As regular readers here well know, I care a lot about Christian ecumenism (or, I would prefer to label it, “catholicity”). I also care a good deal more than most about doctrine. These two are often thought to be in conflict, but I don’t think they need to be. In preparation for a discussion I will lead with some of the people of my church, I drew up a list of assertions explaining my position about why “catholicity” is obligatory, and possible without sacrificing doctrine. Any of these can be expanded, and I would welcome feedback on anything that seems to lack clarity, charity, or verity. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) (more…)
I am having an argument with a Christian friend. He asserts that I am a Presbyterian. I assert that I am not. He is not insulting me; he himself is a Presbyterian (on that we both agree). His argument about my being Presbyterian is very simple: I am a member of a church, that church is Presbyterian, therefore I am a Presbyterian. My argument is somewhat more complex. (more…)
One of the issues on which Protestants and Roman Catholics have often chosen to disagree is whether there are gradations in sin. As Holy Saturday comes to a close, and as we prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s resurrection tomorrow, I thought this subject might be worth a few words. In short, I think both are right, as long as not overstated. (more…)
One of the thornier question in ecclesiology is the question of boundaries: who gets included and who gets excluded? If you’re reading this hoping that I will conclusively resolve the issue in a “basic ecclesiology” series, you will be disappointed.
No, the starting point for my discussion of inclusion and exclusion is the apostle Paul’s advice to a younger minister of Christ, Timothy. After reminding him of the salvation available in Jesus, Paul continued (2 Timothy 2:14-19):
Keep reminding God’s people of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”
If, as I argued before, the Greek word ekklesia just means a gathering, then what makes an ekklesia into the Christian Church?
Being an adult convert, I never actually went to Sunday School, but I am told that there is often a single answer that works for every question. I enjoy a little joke which plays on this observation: A new Sunday School teacher comes and tries to start his relationship with the class to a good start, and so asks a simple question: “What’s gray, runs in trees, eats nuts, and has a large bushy tail?” No student raises a hand, but one girl in front has a big frown on her face. The new teacher asks her, “What’s wrong?” and receives the reply, “I know the answer’s Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel!”
It is not a squirrel which makes a gathering into the Church (except perhaps sometimes); the Sunday School answer is correct. It is obvious, and true: Jesus Christ is what makes a gathering into the Christian Church. (more…)
It is often claimed that one insuperable difference between Protestants and Catholics is that Protestants, since Luther, believe in the priesthood of all believers, while Catholics believe Christians need a priest to bring them to God. Today this is usually a Protestant accusation against Catholics, although in the sixteenth century Luther’s notion of the priesthood of all believers, including illiterate and semi-literate peasants, did come in for a certain amount of ridicule from some of the more educated members of the clergy. Some of the wilder branches of Protestantism have gone further than Luther, even rejecting, on the claimed basis of the “priesthood of all believers,” any ordained clergy whatsoever (this includes the Plymouth Brethren and the Quakers), while many “Bible-believing” Protestants draw a sharp distinction between Roman Catholic priests and their own pastors or elders. As with so many things, however, the disagreement between the denominations over the scope of the priesthood is based more on an argument over words than over the substance of what the Bible says. There are substantive disagreements in Roman Catholic and various Protestant understandings of priesthood(s), but the “argument” over the priesthood or not of all believers can safely be put down to a deficiency of northern European languages like English, which have one word where Greek has two, and a desire on both sides of the argument to affirm the superiority of their group over those who disagree with them.
I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day. We all have. Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born. The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old. The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point. Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations. All of these divisions occurred before we were born. So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.
There are many ways one might answer that question. Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it. Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it. Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer to pretend there are no divisions among the groups. Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them. None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience. (more…)
In response to my long essay about the similarity, or lack thereof, between the earliest Christians and various denominations today, one commentator, Anna, offered insights which can jump-start practical ecumenical discussion among Christians. In her first comment, she opened the door to a principled ecumenism with a rejection of the extremes, both of judgmental conservatism and of mindless liberalism:
But I would like to suggest that there is a middle ground in between “you’re going to hell” and “all paths are equal”. The middle route says, “Yes, it does matter; but you’re not screwed if you get it wrong.”
She then established the value of ecumenical contact among Christians by pointing out how great it would be if we all took upon ourselves what each denomination does well: (more…)
Will the real Church please stand up? Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering. Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed! How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?
One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors. This is the argument from similarity. I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning. It was not the first time. I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity. I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present. I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)
(First, a note to the reader: after today this blog will be Out to Lunch, probably for the next couple weeks, as I take care of some physical world tasks that need doing, and I will be without internet access for part of that duration and with very little free time for even more of it. Some readers may feel that the posts have been out to lunch for a while now, but this is not an admission of doctrinal error…)
I particularly appreciated Dr. DeVille’s points #5 and #7 (with honorable mention to #6). Top-level ecumenical contact may often elicit a “who cares?” from the people in the pew. After all, what could such contact possibly accomplish? At this stage, perhaps the best it can accomplish is to provide a model for friendship and cooperation to all Christians. The biggest obstacle to ecumenism is not what so-and-so did to such-and-such back in the X century (whether that’s 431 or 538 or 1054 or 1204), nor even disagreements about ideas and practices (though such disagreements are real). The single biggest obstacle to real church unity is a nebulous congregational sense that those people over there are not like us. I have been asked, in all sincerity, whether Catholics and Evangelicals worship the same God (and the person was very reassured when I gave a positive answer). And the best way to allay misconceptions is to get to know people. (This works equally well for allaying misconceptions about anything, for example racial differences, Islam or other religions, and political partisan differences.) Such conversations can (and perhaps should) start off away from the topic at issue and just involve getting to know another human being. And after you discover that the other person does beautiful handicrafts, or likes the same sports team you do, or has a funny sense of humor, or has excellent taste in wine (or books or music), in other words, after you discover that the other person is a human being, then you can approach the topic at issue with the curiosity to discover how is it that your new friend thinks differently than you. Dr. DeVille gives other very easy suggestions in his piece, so you should go read it.
But Dr. DeVille’s most important point point is #7. Ecumenism is not optional. In addition to our Lord’s prayer in John 17 which he cited, my mainstay is the only command which Jesus added to the Law: “34 A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that just as I have loved you you may love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Dr. DeVille makes the point that church division hinders Christian witness, because God is one, so why aren’t we? This was exactly my experience. Before I became a Christian (over a decade ago now), I had a ready answer to any Christian friend who asked why I was not Christian: “Those Christians are so divided they don’t even know what they think about anything, so why should I join them and add to the muddle?” But God had grace and mercy on me in my blindness, and he dragged me to himself; only after I was there did I see that there is a deeper unity among all true Christians which transcends denominational structures and differences of dogma (which is not to say that either structure or dogma are inherently unimportant!). I am grateful for God’s grace, and I continue to pray for my family members and friends from that period to find, or rather be found by, the grace that I have. But I also wish to take practical steps to make it harder for people like me to use visible Christian divisions as an easy excuse not to believe. Christians are already one, in the one Holy Spirit of God, but we need to live visibly in light of this fact. Ecumenism is obligatory, not only for pope and patriarch, but for all people.