Unity and Public Theology

Unity and Public Theology August 28, 2015

In a critical assessment of the ecumenical movement published in 1957, evangelical J. Marcellus Kik assessed the reasons given for pursuing unity in the church. One, he says, is that “the world situation presents a powerful incentive to act with Christian unity,” because, it is argued, “what the many denominations cannot accomplish in separate existence, a world-wide church with a central organization could accomplish” (Ecumenism and the Evangelical, 4).

Kik isn’t convinced: “they do not spell out how such will be accomplished. Will the means used by spiritual or political persuasion? Being of sufficient large membership a centrally controlled church may be able to exert pressure on the United States government and demand a cessation of atomic tests and the manufacture of the weapons of war. But can pressure be used upon Russia or any nation of that type? Will a lobby be maintained in the Kremlin.” More positively, he cites biblical and historical examples to show that “events are often controlled by small groups for good or evil” (4-5).

Kik seems to imagine that the only way for a unified church is for that church to lobby and politic. This is an odd argument from an evangelical. The response might be: Jesus commands the church to be one, and says that our unity will show the world who He is; if we obey Him, the sheer existence of a unified church will have an impact on the world. Kik’s skepticism sounds strangely like unbelief.

But there may be something else going on here too. Perhaps Kik is operating with some sort of dichotomy of spiritual v. political (his opening questions suggest as much). On these premises, the assumption would be that political effects arise from political causes, as spiritual effects have spiritual causes. The two don’t jump across their separate chains of causation; politics cannot change spirituality, nor vice versa. 

I don’t know if something like this is behind Kik’s questions. Perhaps I’m overreading, or reading uncharitably. But, leave Kik aside, the problem isn’t imaginary: He wouldn’t be the first Protestant for whom apolitical ecclesiology is the mark of true spirituality.

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