152. “Either Ecumenical or Proselytizer”? No, There is a Better Option

August 1st, 2018

Proselytism has become a bad word. Like fundamentalism or exclusivism, in today’s religious language, only the negative overtones of the term are retained and are used to convey a derogatory understanding of its meaning. In its original Greek context, the word simply meant “coming closer” to something. In the New Testament, a proselyte describes a non-Israelite who has come close to the Jewish faith (e.g. Matthew 23:15; Acts 2:10, 6:5, 13:43). In this sense, Christians have understood proselytism as akin to evangelism in the sense of calling all people to come closer to Jesus Christ. However, the historical record of proselytism carried out by Christians is tragically marred with all kinds of manipulative and violent means, making the word itself contrary to what biblical evangelism and mission should be.

In the present-day ecumenical context, Pope Francis has repeatedly warned against proselytism. The last episode in this campaign occurred a few weeks ago. Coming back from his visit to the Genevan headquarters of the World Council of Churches (June 21, 2018), Pope Francis gave an in-flight interview in which he summed up one of his main concerns as far as the prospects of the ecumenical movement are concerned. Here are his words: “In the ecumenical movement we have to take from the dictionary a word: ‘proselytism.’ Clear? You cannot have ecumenism with proselytism. You have to choose. Either you have an ecumenical spirit or you are a proselytizer.”

Blotting out the word? Choosing between being ecumenical or proselytizer? And these being the only two alternatives? What is happening here? What is behind all this?

What in the World is Proselytism?
The historical account for the way in which the word proselytism has been understood is long and lies beyond the scope of this article. To cut the story short, it will suffice to make reference to the 1995 document The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness, drafted by the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches (WCC). Here the main ecumenical body (WCC) and Rome articulate their concerns over the issue. Paragraph 19 states:

Proselytism stands in opposition to all ecumenical effort. It includes certain activities which often aim at having people change their church affiliation and which we believe must be avoided, such as the following:

– making unjust or uncharitable references to other churches’ beliefs and practices and even ridiculing them;

– comparing two Christian communities by emphasizing the achievements and ideals of one, and the weaknesses and practical problems of the other;

– employing any kind of physical violence, moral compulsion and psychological pressure e.g. the use of certain advertising techniques in mass media that might bring undue pressure on readers/viewers;

–  using political, social and economic power as a means of winning new members for one’s own church;

– extending explicit or implicit offers of education, healthcare or material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts;

– manipulative attitudes and practices that exploit people’s needs, weaknesses or lack of education especially in situations of distress, and fail to respect their freedom and human dignity.

It is clear that the word is understood as carrying very bad connotations. Note the false alternative between Ecumenism and Proselytism (as if they are the only two options available to present-day Christians) and the lack of historical awareness and self-criticism (as if churches of all stripes have not used coercion in their endeavors to convert the world up to recent times). Of course, this description of proselytism (loaded with all kinds of evils, from violence to manipulation) makes the word utterly ugly. In this sense, proselytism is synonymous with abusive propaganda.

A shorter definition was already presented in 2001 in the European context by the WCC-related Conference of European Churches (CEC) and the Roman Catholic Council of European Bishops’ Conferences (CCEE). Together they produced a document that set the stage for ecumenism in the new millennium, the Charta Oecumenica (Ecumenical Charter), which contains the following description:

“Proselytism” is defined in multiple ways but is often understood as unethical or unfaithful practices in evangelizing those who are in some way already members of other churches or Christian communities.

Here again, proselytism is presented as being always marked by “unethical” and “unfaithful” behaviors. Certainly, it is the duty of Christians to evangelize in a manner worthy of the gospel, respecting the dignity of all human beings and acting in a Christ-like manner.

There is a further point to be underlined here that reinforces what has been previously observed. Notice that in the Charta Oecumenica what is rejected is to evangelize those who are “members of other churches or Christian communities”. Proselytism is therefore associated with the evangelization of those who are “members” of other churches, whether or not they are born-again Christians. What really matters is being a formal “member” of a church, not being regenerated by the Holy Spirit and being a believer in Jesus Christ. Charta Oecumenica adopts an ecclesiastical definition of who is a Christian, not a biblical one. According to this ecumenical document, we should not evangelize those who are already members of a given church. But does being a formal member of a church equal being a Christian in biblical terms? Obviously not.

At the recent Global Christian Forum in Bogotà (Colombia, April 24-27, 2018) the issue of proselytism again came out. In his speech at the Forum, the Roman Catholic representative, Bishop Brian Farrell, said the following:

By recognizing that we participate in a mutual baptism, Bishop Farrell provided a base on which to invite the Christian community to avoid all types of proselytism. Through baptism, “we enter into communion with God and the Christian community using the biblical form: through water and the Trinitarian formula.”

This is the standard ecumenical pattern already observed in the Charta Oecumenica: baptism (i.e. a sacrament of the church) is the entry point into fellowship with God (i.e. regeneration) and membership in the church, which in turn leads to the condemnation of “proselytism” towards those who are baptized. Hence evangelism to the “members” of a given church is proselytism and must be avoided at all cost.

Either Ecumenism or Proselytism?
Notice the subtle but significant shift that is taking place in ecumenical circles, which forms the background of the Pope’s statement: proselytism is no longer defined by unethical practices (e.g. violence and manipulation) but by its target (i.e. the “members” of a church). The recipient, rather than the manner, is the main qualifier of the term. Once the negative understanding of proselytism is in place, the real goal of this move becomes clearer. Since baptized people are already members of a church, it is unethical to evangelize them. Proselytism becomes a derogatory label to disqualify those who want to evangelize their neighbors because they are not believers, even though they might be “members” of a church, whatever that means for them.

We come back to where we started. The 1995 WCC-Catholic document said it clearly from the outset: “Proselytism stands in opposition to all ecumenical efforts”. The real issue is not so much the right exposing of all immoral practices that can accompany evangelism, but rather growing opposition to the fact that evangelism can be done by minority groups in places where the majority is nominally “Christian”. The trajectory of the ecumenical meaning of the word “proselytism” has moved from warning against immoral acts of a legitimate action to warning against all evangelism in already “Christianized” contexts by labeling it as proselytism.

Practically speaking, this means that all Catholics should not be evangelized by evangelicals because they are already members of the church; all Eastern Orthodox should not be evangelized by evangelicals because they are already members of the church; and so on. Evangelism has become unethical and is labeled as “proselytism”, not because it is carried out through immoral practices, but because it targets those who have been baptized. Hence, ecumenism – i.e. accepting all people as Christians on the basis of a sacrament administered by a church, not on the grounds of personal faith in the biblical Jesus Christ – stands in opposition to proselytism. Those who do not accept the ecumenical premise are bad people, i.e. proselytizers. Remember Pope Francis’ harsh comment:

“In the ecumenical movement we have to take from the dictionary a word: ‘proselytism.’ Clear? You cannot have ecumenism with proselytism. You have to choose. Either you have an ecumenical spirit or you are a proselytizer.”

The Better Option
If we follow this train of thought, here is the result. Take, for example, Italy. More than 90% of its population is a “member” of the Roman Catholic Church by virtue of baptism received at infancy. For most of these people, Christianity is a loose cultural marker with no spiritual significance whatsoever. Biblically speaking, most of them are not Christian at all, yet they are “members” of the Roman Church. If we evangelize them, are we committing the so-called sin of proselytism? If we follow the “logic” of the ecumenical definition endorsed by Pope Francis, the answer is “Yes”; evangelicals should not evangelize in majority Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant countries because the populations of these nations are “members” of the churches that baptized them.

If we take the train of thought that Pope Francis endorses, ecumenism becomes the “good” Christian platform that accepts all self-defined churches as legitimate expressions of the biblical church and all self-defined accounts of the gospel as legitimate versions of the biblical gospel. Those who maintain biblical standards for the definition of who is a Christian and what is the church, even if this means being outside of mainstream ecumenical correctness, are “bad” and pseudo-Christians, hence “proselytizers”. This is a trap for Bible-believing evangelical Christians: either evangelicals accept the definition of a Christian as being a “member” of a given church (and therefore stop evangelizing in majority Catholic and Orthodox contexts) or they become proselytizers (i.e. the ugly word of today’s religious vocabulary!). Evangelizing a “member” of a church becomes in itself an unethical and unfaithful practice. Will evangelicals fall into the trap that is there to discourage evangelism and mission in majority “Christianized” regions?

In asking to eradicate the word “proselytism” from the dictionary, Pope Francis stands on a recent tradition in Roman Catholic and ecumenical circles which on the surface rightly blames unethical practices in evangelism and warns against them. However, behind the surface, there are worrying elements that need to be considered.

This ecumenical consensus that Pope Francis now gives voice to blurs core elements of the gospel by replacing personal faith in Jesus Christ with a sacrament of the church as the main definition of who a Christian is. It also encourages a judgmental and negative attitude towards those evangelicals who work hard to evangelize in majority “Christianized” contexts, knowing that people might be “members” of a church without being born-again Christians. Furthermore, it can become a temptation to give new life to an old paradigm (cuius regio eius religio, i.e. “whose realm his religion”) that has done much harm in Europe by suffocating religious freedom. Instead of being forced to follow the religion of the ruler, as was the case in 16th century Europe, this new ecumenical consensus implies that the people need to stick to the religion they were baptized into when they were infants. These are all serious concerns that need to be addressed.

The choice between being ecumenical or a proselytizer that the Pope supports is both false and dangerous. It is false because it gives the idea that there are only two options available for Christians (which is not true), and it is dangerous because it warns against evangelism aimed at intentional persuasion addressed to all people regardless of their membership in a given church.

While clearly refuting all wrong methods of evangelism that betray the gospel itself (and therefore rejecting proselytism), Christians should treasure the privilege and the responsibility of presenting to all people the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, expecting their response and being aware that conversion implies change. As the Lausanne Covenant (1974), the most important document of contemporary evangelicalism, puts it in paragraph 4:

evangelism itself is the proclamation of the historical, biblical Christ as Saviour and Lord, with a view to persuading people to come to him personally and so be reconciled to God.

In other words, biblical evangelism needs to be faithfully practiced everywhere and towards all people, rather than being stigmatized and abandoned by this new wave of ecumenical correctness. Neither ecumenical nor proselytizer: Christians must be for the Gospel to all people. This is a far better option.

 

151. Eucharistic Hospitality? Between a Catholic “Yes” and a Roman “No”

July 1st, 2018

“Can a non-Catholic be given the Eucharist in the Catholic Church?” When asked this question by a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man during his 2015 visit to a Lutheran Church in Rome, Pope Francis gave a convoluted answer, the gist which was “perhaps yes”, “perhaps no”, “I don’t know”, and “look at your conscience”. This was a personal question highlighting a more general and thorny issue. In times of increased ecumenical friendliness, when reconciliation among Christians is often portrayed as a given, people are asking why that purported unity is stopped by the Catholic Church when it comes to the Eucharist. This is especially true in countries like Germany where many couples are made up of Lutheran and Catholic spouses (and are therefore called “inter-confessional” families), who live together during the week and yet are divided on Sunday.

A Predominantly German Concern
This issue made headlines recently. In a nutshell, this is the background story: on 22 February of this year, the German Bishops’ Conference announced the publication of a pastoral guide on the sharing of the Eucharist by inter-confessional couples, providing some openings for the admission of the Eucharist to non-Catholic partners. The proposed opening was not yet generalized – it would have had to be decided on a case-by-case basis by individual bishops. Controversy arose immediately. In the weeks that followed, seven German bishops addressed the Vatican to seek clarification on an initiative that they believed violated the unity of the Church and undermined standard Catholic doctrine concerning the sacraments.

Pope Francis exhorted the German bishops to continue in dialogue and possibly reach a unanimous decision. A unanimous decision was not reached and, therefore, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (i.e. the Vatican office responsible for doctrinal issues) made it clear with a letter endorsed by the Pope himself that the text presented by the Bishops’ Conference raises considerable problems. The resulting decision: “The Holy Father has come to the conclusion that the document is not ripe for publication”.

A Specifically “Roman” Response
In the Vatican letter, the two main reasons for stopping the process are listed as follows:

 a. The question of admission to communion for evangelical Christians in inter-confessional marriages is an issue that touches on the faith of the Church and has significance for the universal Church.

b. This question has effects on ecumenical relations with other Churches and other ecclesial communities that are not to be underestimated. 

Here are some brief remarks. First, the Vatican reaffirms that, in dealing with the Eucharist, one touches on “the faith of the Church”, one of the main tenets of what Roman Catholicism stands for. Given the fact that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium  11), the pastoral issues raised by inter-confessional couples need to be addressed within the dogmatic framework of Eucharistic doctrine, not at the expense of it, nor even at the relaxing of its parameters. Rome can be very flexible and nuanced (i.e. “catholic”) when it comes to discussing justification, conversion, mission, etc., but the Eucharist is what constitutes the sacramental self-understanding (i.e. Roman) of the Catholic Church and is one of its pillars. Rome could, therefore, sign the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification with the Lutherans without changing its eucharistic doctrine and practices, thus showing flexibility on the one hand and rigidity on the other. In 2016, the Pope could speak words of reconciliation and unity at the joint commemoration of the Protestant Reformation with the Lutherans in Lund (Sweden), but those kind words have no effect on the “real” unity around the Eucharistic table. Francis was very ecumenical then, and now he is very “papal” and “Roman”.

Secondly, the Vatican letter also shows concern that the openings envisioned by the German bishops would have an impact on other realities, such as couples formed by, say, Catholic and Methodist, Catholic and Anglican, or Catholic and Baptist spouses, thus paving the way to wide-spread and unwarranted Eucharistic hospitality. This “domino effect” is something that Rome is not prepared to accept if the doctrinal essence of the Catholic Eucharist is imperiled. Again, Rome can be very soft and adaptable in many respects, but the Eucharist is the core of its “Roman” identity and so it is strictly safeguarded.

In spite of the fact that Francis is perhaps the most ecumenical Pope that the Catholic Church has ever had, for the time being, no Eucharistic hospitality is on the horizon. And this is not by accident. This decision reflects the nature of Roman Catholicism, which is catholic in attitude only insofar as the Roman structures are maintained and reinforced. Rather than submission to biblical teaching, it is the dialectic between the “Roman” and the “Catholic” poles that governs the self-understanding and the policies of the Roman Catholic Church.

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”.

 

122. Cooperating with the Roman Catholic Church? A Lesson from Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984)

April 1st, 2016

In our global world, a cluster of questions are before evangelicals: Should we collaborate with Catholics? On which topics or areas? How far should we go? Is it possible to do mission together?

Of course, much depends on the various contexts and those who are involved. For example, is it one thing to work with individual Catholics or lay groups; it is something else to join hands with the institutional Church of Rome. It is one thing is to work together on areas of common concern in society, e.g. the promotion of Judeo-Christian values in society; it is an altogether different issue to engage in common mission and evangelism.

Alliance and Co-belligerence

To start unpacking the issues involved, it may be useful to remember the lesson of 20th century Evangelical apologist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984). Schaeffer was a Christian leader who introduced the expression co-belligerence to the present-day Christian vocabulary. In the midst of the cultural transitions of the Seventies, he encouraged Evangelicals to side with people of other religious persuasions for the sake of promoting specific issues that were shared by a cross-section of society and that were under threat by secular tendencies, especially in the realm of basic moral values. Schaeffer’s call to engage in the public square, working together with non-Christians, has been one of the motivating factors of recent Evangelical involvement in society.

In suggesting a rationale for co-belligerence, Schaeffer made a distinction between forming alliances and engaging in co-belligerence. On the one hand, an alliance is a kind of unity based on truth, and therefore has to do with born-again Christians only who receive Scripture as the standard of their lives. On the other, co-belligerence focuses on a specific issue and is open to all those who share it, whatever their backgrounds and the goals that motivate them. Here is how Schaffer defines it: “Co-belligerent is a person with whom I do not agree on all sorts of vital issues, but who, for whatever reasons of their own, is on the same side in a fight for some specific issue of public justice”.[1] For Schaeffer this distinction reflects Scriptural principles about unity among believers and cooperation among people of different faiths. Co-belligerence is not another way of talking about ecumenism. The latter has to do with unity of believers according to the Bible; the former is related to possible cooperative efforts among different people and beyond agreement on central truths of the Gospel.

Biblical Foundations

The distinction between alliance and co-belligerence reflects the teaching of Scripture. Unity exists deep within the people of God on the basis of a common faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 4:1-16). This unity allows alliances in terms of worship, prayer, evangelism and Gospel witness. This unity allows the church to work out the Great Commission that Jesus gave to go all over the world and disciple the nations (Matthew 28:16-20). This type of alliance shows the power of the Gospel to reconcile different people around the same Lord Jesus who sends His people forth to take the message of reconciliation to the world (2 Corinthians 5:17-20). This unity is not what co-belligerence is all about.

The Scripture clearly distinguishes the unity of believers in Christ from other types of relationships without separating them. The Bible commands all men and women (Christians included) to inhabit the earth responsibly, taking care of the world and living peacefully as much as possible. Then, the Word of God encourages the church to develop and maintain good relationships with their neighbours and to be committed to the good of others (Genesis 1:27-31; Jeremiah 29:5-7; Titus 3:1-2). In doing what the Bible requires, we will be always in contact with different people who hold a plurality of worldviews and lifestyles. Our family members, co-workers, roommates, and friends may not be believers, yet we are called to live with them for the good of the community.

In this sense, co-belligerence is necessary, useful and … inevitable. It is a task of our God-given humanity. It is part of our common calling to live in this world without being of the world (John 17:14-18). For the Christian, neither total retreat nor self-imposed exclusion from the world is a viable option. The Christian life requires one to develop and nurture multiple networks of social relations. A mature faith is able to maintain different relationships with different people, without losing its Christian identity and Gospel commitments. The important thing is to practice the distinction between alliance and co-belligerence.

Alliance or Co-belligerence?

Back to the question we asked at the beginning. As far as our relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, should evangelicals engage in alliances or acts of co-belligerence? Schaeffer encouraged co-belligerence with people of all persuasions, but would limit alliances to Bible-believing, born again Christians, therefore excluding the Church of Rome as an institution. The basic issue to address is whether or not the Catholic gospel held by the Church of Rome is the biblical gospel in its basic contours. The answer to this question leads to answering the previous one. If the answer is “yes”, i.e. the Roman Catholic gospel is the biblical gospel, then it follows that no theological restriction needs to be put in place. If the answer is “no”, i.e. the Roman Catholic gospel is not the biblical gospel in significant ways, then there needs to be a careful discernment not to blur the distinction between collaborating on social issues and engaging in common mission. The former is possible, the latter isn’t.


[1] Plan for Action (Old Tappan, NJ: Flemming H. Revell, 1980, p. 68). Schaeffer spoke about co-belligerence in the second chapter of his book The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (1970) various editions.

119. Unity … on Which Foundation?

February 1st, 2016

Unity is one of the most used and perhaps abused words in the present-day Christian vocabulary. The problem is that while the word is the same, its meaning may differ significantly according to who is talking about it. Those who speak about unity may have the impression that they are talking about the same thing because they use the word “unity”, but the reality is that more careful attention is needed in order to avoid unpleasant pitfalls in understanding and communication. The Ecumenical Week of Prayer which takes place in the second half of January is always an opportunity to focus on the different views of Christian unity that are promoted on a global scale. The general message of the Week (which is endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches) is that unity is key for the present and future of Christian witness. Emotionally, this message is very powerful and attractive given the various forms of persecution that Christians suffer in many parts of the world and given the rampant attacks of secularism against Christian values. In the audience on January 20th Pope Francis also made reference to unity, urging Christians of all confessions “to grow in that unity which is greater than what divides us”.[1] Fair enough, but what kind of unity is he talking about?

Unity Based on Baptism

Commenting on First Peter, the Pope gave a telling insight of the foundation of this unity. Here are his words: “In his Letter, Saint Peter encourages the first Christians to acknowledge the great gift received in Baptism and to live in a way worthy of it. He tells them: ‘You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people’. This Week of Prayer invites us to reflect on, and bear witness to, our unity in Christ as God’s People. All the baptized, reborn to new life in Christ, are brothers and sisters, despite our divisions. Through Baptism we have been charged, as Saint Peter tells us, ‘to proclaim the mighty works of the one who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light’”.

This rather complex sentence about the foundation of the Christian life needs unpacking. The Pope makes several interesting points about unity here: 1. It is baptism that makes Christians one in Christ; 2. It is baptism that regenerates us; 3. It is baptism that makes us brothers and sisters; 4. It is baptism that commissions us to be witnesses of the mighty works of God. This is the standard Roman Catholic doctrine whereby the most significant turning point in human life happens at baptism, ordinarily administered to infants. Whatever one thinks about this theology of baptism, the implications for Christian unity can be readily outlined: all those who have been baptized are one in Christ. Therefore unity must be sought, lived out and celebrated with all those who have received the sacrament or ordinance of baptism.

Building Christian unity on baptism, however, brings several challenges at various levels. In my corner of the world (Italy), for example, a vast majority of people have been baptized and yet very few show any sign of regeneration or even appreciation of basic gospel truths. Many baptized people are as secular or pagan or indifferent or even against any reference to the gospel as their non-baptized, non-Christian fellow citizens. How can Christian unity and brotherhood be based on baptism, then, when in most cases the people who received it consider it a meaningless act and totally removed from their lives?

Unity Among Believers

More importantly, theologically speaking, unity needs a more biblical foundation than baptism in itself. Rather than being granted through baptism, unity is a gift given to believers in Jesus Christ. According to First Peter, unity is a privilege of those who, having being elected by the Father and sanctified by the Spirit, obey the Son Jesus Christ (1:1-2). They are born again (1:3) and saved (1:5), waiting for their heavenly inheritance (1:4). These are people to whom faith has been granted and is now tested (1:7). This people who responded in faith to God’s initiative are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people”. In other words, unity is a corollary of the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ which is granted to those who believe in Him.

When the Pope speaks about unity as based on baptism, he stands on the ecumenical mainstream consensus about unity. The ecumenical view of unity posits the foundation of unity in the sacrament of baptism. But this view is practically faltering and biblically wrong. There is a far better way to appreciate and to celebrate Christian unity. As the World Evangelical Alliance’s statement of faith argues, we believe “The unity of the Spirit of all true believers[2]. Unity is among believers in Christ. The Lausanne Covenant speaks of unity as it relates to those “who share the same biblical faith” (par. 7)[3], i.e. people who have made a public profession of their faith in the Jesus of the Bible. It is with fellow believers only that Christians can join in prayer asking God to help them “to maintain the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3).

 

97. Turkey, Gateway To Inter-religious Dialogue and Ecumenism

December 12th, 2014

Pope Francis’ visit to Turkey (28-30 November 2014) was significant for a number of reasons. The two most outstanding reasons concern the ability of the Roman Catholic Church to engage in “dialogue”: that is dialogue with Islam and dialogue with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The former takes the form of inter-religious dialogue, the latter is primarily an expression of ecumenism. Turkey is a threshold into the Muslim world. The country borders Syria and Iraq, places where Islamic fundamentalism threatens the sheer survival of the local Christian communities. Turkey is also the historical see of the “second Rome”, i.e. Constantinople, an influential center of Eastern Orthodoxy. The focus of the visit was therefore twofold: to foster mutual understanding with the “moderate” Islam and to advance the ecumenical agenda with Constantinople.

Your Prayers for Me

Pope Francis had several meetings with various Muslim leaders. In each of them he stressed the commonalities between Christians and Muslims in terms of them worshipping the All-Merciful God, having Abraham as father, practicing prayer, almsgiving and fasting, and sharing a religious sense of life that is foundational for human dignity and fraternity. In addressing Muslims, the Pope used the language of brotherhood and focused on what they have in common. This same approach was used in Turkey.

One interesting albeit striking element emerged as he spoke on 28 November to the Department for Religious Affairs in Ankara[1]. After referring to the common themes that we already mentioned, he said: “I am grateful also to each one of you, for your presence and for your prayers which, in your kindness, you offer for me and my ministry”. Pope Francis is used to asking for prayers for himself and to thanking people who pray for him. But in this case he was speaking to Muslims and he nonetheless thanked them for their prayers for him. It seems that in this case he went further than simply underlining commonalities in basic theology and spirituality. He went as far as recognizing Islamic prayers as legitimate, and even useful acts of intercession. Should a Christian be thankful to Muslims for their prayers? Are these prayers accepted by God? Didn’t the Pope unwarrantedly stretch the inter-faith theology that assumes that all prayers are pleasing to God and answered by Him? Didn’t he further blur the distinction between the Christian faith and the Muslim religion by implying that Christians and Muslims can pray for each other as if God accepts their respective prayers as they are?

Back to the First Millennium

The other focus of the visit was to strengthen the ecumenical relationships with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. According to the Roman Catholic principles of ecumenism, the Eastern Orthodox churches are close to “full communion” with Rome because they profess the same apostolic faith, they celebrate the same Eucharist and they have maintained the apostolic succession in their priesthood. From a theological point of view, the role of the papacy is the only imperfection that inhibits them from full communion. The papal office as it developed after the schism of 1054 AD makes Eastern Orthodox churches unwilling to accept the primacy of the Roman Pope as it stands. In their view, certain monarchial aspects of the Petrine ministry that were introduced in the Second Millennium (e.g. the infallibility of the Pope as he speaks ex cathedra) go against the collegiality principle of Orthodox ecclesiology.

Being aware of these complexities and yet wanting to promote an ecumenical breakthrough, Pope Francis said that he is willing to envisage a way forward: the Roman Church is open to concede that in order to enter into full communion with Rome, Eastern Orthodox churches need to accept the Papal office as it was understood and practiced in the First Millennium when the Church was still “undivided”. This is not a new idea – even Joseph Ratzinger was in favor of it – but it is important that Francis made it his own[2]. It seems that the way forward is to first go backwards. The Roman Church is willing to exercise its catholicity, i.e. being flexible enough to accommodate a different point of view, all while maintaining its distinctive outlook without renouncing any of it. This suggestion needs to be worked out historically and theologically. What exactly were the forms of the papacy in the First Millennium? How can they be implemented after so many centuries? How can an institution such as the Papacy that the Roman Church couched with dogma (i.e. the infallibility) be diluted for non-Catholic Christians? How can one be cum Petro (with Peter) without being sub Petro (under Peter)?

While ecumenical theologians have some homework yet to do in this field, a final comment is warranted. In the end, even the Protestant Reformation was a cry to go back to the written Word of God, i.e. Sola Scriptura! In calling for a new season under the rule of the Jesus Christ of the Bible, the Reformation beckoned the church to re-discover the Scriptures and re-submit to them. Back to the Word was a way of saying: back to Jesus Christ, back to the Gospel! The Catholic Church of the XVI century was however unwilling to receive this challenge and wanted a way forward without giving thought to the need of going backward. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) imagined a renewal without a reformation, a way forward without having to go backward. Now, Rome is ready to go back to the First Millennium and fully embrace the Eastern Orthodox churches. Why not go a bit further than the First Millennium? A return to Sola Scriptura should be the real starting point for a much needed breakthrough.

91. Ecumenism in All Directions. Pope Francis and the Unity of the Church

October 8th, 2014

Nothing is substantially new, but everything is affirmed and lived out in a really new way. This is how Cardinal Walter Kasper, former head of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, summarizes Pope Francis’ approach to ecumenism. In a foreword to a book that analyses the major papal speeches and acts as far as the unity of the church is concerned (Riccardo Burigana, Un cuore solo. Papa Francesco e l’unità della chiesa, Milano: Edizioni Terra Santa, 2014), Kasper argues that from his first address after being elected to his daily words and gestures, ecumenism has been central to what Francis has been doing thus far.

As is often the case in the Roman Catholic Church, there is no substantial change in the overall doctrinal framework. The Catholic approach to ecumenism is still the same without additions or subtractions. The final goal of ecumenism is to bring the whole church cum Petro (with Peter, i.e. in fellowship with the Pope) and sub Petro (under Peter, i.e. in submission to the Pope). Having said that, emphases and attitudes do change and this Pope certainly has a distinct way of interpreting his mission as a chief promoter of the ecumenical cause.

Ecumenism of Friendship

The book reflects the on-going commitment of Pope Francis to foster his view of Christian unity. After reading it, here are some observations that can be made. His ecumenical initiatives are based more on personal contacts with leaders of different churches and organizations than on institutional channels. In performing his role the Pope does not totally depend on Vatican bureaucracy but instead retains his own sphere of initiative. This relational aspect is often underlined as the primary way to foster mutual trust and deeper relationships. In Francis’ view, theological dialogues are less important than personal acquaintances. Nothing changes as far as the long term goal of the Pope presiding over the whole church is concerned, but this is not the issue that the Pope likes to focus on. The important thing for him is to say that we are friends, brothers, sisters, already “one” in some sense.

He wants different ecumenical partners and friends to be valued, listened to, cared for, and even admired. He wants to affirm them and wants them to feel appreciated. Theological and ecclesiastical alignments are secondary. Anyone interested in what is happening with this Pope should note that the paradigm he is operating under is that of an ecumenism of friendship rather than one of convictions. The two are not opposed, but the emphasis for him lies on the former, not the latter.

In his 2013 exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis made clear that time is more important than space. What he meant is that those who set their lives in long-term trajectories are better suited to achieve something than those who concentrate on the here and now. The overwhelming appreciation of the ecumenical partners and the on-going investment in personal relationships are two tracks of the ecumenical path that is consistent with this view.

Closer to All?

Another impressive mark of Pope Francis’ ecumenism is that he manages to get closer to all his ecumenical partners without making distinctions between them. He has similar words, attitudes, and approaches to Eastern Orthodox of various stripes, Liberal protestants, Anglicans, Evangelicals, Pentecostals and other kinds of Christians. Theologically speaking this is rather awkward because the closer you get to the sacramentalism and the devotions of the East, the farther away you go from the liberal agenda of most Western protestant churches, and vice versa. Furthermore as you draw nearer to the “free” church tradition of Pentecostalism you at the same time distance yourselves from the highly hierarchical and sacramental ecclesiology of both the Roman and the Eastern traditions. Not so for Pope Francis. As already pointed out, this is not his approach. He invests in relationships with all people while leaving aside theological traditions and ecclesiastical settlements. He wants to get closer to all.

A further illustration of this point is that as he draws nearer to all Christians, Pope Francis is also determined to draw nearer to all people, be they religious or secular. The same brotherly and appreciative afflatus is what marks the Pope’s attitude towards Jews, Muslims, and agnostic intellectuals. Divisive issues are left aside whereas the “brotherly” dimension is always in the foreground. The Pope is clearly pushing with the same intensity the relational side of ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue as if they were two intertwined paths to achieve the overall catholic goal: cum Petro and sub Petro.

The point is that one’s objective is to draw nearer to everyone, this means that the driving concern is not biblical truth and love that is a principled and discerning criterion but the catholicity of friendship that is much more flexible and fluid. While appreciating the friendly tone, the keeping of Christian unity cannot be a matter of friendship alone. Unity in truth is what Jesus prayed for in John 17, and unity in truth and love is what Paul wrote about in Ephesians 4.

 

89. Is Unity Like a Sphere or a Polyhedron?

September 18th, 2014

Pope Francis does not like spheres: he likes polyhedrons. In various recent speeches and in different contexts he used the image of the polyhedron to illustrate what he has in mind when he thinks of unity, i.e. Christian unity and the unity of mankind. In elementary geometry, a polyhedron is a solid of three dimensions with flat faces, straight edges and sharp corners or vertices. Without going into too many technical details, the basic idea is that a polyhedron lacks the harmony and proportions of a sphere but retains the unity of a solid. Not only that, it has variable distances from its center and not a single way of being related to it. It may be an awkward type of unity, but it still holds the solid together.

Unity in the Global World

Francis first began talking about the polyhedron in the context of globalization.  In a message to a festival on the Social Doctrine of the Church, which addressed the issue, he said: “I would like to translate the theme into an image: the sphere and the polyhedron. Take the sphere to represent homologation, as a kind of globalization: it is smooth, without facets, and equal to itself in all its parts. The polyhedron has a form similar to the sphere, but it is multifaceted. I like to imagine humanity as a polyhedron, in which the multiple forms, in expressing themselves, constitute the elements that compose the one human family in a plurality. And this is true globalization. The other globalization — that of the sphere — is an homologation” (Dec 6th, 2013).

According to this vision, globalization as a sphere can lead to cultural uniformity and social homologation whereby one model of development and one way of life become the center of what it means to be human and the whole world must conform to it. Globalization as a polyhedron, on the other hand, allows for multiple solutions that are all different from one another while still maintaining vital relationships between its components. In the latter, homogeneity is not imposed and multiplicity is encouraged. In his 2013 Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis elaborated on the dangers of reducing the world to a single economic pattern and a monolithic cultural paradigm. This globalization brings “an economy of exclusion”, “the new idolatry of money”, “a financial system which rules rather than serves”, and “inequality which spawns violence”. Globalization, by desiring to mould the world into a single pattern, kills it. Conversely, if it celebrates the world’s diversity it causes it to flourish. The center of this polyhedron is the common humanity that all human beings share while the different faces represent the cultural particulars that cannot be squeezed nor overlooked by globalization.

Christian Unity

What is interesting in Francis’ use of these geometric images is how he applies them to the realm of ecumenism. Christian unity has its own biblical metaphors, such as that of a single body with a head and many organs and parts (1 Corinthians 12). In his visit to the Italian Pentecostal church (August 28th, 2014), Francis developed his idea of ecumenism as a polyhedron: “We are in the age of globalization, and we wonder what globalization is and what the unity of the Church would be: perhaps a sphere, where all points are equidistant from the center, all are equal? No! This is uniformity. And the Holy Spirit does not create uniformity! What figure can we find? We think of the polyhedron: the polyhedron is a unity, but with all different parts; each one has its peculiarity, its charism. This is unity in diversity”.

Reading between the lines, it seems clear that unity as a sphere is pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic ecumenism whereby other Christians were drastically invited to “come back” into the Catholic fold and to conform to its doctrines and practices under the rule of the Pope. With Vatican II, Roman Catholicism updated its ecumenical project and embraced a concentric circle type of unity in which the one and only Church “subsists in” the Roman Catholic church and other churches and communities gravitate around this center according to their degree of nearness or distance from it. According to Vatican II and subsequent magisterial teachings, Christian unity is threefold: 1. professing the same faith, 2. celebrating the same Eucharist (i.e. the Roman Catholic way), and 3. being united under the same sacramental ministry in apostolic succession (i.e. under the Pope).

How does a polyhedron kind of unity as advocated by Pope Francis fit this view of unity? For example: as far as the second mark of unity is concerned, is the Pope saying that the sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist and the theology of transubstantiation belong at the center of Christian unity or are they particulars that can accommodate differences? Or is the Pope saying that apostolic succession, which is the basis of the hierarchical structure of the Roman Catholic Church, is still part of the center or is it a variable that is secondary to Christian unity?

Polyhedrons are fascinating solids and Francis’ use of the image of a polyhedron is thought-provoking. However, the problem for Christian unity does not primarily lie in the metaphors used, but in the theological vision that nurtures it. If the Catholic Eucharist and the Catholic sacramental system are part of the center of Christian unity, one can make reference to spheres or polyhedrons all he likes, but the substance of the problem is that unity still gravitates around the Roman Catholic Church and its distinct outlook, and not around the biblical Gospel that calls all Christians to conform to the mind of Christ.