Posts tagged with: ecumenical movement

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, December 16, 2010

In this week’s commentary I say that part of the reason less money is being given to local churches is that it is reflective of a broader trend of distrust towards institutions.

Commentary magazine’s blog contentions has some more recent data confirming this overall shift. The post summarizes the December issue of AEI’s “Political Report” (PDF), which focuses especially on trust in the government. It finds that “contemporary criticisms of the federal government are broad and deep” and that, for instance, “Today three in ten have no confidence that when Washington tackles a problem it will be solved. That is the highest response on the question since it was first asked in 1991.”

But more broadly and inline with what I point to in this week’s commentary, we find that this lack of confidence in the government is not exception to the general loss of institutional faith. Indeed,

The public is deeply skeptical of big powerful institutions with substantial reach and diffuse missions. Big government, big labor, big business, and big media fall into this category, and public criticism of all is significant.

No doubt this applies to “big religion” as well. My friend John H. Armstrong has examined whether and why “young doubters” are leaving the church in seemingly greater numbers. And we can see how all this has negative implications for denominations and super-denominational structures (like the mainline ecumenical groups). As I argue in Ecumenical Babel, this means that many of these institutions might well be ripe for reform, in part because that is their only avenue for survival.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, December 10, 2010

Madeleine L’Engle, in a 1986 essay, “What May I Expect from My Church?”

And that is what I want my church to speak out about: the Gospel, the Good News. Then I will be given criteria to use in thinking about such issues as abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation. It is impossible to listen tot he Gospel week after week and turn my back on the social issues confronting me today. But what I hope for is guidance, not legislation.

L’Engle wrote these words referring to the Episcopal Church, but I echo precisely these sentiments in my critique of the ecumenical movement’s social witness in Ecumenical Babel. What we need is moral guidance and formation from the church, not, as I put it, attempts “to make arbitrary conclusions morally binding.”

In some cases that may be too much to expect, but it ought not be too much to hope for from our churches.

Last night a band of hearty travelers braved the first snow of the season here in Grand Rapids (and the attendant slick and dangerous roads) to hear Dr. John H. Armstrong speak at the November/December Acton on Tap, “Ecumenism and the Threat of Ideology.” Dr. Armstrong is founder of ACT 3 and adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College.

Armstrong spent some time discussing the thesis of his book, Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. A recurring theme was the phrase coined by Timothy George, “ecumenism in the trenches,” which is sometimes how we describe what we do here at Acton. The basic point of Armstrong’s book is that Christians must be able to come together to work in concrete ways in order to be an effective and faithful witness to Jesus Christ in the culture and the world.

As Peter writes, we are to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12 NIV). Undoubtedly this call to live “good lives” means showing love to other people, “especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:10 NIV).

Armstrong also discussed the threat that ideology poses to unity in Christ. He defines ideology as “visionary theorizing, or to a systematic body of concepts, especially regarding human culture or life. I have in mind not only a body of systematic concepts but particularly the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program of some type.” This understanding of ideology coheres perfectly with the critique of liberationist ideology in the ecumenical movement in my book, Ecumenical Babel.

The night concluded with a salient quote from Russell Kirk about the dangers of ideology. Kirk writes,

We live in an era when the passions of ideology and the passions of religion become joined in certain zealots. Thus we hear intemperate talk, in many communions and denominations, of Christian revolution. Most of the men and women who use such language undoubtedly mean a bloodless, if abrupt, transformation of social institutions. Yet some of them nowadays, as in past times, would not scruple at a fair amount of bloodletting in their sacred cause. Whether bloodless or bloody, an upheaval justified by the immanentizing of Christian symbols of salvation defies the Beatitudes and devours its children. Soon the Christian ideologues (an insane conjunction) find themselves saddled and ridden by some “great bad man,” a Cromwell at best.

As Armstrong notes, Kirk’s comment about Cromwell displays his ardent Catholicism, but it also stands as a prophetic warning about the dangers of ideology and utopian thinking.

Later on in his essay, “Promises and Perils of Christian Politics,” published in the 1980s, Kirk points explicitly to the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches for places (among many others) where this “insane conjunction” is displayed.

Dr. Armstrong blogs here and you can follow him on Twitter here.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, October 18, 2010

This year’s Lausanne Congress, Cape Town 2010, is underway and all reports are of a massive event, with substantial buildup and coordination of efforts of and implications of various kinds across the globe. (Dr. Anthony Bradley, a research fellow at the Acton Institute, participated in one of the conversation gatherings last month leading up to the Cape Town event.)

In my book published earlier this summer, Ecumenical Babel, I mentioned Cape Town 2010 as one of the major ecumenical events taking place this year. Dr. Stephen Grabill, in his foreword to the book, wrote extensively of the opportunities and challenges facing evangelical ecumenical efforts.

Grabill writes,

I think holistic biblical stewardship understood as a form of whole-life discipleship may be just the motif or infrastructure that the ecumenical movement has needed “to move purposefully forward.” At the beginning of the twenty-first century, an unprecedented opportunity exists to disciple the church in the fundamental pattern of holistic stewardship. As the church becomes increasingly aware of issues of sustainability, seeks to understand the role of business, and expands the message of the grace of giving as a central motif of the Christian life, an environment for personal and corporate transformation takes root.

Dr. Grabill and Brett Elder (of Acton’s strategic partner, the Stewardship Council) are both in Cape Town over the next weeks to participate in the event in a number of ways.

Speaking of Grabill’s usage of the phrase “grace of giving,” there is a site setup to coordinate a number of the resources that are being made available to Cape Town delegates. A special edition of the NIV Stewardship Study Bible is being made available to all the attendees, as well as a Cape Town edition of occasional papers for the Resource Mobilization Working Group published by Christian’s Library Press under the title Kingdom Stewardship.

For a really stunning and inspiring story of how the concept of stewardship can enliven and enrich our lives, check out the story of Bishop Hannington of Uganda, now appearing on the Grace of Giving site.

Bishop Hannington from International Steward on Vimeo.

One of the inspirations for my little book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, was the incisive and insightful critique of the ecumenical movement from the Princeton theological ethicist Paul Ramsey.

Ramsey’s book, Who Speaks for the Church? A Critique of the 1966 Geneva Conference on Church and Society, has a wealth of both theoretical and concrete reflections on the nature of ecumenical social witness and the relationship between church and society.

He concludes the book with a section titled, “The Church and the Magistrate,” in which he provides some direct comments on the way in which the church can actively be of service to the political authorities. This task is of great importance for the institutional church, but it must be done in such a way that the unique responsibilities of the church and the state are not conflated, and in a way that respects the conscience and individual responsibility of the Christian in civil service.

Thus, writes Ramsey, “If the churches have any special wisdom to offer here, it is in cultivating the political ethos of a nation and informing the conscience of the statesman. The church’s business is not policy formation. That is the awesome responsibility of magistrates (and of churchmen along with other citizens in their nonecclesiastical capacities).”

The role of the church, therefore, is to inform rather than to prescribe in specific detail. “It is not the church’s business to recommend but only to clarify the grounds upon which the statesman must put forth his own particular decree,” argues Ramsey. “Christian political ethics cannot say what should or must be done but only what may be done. It can only try to make sure that false doctrine does not unnecessarily trammel policy choices or preclude decisions that might better shape and govern events.”

And in a prophetic statement that indicts the contemporary fascination with “social justice” (which so often conflates the concept with love), Ramsey writes, “Christians should be speaking more about order as a terminal political value along with justice, without the naïve assumption that these are bound to go together without weight given to both.” Just how much do you hear about “social order” from those campaigning so vociferously for a particular form of “social justice”?

Ramsey’s book is well worth reading. If you can pick up a used copy somewhere, do so and count yourself as having found a bargain.

Blog author: jcouretas
posted by on Friday, August 20, 2010

Two more thoughtful reviews of Jordan Ballor’s Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, now available on Kindle. First, from John Armstrong on his ACT 3 blog:

In reducing its witness to advocacy for a particular set of policies, the ecumenical movement has abandoned the attempt to proclaim the Gospel, the true foundation of its spiritual authority. “This is surely a form of culture-Christianity,” writes Ramsey, “even if it is not that of the great cultural churches of the past. This is, indeed, the most barefaced sectarianism and but a new form of culture-Christianity. It would identify Christianity with the cultural vitalities, with the movement of history, with where the action is, with the next and even now the real establishment, but not with the present hollow forms.” In this way, the question of how the church’s prophetic responsibility ought to be expressed in a post-Christendom era has not received adequate attention from the ecumenical movement. Instead, it has simply assumed that the same form of prophetic pronouncement is as appropriate today as it was in the era of the Reformation, the medieval church, or the Old Testament monarchy.

The modern ecumenical movement began in the early twentieth century with great promise. By the middle of the 20th century that promise had been greatly misplaced because of the relationship of the movement, through many of its principal leaders, to ideology. The same happened on the right, from 1976 on, as conservative evangelicals increasingly embraced political and economic ideology in place of the gospel. If we are to get Christ and the gospel back into the center of our shared life and witness then we must take seriously what writers such as Jordan Ballor are saying to us. I heartily commend Ecumenical Babel, a truly readable and wonderful book. All who love Christian unity centered in the witness of the church and the gospel of Christ will benefit from this fine new book.

And these concluding paragraphs from a long review on Viola Larson’s Naming His Grace blog:

Ballor’s last chapter offers ways the ecumenical movement could be reformed. He focuses on a biblical and personal reform that centers in the life of the Church. He also focuses on the wealth that God gives to be used by his people. He asks that peripheral issues be left open for debate. Ballor writes:

“Economic and political opinions should not be turned into articles of faith. Indeed there must be room for bad economic and political opinions in our confession. There are limits, of course, and these primarily arise when some alien influence or idea, a worldly ideology, takes the place of biblical confession and becomes an all compassing world-and -life view, a would be competitor of Christianity.” (119)

While Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, is a small book, it is dense, filled with clear thinking, biblical and confessional concern and a multitude of resources. Ballor has provided members of the mainline Churches with valuable material. Members of the PCUSA, who long for an ecumenical movement that speaks as a Church to and with its members, rather then in an authoritative manner for its members, will find a possible way forward in this book. The orthodox members of mainline churches who long for an ecumenical movement that confesses for Christ and against his enemies will also find relief in this book.

It’s worth noting that the original context of engagement of the ecumenical movement by figures like Paul Ramsey and Ernest Lefever (two voices that figure prominently in my book, Ecumenical Babel) had much to do with foreign policy and the Cold War, and specifically the question of the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Last week marked the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and today is the anniversary of the Nagasaki detonation. As ENI reports (full story after the break), the ecumenical advocacy against nuclear weapons has not abated since the 1960s.

The question of nuclear weapons is a complex one, that involves distinctions between ius ad bellum and ius in bello, strategic and tactical nuclear devices, and combatants and non-combatants. Kishore Jayabalan has also made the case that we also need to distinguish between different kinds of regimes.

It may well be that the question of nuclear weapons is analogous to the question of capital punishment: the government might well have the theoretical right to prosecute it, but given the practical limitations of human fallibility, there may be no morally-sound way to practically implement it.

As Paul Ramsey wrote of the nuclear question in 1967, however, the position that it is acceptable to possess the weapons only on the condition that they never be used is incoherent:

The actuality of deterrence depends upon a credible belief, mutually shared, that one might use a nuclear weapon. If the government of one of the great powers were persuaded by the churches never to be willing to use any nuclear weapon under any circumstances, and this were known, there would be instantly no deterrence and therefore no practical problem of finding a way out. Likewise, the morality of deterrence depends upon it not being wholly immoral for a government ever to use an atomic weapon under any circumstances.

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Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Today marks the opening of the 11th General Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation, held this time in Stuttgart. Today is also the 66th anniversary of the failed Stauffenberg assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler.

There will be much more on the LWF assembly and it social witness in the coming days. The assembly’s theme is, “Give us today our daily bread,” and the meeting promises to focus on hunger issues. I’ll be paying special attention to the engagement of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was involved in the Stauffenberg plot, with the ecumenical movement in the 1930s and what we can learn about it today.

Follow along here on the PowerBlog. But for a basic primer on recent LWF pronouncements, in the context of the broader ecumenical witness, be sure to check out my new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness. Read an ENI piece on the opening of the assembly after the break.
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A delegate at last week’s Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches held at Calvin College urged the newly formed group to consider moving its headquarters out of the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva. Citing the costs associated with travel to and from the Swiss city, as well as those incurred during visits to the headquarters, Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, asked the WCRC to move its offices to the global south.

This would be a show of solidarity as well as of acknowledgment of the shifting movement of the center of global Christianity to the southern Hemisphere. According to ENI, Granberg-Michaelson “questioned how the Reformed grouping could talk of promoting global justice, when it had its headquarters in a place of ‘significant economic privilege.’”

There’s a lot going on in this call, and more than I can comment on here. But I will say that I think this is a move that ought to be considered, but not primarily for the reasons Granberg-Michaelson raises (although there are some valid concerns there as well).

In my recent book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, I argue that one of the distinctive features of the ecumenical movement over the last two decades or so is what I call the ecumenical-industrial complex, “in which the ecumenical movement is promoted, through the media and political engagement, as an end in itself rather than as a church in service to others.”

Anything that can serve to mitigate some of the group think that goes on in the Ecumenical Centre in Geneva is something to be applauded, I think.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, July 31, 2008

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad makes a public claim it’s typically controversial. So the AP filed a story with this headline in the Jersualem Post, “Ahmadinejad blames West for AIDS.” Clearly the JP went for shock value, as most other outlets chose to title the story something like, “Iranian president: ‘Big powers’ going down.”

But there it is among a bunch of other accusations that Ahmadinejad leveled at a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). According to the AP, “Ahmadinejad’s keynote speech was tailored to reflect the struggle that some NAM members see themselves in against the world’s rich and powerful countries.”

The AIDS claim is just one among many used to drive a wedge between developed and developing nations, blaming the former for the ills of the latter. But Ahmadinejad’s participation in this global blame game is part-and-parcel of what’s been going on for years.

In 2003, for instance, the proceedings of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ global south-south Buenos Aires conference observed that “economic globalization has created job loss and grinding poverty, an unprecedented rise in crime and violence, ecological degradation, and the spread of HIV/Aids.”

As a piece I co-wrote wondered at the time,

Just how does a system of economic exchange “cause” the spread of HIV? The only evidence offered by the ecumenists from Geneva is that “the effects of the free market system on the HIV/Aids pandemic are evident in the management and treatment of the disease.The policies and practices of transnational pharmaceutical companies have privileged profits over the health of people, and the high cost of HIV/Aids drugs and trade agreements exclude the poor from the effective treatment and prevention from infection.”

When Ahmadinejad blames AIDS on the West, he’s a pariah. But when the ecumenical movement says it, they’re seen as speaking truth to power.