This is a manifesto for an orthodox generosity and an articulation of my thoughts on Christian unity. Inevitably, someone will read this and think I am claiming to be Roman Catholic. This is not what I am saying. The word “catholic” just means “universal.” I am a catholic christian in the sense that I am a universal christian. Another clarification is in order: I am not saying I am a universalist. I am saying I am universal: Christian in the broadest sense. I am a catholic christian in the tradition of the apostles’ creed which states near the end “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” That is, the “little c” catholic church. The church of Christ in the broadest possible sense. As a minister in the Churches of Christ it important for me to begin with the ironic roots of my own tradition.
Unity and Division in the Stone-Campbell Movement. Generally speaking, of the three main branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) have led the way for unity. The more formal ecclesiastical structure of the Disciples has allowed them to accomplish this. In fact, in 1917 the Association for the Promotion of Christian Unity became an official department of the Disciples’ convention. This made the Disciples the first American denomination to elevate a unity committee to this degree of authority. This department is still alive today in the Disciples, but under a different name: Council on Christian Unity and Interfaith Ministry (CUIM).
Individuals within the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the Churches of Christ have also participated in a call for unity, but as a necessity only as individuals. In the most conservative churches of the movement there has been a “hard style” that has characterized their particular vigor for sectarianism, legalism, and exclusivism. Personally, I grew up in churches that proclaimed that the Churches of Christ were the only ones going to heaven. They even went so far as to proclaim that only members of a Church of Christ were really Christians. How horrifying!
Such an extreme lack of unity in the Stone-Campbell movement is rich with irony. The movement began amidst a call for the breakdown of denominational boundaries for greater christian unity. Barton Stone believed that the Spirit’s presence and action in believers was the basis for unity. Alexander Campbell and his father Thomas Campbell believed that unity would be achieved on the foundation of the bare practices and beliefs of the earliest christians as expressed in the New Testament (especially Acts and Paul’s epistles). These calls for unity were exemplified in the Last Will and Testament of Springfield Presbytery and in the Declaration and Address, both important documents of the earliest Stone-Campbell Movement.
The Only Christians or Christian Only? Many of the Stone-Campbell Movement’s slogans have unity at the core of their meaning. For example, Thomas Campbell said, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent.” Though this phrase has been weaponized by many to silence those with whom they disagree, this phrase has at its core the idea that the bare essentials of the New Testament would unify the church. Rightfully, we can critique the legitimacy of this point of view. The Campbells were wrong that the bare essentials of the New Testament would renew and unify the church. This is abundantly manifested not only in the numerous remaining denominations in existence today, but in the split in the movement itself between three main branches: Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ), Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, and the Churches of Christ. Nevertheless, the intention behind this slogan is unity. Though the content of the slogan is flawed, the intention expresses the Campbell’s desire for unity.
From the previously mentioned Declaration and Address, Campbell also said “The church of Jesus Christ on earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” Barton Stone said, “Let Christian unity be our polar star.” One other quote that has an uncertain origin, but a popular attestation across the movement of the Stone-Campbell Movement is “We are Christians only, but not the only Christians.” Though some of these slogans have been weaponized, we should not let that stop us from hearing the clear cry for unity that undergirds them. Can we redeem the slogans? Or at the very least, the desire for unity that they articulate?
Ecumenicism. In the broader world of Christianity, the ecumenical movement has been a key part of struggles for unity. The ecumenical movement is a world-wide movement pushing for the visible unity of Christians from across the denominational spectrum. The movement proper started with the Edinburgh Conference in 1910 which sought to set forth the goal of evangelizing the whole world by cooperation between missionary societies of various denominations. This explains, in part, the word “ecumenical” which comes from a Greek word meaning “the whole inhabited earth.” The word shows up around 15 times in the New Testament in various usage. The word was used in reference to the missionary endeavor to proclaim Christ throughout the world (Matthew 24:14), the whole of the Roman world (Luke 2:1), every kingdom of the entire world (Luke 4:5), or the world that is being redeemed by Christ (Hebrews 2:5). Ecumenical was eventually applied as an adjective to describe the councils of the early centuries such as Nicaea and Chalcedon because of the universal application of the decrees from those councils.
The ecumenical movement was exclusively a protestant movement until the Patriarch of Constantinople issued an encyclical urging for unity among Christians and the creation of a “league between the churches.” In 1948, Eastern Orthodox churches were part of the founding of the World Council of Churches. It was not until the 1950s with the commencement of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII that the Roman Catholic Church moved beyond its historic stance that unity was only possible if others would join the Catholic Church. The Decree on Ecumenism was one of the documents that came out of the Second Vatican Council. In this document, all baptized Christians are accepted in fellowship and sins that prevented unity, committed by Catholics and Protestants, were condemned. At the present the Roman Catholic Church is not a part of the World Council of Churches, but works closely with the organization. One of the most important documents produced by the World Council of Churches is their work Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry.
The Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) were founding members in the World Council of Churches. As justification, the Disciples have often referred to slogans of the Stone-Campbell Movement such as “Christians only, but not the only Christians” to justify their involvement with the movement. What about the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the Churches of Christ? Michael Kinnamon in his entry on the Ecumenical movement in The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement lists three reasons that have generally kept the other two branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement out of the ecumenical movement:
- Some have argued that the ecumenical movement pursues unity at the expense of truth.
- The World Council of Churches is associated in many people’s minds with “left-wing” causes such as social justice issues. Also, the lack of the World Council of Churches to take an official stance on issues such as abortion or the LGBTQ+ has troubled many.
- Because of the lack of ecclesiastical formality members of the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and the Churches of Christ can really only participate at the individual or local congregational level.
I personally am comfortable with using the world “ecumenical” to describe my own sense of generosity toward my fellow believers in Christ across denominational lines. I have never participated in any formal way with the World Council of Churches, but I would be open to attending an event or working with them in the future if the opportunity arose. Because of the association with the World Council of Churches, some are hesitant to use the word, “ecumenical.” I suppose it is a matter of conscience for the individual. A distinction between the general feeling of ecumenism and the formal ecumenical movement led by the World Council of Churches should be made in discussions.
A Generous Orthodoxy. A book by this title was written several years ago by a leader in the emerging church movement, Brian McLaren. The book’s subtitle expresses an ambitious purpose for the book: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed- yet hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian. The idea of this book is not quite the same as the ecumenical movement, but certain elements of it carry that ecumenical spirit.
One of the main critiques of this book is that McLaren was encouraging a “new age” type of spirituality that has a generic Christian flavor to it, but no deeper doctrinal foundations. Some of his other and more recent works might attest to this. Others have found value in the presentation of the strengths of various Christian traditions in a way that does not force one to choose strict categories along traditional denominational lines. Full disclosure: I have not read the entirety of this book. I like the general spirit of it, but have some reservations as well.
One fundamental question this book raises is what are the non-negotiables and what are the areas of what Philipp Melanchthon has called, “adiaphora,” that is, the non-essential matters of our faith. Many today use the terminology of “salvation issues” and “non-salvation issues” to describe the same ideas. Generosity and love should certainly be practiced by believers. That being said, should our orthodoxy really be generous? Orthodoxy refers to “correct praise.” It means correct doctrine and belief. For example, the divinity of Christ is a belief of Christian orthodoxy. Those who deny the divinity of Christ wold be called heretics. That is, those who are outside the realm of traditional and foundational Christian belief. Some will no doubt call me a fundamentalist and legalist for my hesitancy, but I am unwilling to compromise on the areas of the faith that are correctly called, “orthodox.” I do believe there are some so-called “salvation issues” that are reasons for a limitation of fellowship. The problem is, people do not always agree on what these issues are. What if my “salvation issue” is your “non-salvation issue?”
An Orthodox Generosity. My proposal is to have an orthodox generosity rather than a generous orthodoxy. Isn’t this just the same thing? How is this not just a game of semantics? I actually don’t think so. I do not want to compromise on the things that are “salvation issues,” but I do want to maintain a generosity and love (charity in classical language) toward everyone, even those I think are outside the bounds of orthodoxy. How could this happen?
I think we have to have some basis of what is and is not a “salvation issue.” What is that basis? Rather than attempting to come up with an arbitrary list on my own and run the risk of including something unnecessary or leaving something out, I simply affirm a classic formulation: The Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
These early confessions of faith are a summary of the whole of Christian orthodoxy. They were written as a sort of bare essentials list similar to what the Campbells desired with the interpretation of the New Testament. I often say that if we can agree on the things listed in these creeds, then we can agree to disagree about just about anything else.
Does this mean I am going to start regularly going to a different church? No, I am a minister in the Churches of Christ and though it has its fair share of problems, I love my tradition. Does this mean I would attend a non-Church of Christ when I am not preaching? Yes. I have attended a variety of other Christian denominations and will continue to do so in the future. Does this mean I would preach in a non-Church of Christ? Absolutely! What does this mean I think theologically? That is a good question. Let me elaborate:
Theological Implications. There are surely two main areas that are in the minds of members of the more traditional and main-line Churches of Christ at this point: communion and baptism. I will address how I think my proposal of an orthodox generosity influences these two sacraments, but I think there are other areas that should be addressed and articulated as well. An orthodox generosity is rightfully found in a healthy ecclesiology.
Visible and Invisible Churches.
The church is not a man-made creation. The church is a creation of God and it is the bride of Christ, sealed with the promise of the Holy Spirit. The church does not start until the Spirit comes (Acts 2). In this sense, the church is a creation and work of the Holy Spirit. There is so much more to church than what we can see with our eyes (just like with the Holy Spirit!). We must strive for a healthy ecclesiology because a healthy ecclesiology shows us that we do not have to be threatened by the disunity we see with our eyes. Unity is inherent to the church by means of its creation by the Triune God. Indeed, we can affirm with our Orthodox friends that the church as a whole is an icon of God the Trinity. We reproduce the mystery of unity in diversity. Indeed, we can affirm with our Catholic friends that the Church is one because of her source: the Trinity (CCC, 813).
How dare we call divided what Christ has called unified – what he prayed to be unified (John 17). Does Christ have multiple brides? Absolutely not!! We must be unified visibly with our brothers and sisters in Christ all across the spectrum of Christendom because the church invisible – the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church – is already unified. We are to participate visibly, physically in what already is invisibly, spiritually.
The church is one. Ontologically, this is what the church is: one. There is nothing we can do to change that. No matter how many denominations, branches, or traditions that we devise, the church is still one. The scriptural images of this oneness are of Trinity and of body. Just as the Son and the Father are one and the Spirit is the bond of love between them, so the church is one, though many (John 17). The church has one head (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 2:10) and one body (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18, 24), but consists of many parts (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).
As Micheal F. Bird reminds us:
Diversity in the church has been an ever-present reality, yet often a good one since diversity brings together a multiplicity of gifts and graces. Christ’s one body has many parts (1 Cor 12:12, 18, 20). Diversity, even theological diversity, can mean riches for the body of Christ since we are forced to expand our horizons beyond our own faith and practices. Other traditions can help us overcome the blind spots in our own tradition. Catholics remind us of the ancient roots of the church. Baptists remind us that Christians are Bible people and the church is for believers. Methodists reminds us about the importance of piety and personal holiness. Presbyterians remind us about God’s sovereignty and God’s covenant promises. Pentecostals remind us to hold together the catholicity of our ancient faith with the protest of our Protestantism. Lutherans remind us to remain true to justification by faith. Even among these diverse fellowships, the fact that they can all recite the Apostles’ Creed is proof that there is still one church professing a common faith in one God, through one Lord, in the power of one Spirit. While the church’s oneness is invisible and created by the Holy Spirit, even so we are called to translate our invisible unity into visible expressions. Thus the challenge for the churches is, as Paul told the assemblies in Rome, to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification” (Rom 14:19). [What Christians Ought to Believe, 198]
Room for Holy Envy.
I am a fan of Krister Stendahl’s three proposals for religious understanding. It forms a part of what I am trying to do with my website. Stendahl proposed the following:
- If you want to understand another religion, ask its adherents, not its enemies.
- Don’t compare your best to their worst
- Leave room for “holy envy” by which he meant that you should find something you admire and honor about another religion, but accept that it is not your own and belongs to someone else.
Stendahl is speaking about interacting with other religions, but I think the advice could apply to our interaction with other denominations and Christian traditions as well. In order to practice an orthodox generosity, I think we must follow the above directions. With slight revisions I amend Stendahl’s thoughts as follows:
- If you want to understand another denomination or Christian tradition, ask adherents, not its enemies. [This includes reading a book that tells us what another denomination thinks, but written by someone who is not a member of that denomination. I have seen many books that supposedly told me what people in other denominations believed and were very wrong!]
- Don’t compare your best to their worst.
- Leave room for “holy envy” – in this vein what might we learn from this Christian tradition that is different than ours?
An Opened Close Eucharist.
I think we should call the act “eucharist” from the Greek meaning “to give thanks.” To call the meal eucharist is more generous in that it does not have the reformation baggage that “communion” does, the lack of the theme of presence that “Lord’s supper” has, or the Catholic sound of “mass.” It is a meal that fundamentally gives thanks for what Christ has done and is doing based on what he has done.
There are three basic opinions about who can partake of eucharist/communion in a local congregation. Open communion refers to communion being open to anyone: believer or nonbeliever, baptized or unbaptized, orthodox or heretic, in my denomination or not in my denomination. Close communion refers to communion that is practiced only with those who are baptized and believe the same basic doctrine as the church offering communion (probably, but not necessarily referring to a specific denomination). Closed communion refers to communion that is practiced only with those who are members of the specific local church that is offering the communion.
Close communion is practiced by Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. If you go to Mass or Divine Liturgy and you are not Catholic or Orthodox you are not allowed to participate in communion with everyone else. I have often participated in churches that have some form of close communion. They will typically offer communion only to believers who are baptized members of a Church of Christ.
I believe that we should promote what I am calling an opened close Eucharist. I think communion should be observed by those who are baptized believers in Christ. See an article here for a good discussion on this. Thus, Eucharist should be open to all who are baptized believers in Christ. It is open in the sense that it is open to anyone across the broad spectrum of Christianity, but it is close in the sense that it is only for those who are active participants of the Christian faith.
On another note, Eucharist is a reminder of the inherent unity of the church. We all partake of the Eucharist. We are feasting on Christ and in so doing having life nourished within us. As one of my professors liked to say, “Communion is a death-defying meal.” We are passing the bread and the wine with Christ Himself, but also with those saints who have gone before us and are now a great cloud of witnesses (See 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; Hebrews 12:1-2). The oneness of the church is symbolized by the loaf shared at the Eucharistic table (1 Corinthians 10:17). Many in the early church prayed these words from the Didache (9.4):
As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may Thy Church be gathered from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever and ever.
Full disclosure: I believe in adult believer’s baptism by immersion. This is my heritage and my conviction. In the spirit of an orthodox generosity, however, I would remind my fellow Stone-Campbell Movement friends of the following quotes from our founders:
Barton Stone wrote, “My opinion is that immersion is the only baptism. But shall I therefore make my opinion a term of Christian fellowship? If in this case I thus act, where shall I cease from making my opinions terms of fellowship? I confess I see no end. . . . Let us still acknowledge all to be brethen, who believe in the Lord Jesus, and humbly and honestly obey him, as far as they know his will, and their duty.” (Christian Messenger, 1831, p. 19, 21.)
Alexander Campbell wrote, “But who is a Christian? I answer, every one that believes in his heart that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God; repents of his sins, and obeys him in all things according to his measure of knowledge of his will. . . . I cannot make any one duty the standard of Christian state or character, not even immersion into the name of Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and [cannot] in my heart regard all that have been sprinkled in infancy without their own knowledge and consent, as aliens from Christ and the well-grounded hope of heaven. Should I find a Pedobaptist [one baptized as an infant] more intelligent in the Christian Scriptures, more spiritually-minded and more devoted to the Lord than a Baptist, or one immersed on a profession of the ancient faith, I could not hesitate a moment in giving the preference of my heart to him that loveth most. Did I act otherwise, I would be a pure sectarian, a Pharisee among Christians.” (Millennial Harbinger, 1837, p. 411-412.)
There is some tension to be held here, but I believe I am fully capable of saying on the one hand that adult immersion baptism is the right thing to do and on the other hand saying I welcome those who have not been immersed as adults as my brothers and sisters in faith. I am hesitant to offer communion to those who have not been baptized in any sense, but I would welcome those baptized as infants and take communion with them.
We have one basic Bible. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches have books in their canon of scripture that Protestants, generally, do not. My Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends would call their extra books the “Dueuterocanonical” books. That is, the “second canon” of books. This does not mean that they hold these books in less authority than the other books, but that they acknowledge they are a separate collection of works from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and New Testament. Protestants have typically called these works the “apocryphal” books. “Apocrypha” means “hidden” or “mysterious” and refers to the uncertain origins of most of these books.
I do not believe that the Apocrypha is scripture, but I do not condemn those who do. Salvation is certainly not determined by the inclusion or exclusion of this set of books. Even if these books are not scripture, they are certainly important and have been highly regarded in some form or fashion for a long time by many different people.
Regardless of the Deuterocanonical/Apocryphal books, we have a canonical unity that can not be ignored. The things that unite the Christian heritage, broadly speaking, are greater than the things that divide us. One of those key things is the Bible. I am reminded of Jesus’s words to his disciples that “whoever is not against us is for us” (See Mark 9:38-41). Apparently even the misguided who work in Jesus’s name belong to him. I am also reminded of Paul’s and John’s words that indicate that there are some things in our faith that are apparently more important than others (1 Corinthians 15:3-5; Ephesians 4:1-6; 1 John 5:17).
We are reading the same Bible. Despite what the Campbells thought we all try to read scripture as unbiased as we can and we still walk away with different understandings.But what if the Campbells were partially right? The thing we have in common is not our interpretations of the text, but the text itself. Can we argue about the text together as a means of fellowship? I think we can. Stendahl argued that we should leave room for “holy envy.” I wonder if we could also leave room for “holy argument.” We have the same scriptures. We just think differently about them. We have a canonical unity with the broad Christian tradition because we share the same Bible. The pages of scripture are out common ground.
I Have a Confession.
Once again, the Apostles and Nicene creeds are the summary of the most important aspects of the faith. To those who hold to this basic outline I can happily agree to disagree about almost anything else. And even for those who do not affirm the whole of the creeds I will strive to practice love, humility, and generosity in my interactions with them.
I confess with believers down through the ages that there is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Some will call my proposal heresy, but I believe unity is a holy calling. The Roman Catholic Church says rightly in their Catechism that “The desire to recover the unity of all Christians is a gift of Christ and a call of the Holy Spirit” (CCC, 820). I am a catholic Christian. I am a part of the church over which Jesus Christ is head: the whole thing. I am working toward an orthodox generosity. In the words of Barton Stone, “If I err, let it be on the side of charity.” Will you join me?
“Belonging to the Church” – Chapter 13 in What Christians Ought to Believe.
“Church” – Chapter 8 in Theology: The Basics.
“Church, Doctrine of the” in Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible.
“The Church of God” – Chapter 12 in The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity.
“I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church” – Article 9 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“The New Community” – Chapter 11 in Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology.