Posts tagged with: ecumenical movement

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, January 22, 2008

This week, January 18-25, is the worldwide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (HT). The week is “encouragement of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.”

To mark the end of the week, the WCC’s general secretary Samuel Kobia and Pope Benedict XVI “will meet in Rome on 25 January, at a ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The WCC said in a statement on 21 January that Kobia will meet the Pope in a private audience along with members of the Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the WCC, during a yearly working group meeting in Rome from 21-26 January.”

For Protestants, the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century ostensibly held the greatest promise for promoting unity among the diversity of Protestant confessions and denominations. But the social activist impulse in the ecumenical movement has not only put off many theological traditionalists, it has undermined and poisoned the prospects for ecumenical organizations to make real progress. Paul Ramsey’s criticism of this impulse in the ecumenical movement is as salient today as it was forty years ago (Who Speaks for the Church? Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1967). I want to pass along the observations of two theologians on the relationship between theological “conservatives” and the ecumenical movement.

In 1978, James Gustafson observed, quite rightly I think, that “the situation of Protestant churches with regard to moral teachings is only a little short of chaos.” Thirty years later Protestantism has moved well past chaos to complete anarchy. And so what Gustafson observed at the time is even more true today: “there is an unspoken longing in Protestant church bodies, and Protestant-dominated ecumenical bodies, for greater authority for moral teachings.”

Avery Dulles, professor of theology at Fordham University, wrote in the early 1990s that “the churches that have held most steadfastly to the deposit of biblical and patristic faith, and those that have best resisted the allurements of modernity, may have most to offer to an age that is surfeited with the lax and the ephemeral.”

Unfortunately those who may have the most to offer are those who are the least welcome at ecumenical gatherings. The time has come for the ecumenical movement (the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches) to place their emphasis on real and substantive representation of differing viewpoints among their constituency on a host of issues.

There should be room in the ecumenical movement for those who have “held the most steadfastly to the deposit of biblical and patristic faith.” The ecumenical movement would do much to reduce the alienation of such folks if it were more circumspect about offering up concrete political and thinly-disguised ideological policy proposals under the rubric of representing the united and universal church.

Prayer is a much better place than public policy both to start and to finish ecumenical dialogue. In that spirit, let us remember the prayer of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ that all of us “may be one” together not on our own terms but only in him.

Related to Sam Gregg’s Acton Commentary today, “Free Trade: Latin America‚Äôs Last Hope?” I pass along this ENI news item: “Growing rich-poor gap is new ‘slavery’, say Protestant leaders.”

Globalization and free trade are the causes of a new class of worldwide slavery, say the ecumenical officials. Citing the foundational 2004 Accra Confession, Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick, the president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, says that “an even more pernicious form of human enslavement is being wrought on millions through the process of neoliberal globalisation that is driving a dramatic and growing wedge between the rich and the poor.”

These statements come at a critical time in the history of the Reformed ecumenical movement. The Reformed Ecumenical Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches have joined this week to become one organization:

Reformed church groupings agree to create new global body

Port of Spain (ENI). The World Alliance of Reformed Churches has agreed to unite with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to create a new “global entity” that will group 80 million Reformed Christians. “This is a truly, truly important moment,” said WARC president the Rev. Clifton Kirkpatrick after the alliance’s executive committee, meeting in Trinidad, voted unanimously on 22 October to unite with the REC, whose executive committee had agreed to the proposal in March. The Geneva-based WARC has 75 million members in 214 churches in 107 countries, while the Grand Rapids, Michigan-headquartered REC has 12 million members belonging to 39 churches in 25 countries. Of the REC’s member churches, 27 also belong to WARC. [ENI-07-0815]

It’s not clear at this time if the conditions laid out in 2005 are those under which the union has taken place. This merger is significant in many ways, not least of which is the requirement of the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church that its Synod “shall send delegates to Reformed ecumenical synods in which the Christian Reformed Church cooperates with other denominations which confess and maintain the Reformed faith” (Article 50). Citing Calvin once in awhile and promulgating platitudes about the sovereignty of God doesn’t mean you are Reformed.

In response to concerns from member churches from the global North that the Accra Confession is not sufficiently doctrinal, Rev. Setri Nyomi responds, “The Reformed family recognises the sovereignty of God … We do not separate whether God is sovereign in the mundane and in the spiritual realm. Therefore our stance on social issues is consistent with the doctrinal claim of sovereignty.”

Quite frankly the WARC leaderships rhetoric about income and wealth disparity as a “more pernicious form of human enslavement” is offensive on a number of levels besides its doctrinal spuriousness. It’s offensive to those who actually are slaves today (sex trafficking is a huge global issue). And it’s insulting to those whose historical legacy involves victimization by the practice of chattel slavery.

WARC is more than happy to talk about “slavery” in material terms, identifying anything other than complete egalitarianism with injustice and bondage. But the one kind of slavery you won’t hear WARC discuss is the sense in which it is put forward most prominently in the Scriptures: bondage to corruption and sin in a personally and individually relevant way.

When Christ said, “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed,” he didn’t have globalization in mind.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In answer to the query in the headline of this week’s Acton Commentary, “Who’s Afraid of Free Trade?”, I submit the following: the ecumenical movement. Note the following news item from Ecumenical News International:

Church groups mount week of action to transform global trade

Geneva (ENI). Faith groups have joined activists around the globe in calling for fair, equitable and just trade policies while urging churches to join a Trade Week of Action that seeks to promote alternatives to the global system of commerce. “During this week, the churches and other organizations will tell the world that enforced free trade is causing poverty and that there are viable alternatives,” said Linda Hartke, coordinator of the Geneva-based Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, which has organized the 14-21 October Trade Week of Action. “When the systems we have created to buy, sell and share goods cause hunger and suffering then these systems are wrong. Every voice counts, and every action makes a difference,” Hartke told Ecumenical News International. [ENI-07-0798]

Perhaps not from its inception, but certainly in the post-WWII era, the global Christian ecumenical movement, as represented by groups like the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, has been increasingly dominated by Marxist economics, liberation theology, and transformationalist ethics.

Much of this was mediated through the influence and work of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr in part observed the reality that since there was no single government above nation-states which could restrict and regulate their activity, the realm of global realpolitik is doomed to be characterized by immorality and warmongering.

If “all social co-operation on a larger scale than the most intimate social group requires a measure of coercion,” and “If, as Bertrand Russell prophesies, some form of oligarchy, whether capitalistic or communistic, be inevitable in a technological age, because of the inability of the general public to maintain social control over the experts who are in charge of the intricate processes of economics and politics, the communistic oligarch would seem to be preferable in the long run to the capitalistic one. His power would be purely political, and no special economic interests would tempt him to pursue economic policies at variance with the national interest .”

No doubt in its utopianism, idealism, and therefore almost exclusive blame for the ills of the world upon global capitalism the ecumenical movement has gone far beyond what Niebuhr himself had or ever would say (for, after all, unlike WARC, Niebuhr wrote, “Neither is it true that modern wars are caused solely by the modern capitalistic system with its disproportion of economic power and privilege.” He was a bit more nuanced).

For more on where the ecumenical movement is today, see this piece by IRD’s Mark Tooley (and some older background here).

For the move toward a global government, see this. And for the relationship between a global government and the ecumenical movement see this.

Update: See also, “Reinhold Niebuhr is Unseen Force in 2008 Elections” and Reinhold Niebuhr Today.

More: As predicted, Niebuhr’s name is seemingly on everyone’s lips. See this Atlantic Monthly article, “A Man for All Reasons,” and the reaction from GetReligion.

The latest issue of the Scottish Journal of Theology is out, and includes my article, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935.”

Here’s the abstract:

In this article I argue that the essential relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth stands in need of reassessment. This argument is based on a survey of literature dealing with Bonhoeffer and Barth in three basic areas between the critically important years of 1933 and 1935. These three areas come into sharp relief given the political background of the German Christian victory in the church elections of 1933. Their respective positions, both theological and political, on the Aryan clause differ greatly. For Bonhoeffer, the imposition of the Aryan clause on the German churches represented a clear status confessionis, and Bonhoeffer favoured a very public schism. For Barth, while the Aryan clause was certainly troublesome, it was deemed better to wait for a ‘more central’ point, namely, that of the question of natural theology. Barth’s emphasis on the importance of the question of natural theology carries over in his position regarding the significance and role of both the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement. We see that Bonhoeffer explicitly questions the validity of Barth’s emphasis on natural theology with respect to the Confessing Church and to the ecumenical movement. While many scholars have argued for the basic agreement between Barth and Bonhoeffer, especially on the question of natural theology, a closer examination of the two in the period 1933–35 calls such conclusions into question.

Full reference: Jordan J. Ballor, “The Aryan clause, the Confessing Church, and the ecumenical movement: Barth and Bonhoeffer on natural theology, 1933–1935,” Scottish Journal of Theology 59, no 3. (August 2006): 263-80.

For more on Bonhoeffer, see also: Jordan J. Ballor, “Christ in Creation: Bonhoeffer’s Orders of Preservation and Natural Theology,” Journal of Religion 86, no. 1 (January 2006): 1-22.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, June 13, 2006

John Wilson, editor of Books & Culture, writes up a summary of the proceedings of The Historical Society’s conference, “Globalization, Empire, and Imperialism in Historical Perspective.”

“We urgently need an antidote to the journalistic clichés and the even more deplorable pseudo-scholarly discourse surrounding the interlocked themes of globalization, empire, and imperialism. We need the distance—the perspective—that good historical thinking affords. There was plenty of that on display in Chapel Hill, along with some muddle,” reports Wilson.

For more on how “pseudo-scholarly” and pseudo-theological discourse on these themes has been manifest in the contemporary ecumenical movement, check out this piece, which reflects on the 2004 meeting of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Accra, Ghana, “Ecumenical Economics: Confessing against the Empire.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, April 18, 2006

This article, “Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of ‘Evangelical’,” which appeared in the New York Times on Easter, is instructive on a number of levels. First off, the article attempts to point out widening “fissures” among evangelicals, in which “new theological and political splits are developing.” While the article does talk at the end about so-called “theological” differences, the bulk of the piece is spent discussing the political divisions.

Michael Luo writes, “Fissures between the traditionalist and centrist camps of evangelicalism have begun to emerge much more prominently in recent months in the political realm.” He points specifically to the issues of global warming and immigration, which recall the topics of a post of mine from a few weeks back. Incidentally, the text of my post somehow found its way onto no less an auspicious locale than the Sojourners site.

The fact that political differences about issues on which there are a variety of defensible biblical positions is viewed as a threat to the unity of evangelicalism says something important about how the movement is more broadly perceived. That is, evangelicalism has become publicly identified as much or more with particular political views than any necessarily corresponding theological position.

Thus, while Rick Warren is identified as “theologically and socially conservative,” the fact that he has generally avoided politics makes him a “centrist” rather than a “traditionalist” evangelical, according to the categories that the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life uses. And on climate change, for example, there is “a tension that exists between the traditionalists and the centrists,” according to the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals.

In my mind, however, this political aspect really is a red herring, albeit one of great interest to the secular media. Aside from the few social issues on which the perspective of Scripture is rather straightforward, evangelicals should be free to express the convictions of their consciences without being perceived as outside the tent.

And the reason that such clear moral evils need to be opposed is because their affirmation would directly undermine the normativity of the Bible. If anything, this is the baseline identifiying characteristic of evangelicalism, as evidenced by the doctrinal basis for the Evangelical Theological Society: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs. God is a Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each an uncreated person, one in essence, equal in power and glory.” (See also the “Statement of Faith” of the National Association of Evangelicals.) But otherwise, where prudential judgments are concerned, evangelicals enjoy a wide freedom and diversity.

And it is with respect to the theological differences that the NYT article truly gets to the heart of real cracks in the evangelical edifice. Ultimately the unity of any group of Christian believers must be founded on doctrinal agreement. Practice is informed by belief. The eventual failure of the Life and Work and the Faith and Order movements of the ecumenical enterprise to remain completely separate testify to this reality

This is why creeds and confessional statements have enjoy such an important place in the history of Christianity, and why the NAE and the ETS define themselves in theological and doctrinal rather than political, practical, or social terms.

If the unity of evangelicalism is threatened by disagreements, however sharp, over prudential political concerns, then the so-called “unity” is something more like the unity enjoyed by political parties and factions rather than that of the body of Christ. One characteristic of the spirit of sectarianism is that it makes matters of moral prudence and permissibility a litmus test of true Christianity.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Friday, March 24, 2006

An snippet from Ecumenical News International:

Presbyterians invest $1 million in church ‘bank’ that helps poor

New York (ENI). The Presbyterian Church (USA) has invested US$1 million in Oikocredit, an organization established by the World Council of Churches that assists people in poor countries start small businesses. The investment is the largest in Oikocredit over more than a decade, the church announced earlier this week, making the 2.4-million-member US denomination the second-largest investor in the institution set up in 1975. The largest is the Church of Sweden.

I’ve looked a bit at the Oikocredit organization, and in generally this does not fit my normal expectations for an initiative by the left-leaning WCC. To be sure, Oikocredit does employ the rather vague criteria of “socially responsible investing” when deciding which groups to fund.

But in general, the microlending approach is much more economically viable and informed than many ecumenical attitudes towards global poverty. Started over thirty years ago, Oikocredit has a track record, and “was created for groups that need credit to develop their productive enterprises, but have difficulties receiving credit through conventional financial institutions, because they simply lack collateral.” For a personal story of how microloans can be a part of the solution (along with property rights, the rule of law, and so on), see this commentary by Rev. Jerry Zandstra.

Despite its shortcomings, Oikocredit on the whole is probably a good thing. And again, when compared to what you typically see from ecumenical groups, it’s positively refreshing.

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Thursday, February 23, 2006

If you’re looking for more insight on, or perhaps simple confirmation of, the economic agenda of the ‘ecumenical’ movement (the World Council of Churches [WCC] the World Alliance of Reformed Churches [WARC], et al.), here’s an insightful little tidbit from Ecumenical News International:

Pacific islanders are a source of hope for other Christian communities seeking a culturally-based communal economy based on sharing and cooperation, participants at a global church gathering have heard. During the 14-23 February ninth assembly of the World Council of Churches some participants have identified Pacific island communities as an alternative to the type of economic globalisation that happens under regulations adjudicated by the World Trade Organization (WTO). [523 words, ENI-06-0186]

For more on the WARC view of economics, check out this article I co-wrote awhile back, “Ecumenical Economics: Confessing against the Empire,” about the ultimately abortive efforts by radicals to get the alliance to declare a status confessionis regarding the global economy.