by Alexei Laushkin
John Calvin had a particular good insight that has always stuck with me. The idea was that the church was both visible and invisible, known and partially known because Christ himself ruled the church and governed it. Consider this passage from the Institutes:
The judgment which ought to be formed concerning the visible Church which comes under our observation, must, I think, be sufficiently clear from what has been said. I have observed that the Scriptures speak of the Church in two ways. Sometimes when they speak of the Church they mean the Church as it really is before God—the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world. Often, too, by the name of Church is designated the whole body of mankind scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord’s Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it. In this Church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance: of ambitious, avaricious, envious, evil-speaking men, some also of impurer lives, who are tolerated for a time, either because their guilt cannot be legally established, or because due strictness of discipline is not always observed. Hence, as it is necessary to believe the invisible Church, which is manifest to the eye of God only, so we are also enjoined to regard this Church which is so called with reference to man, and to cultivate its communion.
As Kingdom Mission Society (KMS) gets further into ecumenism, the insight that God governs the church and the saints, I think is particularly helpful. Each of the major traditions (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, Protestant, Reformed, Historically Black, Pentecostal) has a take on why its way contains the fullness of the faith, or in some cases the equivalent of the best form of practice. In some ways this is natural, you wouldn’t have your own branch of the church without this sense of who you are; yet it is an odd barrier to unity.
You have this idea in ecumenical circles that all dialogue should be based on love and truth. And by truth it is meant the sharing of true doctrine and that part of love is sharing these points of division. When you do this, what you end up with is a unity based on the truths of one branch of the church, a unity that will never achieve a full unity or will do so at the cost of isolating other branches.
Yet, I think Calvin’s insights are probably better and are more helpful as a means of thinking through divisions in the church as a practical matter even if not a focus of official dialogue.
Jesus retains the fullness in himself. The Holy Trinity decides where and in what manner a particular branch of the church will look most like Christ. Doctrine aids in supporting this kind of holiness, but in and of itself it is not the holiness that the Trinity alone retains.
This doesn’t diminish doctrine and form and substance and theology, instead such a notion would enhance it. For we are all called to make prudential judgement on the right forms and structures of the church on the means of grace and path towards sanctification, but what it does do is move us away from the idea that we must agree on doctrine to be part of the same body and to achieve unity or that our unity is achieved through a common table for the Eucharist. For unity is already active in one sense, God is actively governing the church and his people, in all of their expressions. This governing includes doctrine but also exceeds it and transcends our limitations. Doctrine is still very key, but we are pointing to the God that actively works in his church and people.
Such a view wouldn’t even diminish a church from seeking unity on its terms or forsaking unity in the aim of articulating the truths of its doctrine, but it would do two things. One it would point true unity towards that which already exists and is governed by the Holy Trinity. Two the dialogue could focus on where we see the fruits of saintly and holy movements and we could celebrate those fruits and thereby learn from each other in a way that actually builds mutual bonds of affection.
Consider some of the truths that flow from the idea that Christ ultimately has governed and does govern his church. We would say that the true spiritual substance that motivates the lives of the saints is similar and that with prudential reflection we can see how similar the work of God in the Christian church is among different people, traditions, and cultures. We would learn a new language to speak of the common witness of the church, and speak about its truest and brightest forms in the lives of holy men and women. We would learn from other traditions and cultures in the church and learn to recognize the fruits of the spirit born in their lives, and perhaps best of all we could learn from their witness in order to inform our witness today.
These are feeble short reflections and beginnings, but the basic point being ecumenism doesn’t have to be a forum for theological tightfistedness, but instead can be a mature discussion about the holiness of the saints in every generation and a shared martyrdom yes but also a shared way that God has moved among his people through Christ himself. When we see God at work in the other than we know more fully that his ways are truly holy, right, and just.
Alexei Laushkin is a Board Member of the Kingdom Mission Society, Vice-President of the Evangelical Environmental Network, and writer of the Foolishconfidence blog. His views are his own.