141. “Greater Oneness in Christ”: What Does it Mean?

September 1st, 2017

“In the journey to overcome internal divisions separating Christians, the top leadership of the World Council of Churches (WCC), Pentecostal World Fellowship (PWF), World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), and the Vatican’s officials for promoting Christian Unity met together, for the first time, in a historic meeting, spending two days facilitating their support of the Global Christian Forum (GCF)”. – Global Christian Forum press release, May 27, 2017

“Historic” may be an overused description, especially when the term is applied not by historians writing 3-4 generations in the future, but by reporters talking about current events. According to the event’s press release, the ecumenical meeting was historic because these leaders – representing  almost the whole of present-day Christianity – committed themselves to work towards “greater oneness in Christ” and pledged to reinforce such a direction in a series of events that will take place in 2018.

The Long Haul Ecumenical Strategy

The announcement of this “historic” meeting comes almost 20 years after the founding of the GCF. The idea of a Forum (i.e. a place to meet and talk) took root in the 1990s as a way to informally gather leaders of different Christian communions around the same table. Such a strategy arose, in part, due to a lack of visible progress in institutional ecumenism and uneasiness among Evangelicals and other less institutionalized Christians towards official ecumenism. With no apparent agenda and no expressed ecumenical intentionality, the Forum sought to be characterized by a relational approach rather than an institutional mindset, and by informality rather than ecclesiastical diplomacy. This more casual format suited Evangelicals and Pentecostals who found it difficult to relate to Rome and the WCC in strictly institutional forms and easier in more informal patterns. Much of evangelicalism is formed from local and regional loose networks, rather than top-down hierarchical institutions. Both the WEA and WPF welcomed GCF and became part of it without perhaps appreciating the long-term ecumenical goals of GCF and without pondering the ecumenical process they were joining.

After 20 years, it becomes clear that the agenda of GCF was to bypass the roadblock of a formalized ecumenical journey with the long-term goal of including sectors of Christianity that are statistically growing (and that happen to be vocally critical of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal tendencies in mainstream ecumenism). It is telling that after 20 years of the informal and relational ecumenism of the GCF, both WEA and WPF are now willing to move further towards “greater oneness” with representatives of Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal Christianity without the latter becoming less Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal. The change on the part of these Evangelicals and Pentecostals is indeed significant.

What is at Stake with “Greater Oneness”

What does committing to greater unity mean? Of course, the word “unity” is used in different ways according to context, but in ecumenical theological “unity” it has a fairly established and stable meaning. In this sense, unity refers to a harmony of the baptized, i.e. those who have received the sacrament of the initiation to the Christian life, in view of the sacramental unity around the same Eucharistic table and within the same institutional structures of the church.

So far, Evangelicals and Pentecostals have been talking about unity among “born again” believers in view of loose partnerships aimed at evangelism, social action, and mission. If they commit to “greater oneness” with the Roman Catholic Church and WCC, they need to reflect on what they become committed to:

1. Unity among the baptized. They will be pressed to consider as “brothers and sisters” all those who have received baptism in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal Protestant churches, whether or not they are born again Christians. The reality on the ground is that most of these Christians are baptized only in name, without any personal commitment to Christ. Greater oneness means that we are all “brothers and sisters” not because we are born-again believers in Christ, but because we are all baptized. If we are all “brothers and sisters”, evangelism done by Evangelicals in majority Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox contexts becomes unnecessary. Is this what Evangelicals and Pentecostals believe and find acceptable?

2. Unity as conveyed by the same sacraments and within the same institutions. According to ecumenical theology, “greater oneness” means sacramental unity and institutional unity. This means not only baptism, but the sacramental theologies and practices of Rome (e.g. the Eucharist as sacrifice and re-enacting the cross) and Eastern Orthodox churches need to be accepted as legitimate Christian practice. Moreover, “greater oneness” means that the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, with its complex political, diplomatic, and economic power (e.g. the papacy, the Vatican state and bank) become legitimate ways of representing the church that Jesus Christ promised to build. Evangelicals have always been clear in denouncing all deviations from clear biblical teaching, yet committing to “greater oneness” means that they have to stop doing so because of ecumenical etiquette. Is this what Evangelicals and Pentecostals believe and find acceptable?

Who Decides What?

For the WEA and WPF to commit to “greater oneness” with Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and liberal churches is a huge step that significantly changes historic beliefs and practices. It is a watershed event that impinges on biblical convictions (e.g. unity among believers only) that are now stretched in order to make them compatible with mainstream ecumenical correctness. Have we really counted the cost?

A final question remains to be asked. Who decided to move forward? Was there any public decision of the WEA constituency that empowered the leadership to move towards “greater oneness”? Was there an open discussion about the implications? Was there a decisional process based on the involvement of the grass-roots movements? As far as it is possible to know, there was no involvement on regional and national discussion, let alone a vote of the General Assembly.

The fact is that WEA did not ask its constituency to vote to become part of GCF, let alone receive a vote to move forward towards “greater oneness”. Given the “historic” nature of the decision and the wide-ranging theological implications, it is awkward to say the least that the local churches and regional networks that this body claims to represent were not even consulted beforehand. This operational mode undermines the trust essential in horizontal networks such as WEA. When few people decide on their own a question of this magnitude without a serious discussion with the people they supposedly represent, it is the beginning of the end of this historical evangelical network and a transformation into top-down hierarchical organization, which is a completely different thing.

As far as WEA is concerned, the last document that was voted by a General Assembly is Roman Catholicism. A Contemporary Evangelical Perspective (1986). After a careful analysis of present-day Roman Catholicism in its doctrine and practice, the document ends by arguing that unity is desirable but not at the expense of biblical truth and that there are still “unsurmountable obstacles” between Evangelicals and the Roman Catholic Church because of their divergent accounts of the gospel. Millions of evangelicals are still convinced that this is case and do not see any biblical reason to move towards “greater oneness”.

 

    Share Button

    140. Is the Roman Catholic Church Now Committed to “Grace Alone”?

    August 1st, 2017

    Many commentators with good intentions, even on the evangelical side, have rightly given attention to what seems to be the heart of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) signed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Lutheran Federation. No. 15 solemnly says:

    By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.

    If read out of context and in a theologically naïve way, this sentence could be a relevant and pointed summary of the biblical message concerning the mode of justification (by grace only and not based on merits), the means of justification (by faith alone), the grounds of justification (the saving work of Christ), and the consequences of justification (divine adoption and the gift of the Holy Spirit, the renewal of the heart and the activation of the Christian life). However, every sound exercise in theological hermeneutics, including the reading of the documents of the ecumenical dialogue, must take into account the immediate and more general context, the meaning of the words used, and the consequences of what is being claimed. Taken out of context, No. 15 would make much sense from an evangelical perspective. Yet it must be considered as an integral part of the JDDJ and therefore must be understood in relation to the whole document.

    Sacramental Grace

    Presenting the various aspects of the doctrine, the Catholic and Lutheran Churches agree on a sacramental understanding of grace. It is this sacramental framework that qualifies the reference to the expression “by grace alone” contained in No. 15. Together, in fact, they declare that “by the action of the Holy Spirit in baptism, they (the sinners) are granted the gift of salvation” (No. 25), thus undermining the idea that it is only by grace that God saves sinners through faith alone. Lutheran theology, with its theology of regenerational baptism, actually runs this risk. Later, in No. 28, the JDDJ states (always with both parties affirming this together) that “in baptism the Holy Spirit unites one with Christ, justifies, and truly renews the person”. It is not surprising, however, that the Catholic clarification on this point forcefully underlines that “persons are justified through baptism as hearers of the word and believers in it” (No. 27). On the one hand, then, JDDJ wants to affirm the importance of the declaration of the righteousness of God received by faith. On the other, though, it reiterates the need for sacramental action through the mediation of the church as essential for justification and, therefore, for salvation.

    The Catholic point is further reinforced through the claim that Catholics hold that the grace of Jesus Christ is “imparted” in baptism (No. 30). According to this view, grace is not received by faith alone, but is granted by God through the Church that administers it in baptism. This statement cannot be reconciled with the view according to which salvation is by grace alone apart from works, even sacramental ones. So for all the good intentions expressed and the admirable effort in dialogue, the result is below expectations and beyond an obedient adherence to the biblical Word of God. In contemporary Roman Catholicism we see a total consistency with respect to the traditional doctrine, that is, that justification occurs at baptism by a sacramental act.

    Stretching Trent Rather than Reforming Rome

    For the Catholic Church, the “by grace alone” of No. 15 means that grace is intrinsically, constitutionally, and necessarily linked to the sacrament, and thus to the Church that administers it and the works implemented by it. In this view, salvation cannot be by grace alone, unless “by grace alone” is understood as the same grace being organically incorporated into the sacrament of the Church. We are evidently in the presence of a different concept of grace. In JDDJ there is an attempt to re-describe this theological understanding of salvation in language that looks like the Lutheran one (which the Catholic Church appropriates through the use of such expressions as “by grace alone” of No. 15 and the recognition that works “follow justification and are its fruits” of No. 37). However, this new description does not give the impression of changing the theology of the Council of Trent (1545-1563), according to which grace is sacramental and seen inside of a synergistic dynamic of the process of salvation. This understanding of grace appears to be more in line with the Catholic heritage of the Council of Trent, in an updated form, than with classic Protestant theology. In this sense, JDDJ is a clear exercise in an increased “catholicity” (i.e. the ability to absorb ideas without changing the core) on the part of Rome, which has not become more evangelical in the biblical sense.

    You may want to read my comments on the endorsement of the World Communion of Reformed Church to JDDJ, posted on the website of the World Reformed Fellowship.

      Share Button