By Halden Doerge and Ry Siggelkow
In recent discussions around here the issue of ecumenism has come up, and in particular the question has been raised about what we are to think theologically about the question of the church’s tangible disunity. In light of these discussions, my friend Ry Siggelkow and I spent some time working through what we think are some of the vital issues at stake in this important theological question, and to that end we offer these reflections in the hope that the cause of the church’s unity may in some small way be served.
That our concern is unity may not at once be obvious, as it is our contention that the most important way in which we can contribute to Christian unity and mission today is by actively working towards the end of ecumenism. Let us be quite clear about this, by “end” we do not mean “telos” or “goal.” We speak here not of working for the ultimate outworking and fruition of the project of ecumenism. Rather we are calling for the abandonment and termination of this project as such. Moreover it is our contention that this is necessary precisely for the sake of the unity of the church.
At the outset we must be clear what is meant by “ecumenism” as such. Certainly there are a variety of ways in which different churches and theologians have spoken of and pursued ecumenical endeavors, and there would be different lines of critique and engagement necessary in regard to many of the different forms that ecumenical impulse has taken in the history of the church. However, speaking broadly—but not, we contend, inaccurately—ecumenism can be properly understood as the effort of churches who, finding themselves not in fellowship with other churches, seek to bring about the unity that is lacking between them. Ecumenism speaks of the attempt, on the part of separated churches, to acknowledge and seek to address the reasons for their separation from one another.
What is important to see about the nature of ecumenism here is twofold. Ecumenism is fundamentally premised on the recognition of other churches as truly Christian, and on the recognition that, for various reasons, unity between these separated groups of Christians does not exist. Ecumenism involves the affirmation both of common belonging to Jesus Christ as Lord, and the affirmation that, despite this common belonging, we are not reconciled with one another for various reasons. The ecumenical problem, and its efforts to solve this problem are premised on this central conviction, that we are indeed brothers and sisters, but we are not reconciled and thus must work, through dialogue to become so reconciled.
As such, ecumenism inevitably takes the form of a sort of negotiation. Different communions, entering into dialogue with each other, learn to speak of the distinctives (theological, ethical, political, etc) that separate them so as to see if there might be a way beyond that division. Could it be that we are just misunderstanding each other? Or could we agree on a more basic compromise that would allow us to enter into full fellowship with one another? It is precisely these sorts of negotiations that make up ecumenism as we know it (a good example of this sort of effort can be seen in the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation).
Over the past thirty or forty years postliberals of all stripes (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish) have sought to rethink the nature and purpose of ecumenism after “modernity.” The postliberals have rejected the traditional paradigm, with its concern for doctrinal propositions, as well as the old liberal paradigm that sought common ground on social and political fronts or in “religious experience” more generally. On the one hand there is no doubt that the unpopularity and rejection of these ecumenical visions has, at least to some extent, been bound up with the decline of mainline Protestantism. Yet, there has also been an acute sense felt among many that, although much headway has been made in official agreements and “declarations” between separated churches, this has failed to “trickle down” to the local, congregational level. Indeed, many have felt that too much ecumenical dialogue takes place among church leaders and officials at the expense of the interests and concerns of the laity and the local churches. The general trajectory of ecumenical dialogue in the postliberal vein has been a skepticism about “official” ecumenical dialogues toward a “local is better” approach.
Spurred on at least in part by George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine ecumenical dialogue in a postliberal vein has made a distinct turn away from the “abstract” and “universal” toward the “concrete” and the “particular.” In this perspective, what is needed for ecumenical dialogue to move forward is to attend to the commitments of particular communities and their practices, and to do this within a “grassroots,” lay context. The postliberal critique of liberalism (e.g., MacIntyre and Hauerwas) has shed light on the traditioned and culturally-conditioned character of all practices and convictions, whether liturgical, political, or theological. In this view, unity must be sought from the ground up so to speak, not by way of formal doctrinal agreement but by worshipping and reading Scripture together. It is by attending to these common practices that some shared vision may arise organically. This view finds the liberal view of “tolerance” distasteful, or worse, as a veiled form of oppression, but it places a high degree of value on difference and honoring the particularity of traditions. The hope is for a kind of mutually-enriching interpenetration of the treasures of each particular faith tradition. To avoid a naïve “foundationalism” each tradition is often understood as kind of self-contained whole—a “culture” in its own right. Against an overly speculative or dogmatic approach to ecumenical dialogue this approach moves forward primarily at the “practical” level by way of learning one another’s “culture” and “language” and the practices that flow from it and that inform it. In this view, little attention is given to formal doctrinal agreements, but there is rather a hope that if we begin to speak each other’s languages and learn each other’s culture through a set of common practices (e.g., reading Scripture together) then something fruitful might come out of it—hopefully some form of unity.
Much is to be commended in the postliberal turn to the “concrete” and the “particular,” perhaps especially its skepticism of hierarchy and formal doctrinal agreements, as well as its positive emphasis on the involvement of the laity. However, we are convinced that postliberalism still operates within the form of ecumenism as negotiation. In part, the problem is that postliberalism is unable to decisively break with the old ecumenical paradigm. In its turn toward the community and traditional practices as the site of ecumenical conversation, like the liberal paradigm postliberalism still works within the framework of a fundamental immanence. In its turn toward the “concrete” and against the “abstract,” like the traditional paradigm postliberalism tends to drive a wedge between doctrine and practice. The disregard of doctrine has often led to a strictly sociological perspective on the church and its practices so that the church in its visible empirical form becomes self-grounding and self-justifying.
The central problem with ecumenical dialogue in all forms is that it begins with the assumption that the empirical reality of the divided churches has fundamental theological import and that such division is something that we are charged to fix. The problem with ecumenical dialogue is that it assumes that we are the agents that bring about Christian unity. Ecumenical dialogue is unfaithful insofar as it assumes that the church as a configuration of practices is the active subject in bringing about visible unity. It is unfaithful not on account of its reliance on human agency, but because of a fundamental lack of faith in what has decisively been accomplished in Jesus Christ.
Thus, if we are to speak of the unity of the church we must begin anew, and most importantly, begin theologically. We submit that, theologically speaking, the one and only question that matters in regard to the church’s unity is: Is any given division between Christians something that, in Christ, is real? In Christ—in his work of breaking down the dividing wall of hostility, of calling those who were far off, and those who were near—is the division between, say, Protestant and Catholic a reality? Or, to put the question more biblically, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor 1:13). This and this alone must be our question when we seek to address the unity of the church. The one and only question before our eyes must be the question of what, in Christ, is truly real. So therein lies the question: Is the division between Protestants and Catholics something that is real in Christ?
If our divisions are not real in Christ, then we have no business living as if they were. If, in Christ, we are in fact truly one, then any reason whatsoever that we might have for refusing full and unconditional fellowship with one another is illegitimate. The only way there could ever be a “legitimate” division between Christians would be if that division reflected something that is in fact a reality in Christ himself. This is precisely why the quest of ecumenism as negotiation must be abandoned. If anyone is in Christ, none of us can ever have a legitimate reason for being separate from one another. Any negotiation we might have cannot but be disobedience from the start if, in Christ, our divisions are not real. All such forms of ecumenism as negotiation, whether they admit it or not, ultimately proclaim that our divisions from one another are real. This is to speak against the Gospel. The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is not that through his work we are now able to be at peace with one another, rather it is that “He is our peace” and that he, himself has “broken down the dividing wall of separation” (Eph 2:14). The Gospel is not that this reconciliation is a possibility that we may achieve, but rather that it is an actuality that we may joyfully affirm. Ecumenism as negotiation is a betrayal of this proclamation.
Where then, does this leave us? If we are to reject ecumenism as negotiation in all its forms, what then remains of the visible unity of the church? What is our task amidst the church’s radical and manifest brokenness and division? First and foremost our vocation is to name the situation truthfully, namely that all division between Christians is a betrayal of the Gospel and a refusal to acknowledge it as true. This of course is not proper ecumenical manners, but theologically it is imperative. All divisions must be acknowledged and confronted as refusals of the Gospel. They are our sinful and rebellious refusal to affirm the actuality of the reconciliation established in Christ. They are not, theologically speaking, conflicts of interpretation or misunderstanding. They are acts of rebellion (perhaps unintentional and ignorant rebellion, but rebellion nonetheless) against the Gospel and as such we must constantly test ourselves as to whether or not we are in the Faith (cf. 2 Cor 13:5).
Secondly, since all ecumenical negotiation is an exercise of refusing the Gospel, the next important step in living towards the reconciliation actualized in Christ is for us, as bodies of believers to cease to live under the regulations imposed by such ecumenical forms. The lines of division that are drawn and proclaimed between the churches are not something to be “resolved” through dialogue. Rather they are part of the form of this present world which, in Christ, is “passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). As they are not part of the new creation that is in Christ (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15), we have no business acknowledging their power or seeking to appease it.
What is the upshot of this? It can mean nothing less than a call to all Christians and churches to “Welcome one another as God in Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15:7). It means ignoring any pronounced wall of division that any person or community might seek to erect between Christians, no matter what its ecclesiastical source. It means we can never faithfully say “You are my sister or brother, but I cannot take eat with you for these reasons . . .” Such reasons are invalid in Christ. In Christ there is no longer any division and therefore any division that we acknowledge is to be counted among principalities and powers that crucified Jesus. To acknowledge them as legitimate is to betray the cross and the reconciliation it proclaims and effects.
The end of ecumenism is a risky proposition indeed. It calls us to attend first and foremost to the truth of Gospel, that in Christ, all our divisions, our violence, our alienation is done away with. And it calls us to cease living as if that were false; as if there were still some divisions that we need to negotiate our way through, as if there were still some alienations that Christ has not crucified in his own flesh. The end of ecumenism means the beginning of obedience, the obedience which refuses to say anything other than an unqualified Yes to fellowship, partnership, koinonia, indeed to living and dying with all those who follow after the Crucified One naming him as Lord.