Mission and Unity

I’ve recently published an article in Missio Dei: Tyndale Seminary’s Journal of Missional Christianity,  entitled “That the World May Believe: Mission and Unity.”   It’s not a long read, and not overly specialized, since Missio Dei is a journal aimed at all Christian leaders, not just academics.  The journal aims to utilize the expertise of faculty and friends of the Tyndale community in such a way as to help equip Christian leaders in their day to day participation in God’s mission.

The article begins with John 17, in which Jesus prays for the church to be one, “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  This text suggests that there is a strong connection between Christian unity and Christian witness.  However, Christians have never really been able to agree as to what Jesus was really saying when he prayed “that they may be one.”

The article proceeds with a discussion of seven different approaches to Christian unity: spiritual, visible, structural, doctrinal, service, mutual recognition, koinonia.   Some of these approaches are usually identified with one particular Christian tradition, but they are not mutually exclusive, and can be combined in various ways.

The second half of the article suggests that evangelicals in particular could re-examine their aversion to one of these approaches: visible unity.

I would also sug­gest that, in a post-Christendom con­text, it is time to re-examine evangelicalism’s char­ac­ter­is­tic aver­sion to con­cep­tions of “vis­i­ble unity.” In a pre­vi­ous era, when estab­lished state churches could insti­tute a kind of false unity by coer­cion, it made sense for evan­gel­i­cals to resist such con­cep­tions of “vis­i­ble” unity and stand up for our free­dom to assem­ble and wor­ship accord­ing to con­science. How­ever, we no longer live in a time when state power is aligned with one par­tic­u­lar denom­i­na­tion, and so the idea of a “vis­i­ble unity” need not carry those con­no­ta­tions. We have also rightly resisted approaches to unity which pushed towards the build­ing of a “super­church” with a cen­tral­ized bureau­cracy. But “vis­i­ble unity” need not be taken in this direc­tion, either.

To say that our unity ought to be “vis­i­ble” is sim­ply to say that the church’s unity must take shape in the world, as the church lives out its life in space and time. We can’t just pay lip-service to the unity we have been promised in Christ. In order for our unity to serve the pur­pose of wit­ness­ing to the world about Jesus, it must be a unity that is on dis­play for the world to see.

Head on over to Missio Dei to read the whole article, and while you’re there, check out the archives.

The Salvation Army and the Paulist Fathers: two interesting cases of missional diversity in the church

I’m switching gears now with my dissertation and moving into writing about two historical case studies: The Salvation Army and the Paulist Fathers.   While these two particular movements might seem like an odd pair, there are a number of reasons why I’m looking at them.

First of all, there are a number of similarities between their two founders, William Booth and Isaac Hecker.   They were near-contemporaries in age (Booth lived 1829-1912 and Hecker 1819-1888).  Both have Methodist roots, with Booth originally ordained in a Methodist tradition  and Hecker raised at Forsyth Street Church in New York City.  Both are, in many respects, men of their time, typifying the optimistic, industrious, world-encompassing spirit of the nineteenth century.  Both were “home missionaries,” who brought a missionary approach to ministry in their native countries, and each could be classified as “revivalists” in their respective traditions.  Both Booth and Hecker began their ministries in other movements – Booth the Methodist New Connexion, Hecker the Redemptorists – and both ended up branching out to found their own missionary societies because of conflicts with established leadership of those movements.  Finally, both eventually developed comprehensive visions for the worldwide mission of the Church.

I’m also interested in these two movements because they both raise interesting questions about unity and diversity in the church – questions I think might be addressed using the theology of ecclesial charisms.

The Salvation Army is an interesting case because of its original insistence that it was a missionary movement, and not a church, even while it remained independent of any formal ties to a church. Its members were not members of any other churches, creating the strange situation where Salvationists could claim to be Christians but to not be part of any church.  A decisive historical moment in the movement’s history came in 1882, when a series of serious discussions with the Church of England caused William Booth to ask himself if The Salvation Army should remain an independent mission or be placed under the auspices of the Church (if you’re interested in this episode see Roger Green, The Life and Ministry of William Booth, 140-145). The fact that such discussions took place shows that Booth was not completely sure whether or not he wanted the Army to remain autonomous.  The fact that they decided to remain independent was the result, I believe, of a lack of clarity regarding ecclesiological questions (noted by Green, p. 144-145).  The Army’s independence was of decisive significance for its future course, including its non-sacramental stance and its slow progression towards claiming “churchly” status.

The Paulists, on the other hand, were never outside of the Church’s fold, but rather press the question of unity and diversity from the side of the Church’s authoritative discernment.  First of all, very early in their history they were forced to make a compromise regarding their specific mission.  The founding members wanted to be an exclusively missionary society, but they could not find a Bishop who would support them unless they took on a parish.  This meant that they had to divert some of their energy to traditional parish concerns.  It seems that the bishops they approached did not recognize the particular gift of the Paulists, and so, in order to remain a part of the Catholic church, they were forced to compromise.  Another Paulist “gift” that wasn’t recognized was Hecker’s progressive ecclesiology, in which he saw the Spirit at work, adapting the Church to particular cultures and places, in concert with the providential developments in each society.  In Americathis meant making Catholicism more “American,” by becoming more democratic and embracing the separation of Church and state. This was not received well by a Catholic hierarchy which was struggling to ensure uniformity around the world, and had been marginalized by democratic governments throughout the nineteenth century.    After Hecker’s death, his ideas were taken out of context and twisted into the “phantom heresy” of “Americanism,” which was censured by Pope Leo XIII in Testem Benevolentiae, issued in 1899.

If the theology of charisms is in fact useful in helping us to understand reform movements as a legitimate form of diversity in the Church, then it should be able to be applied to these two cases.  My hope is that a study of their history and self-understanding, along with a sustained critical engagement with the theology of charisms in the context of the question of the church’s visible unity, will clarify some of the questions surrounding the limits of legitimate diversity in the church.

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.

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.

Unity requires conversion

NOTE: This post is my contribution the Rally to Restore Unity, hosted by Rachel Held Evans.  Head on over to her site, check out the wealth of great posts and hilarious signs about unity, and while you’re at it, consider donating to Charity:Water.

Anyone who is interested in the topic of Christian unity has got to read John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint, published in 1995.  And with JPII being beatified last weekend, there’s no better time than the present to acquaint yourself with one of the former Pope’s most remarkable pieces of writing.

If you haven’t read it, and you’re a protestant, you’ll be moved by his humility, his wisdom, and his deep spiritual insight.   If you haven’t read it, and you’re a Catholic, you might be surprised that he doesn’t see Christian unity as merely being about a “return to Rome” (my Catholic friends tell me that many Catholics make that assumption).

Particularly towards the end, when discussing the role of the Pope in the quest for Christian unity, he says some very interesting things.  There’s his remarkable request for forgiveness from those who have “certain painful recollections” caused by actions of the Papacy in the past (§88).  Then, his reflections on Peter’s human weakness and helplessness as a grounding for his own “Petrine” ministry are an attempt to show that he by no means considers himself “qualified” for the job (§§90-93).  This is followed up by a request for help from Christian leaders of other traditions in envisioning a re-shaped Papacy that they might receive as a ministry of unity:

I insistently pray the Holy Spirit to shine his light upon us, enlightening all the Pastors and theologians of our Churches, that we may seek—together, of course—the forms in which this ministry may accomplish a service of love recognized by all concerned…This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out by myself. Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church and allowing ourselves to be deeply moved by his plea “that they may all be one … so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21)? (§§95-96)

Adding to this spirit of humility is the way John Paul speaks of the quest for Christian unity as involving a conversion.  To be clear, he’s NOT saying that non-Catholics have to convert to Catholicism!  He’s saying that Christian unity requires conversion on the part of all Christians.  Of course he isn’t being original in saying, so but hearkening back to the teaching of Vatican II:

There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart (Unitatis Redintegratio, §4).

The conversion that the Pope (and the Council) are calling for is both personal and communal.   It is not simply a call to be nice and civilized to one another, but a call to “be more radically converted to the Gospel,” (Ut Unum Sint, §15) by which each of us is irrevocably bound to one another.   Today, we have become so accustomed to divisions between Christians that many of us seldom think about it, but our disunity is a scandal, and an open contradiction of the one faith, one Lord, and one baptism which we all share.

Rooting the call to Christian unity in the gospel itself means that JPII is calling us to recognize that unity is not an afterthought for Christian life and mission.

Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed “that they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape (Ut Unum Sint, §9).

Connecting unity, the gospel, and mission in this way is unsettling, because anyone can see that we fall far short of expressing the depth of God’s love in the way we alienate one another.  The only response possible is repentance and renewal – a conversion of our divided thinking, our divided practices, and our divided identities.

If anyone is thinking that this all sounds very Catholic, and that it therefore doesn’t apply to you (well, first of all, that way of thinking in itself is something to repent of), go and read the sections of the Cape Town Commitment that deal with unity and mission.  For example: “A divided Church has no message for a divided world. Our failure to live in reconciled unity is a major obstacle to authenticity and effectiveness in mission” (§IIF).

Protestants like myself tend to think of “conversion” as a one-time thing, but in Catholic thinking, conversion is seen as a lifelong process – a continual, Spirit-driven turning of the person away from sin and towards God and the truly human life which God desires for us and has pioneered for us in Jesus Christ.   Ecumenism (which I use broadly to refer to any efforts to restore unity among Christians) can be used by God to initiate this kind of continual turning.   As we encounter brothers and sisters of other traditions, we are drawn toward their examples of Christian life and their spiritual traditions – which often contain insights that are new to us.  At the same time, we are made more aware of the many ways in which our divisions impoverish and hinder the life and mission of the church as a whole.  JPII says it this way:

Thanks to ecumenism, our contemplation of “the mighty works of God” (mirabilia Dei) has been enriched by new horizons, for which the Triune God calls us to give thanks: the knowledge that the Spirit is at work in other Christian Communities, the discovery of examples of holiness, the experience of the immense riches present in the communion of saints, and contact with unexpected dimensions of Christian commitment. In a corresponding way, there is an increased sense of the need for repentance: an awareness of certain exclusions which seriously harm fraternal charity, of certain refusals to forgive, of a certain pride, of an unevangelical insistence on condemning the “other side”, of a disdain born of an unhealthy presumption. Thus, the entire life of Christians is marked by a concern for ecumenism; and they are called to let themselves be shaped, as it were, by that concern (§15).

I hope the Rally to Restore Unity has been a time of conversion for at least some of Christ’s disciples – a time for celebrating the enriching differences among us, but also a time for repenting of the sinful divisions which keep us apart and obscure our witness to the gospel.

Ecclesial homelessness

Some comments here from Stanley Hauerwas on “ecclesial homelessness,” an increasingly familiar situation for many people today.   What he means by describing himself as “ecclesially homeless” is that he isn’t clearly rooted in one particular Christian tradition.   As he says here, he considers himself to be a Methodist.  But, as he accounts in his memoir, he has attended a variety of churches over the years, including a Catholic church while he taught at Notre Dame, and the Anglican church where he worships today (and where his wife, a Methodist pastor, serves on the pastoral staff).   Here are his thoughts, from a Christianity Today interview last Fall:

I call myself an ecclesial whore. I don’t know why God made some of us ecclesially homeless. I would like to think it has some ecumenical promise. Let me be clear: I am a Methodist. By that, I mean I think John Wesley was a recovery of Catholic Christianity through disciplined congregational life. Therefore, now that I am a communicant in the Church of the Holy Family [Episcopal Church], I understand myself still to be Methodist because I think the Episcopal Church is the embodiment of much that Wesley cared about. I think that’s true in much of Roman Catholicism. I don’t think any of us should look to Christian unity by thinking we can heal divisions of the past by some kind of artificial agreement. But by going forward, trying to live faithful to the charisms [gifts] within our ecclesial identifications, God hopefully will bring us into unity.

Hauerwas seems to suggest here that being Methodist doesn’t necessarily mean worshiping in a Methodist Church.   He can, as he says, live faithful to the charisms of his Methodist identity while being a communicant at Holy Family.

There are many today who find themselves in similar situations.  I personally know of Methodists worshiping at Presbyterian churches, Mennonites at Anglican churches, and Lutherans at Reformed churches.   I myself continue to identify as a Salvationist, though I presently worship at a Free Methodist church.

The lines of denominational demarcation are getting blurrier, but what does it all mean?  Are we entering a post-denominational landscape?  Do people even care about traditional differences of doctrine, worship, and polity, which were so divisive in the past?

With Hauerwas, I think this new situation has some ecumenical promise, although I also worry that it is due, at least in part, to cynical apathy regarding any kind of formal institutions.    The promising thing is that walls are coming down, and people are willing to worship, fellowship, and serve with people from another denominational background without thinking much about it.  In this sense, people on the ground are actually way ahead of their denominational institutions, which often remain relatively isolated.

The danger, of course, is that there are some real historical disagreements which should be aired out and discussed, rather than ignored through an easy ecumenism which treats differences as unimportant.

There’s something more to Hauerwas’ comment here, though, as it relates to the whole idea of ecclesial charisms.  He presumes that a Christian person can live out the charisms of one historic tradition while being part of a community that is based in another tradition (hence his status as a Methodist communicant in an Anglican parish).   I’m not sure how much he has thought about this, but it seems he presumes (as I am arguing in my dissertation) that charisms are personal, even when they are identified with a community like Methodism.

That is, properly speaking, the Methodist charisms are not borne by the Methodist community as a whole, but by the persons who call themselves Methodist.  The communal aspects of Methodism might encourage and cultivate those charisms, but at the end of the day, persons are the bearers of the diverse vocational charismata.

In that sense, it should be quite possible for a person to exercise one ecclesial charism in a context which is not normally identified with that charism.  Actually, I would say that this would make more sense than isolating large numbers of people with a particular charism from other parts of the church!

This is also why Methodism was intended in Wesley’s day to exist as a leaven in the Church of England, not as an independent church.   Though the Methodists were to have their own gatherings, which came in various forms, they were to remain within the church, worshiping alongside others in the C of E on Sundays, where the gifts that they brought could excite a renewal among the established structures.

This all might seem pretty far removed from the contemporary issue of “ecclesial homelessness,” but I think there could be a connection, and the changing denominational landscape of the twenty-first century just might make such a vision of the church more plausible than it was in the previous century.

Methodism as religious society-become-church

Continuing on the theme I posted last week: In the quote below, Albert Outler reflects on the origins of Methodism as a religious society, with a view to the way this has evolved in Methodist history.  As with many such renewal movements, Methodism became a sort of hybrid of “movement” and “church,” and its peculiar structures, practices, and culture reflect this inherited tension.  While the tension can be fruitful, it sometimes produces a certain amount of confusion regarding the nature of the movement-church, both for the membership of the movement-church and for their fellow Christians.

It is interesting that this text comes from the same time as the Rupp essay on Wesley as prophet.  In the wake of Vatican II, there was great optimism regarding the possibilities of visible Christian union.  Both Rupp and Outler are keen to stress Wesley’s insistence on Methodism’s ecclesial location as a movement within the Church of England, raised up in “extraordinary” circumstances to meet a particular need.   From the perspective of “ecclesial charisms,” the vocation to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the land” through the “irregular” ministry of lay preachers could be seen as the particular Methodist charism.

What happens when the specialized movement takes on the character of a “church”?  The original charism and vocation cannot help but be hampered, because the Methodists are now focused on doing all the things that the church does, rather than the specific vocation around which they were formed.  The church at large also suffers the impoverishment of being cut off from the ministry of those with the particular Methodist charism.   Again, with Rupp, he wants to stress that Wesley only broke with the Church of England because it was necessary for the provision of the mission of the Church in America.

Here is the quote, from That the World May Believe: a study of Christian unity and what it means for Methodists (New York: Board of Missions of the Methodist Church, 1966), pp. 59-63.

Methodism is a religious society that became a church without the complete loss of its character as a religious society.  Methodists are not always mindful – and many non-Methodists are not even aware –  of this dual inheritance from both the Catholic and Protestant traditions in the Christian community, an experiment in the fusion of “justification by faith alone” with a disciplined ethic of “faith working by love.”  The history of this society-become-church is often confusing both to ourselves and to our neighbours.  We are usually reckoned among the pietists – but no typically pietist group ever had anything like our General Rules and Discipline.  We classify ourselves as Protestants, but none of the classical traditions of continental Protestantism had anything like the Wesleyan ideal of “Christian perfection” and the Wesleyan concept of evangelical morality.   And yet, if the quintessential formula for ecumenism is something like “consensus in faith, community in worship, unity in mission,” then it would be true to say that Methodism has been ecumenical from the beginning.  John Wesley was a rebel and a church reformer, a critic of the standing order, and a rude disturber of the false peace of Zion.  Because he was convinced that the regular ministries of the Church of England were failing in their mission to the nation, he felt authorized by the Holy Spirit to raise up an irregular ministry of gospel proclamation and to organize a network of religious societies in England, Wales, Ireland – and later, America.  To these he gave a distinctive set of “General Rules,” a peculiar pattern of organization (classes, bands, etc.), a novel principle of lay-leadership, and a communal ethos that marked off the Methodists from the Non-conformists as well as from the “High Churchmen.”

Despite all this, Wesley was no separatist. He never lifted a finger to overthrow the power structure of the Established Church nor even to invade it.  The Methodists were ill-treated, but Wesley held them in the church and kept them loyal to the sacraments.  The Anglican bishops reacted in varying degrees of distaste and bafflement, but they wisely refrained from any resort to formal excommunication in dealing with these Wesleyan irregulars.

This self-image of an evangelical order within an inclusive church was not effaced even when the Methodist societies developed into separate churches with sacramental ministries of their own.   Thus we learned – or might have learned – that wide diversity within an inclusive fellowship is not only tolerable but can actually be a vital service to the cause of authentic unity.  The early Methodists deliberately retained their distinct ties with the ancient and universal community but, quite as deliberately, they insisted on their freedom in Christian mission and nurture.  Wesley had no qualms in his use of laymen as preachers in the Revival and as leaders of the societies.  At the same time, he refused, on principle, to allow these laymen to administer the sacraments which were available in the Church of England.  He even forbade Methodist preaching services to be scheduled in competition with “church hours.”  Given the violent and divisive spirit of the age, this uneasy maintenance of the Methodist societies within the unity of “Mother Church” is one of the most remarkable incidents in Protestant church history.  When, however, the American Revolution had deprived the Methodists in the new republic of any ordained ministry for the sacraments, Wesley proceeded – by his ordinations of Richard Whatcoat, Thomas Vasey, and Thomas Coke – to remedy this defect himself rather than to approve the pattern of sectarian self-ordination by laymen begun by Philip Gatch and others at the Fluvanna Conference of 1779.

Where was Outler going with this?  His phrase at the start of the last paragraph is telling, where he speaks of Methodist “self-image” as that of “an evangelical order within an inclusive church.”   I believe Outler longed for this to be recaptured in some way, although he was clear that this would be costly: “We are, or ought to be, willing to risk our life as a separate church and to face death as a denomination in the sure and lively hope of our resurrection in the true community of the whole people of God” (p. 75).

Love: the greatest gift or something greater?

1 Corinthians 13 is one of the most well-known passages of scripture. Because it is often read at weddings, it is even well known to non-Christians.  Because it is often read on its own, I think many of us think of 1 Corinthians 13 as a stand-alone unit within the Bible.  However, in its context, it actually forms an integral part of Paul’s teaching on charisms.

Paul Kariuki Njiru’s book, Charisms and the Holy Spirit’s Activity in the Body of Christ (Rome: Editrice Pontificia Università Gregoriana, 2002), does a good job of outlining the Paul’s rhetorical structure throughout 1 Corinthians 12 to 14.  He summarizes the overall structure this way:

A Spiritual gifts in general (1 Cor. 12)

B Love as the most excellent way (1 Cor. 13)

A’ Spiritual gifts in particular: prophecy versus tongues (1 Cor. 14)

A more detailed breakdown of the various concentric rhetorical structures within chapters 12-14 is found on page 68.  The bottom line is that the famous “love chapter” is not a stand alone tribute to love in general, nor is it a later interpolation by an unknown editor (as some have suggested), but it is the focal point and climax of Paul’s discussion of charisms.

Paul’s method of writing is very rhetorical, and, by the use of concentric figures, he achieves the effect of emphasizing the importance of love as a regulatory principle in the use of spiritual gifts in the Church.  For the Apostle it is love that must govern the use of all charisms (49).

I think this exegesis is clear enough.  It also raises an interesting question: is Paul presenting love as the pre-eminent of all divine gifts, or is he specifically contrasting transitory gifts with the eternal love of God?

Njiru suggests that Paul is presenting love as “the gift par excellence” (60).  However, the broader consensus seems to be that Paul is intent on making a contrast here between the charismata of chapter 12 and 14 and love.   This comes out particularly in 13:8

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.

Love, then, is not one gift among others, but that without which the gifts are made void, useless, and even divisive.  It may properly be described as a “fruit” of the Spirit (Galatians 5), but not a charism.  This tells us something important about charisms: they are provisional, rather than enduring.   Part of the problem in Corinth was that they were allowing pride regarding particular charisms to divide their fellowship, thereby showing that they valued charisms above the love that they were to have for one another. 

Ecclesially, if we think of particular communions or traditions within the church as having ecclesial charisms, we can see how 1 Corinthians 12-14 could stand as a rebuke for our divisions.  A particular group within the church which separates from others on the basis of a particular gift or set of gifts is, to take up Paul’s image, like the eye saying to the hand, “I don’t need you!” (12:21).

Typology of Views on Charismatic Movements: Conclusion

To recap, I’ve been presenting a series of posts on charismatic movements, outlining a typology of views, as follows:

  • Charismatic more fundamental than institutional (Leonardo Boff).

While this survey shows that there is a significant body of literature on the theology of charisms and charismatic movements (and a wide divergence of viewpoints), I would argue that numerous questions remain which need to be addressed.

Significantly, for the most part, the literature on charisms has not been significantly incorporated into discussions of unity and diversity.   Of course, Cullman’s argument attempts to do this, but I would argue that he has disassociated the biblical idea of charisms from its original vocational context and applied it too liberally to all confessions, thereby inappropriately justifying continued separation across the board.  Also, it is apparent throughout his argument that his major concerns are with the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and magisterial protestant traditions, but he offers no criteria by which we should distinguish these separations as “legitimate” as compared with more recent protestant schisms.  Would he support, for example, the continual splintering of pentecostal and independent charismatic churches on the grounds of protecting their particular charism?

Further, his model suggests that there is a charismatic gift at the root of all church divisions.  While I believe there are many confessions or denominations in the Church today that began with such a misapprehension of charisms, this is certainly not the case in every situation.  It seems nonsensical to speak of the English reformation, for example, being rooted an unrecognized charism.  We might speak of Anglican charisms that developed in the subsequent history of Anglicanism, but if the separation of the Church of England from Rome was not rooted in a charism, we must question the validity of using such post-division gifts as a reason for continued structural separation.

Other uses of the idea of “gifts” as a way of discussing diversity in ecumenical documents have not delved into the biblical theology of charisms, nor asked questions about the appropriateness of applying the term to traditions / denominations / confessions.  Though the idea of “complementary gifts” has been a helpful way to build ecumenical bridges, it should not be used to construct a positive vision for ecclesial unity which justifies continued “separation.”

Where the idea of charisms has been incorporated in a more sustained way into a vision of the unity of the Church is in Catholic literature on the religious life, but little work has been done in attempting to apply the insights of this perspective to protestant reform movements. The comparison has sometimes been made, but not explored in much theological depth (See, for example, Outler’s remarks on Methodism as an “order,” in That the World may Believe, 54).

The weakness of some Catholic approaches, especially those which stress the complementarity of charism and institution, is that they are not helpful in interpreting the divisive history of renewal and reform movements in the life of the Church.  The question is of paramount importance, particularly for the many evangelical protestant denominations which began as reform, renewal, or missionary movements, with no intention of starting new “churches.”  In evangelical circles, partly because of the prevalence of free church ecclesiology, the tendency has been to emphasize the significance of the movements and downplay the importance of historical continuity.

All this is to say that I think significant work needs to be done on the topic of  “group” charisms, and how this concept  fits into the larger discussion about the limits of legitimate diversity in the Church.