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.

Doctrine in The Salvation Army Tradition

From 2007 to 2010, the Commission on Faith and Witness (Canadian Council of Churches) engaged its members in a dialogue regarding the role of doctrine in the life of the church.   The fruits of this dialogue are reported in the current issue of Ecumenism, published by the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism in Montreal.  Each commission member was asked to articulate their tradition’s answer to the following questions:

  1. What is dogma or doctrine in your tradition?
  2. What are considered to be doctrinal statements?
  3. Who can make doctrinal statements?
  4. What is the relation between doctrine and revelation?
  5. How does your tradition view the first seven ecumenical councils?
  6. How does your tradition understand the reliability of Scripture?
  7. What are those shared convictions without which the Church’s mission would be seriously impaired, or even become.

While ecumenical dialogues often aim at producing some sort of consensus statement, members reported that during this particular dialogue, it became clear at the outset that no consensus would be achieved.  The membership of the commission is very broad, including Catholics, Orthodox, historic Protestants, radical reformation, and evangelical traditions.  Some of these traditions are committed to holding fast to formal statements of  belief (creeds and confessions), while others have historically been opposed to creeds of any kind.

In an introductory article, Gilles Mongeau, Paul Ladouceur, and Arnold Neufeldt-Fast note the general commonalities that they identified in the process:

Every member Church holds to the necessity of some doctrine, explicit or implicit, as a reference point.   In all cases, one or more documents exist which lay out this doctrine, though the authority and form of these documents varies greatly. In all cases, Scripture, tradition, reason, and religious experience interact in some way in the emergence of doctrine.  Similarly, the role of some form of reception by the community of the faithful is a strong component of all of the traditions represented.  Finally, the presenters of the papers agree that the fullness of truth resides in God alone, and that the truth of doctrines is eschatological, that is, oriented to a future complete fulfillment or plenitude.
“Introduction to the Working Papers on Doctrine,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 5-6.

While I wasn’t part of the actual discussion, I was able to participate by revising and expanding the Salvation Army contribution to this publication, originally written by Kester Trim, and entitled “Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition.”   It is interesting to consider doctrine in the SA’s life via a comparison with the role it plays in the life of other traditions.   Some of our observations that are relevant to the above:

The Salvation Army is not known for placing a particular emphasis on doctrine.  This is not because doctrine is unimportant for Salvationists, but because The Salvation Army has customarily emphasized evangelism and service, rather than theological scholarship.  Nevertheless, The Salvation Army’s official doctrines are viewed as essential to its corporate life and witness.
“Doctrine in the Salvation Army Tradition,” Ecumenism 179-180 (Fall/Winter 2010): 36.

The Army is an interesting ecumenical partner in this dialogue, as it is on many issues, because it treats doctrine as essential, but tries to avoid doctrinal controversy.  It wants its doctrine to be clear, but Salvationists haven’t wanted to spend much time developing their doctrinal tradition.  It envisioned its brief 11 articles as a minimalist list of essentials, which would allow the SA to be “an evangelisitic force free from the entanglements of doctrinal controversy” (Ibid., 37).

Of course, it is not easy to remain aloof from doctrinal controversy!  First of all, the Army’s doctrines are clearly Wesleyan, and therefore anti-Calvinist:

In these brief 11 articles of faith, one can see the seminal Wesleyan themes of total depravity (Article 5), universal atonement (Article 6), justification by faith (Article 8), assurance through the witness of the Spirit (Article 8), and a strong emphasis on sanctification (Articles 9 and 10) (Ibid., 37).

Secondly, from the perspective of “implicit doctrine,” the obvious point of controversy would be the sacraments.  Even here, a large part of Booth’s motivation was to avoid controversy.

The Army’s non-observant stance on the sacraments had its historical precedent in the tradition of the Society of Friends, but was also justified in part by the above-mentioned desire to avoid theological controversy (since the sacraments have often been a matter of theological dispute in Christian history).  It was not Booth’s intent to disrespect the practice of other traditions, nor to make it a matter of dispute. Moreover, Salvationists have never been prohibited from from partaking of the Lord’s Supper in other traditions where they are welcome, and are free to be baptized if they feel it to be of importance (Ibid., 37-38).

Avoiding controversy is a noble aim, but very difficult to achieve in practice.  I would suggest that recent sacramental statements of the Army have lost this early irenic tone and approach, and have become much more controversial than Booth would have liked.  Also, I think one needs to be careful that a desire to be non-controversial does not become a justification for avoiding deep theological discussion, and meaningful engagement with ecumenical partners.