

Obviously, these three questions are interrelated. In future posts, I'll be focusing almost exclusively on the second and third questions. But in this post, I want to briefly address the first question: is Christian unity realistic?

For me, the answer to this question is deeply embedded in the Christian understanding of how we, as human beings, are reconciled to God. Led by the Holy Spirit, Christians should seek to be reconciled to each other in the same way that we have been reconciled to God (see 2 Corinthians 5). In Christian theological lingo, this involves two important steps: justification and sanctification.

JUSTIFICATION: For Christians, the biblical story of God’s redemption of humanity reaches its climax in the cross of Christ. Through Christ’s atoning work on the cross, humanity is justified before God and able to enter into a restored relationship of love by faith. Yet despite their status as justified sinners by the grace of God, Christians continue to wrestle with the ever-present reality of sin until Christ returns in final victory. The Christian, then, is simultaneously sinner and saint.

Lesslie Newbigin, a bishop in the Church of South India and a leading 20th century evangelist and ecumenist, contends that the doctrine of justification by faith through grace provides the theological underpinning for the Church’s quest for unity. Like the individual believer, the community of faith is both grace-filled and sinful. While the Church is meant to be a place where God’s love is experienced through the fellowship of believers, its communion is disrupted and discredited by countless denominational divisions. The Church is simultaneously the Body of Christ and a squabbling bunch of sinners.

: Here's where the Wesleyan side of me kicks in. Absolutely central to a Wesleyan understanding of salvation is the conviction that we should not remain content in our current sinful state. Rather, the same Spirit who draws us into a restored relationship with God also empowers us to become holy - to love and serve God as we were intended. The Holy One’s call for us to “be holy” takes us by surprise. Incredibly, we discover that God has written us into the divine plan to save the world. Though our sin is great, God’s grace is infinitely greater. To deny this call to holiness is to “reject not human authority, but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you” (1 Thessalonians 4:8).

Despite our present state of sin, God mercifully works within us, calling us forward to perfect love and participation in God’s Triune life. Likewise the Spirit empowers the Church to be the community of reconciliation and love that fulfills God’s eschatological purpose, where “all flesh will see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). For too long, Newbigin says the churches have spent time and energy arguing over “what the churches are – surely it is time for us to meet one another in penitent acknowledgement of our common failure to be what the Church ought to be” (if you're interested, see Newbigin's work on ecclesiology: "The Household of God"). Instead of remaining content in its sinful sectarian state, the Church is called to embody in our institutional life the same unity with one another that has been given to us in Christ.

Viewed this way, the answer to the question - "is unity realistic" - is a resounding NO if the Church is relying on human strength alone. But if we are willing to humble ourselves and trust in the same Spirit who is able to graciously lead sinners toward holiness, we may begin to glimpse together what the Church "ought to be."

What are your thoughts? Can Christians hope for unity? Or is this hopelessly unrealistic?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why is Unity Important?

Ideological disagreement appears to be an unavoidable part of the human experience. The bitter rhetoric in the US over health care reform is only the most recent high profile example of this truth. People look at the same thing, hear the same words - and come away with two completely different interpretations.

The centuries old hope (at least in the "West") that science, education, and technology would unite the world has collapsed in the wake of the unprecedented human strife throughout the twentieth century. Postmodern efforts to build unity center less around grand meta-narratives (science, religion) and focus more on respecting diversity and learning to live together without killing each other.

In light of these observations, I will offer two reasons why I think unity is important.

The first reason is functional and applies on a wider, sociological level. It is mutually beneficial for human beings to be united around particular principles that promote human dignity and life. People will continue to disagree with one another. But if people can agree on the fundamental need to protect human life/dignity, then all other disagreements no longer become a reason to kill one another. This is where I think interfaith and religious-nonreligious dialogue is so important. It is safe to assume both that the multitude of human religions are not going away tomorrow and that all nonreligious persons will not suddenly be convinced of the divine. In the meantime, then, it would be beneficial to work toward a set of agreed upon principles that promote and protect life.

The second reason is particular to the Christian narrative. The search for Christian unity is not an idealistic effort to sit around and sing Kumbaya. Neither is it an effort to throw away all the particulars of Christianity and settle on the lowest common denominator. I believe that unity is absolutely essential to the integrity of the Christian story - to the good news of Jesus Christ (incarnation and reconciliation) and the proclamation of that news to the world (evangelism). United by faith in the gospel, there is room for natural disagreements over what Wesley called "opinions" within the Church. We may not all think alike, but reconciled to God and to each other, we are called to love alike.

INCARNATION: "For just as the body is one and has many it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:12-14)

Christians believe that the defining moment in human history is when God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. God is not some invisible life force limited to the spiritual or intellectual realm. No, as Christians recite in the great Creeds of the Church, God became "truly human," embracing the messiness of physical human existence in order to restore our capacity to be in relationship with God. Christians celebrate this truth each year at Christmas and in the use of the physical elements of water, bread, and wine as a means of encountering God.

Why, then, is this central conviction suspended for Christians when it comes to the Church? The same loving God who entered into history and became truly human desires the Church to be the continuing embodiment of God’s love - "the Body of Christ" in the world. Christians' satisfaction with an "invisible" Church contradicts their belief in a God who became the visible Body of Christ.

RECONCILIATION: "All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation...entrusting the message of reconciliation to us" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)

This gets to the central point of why God became human in the first place. Through Jesus' atoning work on the cross, humanity is reconciled to God and able to enter into a restored relationship of love by faith. The New Testament is clear that a loving relationship with God overflows with love for neighbor.

How, then, can the Church be faithful to the Scriptural witness of Christ’s reconciling work on the cross and yet remain unreconciled with one another? Instead of remaining content in its divided state, the Church is called to return to the foot of the cross and embody in its visible life the unity and reconciliation given to all people through Jesus.

EVANGELISM: "I ask on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 17:20-21)

Finally, Christians believe that God's Spirit empowers the Church to be the community of reconciliation and love that fulfills God's purpose for the world, where "all flesh will see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:6). Christians are called to be agents of God's reconciling love to people in every nation and on every continent.

But how can the world be expected to believe in God's reconciliation when the Church remains an unreconciled fellowship? Thus, when the Church is actively engaged in proclaiming its Gospel, it is able to see Christian divisions for what they are: an intolerable scandal that contradicts the Church’s witness to God’s reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ.

What do you think? Is unity important to you? For similar or different reasons?
Can we agree on a common set of principles that promote human life? What qualifies as "opinion" within the Church?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Ecumethodist Task


I created this blog as an outlet for my own thoughts on the search for Christian unity in a postmodern world. But my sincere hope is that it might also stimulate dialogue with other Christians, as well as with people of other faiths or people of no faith. In a world full of division, the Church's continued scandalous disunity contradicts its gospel that Jesus Christ has reconciled us to God and to each other.

For Protestant Christians in particular, who do not claim to represent "the Church" in its fullness (like Catholic or Orthodox Christians), the willingness to remain visibly divided in a myriad of denominations is inexcusable. For years, I wrestled with questions surrounding the nature and authority of the Church. I came to the conviction that if I was to remain a Protestant, it could not be as an end in itself. Rather, to be Protestant is to be ecumenical, to be led by the Holy Spirit toward a unity that includes the many gifts scattered within the broken Body of Christ.

Methodism has provided a tradition in which I could live out these convictions with integrity. As originally a renewal movement led by the Wesleys in the Church of England, Methodism has never understood itself to be the fullness of what it means to be the Church. It is better understood as a kind of Protestant evangelical "order" (along the lines of the Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, etc.). Methodism, then, requires a catholic Church within which to properly function. Here are some favorite quotes relating to ecumenism from John Wesley, an eighteenth century Anglican priest and founder of Methodism:

From Wesley's "Character of a Methodist":
"From real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained. No: "Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother." And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand. For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship. If there be any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies; let us strive together for the faith of the Gospel; walking worthy of the vocation wherewith we are called; with all lowliness and meekness, with long-suffering, forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; remembering, there is one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called with one hope of our calling; "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all."
And here, from his "Letter to a Roman Catholic":

"Come, my brother, and let us reason together...We ought, without this endless jangling about opinions, to provoke one another to love and to good works. Let the points wherein we differ stand aside: here are be the ground of every Christian temper and every Christian action....if we cannot as yet think alike in all things, at least we may love alike...In the name and in the strength of God, let us resolve, first, not to hurt one another...secondly, to speak nothing harsh or unkind of each other...thirdly, resolve to harbour no unkind thought...fourthly, endeavour to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we can, let us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God."
More than ever, I am convinced that the Church needs thoughtful Protestants who are committed to the gifts of their particular traditions (be it Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist, Pentecostal...) and to offering them up to the Church as a whole. This is hard, slow work that requires patience and humility. Yet the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church still confesses with Jesus Christ, who prayed for his followers to be one, that "what is impossible for mortals is possible with God." (John 17:21; Luke 18:27)