Monday, January 27, 2014

How to Work towards the Unity of the Church and How Not to Work towards It

First of all, let me put forward this article from the journal First Things as a fantastic articulation of how we should work towards the unity of the church.  Author Matthew Block hits the nail right dead-center on the head.  It's a short, concise article, and the main idea is this:  "Visible unity between Christians and Christian churches can only be achieved when we all come to agreement on the doctrinal issues that are the foundation of the divisions.  Therefore, we need to have an ecumenical approach that focuses on resolving doctrinal disagreements."  I completely agree, and have articulated the same idea myself in various places, such as here and here.

The same article also points out one way in which we should not be seeking the unity of the church--a way, unfortunately, all-too-often adopted by Protestants.  Mr. Block refers to some words by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promoting Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church.  The cardinal's words are both very perceptive and very depressing.  Here is a summary of what he said from a Roman Catholic news article (quoted here):

The main problem that we have today in the ecumenical dialogue with all the Protestant communities, is the lack of a common vision of the goal of the ecumenical movement. We have two different views. The Catholic view, (which) is also the Orthodox view, (is) that we will re-find the unity in faith in the sacraments and in ministries. Conversely, the vision that I find today in the Protestant churches and ecclesial communities (is that) of the mutual recognition of all the ecclesial communities as churches. In this Protestant vision, the goal of ecumenism presupposes a different understanding of “church.” Rather than unity visible in sacrament and ministry, the Protestant vision sees “church” as simply a conglomeration or “addition [i.e. sum] of all these ecclesial communities.” This is the view of the ecumenical goal that is very very difficult for us. … I think that the Reformation … has some basis in the division between Orthodox and Catholic, and when we can find new unity between Orthodox and Catholics, I think we have a better basis for the discussion between Catholics and Protestants,” said Cardinal Koch.

Matthew Block goes on to comment on Cardinal Kock's words:

It’s hard to argue with the cardinal’s assessment. Some, indeed, many of the most prominent voices in mainline Protestantism seem to have approached ecumenical dialogue this way in recent years. They want merely for everyone to recognize everyone else as faithful Christians. “We’ll keep our church; you keep yours. And we’ll all just get along together, recognizing each other’s churches as acceptable alternatives.” There is a danger that real doctrinal differences may be underplayed or ignored in such an ecumenical framework, all in the effort to achieve “mutual recognition,” as the cardinal says, of each other as equal manifestations of the Church.

But this is to seriously weaken the vision of Christian unity evoked in Christ’s prayer in John 17. When Christ prayed that all Christians would be one, he didn’t have in mind a unity in which doctrinal differences remain—Protestants believing one thing and Catholics another, and yet the two somehow assumed to be in fellowship with one another. Instead, he prayed that all would be sanctified in the truth—truth which is found, he says, only in the Father’s word. We must agree on this truth, then, in order for our unity to be real. The goal of ecumenism cannot be unity in spite of differences; it must instead be to come to a point where doctrinal differences no longer exist, where doctrinal agreement has been achieved, and structural unity can therefore be enacted as a result.

The cardinal's and Mr. Block's words are all-too-true.  Many Protestants, including those in the Reformed tradition, have abandoned a commitment to the worldwide visible unity of the church, even though the mandate for such unity is both biblical and confessional.  I've noted examples of this many times over the past year, such as here, here, here, and here.  Here is one dramatic example I've cited recently from a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (from an informal conversation on an unrelated topic):

So, many of these things come down to one's conscience before God and His Word. Prayerfully, they are in a church community that will help them answer those questions and will show love even if they disagree. This is why we have different churches and different denominations (pluralformity) because we all have different beliefs of what is right or wrong according to our informed consciences. That is why Paul does not offer details in many questions but emphasizes love, patience, longsuffering, gentleness, against which there is no law.

This is exactly the attitude Cardinal Koch and Matthew Block are talking about.  It is unbiblical and un-presbyterian, and if we truly want to pursue the unity of the church in an effective way--working towards doctrinal agreement with the goal of unifying the various churches into one, worldwide presbyterian communion--we need to get rid of it.  We need to stop being blinded by the current status quo, which makes us used to the idea of multiple denominations, and we need to feel the abhorrence for it that will truly motivate us to engage in the serious soul-searching and dialogue that will actually, by God's grace, carry us towards the proper goal.  There is only one Body of Christ, and therefore when denominations are divided from each other (at least among those that take the visible unity of the church seriously) there is a mutual rejection of each others' de jure legitimacy and authority.  The idea of multiple, independent denominations accepting each others' de jure legitimacy while agreeing to remain independent from each other has no place whatsoever in a biblical, presbyterian understanding of church government.  Taking this seriously will be a major step in helping Reformed and other Protestants engage with seriousness and effectiveness in the ecumenical enterprise.

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