Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Finale: A Unitive Vision of Christendom

I suppose when we speak of unity in the Church (capital “C”) there is an ideal hope that must be maintained but also a realistic vision of what can reasonably be accomplished. As my doctoral mentor Steve Garber likes to say, “seeking proximate justice.” Lovelace implies that we the Church can reasonably achieve Ephesians 4:13-15 (Dynamics, p. 311):

… until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Still, if we take Garber’s idea of doing “proximate justice” to the hope of Eph. 4 and combine Lovelace’s contention that given our current situation we can achieve this kind of unity “not in terms of monolithic structures of polity, but rather as a network of Christian hearts retaining fellowship and communication with one another,” then we can have genuine but realistic hope for a unitive vision of Christendom. Catholic theologian Bryan Cross would accuse Lovelace’s call for “united hearts” rather than “united ecclesial structure” to be what he calls an “ecclesial deism” (see Ecclesial Deism).

The problem with Cross’ argumentation is that it involves the a priori supposition that rather than working towards its realization, the thing itself must be present now (in this case, the Visible Church with a unified ecclesial structure), if Protestants are to avoid the charge of ecclesial deism. Cross denies the notion of the “process” that might be involved in achieving the fullness of the realization of the Kingdom and thereby concludes what he already assumes, that the Catholic church with its visible forms of ecclesial institutionalism is in fact the concrete visible realization of Christ’s organized church (and the ONLY one at that). Of course, even Cross’ supposition assumes the global Catholic church itself is in fact a “monolithic structure of polity.”

Our argument and vision here is for something broader, deeper and wider than Cross’ attempts to separate entirely the ecclesiology of Catholicism from that of Protestantism, rather to say that as we approach proximate justice in the world, the broken structures of the Church hold forth the genuine hope of being made new. Perhaps the illustration of marriage works here. In my church, I have couples who are strongly unified in the covenant bond of marriage, yet I have others who are “together” but not really: living under the same roof but not truly “one” as they are meant to be. I have some who are legally married but currently separated, even some living at two different residences. Still I have some who have experienced the greatest breach of the covenant bond of marriage, that of adultery, but are now working towards restoration and reconciliation; by the way, here is a short video of a courageous couple (from another local fellowship in Lincoln) working through this very difficult process: Beauty From Ashes.  For some of the couples working through this terrible infidelity, there has been a process of moving from a temporary physical separation to a time of living under the same roof, but perhaps in different rooms in the house, to moving towards one another, eventually the same bed and prayerfully with the hope of restoration, intimacy, physical and spiritual oneness once again. So using this analogy of marriage, here’s my question: does the fact that not all these couples are in the same place in terms of their “outward unity” therefore mean that they are not in fact a meaningful and substantial part of the institution of marriage?  Does this mean that they somehow have embraced an understanding of marriage that is deistic or "gnostic" in Cross' contention? NO! It only means they are working towards the full restoration of their marriages and in the meantime have only achieved “proximate justice.” Even in my own marriage of sixteen years where there is a lot of support, love and intimacy, there is only proximate justice. My friend and seminary classmate Dr. Chuck DeGroat gets at this beautifully in one of his blogposts when he says:

But let me tell you this: those of us who are married, and married honestly, have hit bottom. Our own crap and posing is eventually exposed. Our marriages hit a place of death. All of our former ideals around intimacy and success and sex and prosperity explode. And we hear that old Scripture ringing in our eat: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…” And we know life emerges from death.  Myths and Musings on Being Single

So given the “imperfection” of things, what is a hopeful vision of a "unified Christendom"? Lovelace suggests that we move forward by considering ways that we might "unify our hearts" for the Kingdom, where we might pursue a network of meaningful communication, prayer and support across denominational and ecclesial lines. Through my years in Lincoln, I have been blessed to be in a prayer group (now for almost 10 years) comprised of the following: one pastor who is Southern Baptist, two who are of the Assemblies of God, one out of the Berean Fundamentalist movement (the church in recent years has dropped “fundamentalist” from their name), one from the “Christian Church” (a branch off the Disciples of Christ tree), another from an independent Bible Church, one who is a part of an independent Pentecostal branch, yet another from the Evangelical Free Church. Included in the group are Pastor Stu Kerns and myself both of whom are pastors of the Presbyterian Church in America. One of my trusted friends in Lincoln is a pastor in the American Baptist Church, a good brother I would describe as having a Spirit-filled, evangelical heart serving in primarily a mainline denomination. Also, when my Buddhist grandmother passed away in 2006, I took a month off from my church and sought counsel from various individuals, one of the trusted individuals I sought counsel from was Father Thomas Leitner of the RC Benedictine order, St. Benedict’s, in Schuyler, NE; I’ve been “retreating” regularly to St. Benedict’s since 1998.  

These “alliances” have not always been easy to forge in each case, but they have been good. I think what I’m learning is that there is a new kind of ecumenism as Thomas Oden speaks about in his book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. It’s a different kind of ecumenism than the watered-down, “doctrine and distinctives do not matter” ecumenism of the older liberalism. Rather it is an actual rebirth of regenerative faith, often in older institutions (mostly mainline) once thought to be “spiritually dead” but now coming alive again as movements within those older institutions awaken to a live orthodoxy (this was Lovelace’s contention, wasn’t it? that once the children of the most “liberal” churches are brought under the preaching of the Gospel, their response is often powerful given the covenant faithfulness of God. See Unity and Purity 4 post)This vision of a “unitive Christendom” is attainable, even if only proximately so,... so we must work for it and pray all the more fervently for it as well.

One final word regarding this “unitive vision” of Christendom. Jim Belcher wrote a book back in 2009 called Deep Church. Inside his grace-filled book Belcher seeks to bring together those on both sides of the "Traditional" versus "Emerging" Church Divide today, and he does an admirable job encouraging such unity and understanding across "party" lines. I think Richard Lovelace was Jim Belcher long before Jim Belcher was Jim Belcher. I say this because on p. 312 of his book, Lovelace talks about churches that tend to be a bit more "sectarian" (today's "traditional church") versus those that tend to be more "inclusive" (today's "emerging church") and exhorts that there might be greater understanding between the two. Listen to Lovelace here:

There are really two different and equally reasonable approaches to forming a denominational structure. One is to define as fully as possible the system of truth in Scripture and gather a group of Christians around this as a voluntary association of witnesses to one strain of Christianity. The other is to seek out the minimal circle of biblical truth which guarantees the honor of God and the spiritual health of believers, and to make this a rallying point for the largest possible number of Christians, seeking to make the visible church approximate the invisible as closely as possible….

…with the indiscriminate conformity of the melting pot,… we can acknowledge the positive function of sectarian Christianity, up to a point. We can also understand that the pluralist and inclusivist denominational structures have an important place in building the kingdom, since perfectionist discipline is one of the main causes of schism and indiscriminate weeding can destroy wheat along with the tares. Both the separatist and the inclusivist should respect one another, keeping in mind that great buildings are sometimes raised on rejected cornerstones. 

Both of these ecclesiological postures requires constant attention and criticism, of course. They are makeshift correctives for the opposing errors of schism and indiscipline, which afflict the church in its imperfect historical existence. Each is slightly off balance and needs repeated tuning to keep its balance, so that it can avoid collapsing into parochial sectarianism or indiscriminate chaos.  Dynamics, p. 312-13

Lovelace seeks to bring together both the bodies that may be more “confessional,” even sectarian in their identities, as well as those that might be more inclusive, “broadly evangelical” or "neo-evangelical" in Lovelace’s terms; of course he does so by encouraging both sides to be aware of their imbalances, need for continual "re-tuning" and ultimate need for "one another." It’s interesting how many of the movements within Christendom, since the formation of Protestantism in the 16th century have been cyclical- “new problems” really are “old problems”; yet, the need to heed the voice of the Holy Spirit saying “There is one body and one Spirit— just as you were called to one hope when you were called— one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6) continues to be as constant as ever.

1 comment:

Principium Unitatis said...

Hello Mike,

I wrote a reply to this post here. I hope it helps us advance toward true unity.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan