Christian unity a mandate, not an option

January 22, 2008

The following op-ed appears in January 23 editions of the Dallas Morning News.


The work for Christian unity is often lumped together with causes like nuclear disarmament and the eradication of world hunger: great ideas but practically impossible. For Christians, however, the organic, visible unity of the Church (i.e. "ecumenism") is not an option but a mandate.

One major result of the multiplication of Christian traditions, denominations and ecclesial communities, is profound confusion. It is common to hear Baptists referred to as members of a different "religion" than Roman Catholics or Methodists, when, in fact, they share a baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul explains that baptism is an encounter with the death of Jesus, which is to say, baptism is an encounter with the saving work of Christ on the cross. As the Second Vatican Council affirmed, "Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only."

But take a short drive around Dallas and you can't help but notice more churches than you can count. There is, it seems, something for everyone. And it is this consumerist perspective that many Christians have embraced as the raison d'etre for the existence of the numerous denominations: the vast variety of people require a similarly diverse assortment of churches.

Novelist and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner writes that "when Jesus took the bread and said, 'This is my body which is broken for you," it's hard to believe that even in his wildest dreams he foresaw the tragic and ludicrous brokenness of the church as his body." The existence of so many distinct, Christian churches is, in fact, not a gift but an open contradiction of Christ's will for the Church and a cause of great scandal. But finding the right language to describe this reality is a task fraught with difficulty. Many churches and communions present themselves to the world as followers of Jesus Christ, while at the same time differing in mind and going their separate ways, as if Christ himself were divided.

In the Second Vatican Council's "Decree of Ecumenism," an invaluable contribution was made to this linguistic dilemma: "all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are members of Christ's body," the document explains, and so we can rightly say that all baptized persons are "in communion," "even though this communion is imperfect." The goal of ecumenism is to overcome this imperfect communion so that the holy, catholic (i.e. complete and universal) Church spoken of in the Apostles' Creed can be clearly discerned. But to what end?

At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives the Great Commission: to preach the Gospel and to baptize. The Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 is seen rightly as the touchstone for the ecumenical movement in the 20th century, and this was the crux of their concern: how can Christians be sure that they are not competing to make disciples of the same people for their particular church?

The present lull in ecumenical zeal can only be reversed when the same concern that inaugurated the ecumenical movement is recovered: to respond faithfully to Jesus' Great Commission. Collective care for the poor and a united voice on issues of morality and human dignity are vital, but they have not and cannot bring about the unity of the Church. Even theological dialog will exhaust its potential.

The fundamental basis for ecumenism is, as Pope John Paul II wrote in his landmark encyclical That They All May Be One (1995), both "the conversion of hearts" and fervent prayer, "precisely with a view to proclaiming the Gospel to the men and women of every people and nation." Ecumenism calls Christians not to unduly cling to their life in separation, but to be prepared to die for his sake, with a view to a better resurrection.

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