Archive for November, 2011

28
Nov
11

What does it mean for the church to be one?

In John 17, Jesus prays the following prayer for the church:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

This text has always been foundational for Christians who are concerned about the unity of Christ’s church.  But there are a broad variety of perspectives on what unity should be all about.  As a kind of follow up to my post on the limits of legitimate diversity, I’m going to summarize six dominant visions of unity that cut across the denominational spectrum.  They aren’t mutually exclusive, though some are definitely in tension with one another.

Spiritual unity:  Evangelicals in particular have often emphasized that Christian unity is primarily a spiritual reality.  This emphasis developed in response to the Catholic and Orthodox emphasis on “organic” unity as the goal toward which all churches should move, and also a way to bolster the legitimacy of protestant denominations as bona fide churches.  This is a basic concept underlying denominationalism – the idea that the existence of separate church bodies is not contrary to God’s will, but an acceptable form of diversity, because underneath all our divisions we are spiritually one in Jesus Christ.

Visible unity: the call for visible unity has been paramount in the ecumenical movement.   The call for unity to be “visible” stresses the fact that unity is not merely spiritual (i.e., “invisible”).  In other words, our unity should be something that can be seen by those outside the church (obviously there’s a clear connection to Jesus’ prayer here – “so that the world may believe”).  Some people equate visible unity with “structural” unity (below), or a denominational mega-merger, but that is not necessarily implied in the concept of visible unity.  But real, shared fellowship, worship, and ministry are certainly part of any concept of visible unity.

Structural unity: Catholic, Anglo-Catholic and Orthodox visions of unity typically include a structural component, although none of these traditions would want to emphasize the structural aspect of unity as paramount.   They would, however, insist on the idea that unity must include structures of authority, notably the historic episcopate.  Other protestant traditions might also envision some structures of unity as being highly expedient or functionally important for the maintaining of unity.

Doctrinal unity: The spiritual unity perspective is often accompanied with some sense that there needs to be a baseline agreement on doctrinal “essentials.”   For many, this means affirmation of the Apostles’ or Nicene Creed.  Others might draw up a list of basics – the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, inspiration of Scripture, and so on.  The flip side of this perspective is that anything that goes beyond the “essentials” is non-essential, and therefore disagreements on non-essentials are not church-dividing.

Unity in service: Another approach has tended to be characterized by the slogan “doctrine divides, service unites.”  People promoting this vision of unity are wary of doctrinal dialogue between churches, and would rather focus on working together on practical issues such as social justice.  The thought here is that most of our divisions are rooted in theological differences, and there isn’t much prospect of convergence on those differences.

Mutual Recognition: Some people feel that the church would be one if we could all recognize one another as legitimate Christian churches.  This might not seem like a big deal for some Christians, but historically many of our churches have condemned each other and declared one another to be outside the boundaries of the church (think Luther calling the Pope the anti-christ).  Some churches also have convictions about what it means to be the church which do not allow them to fully recognize other denominations as legitimate churches. Full recognition, of course, would involve recognizing one another’s ordinations and sacraments as valid.  Great strides have been made towards mutual recognition, but there are still many Christians who do not recognize one another.

Koinonia: A growing number of ecumenical thinkers are focusing on the concept of koinonia as  the best way to think about Christian unity.  This biblical term carries a rich breadth of meanings, including communion, fellowship, participation, and sharing.  The koinonia approach to unity begins with a conception of the Trinity as the divine koinonia, and stresses our koinonia as flowing from and being modeled on the divine kononia.  We participate in the triune communion of perfect love, as God the Father draws us to himself through the sending of Son and the Spirit.  The communion is therefore both “vertical” (between God and humanity) and “horizontal” (a communion that is shared with all who are in Christ).

This final concept has great ecumenical potential, first of all because it does not carry a lot of historical baggage.  It’s not a concept which is “owned” by one particular Christian tradition.  It also has great biblical foundations.

I wouldn’t want to exclude any of these concepts – the question is how they are related to one another, and where the priority lies.  For example, I would agree that unity is a spiritual reality, but I’m not comfortable with the spiritual unity perspective if it’s just used on its own, or as a way of justifying denominational divisions.   I’m still working through these issues now as I write my dissertation, so I don’t have any hard and fast answers, but I find it helpful as an analytic tool to lay out and compare these different visions of unity.

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17
Nov
11

Signs that make me laugh: “Rose Computers and Antiques Enterprise”

Would you buy your computer from an antique dealer?  The odd combination of merchandise reminds me of Bakewell Auto Parts and Pet Supplies.

This place, which actually seems to do alright, is on Danforth between Woodbine and Coxwell.  I love that it’s an “enterprise”.    That really sets them apart from the computer-and-antique competition.

I wonder if you can get old Commodore 64s in there, or 5 inch floppy disks…

What makes somebody want to sell both antiques and computers?  Maybe it’s just really hard to make it in the antique market, because just around the corner is a place advertising “Hair Cutting & Antiques.”

Do you think they use antique scissors?  Straight razors?

10
Nov
11

The faith of the centurion

The story of the healing of the centurion’s servant in Luke 7 ends with a remarkable statement by Jesus: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

What was so great about the centurion’s faith?   I think the answer lies in the contrast between the statement of the Jewish elders (vv. 4-5) and that of the centurion himself (vv. 6-8).

This centurion, evidently a generous man and a good citizen, was able to convince some Jewish elders to speak to Jesus on his behalf.  So, as Luke records it.

When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”

The Jewish elders were impressed by him.  “Jesus, he is worthy of your attention.  He deserves to have you help him.  He is a good man. He loves God’s people. He gives back to the community. He helped build the synagogue!”  Even in those days I guess making a contribution to a building fund was a good way to win friends and influence people.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything, but he does go with them.

And now the story takes a twist.  Jesus never makes it to the centurion’s house; he is stopped in the street.  And there a new set of messengers approach him – friends of the man.  They deliver a message from the centurion, and it is quite different from the message the centurion himself sent.

“Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you.”

There’s quite a difference between  “Lord, this man deserves to have you do this…”  and “Lord…I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.”  The elders were praising his worth, and he is denying it.  He continues,

“But say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I tell this one, ‘Go’, and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes.  I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion, by implication, has just made a very strong confession of faith in Christ. When he says, “But say the word, and my servant will be healed,”  He recognizes that Jesus’ word is as good as his deed; more than that, he knows that Jesus can accomplish whatever he pleases, just by saying the word. The centurion is saying that whatever Jesus says, will come to pass.  Who has that kind of power?  There is only One.

Whenever I read this story and hear the confession of the centurion, I think of Isaiah 55:10-11 –

As the rain and the snow
   come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
   without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
   so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
   It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
   and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. 

“But say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  This is a confession of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  Only God could provide what the centurion was asking for.

What’s interesting about this story is that the centurion says this at a time when the disciples still don’t understand who Jesus is.  They weren’t quite sure what to make of him at this point.  They knew he was special – obviously, they were following him around – but they didn’t realize he was divine.  It is not until two chapters later that Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah of God.

It is truly amazing that this Roman officer – a pagan – has a better sense of who Jesus is than the religious people.  The Jewish elders haven’t figured it out.  The Pharisees and teachers of the law haven’t figured it out.   It’s this foreigner who has to teach them a lesson in faith.

And so it is very fitting then that Jesus says at this point, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”  He has been spending all his time with the people of God, and yet none of them have recognized him as the Son of God.  They question him, they argue with him, they reject him…but this non-religious soldier recognizes him and shows great faith in him.

And the greatness of his faith is found precisely in the fact that he trusts not in his own worth, but in the power of God’s Word.

The elders say, “he deserves it”; the man says, “I don’t deserve it, but say the word”;  And Jesus says, “now that’s faith!”

03
Nov
11

The Limits of Legitimate Diversity in the Church

When people ask me about my thesis topic, I usually just say I’m working on the question of unity and diversity in the church.   I think a non-specialist can make some sense of that, whereas “the theology of ecclesial charisms” is a bit obscure.

But even the question of “diversity” in the church is more complicated than it first appears.   In the past few decades it has become standard practice in ecumenical circles to state that diversity is essential for true unity.  This is certainly true.   But it begs the question, “What kind of diversity are we talking about?”  Does all diversity contribute to unity?  Of course not.  There must be some limits to the kind of diversity that is acceptable, as well as the degree of diversity that will be tolerated.    While there is general agreement that unity requires diversity, there is little agreement among the churches as to what constitutes legitimate diversity.

Part of the issue is simply naming the different kinds of diversity that already exist in the church.  I’ve come up with a list of six categories.  These are not mutually exclusive, but interrelated, with many of the categories impacting on one another:

1. Doctrinal diversity.  For many people, this is the first kind of diversity that comes to mind.  How much diversity of doctrinal formulation is acceptable? Can we distinguish “essential” doctrine from “secondary doctrine?  On what basis?   This involves  important questions about the nature of human knowledge and language.  To borrow the categories from George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine: if you have a “propositionalist” understanding of doctrine, you will approach questions of doctrinal disagreement from a very different perspective from those who operate from “experiential-expressivist” presuppositions.

2. Ethical/moral diversity.  This is becoming a hot-button issue between the churches, as debates continue regarding human sexuality.  Are there ethical issues on which diversity in the church is unacceptable? Are diverse views regarding moral and social issues a secondary consideration in comparison to doctrinal diversity, or are they of equal significance? To put the question more directly, are moral issues church-dividing?

3. Cultural / historical diversity. Some differences between churches are based on context.   People in different cultural or historical contexts will, to a greater or lesser degree, proclaim the Christian faith in different ways.  How much cultural variation in doctrine, worship, polity, and morality is acceptable?  A related question: is it acceptable for churches to be formed on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic status? (Here we might consider H. Richard Niebuhr’s demonstration of how denominations simply mirror social divisions in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, and compare his argument with the “homogenous units” approach of the church growth movement).

4. Denominational/confessional diversity.  Are denominations an acceptable form of diversity? I think most protestants simply assume they are, but theologically this is a very debatable issue.  Under this category we must consider a) the “institutional” separation of Christians in different organizational structures and the challenges this creates for recognizing one another’s ministries, sacraments, etc., and b) the various “identities” that emerge from the distinct denominational histories.  Are these a threat to unity or do they contribute to it? In short, what is the proper place of denominational distinctives?

5. Liturgical diversity. Do we need standards / rubrics for worship?  The major Christian traditions have very different perspectives on this question.  Again, some simply assume that diverse worship practices are normal, while others feel that common worship ought to be something which unites all Christians.  Historically, this has been a very significant question, and has led to some schisms (i.e., the Puritan objection to Anglican forms of worship).

6. Missional diversity. Can different Christian groups have “distinctive missions” or distinctive vocations, or are we all supposed to have the same mission? On what basis and in what situations can such diversity be justified? As examples, we might think of Salvation Army ministry to the marginalized, or Mennonite peace advocacy, etc.   At first glance, it seems fine to simply affirm that Mennonites are a “peace church,” and therefore they should pursue their mission as peacemakers.  But Mennonites don’t believe in peacemaking because it’s a Mennonite distinctive: they believe in it because they believe it is part of the Christian gospel, and so they think all Christians are called to be peacemakers.  Still, might there be other vocations which are specific to a certain part of the church?

In relation to all of the above, there are multiple questions which need to be asked, such as:  Are our differences mutually exclusive, or potentially complementary?  Are the historical reasons for separation between churches still significant, or should we try to forget about them in an attempt to appreciate one another’s distinctive contributions? Do diverse groups need to apologize to one another and repent for past divisions?  Once they have apologized, does the apology turn church-dividing issues into healthy diversities?  To what extent can the diversity of the New Testament canon provide insight into these issues?

I’m throwing all these questions out there as a way of suggesting that it’s not enough to simply say, “Diversity is essential for unity.” If we stop with the simple affirmation of “diversity” in general, we will end up giving legitimacy to all of our differences – as if all diversity was good in and of itself.   While it’s true that unity requires diversity, that truth should lead us to a much bigger set of conversations, involving all the issues above, and probably many more.  If we want unity as well as diversity, we’ve got to tackle the tough question of the limits of legitimate diversity.




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