Paul rebuked the Corinthians for claiming the names of Apollos and himself rather than Jesus, with a stinging question: “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). One look around the ecclesiastical landscape with churches and denominations bearing different names invites the same question: Does the present state of the church present Christ as divided?
The ecumenical movement began with the assumption that, indeed, something is wrong about the present state of the church’s unity. What then is the task of ecumenism? All share the conviction that “it is not the task of the ecumenical movement...to create unity between the churches, but rather to give form to the unity already created by God.” This paper will consider the two dominant positions regarding the proper form of ecumenism, namely, “reconciled diversity” and “organic reunion.”
I will give special attention to one of the foremost voices of the ecumenical movement, Lesslie Newbigin. With Newbigin I will argue for the urgency of unity for the church’s mission, the necessity of visible union and the primacy of local unity. I will also draw upon Newbigin to offer a theological way forward for the ecumenical movement toward visible unity.
II. Why are We Divided?
The Protestant Reformation, which began the fracturing of the church, was not willing to abandon the Nicene formulation of the church as “one,” but how could it be maintained in the light of schism? Martin Luther provided the answer. He conceived and taught of the church as an invisible spiritual entity. The true church is not that which is seen and it is not tied to any one institution, namely the Roman Catholic Church, but is known only to God. This view, Luther felt, was consistent with the flesh/spirit dichotomy that he saw in Scripture. Just as works do not merit salvation, neither does visible unity constitute the one church.
This doctrine seems to have paved the way for centuries of church splits and denominational proliferation. These new “churches” could separate themselves from their churches of origin without the discomfort of feeling that they had violated the unity of the church.
Of course, the Roman Catholic Church had to wrestle with the reality of the division created by the Protestant Reformation as well. The Catholic Church had long maintained the equivalence of the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” with their institution, and the Reformation did not change this. The RCC denied that Protestants were members of the true church because they were no longer participants in what was, to Catholics, its visible form.
The question of the visibility of the church has resulted in two answers on the extremes. Some, with Luther, have claimed that the church is invisible, and therefore divisions in the visible church are no scandal to its spiritual unity. Others, such as the RCC and Christian sects, have claimed that the church is utterly visible and exists only in their own institution.
The premise of the ecumenical project rejects these two extreme views, but it continues to wrestle with their more moderate forms. These theologies of schism present two challenges to the task of ecumenism. The challenge posed by the Catholic view of the institutional visibility of the church, is to push for the recognition of the ecclesiality of other churches. The challenge posed by Luther’s view of the invisibility of the church is to refute the sufficiency of invisible church unity. We will consider both of these challenges, beginning with the question of church visibility.
III. Ecumenism and the Visibility of the Church
As we consider the proper goal of ecumenism the first question is to determine whether the one church ought to be a visible community, or whether it is sufficient to understand the church’s unity as invisible. Veli-Matti Karkainen calls this “The most hotly debated ecumenical question.”
A. A Free Church Ecumenism: Church Invisibility but...
Stanley Grenz, a Free Church theologian, presents this debate as one between denominationalism, which emphasizes the invisibility of the church, and sectarianism, which promotes the visibility of the church. Grenz, identifies the “great advantage” of denominationalism to be that it “allows us to affirm fellowship with Christians in churches with which our congregation has no formal fellowship.” Denominationalism, though, is not without its deficit according to Grenz. It fails to see the significance of baptism as that which joins all Christians to Christ and one another, not as a mere rite of membership in the local congregation.
Grenz attempts to identify a middle way, balancing visible and invisible understandings of the church. Against denominationalism he wishes to restore baptism with its connection to conversion. Against sectarianism he wants to acknowledge the churchly nature of other Christian fellowships. Although he has attempted to find a middle way, as a moderated Free Church theologian, Grenz lays the stress on the invisible nature of the church. While he wishes that all denominations recognize one another as family through baptism, he does not affirm any impulse to visible union.
In an encyclical letter, Pope John Paul II gives voice to the kind of sectarianism that Grenz is willing to work with.
Christians of one confession no longer consider other Christians as enemies or strangers but see them as brothers and sisters. Again, the very expression separated brethren tends to be replaced today by expressions which more readily evoke the deep communion — linked to the baptismal character — which the Spirit fosters in spite of historical and canonical divisions. Today we speak of ‘other Christians,’ ‘others who have received Baptism,’ and ‘Christians of other Communities.’ . . . There is an increased awareness that we all belong to Christ.
While this letter is quite gracious to non-Catholics, it should be remembered that Vatican II also affirmed that the one church “subsists” in the Roman Catholic Church. Somewhat surprisingly, Grenz and Pope John Paul II have some agreement. They each wish to essentially recognize the genuine Christianity of other fellowships without being compelled to unite with them in any formal way. They do not want their own ecclesiologies being called into question. Grenz is happy to have denominations remain without formal fellowship, so long as they do not deny their shared baptism. John Paul II, too, is willing to acknowledge a shared baptism, but not willing to question what has always been the Catholic ecumenical agenda—the return of Protestants and the Orthodox to the Roman Catholic Church. Neither Grenz nor John Paul II wish to have the ecclesial status of other fellowships result in any change in the view they hold of their own fellowship.
In sum, John Paul II expresses a commitment to the visibility of the church in the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, but he wishes to acknowledge other Christians as partners in the same baptism.
C. The Ecumenism of the WCC
The World Council of Churches, the primary organization in the ecumenical movement, expressed its first function and purpose to be “visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ.” This is in stark contrast to the ecumenism of Grenz. Karkainnen notes that “With the exception of most Free churches, almost all other Christian churches currently regard visible unity as the desired goal of ecumenism.”
Despite the apparent clarity of the WCC statement, there has been ongoing debate regarding the goal of ecumenism. Two positions have arisen that could be called, respectively, “reconciled diversity” and “organic reunion.”
i. Reconciled Diversity
Reconciled Diversity is quite similar to the position of Grenz. It entails the recognition of other Christian churches without seeking “formal fellowship” with them. Oscar Cullman proposed “unity through diversity—in which the New Testament metaphor of the members of the body is taken out of the context of the local congregation and applied to present denominations.”
Proponents of reconciled diversity point to the diverse cultures in which the church exists as conditions which require unique expression of the faith. Craig Van Gelder, author of The Essence of the Church, writes, “
...the one church is contextual and relevant to diverse cultural settings. Of necessity local churches take different forms. Such diversity is consistent with the church’s catholic nature.
For Van Gelder, “[The oneness of the church] does not necessarily require some type of organizational or institutional oneness.” Rather the unity that is to be had is that “Every church body must have the conviction and desire to relate to other church bodies that are part of the catholic church (italics mine).” While he speaks of this relation at one point as “common fellowship” it is clear that he is not thinking of organic union, but recognition and amiability.
Miroslav Volf offers a perspective which similarly considers “desire to relate to other church bodies”  as important. He suggests that “the openness of every church toward all other churches” is “an indispensable condition of ecclesiality.” And yet, openness to other churches is not expected to result in organic unity between them until the eschaton. The church’s unity is visible in a measured way through the openness of churches to others, not through actual fellowship with them. For Volf, this openness actually serves to point to the presently incomplete nature of the eschatological unity of the people of God which is our hope. Hence, until the eschaton “there can be no church in the singular.”
There is a general apprehension among advocates of reconciled diversity of institutional, organizational church unity, which they see as the unspoken aim of visible reunion.
The case for organic reunion is most forcefully argued by Lesslie Newbigin. Speaking on behalf of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, he states
We believe that the unity which is both God’s will and His gift to His Church is one which brings all in each place who confess Christ Jesus as Lord into a fully committed fellowship with one another through one baptism into Him, preaching the one Gospel and breaking the one bread, and having a corporate life reaching out in witness and service to all; and which at the same time unites them with the whole Christian fellowship in all places and all ages in such wise that ministry and members are acknowledged by all, and that all can act and speak together as occasion requires for the tasks to which God calls the Church.
Notice that the unity he seeks allows a local unified presence, as well as a universal fellowship. The nature of the universal fellowship is such that members and ministers in all local churches are recognized as such by all other churches in the world. Hence, intercommunion and free exchange of clergy are marks of a visibly unified church. Universal nature of the church’s fellowship also enables it to speak to the world as one, accomplishing its God-given mission.
As to ecumenism on the local level, Newbigin participated in the reunion of the Congregational, Presbyterian and Anglican churches in
South India where he served for many years as a missionary and later a bishop. He understood disunity, on the local level, as a great hindrance to mission and a contradiction to the gospel.
This example of regional reunion did, in fact, constitute the making of a new and overarching institution, the
. While its polity and theology was enriched by the three traditions, the organizational nature of its unity solidified concerns in the ecumenical community that the push for “visible reunion” was really aiming at a monolithic institutional church. Church of South India
Newbigin acknowledged this fear, but also critiqued his opponents.
“...there is need for fresh thinking in the field of structure. In this matter we are polarized between the advocates of full 'organic union' and the advocates of 'reconciled diversity'. The latter slogan often seems to be a polite way of agreeing to do nothing. The former arouses understandable fears of 'monolithic structures'. This fear is understandable when one contemplates the structures to which we have become accustomed. I think that there is room for more vigorous exploration of the middle ground between these extremes, looking to visible forms of ecclesial life which would combine the variety of different forms of discipleship and spirituality manifest in our divided churches with a degree of mutual commitment and shared ecclesial life much greater than is provided in our existing councils of churches.”
Elsewhere, Newbigin makes more explicit his expectation that the church ought to look differently in different cultures, as advocates of “reconciled diversity” stress. Hans Schwartz states what is clearly Newbigin’s view. That while cultural diversity is necessary: “the necessary cultural distinctiveness and diversity do not justify our present divisions.”
Newbigin critiques “reconciled diversity” as having made intellectual agreement the standard and source of unity rather than the work of the Spirit. He traces the fracturing of the church post-Reformation to the mistaken belief that doctrinal agreement is the “one essential basis for Christian unity.” The Protestant emphasis on Scripture has obscured the fact that “what our Lord left behind Him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community.” The unity of the fellowship which is the instrument of God is preserved not by doctrinal homogeneity, but by the Spirit of God. A vast amount of intellectual disagreement is possible within unity, though it will always be painful and will call for all to seek to convince others of the truth as they see it.
“Reconciled diversity” is the perpetuation of the overemphasis on doctrinal agreement as the grounds for formal unity and a failure to recognize that we who are called to Christ are called to be together even when we fail to agree, for the church is made up “not of those whom we choose out to be our friends, but of those whom God has actually given to us as our neighbors.”
A final motive for the visibility of the church’s unity is the aid that it is to the mission of the church. As a missional ecclesiologist, Newbigin believed that the church existed in its mission. In a local setting the presentation of multiple competing churches amounts to a public contradiction to the gospel. Not only are missionary dollars and energy spent inefficiently, but the advantages of church discipline are abandoned in this setting. In agreement with Volf, Newbigin stresses that the church serves as a foretaste of the eschatological humanity. But for Newbigin openness to one another is not a sufficient foretaste of unity. The unification of all humanity should be tasted in the realized, if partial, unity of the church. As such, the church’s unity is a sign, firstfruit and instrument of the
. kingdom of God
Thus far I have argued, with Newbigin, for the visibility of church unity. A visible community of the Spirit is what Jesus left as his witness and the visible unity of the church serves as a public sign and instrument of the eschatological ingathering of a new redeemed humanity. The following section will discuss who ought to be included in this visibly one church.
IV. Ecumenism and Ecclesiality
If visible unity is the proper aim of ecumenism, with whom is it to be sought? Hints have already surfaced to this question. As both Volf and John Paul II identified, baptism marks those who have fellowship with Christ, and therefore, those to whom all Christians are called to fellowship.
Newbigin approaches the question of ecclesiality from an unpredictable angle. Rather than offering a minimal marks of ecclesiality, so as to include as many Christians as possible, he purposefully combines the marks of ecclesiality from the major traditions, Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal: ecclesiality requires visible unity and continuity, missionary zeal, holiness and the presence and activity of the spirit. Newbigin accuses all churches of failing, in at least one of these ways, to achieve ecclesiality.
If no church fulfills the requirements of ecclesiality, how then is there said to be any church at all? This crisis is the key theme of The Household of God, and opens the way for organic reunion. Newbigin argues that
the theological clue to the problem of the method of reunion lies in the fact that the Church has its being from the God who...justifies the ungodly, raises the dead, and calls things that are not as though they were.”
Though the church has failed to be the church, by the grace of God, it is the church nonetheless. “Simul Justus ac peccator applies to the Church as to the Christian.” And here is the key: when each church can confess that it has failed and is only a church by God’s grace, it can also recognize that, despite the failures of others, they too are the church, by God’s grace. Out of gratitude for forgiveness, the churches are then called to repentance, seeking to repair their failures of ecclesiality. This includes seeking organic, visible unity.
The question of ecclesiality for Newbigin has changed from “who lives up to what it means to be church?” to “who else, despite their failures as a church, have been called “my people” by the God who calls things that are not as though they were?” It is with these fellow forgiven communities, that we must seek full reconciliation.
Hans Schwarz also advocates for this humility and repentance, stating that the church in mission is confronted by the scandal of its disunity. This scandal requires repentance of us all. “The division into different churches and denominations is not just the fault of others. It is always also our own fault.”
Repentance, then, is prerequisite to reunion. It is for this reason that Newbigin rails against federation which “offers us reunion without repentance.” “Reconciled diversity” and federation are absent of repentance and are rather simply an agreement for all to feel self-justified without feeling guilty about their estrangement.
V. Setting the Goal: Openness vs. Effort
The eschatological horizon of the church is the final goal of ecumenism. According to Karkkainen, Pannenberg and Volf share a similar view:
For Pannenberg, the goal of ecumenism is the unity of all people and peoples under one God. For Volf, the church as the anticipation of the new creation under one God points to the same goal. Whatever the precise definition of ecumenism, the ultimate goal is similar.
Newbigin states his ecumenism eschatologically as well, declaring that the church will be the “nucleus of a new redeemed humanity.” Of course, the reality the church’s eschatological future sets its direction, but it also calls the church to confess that it is not yet the eschatological fellowship, nor will it actualize its future before the eschaton.
Volf speaks of “openness of every church toward all other churches” as “the interecclesial minimum of the concrete ecclesial proleptic experience of the eschatological gathering of the whole people of God.” Through openness, Volf suggests, the church sets out on the path to its future. Volf finds it important to note that the future of redeemed humanity is “differentiated unity” not homogeneous unity.
I applaud Volf for grasping the eschatological significance of the form of the church’s unity, but want to go further and state that openness alone is insufficient. Indeed, openness to other churches is essential and does point, as a sign, to the incomplete, eschatological unity of humankind. But the church is not to be merely a sign of the eschatological community, but also a foretaste. While openness seems to Volf to provide a sufficient “proleptic experience of the eschatological gathering,” openness alone is too weak, too passive. If the church is to serve as firstfruit of the Kingdom unity, it must be active.
Letty Russell, a Feminist theologian, has offered hospitality as a way to talk about the church’s unity. “Hospitality is an expression of unity without uniformity.” This is helpful, because it moves in the direction of activity rather than passivity. Hospitality urges the church to seek community within the limits of diversity, which are the absence of love and idolatry. While hospitality is a helpful paradigm, I believe it still preserves the fundamental dilemma of efforts at union—an ongoing us/them logic.
I believe that the appropriate “interecclesial minimum” is effort, or even progress, toward familial unity. The churches can not merely be open to unity with one another, heralding that openness as a sign that unity is its eschatological future. They must also reflect and encapsulate the unity of its future. We must admit that on earth church unity will not be complete while also confessing that the church is not merely a sign, but a foretaste. It is not merely to point to something that it is not, but it is to be a real, though small, a sample of that which it points to. The church is not merely to be the aroma of the eschatological feast, but its appetizer.
VI. Striving for the Goal
The present state of the ecumenical movement is sometimes characterized by mere “openness” and at other times by genuine “effort.” How can the whole church arrive at what I have asserted is the goal, effort toward unity?
As we have seen, repentance is the catalyst for reunion, but repentance is not easily generated by councils. On the contrary councils easily tend toward stubbornness rather than humility. Newbigin, recognizing this, offers a brilliant insight.
The reunion of the Church will never be distilled out of a process of a purely academic discussion. It will only come about when Christians find themselves compelled to make real decisions concerning the practical issues which arise in the course of the fulfillment of the Church’s mission.
The failures that lead to repentance and the impetus for unity are only to be found when the church is in mission. As the church attempts mission, its disunity is exposed for what it is, “an intolerable anomaly” which discredits the gospel.
The power of mission to conspire against the disunity of the church is most evident on the local level. In A South India Diary, Newbigin reflects on how, when two missions competed for the allegiance of the same village there came to be two churches, each comprised of only one caste. In this situation, the disunity of the church tacitly reinforced the anti-gospel caste divisions. When the church is confronted with this sad reality it will be humbled and driven to repentance. When it begins to view itself as a failed-but-forgiven church it will have the grace to extend this identity to other churches and the way for unity will be opened.
Newbigin’s attempt to assist the efforts of WCC toward unity by merging with the International Missionary Fellowship proved ineffective. Sadly, rather than impregnating the WCC with missionary impulse, the strength of the IMF’s zeal waned in the union. For this reason, I believe that the most effective beginning place for the realization of unity is local: the city, the town, the village, the neighborhood. In fact, this is how Newbigin hoped the unified
would serve, as a catalyst for more local unions. Sadly, it was largely an isolated event and therefore, according to Newbigin, it “failed in one of its great purposes.” Church of South India
Indeed, the union in
South India did not spark widespread local unions, but it did embody the truth of the unity of the church to that bit of the world. The push to organic union, must begin organically in every place. Efforts at local union inevitably run into difficulties when attempting to explain themselves to their denominational institutions, even as occurred in South India. But this is where the pressure for change must come from.
Churches must collaborate in local missionary efforts, both social and evangelistic, in order to discover the affront their disunity is to their very nature. As they experience the Spirit’s calling that they be one, they will begin to wrestle with their denominational structures, pressuring them to allow local unity for the sake of mission.
The church is one. Despite its failures in ecclesiality, upheld by the God who calls what is not as though it is, the church is the locus of God’s saving action in the world. As a sign pointing to the coming eschatological people of God, the church is to acknowledge that she is not yet what she will be. As a foretaste of humanity’s eschatological future, the church must embody its unity in a small, but real, measure. Toward this end, the churches must apply genuine effort. The most promising form of effort for unity is not academic discussion, but local missionary collaboration. When its mission becomes primary, the church will repent of its disunity as an affront and hindrance to the gospel, and be drawn into a unified visible life.
Find more Jesus Dust posts on Lesslie Newbigin here.
Find more Jesus Dust posts on Lesslie Newbigin here.
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: InterVarsity Press, 2002) p. 85. Downers Grove, IL
 By asserting that the Protestant Reformation began the fracturing of the church I do not wish to downplay the significance of the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox church, but merely note that the Great Schism did not spark a slew of schisms as did the Protestant Reformation.
 Karkkainen, p. 84.
J. Grenz. Theology for the Community of God. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994) p. 547. Stanley
 Grenz, p. 547.
 Grenz, p. 548.
 Pope John Paul II. Ut Unum Sint, (Encyclical letter on Commitment to Ecumenism, 1995) §42.
 While the Vatican II statement that Christ’s church “subsists” in the Catholic church is a monumental shift from previous statements of equivalence, the statement does clearly indicate a sectarianism in which the Catholic church is the supreme manifestation of the
. church of Christ
 Harding Meyer, That All May Be One: Perceptions and Models of Ecumenicity (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999) pp. 24-27.
 Karkkainen, p. 84.
 Karkkainen, p. 81. See Oscar Cullman, Einheit durch Viefalt (Tubungen: Mohr, 1986).
 Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998) pp. 21, 239.
 Craig Van Gelder, The Essence of the Church: A Community Created by the Spirit. (
: Baker Books, 2000) p. 121. Grand Rapids, MI
 Van Gelder, p. 122.
 Van Gelder, p. 122.
 Van Gelder, p. 122.
 Volf, p. 156.
 Volf, p. 157.
 Volf, p. 158.
 Karkkainen, p. 85.
 Lesslie Newbigin,Unfinished Agenda: An Autobiography (London: SPCK, 1985) p. 171.
 Newbigin writes “Everything about such a missionary situation conspires to make Christian disunity an intolerable anomaly” (The Household of God, p.H 8). Also, “In so far as the Church is disunited her life is a direct and public contradiction of the Gospel” (The Household of God, pp.H 149-150).
 Lesslie Newbigin, “What is the Ecumenical Agenda?” (Unpublished, 1986). Accessed at www.newbigin.net.
 Lesslie Newbigin, “The Basis and Forms of Unity: Second Peter Ainslie Lecture.” Mid-Stream: The Ecumenical Movement Today 23 (January, 1984): 1-11) p. 9.. Accessed at www.newbigin.net.
 Schwartz, Hans. Eschatology.
: Eerdmans, 2000, p. 375. Grand Rapids
 Lesslie Newbigin. The Household of God. (
: Friendship Press, 1954. American Edition.) p. 52. New York
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 20.
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 52.
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 14.
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 167.
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 152 .
 Wainwright, Geoffrey. Lesslie Newbigin: A Theological Life.
Oxford: Press, 2000, p. 86. Oxford
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 23.
 Schwartz, p. 374.
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 14.
 Karkkainen, p. 160.
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 111.
 Volf uses this rationale to justify the need for church rules of social interaction: “However such external specification of this interaction may be articulated, it is not only an anticipatory sign of the new creation in the church, but also a sign of the distance from its eschatological goal.” 238
 Volf, p. 156.
 Volf, p. 157.
 Letty Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of the Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1993) p. 173.
 Russell, p. 179.
 Lesslie Newbigin, A
South India Diary (London: SCM Press LTD, 1960) p. 128.
 Newbigin, The Household of God, p. 8.
 Newbigin, A
South India Diary, p. 50.
 Newbigin, A
South India Diary, p. 128.