True Christian Ecumenism: Reconciled Diversity

True Christian Ecumenism: Reconciled Diversity August 2, 2015

True Christian Ecumenism: Reconciled Diversity

Some Christian theologians I know believe the existence of separate Christian denominations is scandalous. H. Richard Niebuhr very strongly promoted that belief in his classic book The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929). For much of the twentieth century especially so-called “mainline” Protestants talked endlessly about “visible and institutional unity” of the churches. Some went so far as to call for Protestants to re-join the Catholic Church if and when (they were optimists) the pope admits he’s not infallible. I suppose they were inspired by Catholic theologian Hans Küng who declared the pope not infallible with the only consequence being that the Vatican declared him “not a Catholic theologian.” He remains a priest of the church and continued to teach theology at the University of Tübingen for years afterwards. (Yes, I know, he could not teach “Catholic theology” as such, but his courses outside the Catholic faculty grew in popularity after the Vatican declared him not a Catholic theologian.)

I participated in a series of ecumenical dialogue events organized by Lutheran theologians Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson. These were “by invitation only” and at each event about twenty-five or so theologians attended to read papers about ecumenism and discuss together how “visible and institutional unity of the churches” might be achieved. The theologians at each event included Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many varieties of Protestants. I was invited to represent Baptists and the evangelical Protestant community. Eventually I was dropped from the list of those invited to the events because I let them know that I did not believe “visible and institutional unity” of the churches into one worldwide mega-church led by a bishop was a good goal.

During my lifetime I have come to value, even love, Christian particularities and diversity. I have spoken in churches and colleges of many different denominations; I have attended churches of different traditions and denominations. I find good in all of them—within the limits of basic Christian orthodoxy and worship that is decent and in order. One of the most inspiring, moving, blessing worship services I’ve ever participated in was at a Seventh-day Adventist Church. One Saturday evening in San Antonio, Texas I stepped into the Cathedral of San Fernando to observe a charismatic “mariachi mass.” People were dancing in the aisles and worshiping with their eyes shut and their arms raised in the air. I could have sworn I was in a Hispanic Pentecostal church! Yes, I will go so far as to say that I “felt the Spirit” there.

I think the dream of all these different denominations (about 350 in the U.S.) joining together into one is that—a dream. I think it’s unrealistic and possibly dangerous. The danger is that we would not become a choir singing God’s praises in harmony but a choir singing only in unison and that the “lyrics” would be those of the most powerful and influential of the denominations.

If diversity of cultures in one America is a good thing, then so is diversity of Christianity in the invisible, universal church of Jesus Christ, his body on earth.

The problem is when that diversity becomes divisive to the point that Christians cannot really worship and cooperate together or have Christian fellowship with each other. I would not attend a church that practiced “closed communion.” That is, in my opinion, evidence of a divisive spirit.

As a Baptist I have wrestled with the issue of baptism. I do believe that “believer baptism” is biblically correct baptism. I do not think, however, that means we have to reject infant baptism as automatically no baptism at all. We Baptists need to work on how best to acknowledge the baptisms of our non-baptist brothers and sisters without giving up our particularity of emphasizing believer baptism as theologically correct. I know of Baptist churches that grant full membership to Christians who were baptized only as infants; I struggle with that. (I struggle more with the news that a Baptist pastor of a major city’s First Baptist Church baptized an infant!) However, I think there are ways in which Baptists (and other “baptists”) can express their acceptance of people who were baptized only as infants as baptized Christians without giving up our particularity of emphasizing believer baptism as the norm.

I grew up Pentecostal (as anyone who has been reading my blog for very long knows) and left that tradition because of its emphasis on speaking in tongues as “the sole initial, physical evidence” of being filled with the Holy Spirit. However, I applaud Pentecostals who are working on that particularity, to soften it without entirely discarding speaking in tongues as normal and even for everyone. Many are doing just that.

I believe in ecumenism as reconciled diversity—not all Christian denominations melting into one but all Christian denominations and churches opening up to others for fellowship, cooperation, intercommunion, etc.

A few years ago I knew about such a “breakthrough” in a major Texas city. A very diverse group of pastors and churches banded together for a massive Easter Sunday morning worship service which was held in a large arena. That led into an ongoing conversation among those pastors with continuing follow up ecumenical projects and events. I was told, although I have no firsthand knowledge, that some Catholic priests and deacons participated as did some Pentecostals and representatives of many denominations “in between.”

During my lifetime I have observed many Christian denominations gradually dropping the barriers they had erected, or taking down the barriers others erected against them, in order to experience reconciled diversity. This is, in my opinion, true realistic Christian ecumenism.

In my opinion, the unity Jesus prayed for among his followers and those who would come after them, their converts and heirs as Christian leaders, is consistent with different opinions about secondary matters. Having “the mind of Christ” does not mean all thinking exactly alike about everything—at least in this world where we all see “through a glass darkly.” Certainly in the eschaton things will be different and we should remain uncomfortable, in this “time between the times,” with any differences among real Christians that keep us from embracing one another as fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God.

But, in the meantime, before that Kingdom comes in its fullness, we can and should find ways to celebrate our differences about secondary matters of the faith while enjoying true fellowship in worship, communion, and mission. That means, in practice, avoiding making an idol out of denominational identity, remaining open to learning from other Christian traditions (e.g., as a Baptist I have come to embrace the Eastern Orthodox vision of “deification”), opening the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, to all who confess Jesus as God and Savior, and reconsidering doctrines and practices that have developed that are divisive and have no clear biblical basis.


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