Evangelicals and Christian Unity

Evangelicals and Christian Unity May 22, 2017

[Recently, I gave a talk at Gordon College (where I formerly taught) on commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. The title of the talk was “500 Years of Protestantism. What Now?” I concluded with the material below on the challenge that this anniversary presents to evangelicals concerning the task of Christian unity–or ecumenism.]

In a recent co-edited book, Protestantism after 500 Years, Mark Noll and I argued that, in light of the quincentennial of the Reformation, a phrase of the late dean of American church historians, Jaroslav Pelikan, offers valuable food for thought. For the interests of truth and Christian unity to be served in remembering the Reformation, Pelikan once wrote, Protestants and Catholics should think of the Reformation as a “tragic necessity.” Partisans on both sides, Pelikan elaborated, will have difficulty acknowledging this: “Roman Catholics agree that it was tragic, because it separated many millions from the true church; but they cannot see that it was really necessary. Protestants agree that it was necessary, because the Roman church was so corrupt; but they cannot see that it was such a tragedy after all.” With 2017 in mind, Noll and I argued that Catholics should try to reckon with why Protestants, then and now, felt the Reformation was necessary, while Protestants of all denominations are duty-bound to try to grapple with the tragic dimensions of the Reformation. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas has put it, “If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate [the] Reformation.”

But what exactly–if I may press the question–might it mean for Protestants to recognize the tragic dimensions of the Reformation? And if I might restrict the focus still further: what would it mean for American evangelicals?

In light of past triumphalist remembrances of the Reformation and ones that have linked its legacy to nationalism, militarism, Wilsonianism, and Marxism-Leninism [I touched on these in my lecture], it is a duty in 2017, I think, to soberly take stock of the darker sides of the Reformation.

Many of you in the audience know the list: wars of religion following the Reformation, religious civil wars, destructive iconoclasm, confession-inspired executions . . . The very word “Protestant” first appeared to designate a military alliance in 1529. We might then do well today to remember the Swiss humanist Sebastian Castellio’s precsient line: “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is to kill a man.”

And then, yes, there’s Luther’s Anti-Semitism, or his excoriating treatment of peasants, spiritualists, Anabaptists, and Ottoman Turks. And this is to say nothing of the escalation of rhetoric against the Pope as the Anti-Christ—rhetoric, reciprocated, to be sure, on the Catholic side–that has poisoned Protestant-Catholic relations for centuries.

For all his many virtues, A. J. Gordon, the founder of Gordon College, was not immune from this type of rhetoric. A strident opponent of Catholic immigration to Boston in the late nineteenth century, Gordon denounced Roman Catholicism root and branch. “[W]e certainly hold the papacy,” he wrote, “to be the fulfillment of Paul’s prediction of the anti-Christ.” If Catholic immigration was not stopped, he exclaimed, then “the evil hand of the Jesuit would be felt upon the throat of our Republic.” (To be fair, Gordon here was only expressing a view quite common then among American Protestants of various stripes.)

But there are still a deeper, more theologically pressing reasons why evangelicals should recognize the tragic dimensions of the Reformation. Namely, Christian disunity is and remains a massive impediment to the Gospel itself–the proclamation of which is and should be evangelicalism’s strong suite. In Scripture, the evangelical imperative and the ecumenical imperative are firmly linked. As our Lord prays for his disciples in his so-called high-priestly prayer in John 17 (20-23):

I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that thou hast sent me and hast loved them even as thou hast loved me.

Or, as Paul writes to the Corinthians (I.1.10): “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Such admonitions recur in Paul’s letters and in early patristic literature.

Sadly, church history in the post-Reformation era bears ample witness to the Gospel-stifling role of Christian disunity. Permit me to mention a few examples. The jealousy and rivalry between (Catholic) Portuguese missionaries and (Protestant) Dutch ones was one fact that led to the outlawing of Christianity in the 1600s in Japan and the massive persecution of Japanese converts, as shown in Shusaku Endo’s book Silence. Before the founding of the state of Israel, the Ottoman Empire found great amusement in the fact that they had to keep guards stationed at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, just to keep divided Christians from coming to blows with one another–at the very site where tradition holds that Christ was crucified! Or, when Cardinal Sean O’Malley visited Gordon’s campus a couple of years ago, he told the disheartening story of converts on Papua New Guinea who felt betrayed when they learned that Christians were divided over essential aspects of the Gospel that they had just embraced. And in our own time, when churches attempt to speak out on neuralgic, contested social and political issues, as mutually antagonistic denominations, they often only succeed in canceling each other out, depriving the public realm of a robust, compelling Christian witness.

Speaking of denominations, despite a well-meaning if naïve flight into the phantasm of “nondenominationalism,” thousands of mutually exclusive versions of Protestantism persist. In all likelihood, if the sixteenth-century reformers time-traveled to today, they would be aghast at what they had created. “The [early] Reformers,” to quote the Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten, “intended to reform the one church, not to smash its unity into innumerable sects whose unity remains totally hidden. The sectarianism within Protestantism is a sign of the failure of the Reformation, not of its success.”

Of course, Protestants have often recognized the scandal of disunity and sought to remedy it. In the late nineteenth century, many Protestant missionary bodies became despondent by the fact that their competition and in-fighting meant taking a divided Gospel to non-Western peoples. Overcoming this situation in fact was the main impulse behind the famous Edinburgh missionary conference of 1910. A key commission at this conference was entitled “Co-operation and the Promotion of Unity.” The report of this Commission lamented Christian divisions and stated that “for the achievement of the ultimate and highest end of all missionary work in . . . non-Christian lands of Christ’s one Church—real unity must be attained.” This sentiment gave birth to the modern ecumenical movement—a movement of far-reaching significance in twentieth-century church history.

But as often happens, this movement produced ironic consequences. On the one hand, the original missionary impulse behind Edinburgh later became routinized and bureaucratized into the apparatus known as the World Council of Churches (f. 1948)–a body which soon lost all zeal for evangelism. An op-ed in Christianity Today of 1965 perceptively noted: “a movement of Christian unity that began in evangelical transdenominational zeal to evangelize the world has resulted in a theological conglomerate in which evangelism is muffled and the evangel confused.” Such lines of criticism can also be found among many mainline theologians, such as Paul Ramsey and Thomas Oden, who have criticized the WCC for mistaking grandstanding, global political gestures for the work of serious ecumenism.

On the other hand, despite the original evangelical impulses of Edinburgh in 1910, many evangelicals in the postwar era came to assume that ecumenism was something that only liberal Christians did; and, therefore, they should wash their hands of it. At a previous lecture at Gordon, the Baptist theologian and great ecumenist Timothy George recounted stories of how in his youth he was repeatedly warned not to follow the example of left-wing “ecumaniacs.”

Fair enough. But the abuse of the thing does not invalidate the proper use of a thing—only the abuse itself. And, therefore, I’m persuaded, that 500 years after the Reformation, evangelicals cannot simply yawn and walk away from Christ’s command that we all be one. The evangelical and the ecumenical imperative remain joined at the hip, as Christ himself testifies in the Gospel of John. They stand or fall together.

But, really, you ask: what can one possibly do? The divisions that started in 1517—as well as earlier and later ones—are likely not going to go away any time soon. And in our own day, still newer issues divide Christians. In light of all this, the question in the title of this lecture—what now? —is exceedingly difficult to answer. And I am afraid, in conclusion, I can only offer a modest but not unimportant proposal.

Here it is: evangelicals should make efforts to become more zealously embarrassed and more zealously saddened by church divisions. You might never have been encouraged to be embarrassed before. But if in fact Christian unity is our Lord’s goal, it seems that we have no option but to be embarrassed, indeed scandalized, by the actual situation of church divisions, past and present. Writing more generally about the religious purposes of embarrassment, the great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote: “I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, envy, conceit, never embarrassed by the profanation of life.” “Embarrassment is a response to the discovery that in living we . . . [have] frustrate[d] a wondrous expectation.” And once again, Heschel wrote, “Embarrassment is the awareness of an incongruity between the challenges that we face and of our squandering the opportunity to meet them.” In Christian terms, we have let down Christ; we have divided his body; we have frustrated his wondrous expectation of our unity. In short, we have fumbled, and this is embarrassing!

And it is also sad. We should perhaps then be like Peter, remembering the Lord’s words after he had denied Jesus three times. As Matthew records: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord . . . And he went out and wept bitterly.” The maintenance of the divided body of Christ is tantamount to a denial of Christ’s own word. And the Lord looks at us today, as he looked at Peter.

Yet embarrassment and sadness should not lead to despair. Despair is not an option for Christians. For it is often in our very weakness that Christ’s power can shine forth all the more. This realization was important for none-other than Martin Luther in formulating his well-known theology of the cross. For Luther, divine power is not revealed in the powers of this world, but rather in the weakness of the cross, for it was in his apparent defeat at the hands of evil that Jesus shows his divine power and the conquest of death and of all the powers of evil. Perhaps, too, in our very weakness, in the very things that should embarrass and sadden us, that our Lord—500 years after the Reformation–can still manifest his power in our weakness, and look on us with undeserved mercy to do his work, somehow, despite the lacerations that we have caused in his Bride, the Church.

Toward these ends, I’ll conclude, using a prayer for Christian unity found in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
our only Savior, the Prince of Peace:
give us grace seriously to lay to heart
the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions.
Take away all hatred and prejudice,
and whatever else may hinder us
from godly union and concord;
that, as there is but one body and one Spirit,
one hope of our calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of us all,
so we may henceforth be all of one heart and of one soul,
united in one holy bond of peace, of faith and charity,
and may with one mind and one mouth glorify you;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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