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?


  1. Complete unity exists only in Christ and His Word. Divisions and disunity exists only as people seek to deviate from the design that God clearly communicated to us in His Word.

  2. I think before a Protestant-Catholic/Orthodox dialogue takes place, there must be some reconciliation among the various Protestant groups (specifically mainline denoms).

  3. Anon - Agreed. As Paul says in Romans 12, "in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." The Church's divisions contradicts this oneness "in Christ" and is evidence of our deviation from Christ's word (John 17).

    Pierce - Unfortunately, more and more people are giving up on inter-Protestant reconciliation (having tried it, and in some instances failed - particularly in the US and UK). This is why ecumenism has shifted from the World Council of Churches (mostly Protestant) to bilateral dialogues between the major confessional families (Reformed, Lutheran, etc.) and the Vatican. Like you, though, I'd prefer for us Protestants to get our own mess together and present a united face to Rome.

  4. Great reflections, Paul! I am really interested in learning more about what is going on in India. You should check out my post on eating as a fundamental practice of hope and reconciliation. It's basically my final paper for Dr. Wirzba's class. :) Peace!

  5. Thanks Jodi! Eating as a way of hoping for reconciliation between Christians?? I'm definitely taking a look at your paper.