The Gospel According to the Sacraments, Part 2

In my previous post, I highlighted the sacraments as the point of convergence between evangelicalism and ecumenism arguing that baptism and communion are presented in the New Testament as signs of the gospel that simultaneously enact and remember union with Christ and the unity of Christ’s body. I concluded that post by appealing to evangelical’s passion for the gospel as the reason for participating in ecumenism. This post will address three things: first, I will focus in on what I perceive to be the greatest doctrinal obstacle that threatens to keep evangelicals on the sidelines of the ecumenical movement; second, I will examine what I identify to be a failure of orientation in the ecumenical movement over recent decades; and lastly, I will diagnose a reorientation that I hope evangelicalism may offer in the pursuit of visible unity in the church.

Invisible Unity

At the denominational level, nearly every evangelical tradition has contented itself with the notion that while the church is visibly divided, it is united in some spiritual and invisible sense.1 There is an element of truth to this, just as there is an element of truth to the confidence in one’s justification despite one’s ongoing battle with sin. Where the notion of the invisible unity is damning is in its cozy complacency with division.

The attempt to brush away the church’s corporate guilt through an appeal to a faultless invisible church shares more in common with platonic philosophy or German idealism than it does than with the message of the scriptures. We cannot dismiss the sin of our divisions. If justification is in fact the root reality of the tree, then sanctification must follow in the fruit of that tree (John 15:8). If the body of Christ is corporately justified through union with Christ, then she must pursue corporate sanctification through obedience to the Spirit.

The visibility of the church is not located in the possession of right rulers, creeds, or ethical standards but in the ongoing response of repentance and faith in the gospel among her members.2

The Failure of the Ecumenical Movement

Too much of the quest for unity in the church has been an ecumenism of glory which pursues unity through mutual doctrinal agreement conceived of as either a theological harmony of the lowest or highest common denominator. This is by no means meant to dismiss the achievements of the ecumenical movement in clearing away the cobwebs of mutual misunderstanding. However, it is to say that while such an approach can accomplish much, it cannot finally produce visible unity. This is not to dismiss the importance of doctrine in Christian unity. Doctrine is vital, if it were not Jesus would not have promised to send the Helper saying, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

My criticism is that this approach forms what I call an ecumenism of glory over against a conciliarity of the cross. I take these terms from Martin Luther’s language of theology of glory and theology of the cross. For Luther, these are mutually exclusive theological orientations. A theology of glory “does not know God hidden in suffering…. [it] prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly” (The Heidelberg Disputation, Proof to Thesis XXI). Alternatively, a theology of the cross looks for God’s self-revelation in Christ crucified.

A Conciliarity of the Cross

The question for evangelical engagement with the ecumenical movement is not whether doctrine is essential, the question is how to begin. An ecumenism of glory seeks to begin the quest for unity by discussing doctrine, a conciliarity of the cross begins with the confession of guilt as the first step towards reconciliation. The divided church has not only mutually anathematized each another, wrongfully excluded brothers and sisters from the communion table, and refused to recognize the validity in one another’s baptisms—we have taken up the sword in the name of Jesus and killed each other.

The violence between the Christian traditions may not presently take the form of warfare and bloodshed as it has in recent history, but the twenty-first century church is just as guilty of violence as it was when it was fighting religious wars. God has his own way of defining violence which is not limited to human bloodshed but also includes slander, pride, indifference, and spreading strife among brothers (Ps. 69:4; 73:4ff; 109:1-5; Prov. 6:16-19; cf. Prov. 10:6, 11; 13:2; Job 19:7).3 Our sin of violence reveals the true tragedy of the church’s divisions—by dividing the church of Christ, we have divided Christ himself (1 Cor. 1:13) and grieved the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4: 29-31).

Visible unity is an impossibility without reconciliation, and we cannot be reconciled until there is first repentance. We cannot sidestep the reality of our corporate guilt. Before there can be reunion there must be confession. This is indeed a different orientation towards unity – a conciliarity of the cross rather than an ecumenism of glory – and perhaps this disposition will be the gift that evangelicals give to the ecumenical movement. In the next and final post, I will examine how pastors and lay people alike can actively seek unity in the church.

Michael Spalione is a Ph.D. student at Trinity College, Bristol.

References   [ + ]

1. Karl Barth and Emil Brunner both launched devastating attacks on the Reformers’ doctrine of the invisibility of the church. See Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005); and Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, Harold Knight trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951).
2. This point of the churches visibility located in her repentance is wonderfully argued by William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 141-169.
3. For an examination of scripture’s own way of defining violence see Peter J. Leithart, “Violence,” Christian Political Witness, George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee eds. (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 147-162. See also Jerome F. D. Creach, Violence in Scripture: Interpretation: Resources for the Use of Scripture in the Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 197-199.