Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements, Part 7: Charisms as Justification for Separation

One final perspective on charisms which needs to be discussed here is found in Oscar Cullmann’s 1986 book Unity Through Diversity.  Cullmann’s fundamental thesis in this work is that “every Christian confession has a permanent spiritual gift, a charisma, which is should preserve, nurture, purify, and deepen, and which should not be given up for the sake of homogenization” (Unity Through Diversity, 9).  Cullmann is concerned that the frustration of some with an apparent lack of progress towards unity is based on a “false goal” and a false hope of homogenization, which has no basis in the New Testament (14). The goal of unity should rather be a “union of all Christian churches within which each would preserve its valuable elements, including its structure” (15).

In making this argument, Cullmann claims to be drawing upon Paul’s understanding of the Church, which is “entirely based upon this fundamental truth of the variety of charisms” (18).  Basing his argument on the Pauline texts that deal with the charismatic gifts, he argues that unity can exist through diversity, rather than in spite of diversity.  The function of the Spirit in Pauline community is to create diversity, and yet “this does not cause fragmentation, since every member is oriented to the goal of the unity of the whole body” (17).  While he acknowledges that the Pauline image of the body and its parts was not originally intended to apply to churches, he argues that it is consistent with the meaning of Paul’s charismatic theology, and that Paul does, in other places, ascribe various “gifts” to different churches.

I expected to hear more from Cullmann on this point, but his sole support is a reference Romans 1:11 as an example of Paul ascribing a “particular mission to each of the different churches.” He goes on to argue that Paul views the one church to be present in each local church, a point which he believes underscores the idea of a “union of churches” where all are given equal ecclesial status (17).

Cullmann insists that he is not suggesting that things should simple remain as they are between the churches.  He suggests that relations between the churches should proceed on the basis of attempting to speak frankly to one another about the charism or charisms that we see in each other’s traditions (19).  He also notes that there are often “peculiarities” or “distortions” of the charismatic gifts that need to be weeded out by careful self-examination (16).  For example, Cullmann identifies essential charisms of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions as “concentration on the Bible” and “freedom,” but notes that these are often found in their corresponding distorted form biblicism and anarchy (20).

What clearly sets Cullmann apart in his proposals is that he speaks of a charism as being at the root of “every confession,” and that he argues that separation and autonomy might be necessary in order for these charisms to be safeguarded. The sinful element in these historic divisions is not the fact that churches are separate, but the fact that the separations have been hostile, rather than peaceful.

But in order to preserve certain charisms in their pure form, it was perhaps also necessary hat completely autonomous churches came into being (the Orthodox and the churches that derived from the Reformation). This would not necessarily and as such have led to a hostile separation which would have excluded every kind of fellowship (koinonia), the “right hand of fellowship” could have been extended here too, despite the aspect of continuing separation, as at the apostolic council (cf. Gal. 2:9; Acts 15:1-31) (31).

What Cullmann is arguing for, then, is a unity in continued separation, in which churches would remain autonomous but share in fellowship through a council or other structure of some kind.

The main thing is the achievement of a koinonia that is a true unity through diversity.  However it is developed as a conciliar organization, it should, without itself being the church as the body of Christ, guarantee unity through the fact that it brings to expression and awareness that in each of the individual churches that belong to it, and with its particular charisms, confessional structure, faith and life, the ONE universal church is present (64).

I’ll finish off this series (finally!) with some concluding thoughts on the typology in my next post.


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