Human Community and Christian Community

Human Community and Christian Community. 1

Modern Culture. 1

Church in culture. 14

Confession Time and openness to new possibilities. 17

Modernity and Church in a Post-modern and Post-Christian culture. 19

Paradoxical relationship between church and modern culture. 21

Challenges toward modern society. 27

Love as ethical foundation and goal: Improving life in this world. 29

Consideration of ends and the Public Square. 32

Theology of the Church. 33

Christian worshipping community. 46

Christian Sacramental Community. 48

Summary Statement:  Baptism.. 71

Summary Statement: The Lord’s Supper 72

Christian governing community. 75

Positive dimensions of the separated churches: unity, not conformity. 75

Apostolic call to unity. 77

Modern resistance to unity. 79

The negative influence of separated churches. 80

Historic episcopate and beyond. 80

Acceptance of mutual ordained ministry. 82

Unity of the teaching office of the church. 85



Modern Culture

            The foundation of life is in its organic and inorganic dimensions. More than any other animal, humanity needs society to live well a human life. Life is the actualization of potential being. The human struggle for recognition of one’s worth and dignity depends upon a constellation of psychological factors. Such life is full of ambiguity.

            One example of human ambiguity is the matter of self-identity. We derive our sense of identity through participating in the natural and especially the social world. We find ourselves as we participate in life together. The tension between individualization and participation shows itself in the process of being open to others. Beings receive each other, and by doing so, change each other. They receive and react. We have experiences that bring the integration of the self, but also bring the disintegration of the self. We find it difficult to assimilate some experiences, unable to resist their destructive impact upon our lives. Life pulls us into too many or too contradictory directions, thereby blocking healthy integration. The moral struggle involves the balance of self-identity and the self as encountering others. The presence of the other confronts us with moral choice. The conscience struggles with the difference between the real world and the possible world. We often prefer the real to the possible, yet we recognize the need to risk an important possibility by sacrificing the real. The variety of ethical rules suggests the lack of clarity in a human world in the moral realm. Yet, morality is important for the integration of the self, for through it experience dimensions of healing, even if, as always in a human world, that healing is fragmentary. The centered self and the relational self are in mutual dependence. Individuals strive for their own humanity and help others reach humanity. This is the ambiguity of self-determination and other-determination, in that personal self-creation depends on actions of one person upon another. This happens in every act of participation. Every act of participation contains an element of holding one's self back and an element of giving one's self, self-seclusion and self-surrender. In the attempts to know the other one, self-seclusion expresses itself in the projection of images of the other's being that disguise the real being are only projections of the one who attempts to know.

            A second example of human ambiguity is the matter of the emergence of novelty and creativity in forming the self. We strive toward new centers of the self, while acknowledging that we must have a center now in order to do so. We need the dynamic and free-flowing expression of life, but we also need form and stability. We encounter both creative and destructive experiences in life. Struggle for survival is a symptom of the ambiguity of life. The formation of culture is an important dimension of the creativity of individuals. One important dimension of culture is language. The ability to communicate both in revealing and deceptive ways and in such detail suggests the need for society. Language liberates individuals from the specific situation and allows movement toward the universal or transcendent. Language anticipates structures and creativity in the context of culture. The inherent ambiguity of language is that in transforming reality into meaning it separates mind and reality. Epistemology is a history of this split. We can see this in the ambiguity of observation, abstraction, truth as a whole, and argumentation. The presence of tools or technology liberates humanity from purely natural or biological functions. Production of tools consists in the possibility of actualizing external purposes that internally driven biological processes do not imply. We experience the ambiguity of technical production expresses itself in freedom and limit, the tension between means and ends, and the tension between self and things. Theoria is the act of looking at the encountered world in order to take something of it into the centered self as a meaningful, structured whole. It concerns itself with truth. Praxis is the network of social relationships of administration, politics, and personal relationships and personal development. Among the more important functions of praxis are economy, medicine, administration, and education. One needs both virtue and material goods to achieve the well-lived life. Culture concerns itself with justice. We must agree with Hegel over Kant that a theory of justice begins with an understanding of a social system and its hierarchy of values. Justice has its own ambiguity in the tension between inclusive and exclusive, for every social group exists because it includes a particular kind of people and excludes all others. Social cohesion is impossible without such exclusion. Justice also concerns the tension between competition and equality. Further, the leader represents both the power of the group and one's self. The law often presents another tension with the aim of justice.

            A third example of the ambiguity of human life is the experience of self-transcendence. If not all human beings have this experience, many do. Many become aware of an orientation of human life toward that which is beyond finite life. Many people experience their finite and temporal life as carved out of the infinite and eternal. If human life, full of ambiguity as it is, is to find meaning, it will be beyond finite and temporal encounters.

            The struggle for self-identity, the struggle for self-creativity, and the experience of transcendence, meet in culture and individuality at multiple levels. They constitute the unity of the struggle for the recognition of one’s worth and dignity as individuals.         

            Yet, human society is a double-edged sword. Various social worlds that we have constructed have inflicted great evil upon the world. Among the tragedies of a human life is that some tyrants and criminals desire the suffering and death of our neighbors and ourselves. Tyrants suspect the motive of good people and therefore oppress them.    

            One way to approach this is through the eyes of oppressor and oppressed. Such systems inevitably lead to the destruction of the worth and dignity of individuals, and thus to the dehumanization of everyone, including the oppressor. Most of human history consists of a small few oppressing the vast majority of people, keeping them at subsistence levels in order to destroy, hope, dreams, worth, and dignity. In the 20th century, Nazism, Communism, and military dictatorships, led to the loss of millions of lives. Yet, we know that politics, economics, and the military are not absolute evils or tools of the oppressor to bring oppression. Some forms of government have had a benevolent effect upon the population, given the nature of the times in which they existed. This suggests the possibility that the social world can experience a shift in perspective from oppression to that of promoting the general welfare of the people.

            I want to discuss the kind of social world that appears at this juncture of history to provide the form of institutional life that provides the best context for reasonably happy human life. I would describe it as a modern social world. The most significant player in any society is the role of those who have the political and military power. Frankly, the hierarchical nature of most animal life and mammal life, with one person at the top, suggests democracy trends against nature. However, the governed have an investment in the government through voting, thereby strengthening the relationship between individual and community. The tendency of government to become unjust suggests that democracy is the best form of government. People will divide into many special interests groups and may well cripple the ability of the government to enact extremely unjust laws.

            The system generated by modernity is one of partnership. It respects the worth and dignity of individuals in honoring their property, their right to care for that property, the expression of the worth and dignity they have as individuals, the freedom they have to form families, to become involved in civil society, to pursue their economic interests, and to participate in the political process. Where a modern society fails in its respect for individuals, peaceful reform is at least possible through participation in the political process. In this sense, the modern social world is a partnership that acknowledges peaceful and nonviolent competition between individuals and groups, and the peaceful resolution of disputes through rational discourse, elections ant through the courts. In oppressed and oppressor systems, the primary bond that keeps society together is fear of the oppressor, and is thus an external bond. The primary bond of modern society is internal, rooting itself in respect for the worth and dignity citizens offer each other. Citizens offer this respect between employer and employee, between producer and consumer, for a variety of motives, many involving self-interest. The acknowledgement that individuals spend most of their time caring for themselves is important. This is the only life any of us will lead. We properly spend time and energy caring for how to live this life. Yet, the free engagement of citizens with each other also brings them outside of themselves, and brings transformation of the individual as they do so. The engagement with others is an ethical engagement by its nature, and brings some reflection upon how one ought to behave toward other citizens. This reality increases the internal bonds of society. This social world is, in principle, a nonviolent engagement with others, unless we misuse the term “violence” to refer to any form of competition between human beings. For the purposes of this essay, violence means physical restraint to the point of torture and possibly death. In a modern social world, citizens cooperate and compete, having the freedom to pursue their vision of the best human life. The freedom of engagements in this social world makes for an amazing lack of oppressor and oppressed relationships. Granted, husband and wife, employer and employee, and racial relationships, have been such relationships. Yet, the liberty of citizens provides the possibility for peaceful reform where government has endorsed such oppressive relationships and participated in them.

            My suggestion is that modern democratic societies represent the redemption of the social world from the dominant form of government, that of oppressed and oppressor, and invites many other forms of relationships. We might think of relationships like cooperation and competition, producer of products and consumer of products, employer and employee, teacher and student, serving a community, freely associating around specific tasks, political engagement, and so on.

            We need to consider the specific way in which secular society and modernity arose out of a European context shaped by Christianity in Medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation periods.        We also need to consider the emergence of American power as a unique reality in world history. The fact that America does not impose its will or form of government upon other lands and does not seek an empire throughout the world is a unique fact of history. It shows the American character, oriented as it is toward what is best for others – their freedom – as well as what is best for itself. American policy recognizes the benefit global freedom and peace is to itself, and therefore desires it to reside in the institutions of others. The generosity of Americans in charitable giving and in government giving throughout the world testifies to the generosity of the American people.

If we understand modernity only as a rebellion against Christianity, then the church has little reason for its involvement in secular society, and the secular society has little reason to be open to such involvement. Modernity sought a new ground for social unity in nature and reason and a general morality. It ignored the denominations and their disputes. For modern culture to get to that point, it took the splintering of Christianity into sects and religious wars that resolved nothing.

We are modern persons, not by choice, but by virtue of being born into modern civilization. We live in a time greater fairness to persons of differing race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. For good or ill, Americans participated in a social experiment that has transferred vast sums of money to the poor, in such a way that most American poor have the lifestyle of the middle class in many countries of the world. The good fortune we have to be born in this time and space gives many of us a sense of moral superiority to the past three millennia that did not experience such fairness. Some Christians approach their tradition in the same way. They focus upon modern advances in such a way as to negate the value of the Christian heritage, assuming a morally superior approach to the past that I think we need to re-evaluate.

I do not think anyone is fully “modern,” whatever that would mean. We experience our social world in a piecemeal way. However, society does hang together in some way. Further, even if one could be fully modern, one would not be evil. As a human production, modern society is a reflection of the morally ambiguous nature of humanity. Abandoning the modern because it is so evil is not a sensible response. Overthrowing the modern world because it is so evil is not a sensible response.

I grant that some persons have experiences of alienation toward the doctrines, ethics, and institutional features of modernity. This is quite natural. If a society removed all alienation, it would be the actualization of the rule of God, the fellowship of God with humanity, and the reconciliation of humanity with each other. In the interests of full disclosure, I have never felt it, although I have tried to understand those who do. My contention is that alienation within modernity arises out of its failure to achieve its ideals and out of it continuing to be a human and therefore imperfect work. While the ideas and institutions of modern civilization express the present grasp of what gives the greatest possibility for worth and dignity to find expression, it contains many destructive and oppressive forces. Individuals and groups experience a portion of modern society in an oppressive way. However, I do not view the modern social world simply as the exertion of power over those who are alienated from it. The modern social world deserves the participation of its members in that it has guaranteed the greatest degree of freedom and regard for individuals of any in human history.

Modern society needs reminders that it is a pen-ultimate activity of human beings. The religious quest directs people beyond their social world, recognizing that perfect fulfillment of one’s social roles will not answer questions of meaning, purpose, and direction. I intend for the above paragraphs to suggest that the modern form of life is not as monolithic as some analysts, mostly out of the existentialist philosophy tradition, would suggest. Persons such as Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and theologians Bultmann and Tillich, had a rather flat and narrow view of modern life. I suggest that the intellectual, scientific, moral, and religious sources of modern civilization have more variety and depth than do such analysts.

Modernity is not so superficial or evil that it does not have categories, models, and metaphors suitable for theology. The church does not meet the modern criteria for rationality by tirades against science, modernity, and the Enlightenment project. Such arguments do no good for oneself or for others who struggle for a meaningful and whole life within modernity. Christians need to pay the modernity that embraces them the compliment of taking it seriously, rather than accepting it in secret, as so many do. Modernity has no more imperfections or apostasies as any other era. Christians need to discern the ways of God through modernity, rather than propose alternative communities and patterns of thought to it. I want to suggest some modest ways that our culture provides some helpful ways for the church to reflect theologically on matters of concern to it.

My hunch is also that many modern secular persons live their lives clueless when it comes to matters the church considers important. They cannot imagine why anyone would waste their time on anything related to the concerns of the church. My other hunch or intuition is that a hunger exists among many modern people as to their significance and the meaning of their lives amid the complexity of modern life. Many would like to know if Jesus has any connection to their lives. Yet, the church is not a place many people would go to find Jesus. The church has a negative image in the minds of many persons, an image it has earned through its many failures to be a true witness. Many people in the church would like to have some honest dialogue about the traditional beliefs of the church. Yet, the church seems to view itself as too fragile to provide meaningful places where that discourse can take place. The church appears fearful of inquiry, fearful of freedom, and fearful of knowledge.

Mainline Protestant Christianity and Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism have largely embraced what some call modernity. Another group of Christians, with varying labels like that of fundamentalist, charismatic, Pentecostal, Baptist, churches of Christ, evangelical, and orthodox, incorporate modernity in often unconscious ways, while protesting that they resist modernity in fundamental ways. One way of examining this matter is to show the limited extent to which the modern way of life has some sources within the Christian tradition. Further, those areas of modernity that have no direct link to Christianity have proven beneficial to Christianity, the church, and individual Christians.

Modern society distinguishes itself from pre-modern society by the fact that the political state does not directly control or dictate what occurs in the realms of civil society, economic life, or domestic life. In fact, it derives its authority from the people, rather than from divine authority. As I will show, this move away from human authority is a Christian move. In any case, modernity is a civilization open to a future that it finds difficult to define. This openness means that modernity already recognizes that its past and present life is not what it could be. It makes a moral judgment that what is, is not what ought to be. As a result, modernity is a civilization of change. I want to explore some of the sources of ideas that make this civilization possible. We need to consider seriously why modern and secular society arose out of Christian Europe.

            First, the universalizing tendency of secular society has its origin in Christianity. Modernity has the vision that as long as science, technology, and freedom spread to every nation, peace and justice will also spread. Although this vision has a naïveté to it, it also recognizes that important cultural objectives and ideas do not belong to one nation, ethnic group, or race.

I would suggest that the historical and intellectual source for this universal trend is the church. The message of the church embodied itself in a universal appeal in that it went against ethnic divisions to create a community that transcended such distinctions. The church embodied its universality in its fellowship, baptism, and the Eucharist. No matter what gender, economic class, or race, one still submitted to baptism and received bread and cup, even when fellowship in the midst of diversity was so hard to attain. The Christian vision is the source of universalizing hope that all people of the world will live under governments that respect their rights, worth, and dignity. Such principles of democracy as universality, peace, justice, freedom, equality, and fraternity, needs to become the foundation of every nation, and through such principles, human life on earth will become increasingly peaceful and just. This universal vision brings beyond caring for citizens of a particular nation to caring for all persons. This vision includes peace and justice embedded in institutions of all nations. Such a vision proposes that civilization has a role in assisting individuals in actualizing their fullest and best human life in association with others.

            Among the challenges for modern societies is to bring pre-modern societies into the modern world. We need to consider seriously the kind of social world nations of the world create. In an era when terrorists willingly kill themselves, teach children to kill themselves, use civilians as human shields, and kill civilians in the marketplace, the social, political, and economic world created by human beings matters to us all. In our time, we need to acknowledge that ideas like that of freedom, equality, and fraternity have an important contribution to make to every social world. Without being exhaustive, this includes respecting rights of ethnic minorities, religious minorities, protecting and nurturing children and youth, respecting senior citizens, moving toward equal rights for women in all cultures, and respecting persons with various disabilities. We are social creatures. We will either create a social world, and ultimately a global culture, that enhances human worth and dignity, or destroys it. Given the global nature of human life today, those living in modern societies need to consider seriously the form of social world that people create in any place. In other words, a social world that inflicts suffering and oppression upon its own citizens is more likely to spread this sickness to other lands. Justice and peace are ideals that need actualization in the minds and hearts of individuals and in institutional life. Technology has brought increased connection of the diversity of individuals and cultures on a global scale. Individual governments can have great diversity. However, they must have constitutions that respect the rights of their citizens for liberty. The respect for the rights of their citizens will naturally lead to respect for the citizens of other countries. The web of relationships that forms international relationships today requires such care for how the leaders of countries treat their citizens. Modern technology increases the sense of fraternity with all human beings. For those who have the privilege of living in a country that respects their freedom, a natural desire is for every human being to enjoy such a social world.

            Second, modernity is the first human culture that respects the worth and dignity of the individual to a significant degree. I want to be quite direct at this point. The ability of a social system to make the individual the goal and standard of this success is the criterion of its embodiment of any degree of truth it contains. This recognition of the importance of the individual by political and economic powers is the embodiment in social institution of the worth and dignity of individuals. Politically, this recognition occurs through democratic processes and through the possibility of running for political office. Economically, this recognition occurs in the freedom to begin businesses, to work for whomever one can enter into contractual relationship, and to purchase products one desires. Every individual becomes part of the political and economic plan of the nation. Further, this regard for the individual expands into the arena of ideas. Individuals have the right to persuade others politically, of course, but this right extends into areas of values and religion as well.

            Modernity did not create this principle out of thin air. The most likely source for this principle is the Christian tradition. However, we need to be clear that Christianity never found a way to embody this principle in social institutions. It lost the opportunity to do so at the era of Constantine, when the focus of energy became the unity of the church in dogma, fellowship with the bishop of Rome, and the parallel between God as king and the emperor as ruler of the Empire. Given the fragmentation of the Empire, the focus of the church upon that which brought unity is quite understandable. However, the apostolic witness contains an important valuation of the individual as both created in the image of God and a sinner. Jesus and Paul emphasized the value of the individual in relationship to God. They also emphasized the universal love of God for humanity, transcending national and ethnic boundaries. The Apostle Paul and Augustine through his the account of his life in his confessions provides the intellectual foundation for the value that modernity place upon the dignity and worth of individuals. In terms of the immediate context for modernity, Quakers, free churches and Baptist sects called for a separation of church and state in order to ensure that the state did not impose one form of religion throughout the territory. They insisted on freedom of individuals to form their judgment in matters related to faith. In doing so, they rightly believed they restored the apostolic at this point. The church respects the rights of all individuals and of other social institutions as independently existing entities. Christianity and the genuine concerns of humanism do not oppose each other.

            Third, freedom and equality are important to modernity. People deserve the opportunity to live the best human life they can lead. This suggests rejection of any human authority as ultimate. The rejection of enforced unity means that pluralism and tolerance become valued principles of modernity. What unifies culture is regard for the individual to the point of differing over fundamental beliefs and values while at the same to refusing the option of killing them to end the dispute. The struggle of the modern social world is that the free individuals in a secular society are indeed free to pursue their best interest, but for that reason are not yet free in truth. Freedom becomes an excuse for the self-destructive behavior for which we human beings are all too well acquainted.

            Liberty involves creating a shared community in which cooperation and competition can take place. Equality requires a third party, such as a central government, that imposes economic equality by taking from one group of society and giving to others. If individuals did this, we would call it stealing. The result is that the work of our hands and minds become the property of others. What we do with our freedom is the result of our initiative in the present as we look forward to our sense of destiny for the future. We speak of human rights in the plural; we speak of human dignity in the singular. Human dignity is one and indivisible; it is the quality of being human. We are responsible to our future self; we are responsible for the future of humanity. Human life is shared life, communicated and communicating life, communion and communication.

            Modernity received this value for human society from Christianity. The apostolic sources suggested that humanity is both a creature made in the image of God and a sinner before God and to whom God offers grace equally to all. In Christ, female and male, slave and free, and so on, do not exist as hierarchical relationships. Again, this apostolic vision of equality before God does not translate into social relationships. In the beginning, the social environment was so hostile that it could not offer this gift to the Roman Empire. Christianity worked with the philosophy of Stoicism in emphasizing freedom and equality of individuals. Its difference with Stoicism was that freedom and equality were future possibilities rather than formed by nature. The insight of Christianity is that freedom and equality are ends and outcomes of certain individual and cultural processes, and thus involve human responsibility for openness to experiencing them, rather than something possessed at birth. With the rise of the church and empire, hierarchy and authority become important for the progress of unity that Europe needed in its social environment. The church used the analogy of the organism having a hierarchy of parts that culminate in the head to suggest that the church had an earthly head, the bishop of Rome, and a secular head, the emperor. This already began breaking down as the Roman Empire split apart and the bishop of Rome had to deal with multiple of kings. The contribution of Christianity to modernity at this point arose from the Reformation and the emphasis of Luther on the freedom of the Christian and from the free church and Baptist movements. The latter had interest in having social setting that allowed them to practice their private and pietistic faith without hindrance from the Catholic and Lutheran political leaders. The Reformation continued to hold out the hope for a Christian society. The free churches and Baptist sects had given up on that possibility. As a result, they wanted the state to leave them alone to practice their faith. In addition, the liberal Christianity of Schliermacher and Ritschl also helped bring denominations of the Reformation into modern civilization.

            The modern discourse on morality focuses on freedom and autonomy. Here is a place where some strands of modernity simply stress the fact of freedom and tolerance, with little concern as to what people actually do with that freedom. Freedom is wonderful. I think it rather silly to lament the paralysis of choice in modernity, whether in consumer products, ideas, morality, or religion. Such choice places renewed responsibility upon individuals for their happiness. If we respect the worth and dignity of individuals, those in the church need to celebrate choice, rather than look longingly toward some past dominance of the church that probably never existed in reality.

            Modernity has provided religion with freedom to worship as communities choose. This gives the impression that religion is another commodity of choice, rather than a genuine quest for what is true. Modernity actually encourages fideism, where everyone simply makes a choice in matters of religion without reflecting rationally upon that choice. With the coming of the scientific age, Immanuel Kant offered a modern and rational version of religion. Although we can read it today with historical interest, the end result is that if religion is what Kant says, why bother? Choosing in the area of the meaning structure of our lives gives the impression that meaning is whatever I as an individual says it is. It gives the impression of an arbitrary choice, rather than a devout quest for the best human life I can lead. The plurality that modernity places before us is a gift. Yet, it leaves with the impressions such important decisions about the meaning, purpose, and direction of human life are not really so important. As long as one receives the education necessary, gets along with people to some degree, gets a job, votes, and raises a family, one has done all that is important for modern civilization. Modernity suggests that, as long as morality does not infringe upon the choice of someone else, it does not matter what moral structure we choose for our lives. Morality itself is nothing but a personal desire for a certain kind of life. The problem with this view is that for some of us, morality involves genuine concern for the course of life of the neighbor. Although I am quite hesitant to use the government to enforce moral conditions I would like to see, I also hesitate to deny its potential in some areas. Thus, government enforced slavery and segregation, and only a change in government policy could stop the practice. The responsibility of the nation toward those most separated from the benefits of modernity is one all citizens should (moral word) recognize.

            For some strands of modernity, science is the primary source for whatever truth it thinks it can discover. Intellectual formation increasingly focuses on math and natural sciences. Modernity has gained greater control over time through its knowledge of history and its ability to manage and plan the future. Traditional communities focused on family, clan, tribe, and village, will steadily pass away. Industrial society gives way to information society. Traditional norms and values do not appear to meet the needs of modern society. At the same time, other strands of modernity recognize that truth is far more nuanced than that. One cannot give evidence for a religion in the way one does a scientific theory. One can suggest, however, that a well-lived human life is more like a well-written novel or well-regarded painting. The artist has put everything together in a way that becomes pleasing to the artist at the level of intuition. One senses that a certain twist of plot, a certain shading of one area of a painting, will make the difference. The meaning structure of human life is more like an aesthetic experience than it is a scientific theory. For the Christian, my analogy breaks down at this point. As the artist, it is not enough for me to derive pleasure from what I have done with my life. It is far more important for me to recognize my accountability to the apostolic witness of the church, the tradition of the church, and the community to which I now relate. For the Christian, the painting or novel tells me something about the world, humanity, and the future toward which God moves us. Further, I offer what I have done with the brief time I have to God, to whom I am ultimately accountable. I have a responsibility of laying before others this vision.

            Fourth, this also means that a sense of life together, that of creative love for each other, that of fraternity, is an important dimension of democracy. With the freedom individuals have also comes responsibility for each other. It may be little more than the recognition that one day, you will need help, so you help others. More importantly, every human being confronts ethical questions when faced with the other. Will we fight, or have mutual regard for the life of the other. Will we speak the truth and live truthfully with each other. Will we be faithful to the marriage covenant? Will we deal generously and compassionately with others, and especially the poor? We cannot avoid ethical questions when faced with the other. If the other is completely alien to me, I may justify horrendous actions. If the other is in some sense part of the same human family, I owe the other regard and respect.

This sense of fraternity among all human beings derives most reasonably from the Christian view of one God as the source of all life as the Father of all. Such creative love will respect diversity and unite in community. Christianity no longer viewed God simply in what is like it; it viewed increasing knowledge of God through what is different. We respect and recognize other people and those who are strange to us when we stop trying to make them like ourselves. We open ourselves to their particular character, thereby opening up the possibility of transforming ourselves with them into a new community of people who are different from each other. We recognize God in the stranger, the genuine victim, and the suffering of life. God is the God of the whole of life, of every life, and of the shared life of us all.

From a Christian perspective, the political order of society has a relationship to the reign of God by the task of achieving an order of justice and peace in social life. The concept of the future rule of God recognizes that God is active in the world to accomplish the purpose of God for individuals and for humanity, even where people do not specifically acknowledge God as God. Therefore, although the political order cannot bring in the reign of God, it has the responsibility of moving closer to the justice and peace toward which the reign of God aims. No existing political order does full justice to this social task.

            I suggest today that an important source of ethical reflection for Christians today is that the future rule of God has a political dimension, for that future proclaims the future of humanity in this world. The social, cultural, political, and economic cultural life of a people is a provisional sign of the reign of God. Pluralism within a society is a sign of its relativity in light of the future that God intends. In other words, no human being or institution can impose that future. The respect we have for each other as individuals and as groups shows humility in regard to oneself and one’s ideas.

            In modern society, government stays out of the way of people discovering the virtuous and well-lived life, while not imposing it. People act upon their own judgment, make use of responsible freedom, and do so in a context free of coercion by government or religious institutions. Matters that connect with morality create some tension between religious communities and secular society. The use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, are part of the moral guidance of the church to its members, and sometimes turns the church into a special interest group politically. The same is true with the concern for the protection of life in the matter of abortion. The use of all forms of media, as with the Internet, movies, television, and radio, become matters of concern when persons use them for the promotion for what some religious communities consider immoral purposes. The question as to how much liberty a society can handle, as well as the nature of the Christian witness in such a society, is one that churches (as well as other religions living a modern culture) need to consider seriously. A constitution that limits the power of government to interfere in the rights of individuals and minority groups is important to the development of such a social world. Truth becomes real to the minds of individuals through its own gentle persuasion, rather than through coercion. Such individual rights have their foundation in the dignity and worth of individuals as made the image of God. People cannot exercise their rights in liberty unless they are free of coercion. Government needs to allow its citizens to search for truth consistent with the dignity of individuals and the social nature of humanity. Conscience is an important element of this growth. Even though the content of conscience varies greatly from one culture to the next, the fact of a conscience in the sense of awareness of the possibility of right and wrong is important. This strategy to reduce the injustice of all governments will work only as long as the institutions of society respect constitutional government, natural rights of individuals that compels government to respect the worth and dignity of individuals, and therefore creates a large civil society of pluralism and tolerance in matters related to ultimate ends that human beings pursue. The idea of freedom existing in the relationship between individuality and community has proven to be a powerful idea and experience so far. This means that virtue is not the end of human society. From a human perspective, the actualized well-lived life is always proleptic and provisional.

            Society needs more than external controls to hold people together. Society needs internal bonds that link people to each other. The subjective and rule oriented approach to ethics also forgets that the institutions of society are not simply forms within which individuals make ethical decisions. Rather, social institutions have goals and objectives that already give ethical shape to participants in those institutions. Every community of persons requires an ordering of life by definite mutual duties of its members toward each other. Legal forms change as social roles and the nature of mutual recognition changes. Such forms of live are already legal relationships, even if one never formulates them as such. This suggests a teleological approach to ethics, as one needs to consider objective social goals alongside subjective goals of a personal ethic with mutual regard.

            Moral convictions are like the air we breathe. We do not notice them because our life depends upon them. Persons living and participating in a modern civilization rarely reflect upon the value they have placed in freedom, democracy, pluralism, tolerance, scientific and technological advances. Such persons often have an assumption of progress in the comforts of daily life, as well as some the realization of moral progress. Modern persons today look back with regret concerning the treatment of Native Americans, African-Americans, women, Jews, and the colonial period. The freedom espoused by the Enlightenment did not become institutionalized until the latter half of the 20th century. Undoubtedly, future generations will discover further dimensions of freedom that this generation missed. Modernity has already shaped denominations and church members in profound ways, and in largely positive and constructive ways. Christians living in modern society today do not have to fight many battles because the free church movement and liberal theology fought those battles to help bring the church into modern civilization.

            My understanding, like that of Aristotle, is that morality is a habit we develop within community. The moral virtues as explained by Aristotle required Athenian democracy and culture as a communal foundation for the explication. The same is true for persons living in a modern civilization. The difference is that modernity recognizes that large areas of the best human life remain unknown to it. For that reason, religious tolerance and intellectual freedom were significant in the forming of modernity.

            My intent has been to show such principle ideas as these as a contribution of varying forces within Christianity to the formation of modernity.

            In the form of modern life, religion provides communities the support moral qualities with which most modern persons find themselves in agreement, even if they do not live that way. In fact, one could make a case that modernity depends upon the moral formation of individuals in order for freedom to have its greatest impact upon culture. Although modernity addresses itself to the concerns of this world and its improvement, it depends upon people recognizing dimensions of the eternal.

Many modern persons still to go to church for their weddings, funerals, and for informal moral and spiritual support in times of crisis, signifying that modern persons may not be as inwardly alienated from the church as many analysts may suggest. Even those outside the church depend upon the continuing existence of the church in ways of which they may neither be aware or want to acknowledge.

The fact is that at certain profound levels, Christianity has contributed to the formation of modern secular society. Further, the church does not practice its life in isolation from the rest of modernity. Its teaching and life will have subtle and overt influences upon modern culture. The church existing in a modern culture does not have the option of operating in isolation from society, and thus in distinction from it. Nor does it have the option of isolating its members from what it might consider evil or oppressive influences from the culture. Rather, the relationship of church and culture is far more subtle.

In the course of cultural history, we know that the social order looks to religious institutions to legitimate their present order. Historically, the social order looks for religion to make its order legitimate through divine decree. We can see this perspective at work in the early history of Israel and in the Davidic monarchy. In post-exilic Israel, the reign of God had a future orientation, since in the present no social world existed that could receive the sanction of the God of Israel. The church continued this orientation in light of the arrival of the reign of God in Christ and the continuing reality of a social world that could not receive divine sanction. Distinguishing between church and state is a tradition within Christian history. The separation of the spiritual and the secular that the modern social world enjoys has its root in the future orientation of post-exilic Israel and in the expectation of Christianity. Christianity may be the legitimizing force for modernity.

Modern secular society has freed itself from its Christian origin.  Originally, secularism meant the removal of vast property holdings from the church and its transferal to the political state. Today, secularism means the removal of the influence of religion, church, and theology from vast areas of the formation of ideas and values: learning, economy, politics, law, state, culture, education, medicine, and social welfare.

As long as religion becomes a cult of private life, secular society will have no problem with religion. That is an ideological stance.  The ideological character of modern secularism rests on certain self-evident assumptions about human nature that regard religious life as secondary.  This challenge by the secular social world is deeper than most in the church realize. The separation of church and state was and is an inevitable reaction to an authoritarian form of Christianity that proclaimed itself as the only true form and was intolerant to other faiths. Secularity considers as self-evident that religion is secondary to human nature and culture. It also means that we cannot speak of any agreement about the moral basis of the unity of society. The sociology of religion has long recognized this as a primary activity of religion, and that activity is no longer present. The restriction of religion to a private and inner sphere breaks the bond that the Christian hope has for all humanity. The fact that Christians cannot reconcile themselves to each other suggests how far the God of Jesus Christ is from reconciling the world. Certainly, the testimony of genuine Christian unity that respects diversity would be quite powerful in a world so torn apart by ideological and nationalistic strife. However, as we can speak of the emancipation of the secular and the consecration of the secular, we can also speak of the convergence of the holy and secular, and the way in which the secular and religious in culture belong to each other. The Spirit of God exhibits its influence upon the whole of human culture. This Spirit fulfills human spirit; it does not break the human spirit. The indefiniteness of the direction of the spirited activity of humanity gains direction and purpose under the divine Spirit.

The coming of secular society has changed this situation for the modern social world. The modern, secular, pluralistic, free, democratic, and individualistic culture does not require divine sanction, but rather sanction from the people. The modern social world emancipates the secular from the religious. Where Christianity has become a partner in society, the importance of this distinction becomes more important to uphold.  That distinction finds its root in the awareness the saving future toward which Christianity points.  The church cannot legitimately desire the identification of church and state, for their separate existence becomes a testimony that the rule of God is not yet present.

Modernity owes more to the church than it will openly acknowledge. Although most of Europe still provides some tax dollars directly to the church, and although America still provide religion with tax benefits, such consideration comes under scrutiny today.

            My own view is that Christianity has favored, strengthened, given color, and modified the culture created by modernity. It provides the legitimizing factor for modernity in its key intellectual moves, even where neither modernity nor church recognizes that connection. Christianity has taken modernity into itself and given it direction. The open question, of course, is whether Christianity can play a significant role in shaping the objectives of modernity in the future.       


Church in culture

            The respect for the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit calls upon Christians toward social engagement. The construction of a social world is also caring for the body, the physical and material life of citizens. A fully human life is always an embodied life. To escape the body is to cease being human.

One could argue that the altered cultural and sociopolitical context in which the church finds itself today amounts to a second watershed in the modern history of the doctrine, comparable to the impact of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment themes of historicity, relativity, freedom, and subjectivity are still valid. The challenge is to assist modern civilization to actualize its potential further in liberating humanity for its greatest potential. This does not mean accepting a Marxist critique of modernity. It does mean institutional forms opening to those groups modernity in its past disinherited.

The Christian faith is only one historically conditioned resource among humankind’s rich reservoir of moral and spiritual symbol systems. We ought not to disregard this religious and cultural pluralism when assessing the future of the church or its constructive role in the world of today. The church has no corner on authority or truth, for truth belongs to God, not to the church. Although the church exists in every land, the church does not have a manifest destiny to incorporate all peoples and religions into the universal church.

Perhaps if Christians can move toward resolving their internal theological feuds and their religious differences with non-Christians, it will be possible to conceive of an ecclesial community that espouses a view of humanity embracing the needs, welfare, and aspirations of all peoples. Such a view of the church, as a community aware of its divine calling and committed to the nurture of others, could contribute to the actualization of world solidarity and a global religious consciousness.

            The dignity of humanity and genuine human community are concerns the church shares with the rest of humanity. The joy and hope, fears and anxieties, of the world are also part of the church. Nothing genuinely human fails to find an echo in the church. The history of humanity and the history of the church have a common destiny and link. People raise questions about the trend toward which the world is heading, about the place and role of humanity in the world, about the meaning of individual and collective desires, and about the destiny of reality and humanity. The fact that the church continually engages the world in conversation about its present life and its destiny is proof enough that the church takes the world seriously.

            The church does not seek political or economic power, but rather, like Jesus, is in the world as a servant. The church takes its cue from Jesus of Nazareth, who did not seek political power. It respect the rights of individuals and groups, while remaining true to its proclamation of the fullness of truth that it believes it has received from God in Christ.         

            Suffering and death remind us that we need not cling to anything in this life. It could leave. You could leave. Everything is so contingent. I am thankful for the life I have, the people who have crossed my path, and the love and struggle we have shared. Christians do not need to hold this life cheaply. Christians can treasure this life, but lightly hold it in our minds and hearts. The suffering of Christians along with the rest of humanity shows that Christians are very much in this world. Christians still lead a human life, and that life includes hideous suffering and death. This is why Christians have an interest in forming a social world that respects the worth and dignity of individuals as well as respect the social world in which one lives. We care for this world, while not clinging to it. We care for the institutions of this world, while not perceiving them as ultimate. We engage the world in dialogue toward the most free, tolerant, pluralistic, world possible, for that allows the church to persuade people through its life and message.

            The church is a sign of the future unity of humanity. The diversity of the church in various territories contributes to the appreciation of the unity of the church. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are offered to all persons, regardless of race, class, economic condition, or gender. The church exists in every culture, and it honors the same Christ. The New Testament has various images of the church: a sheepfold, cultivated land, the edifice of God, the body of Christ, the pilgrim people of God. The church does not have coercive power, even though it needs human resources to live in this world. It serves with humility in the world.

            The grace of God works in a saving way toward people who have no knowledge of Christ, but who respond to the impulses of dignity and grace in human relationships. The church needs to work in civil society to overcome as many divisions as possible, thereby becoming even more surely sign of the future unity of humanity. Laity of the church can make Christ known in their homes, places of work, and community, in ways clergy will never be able to do. Even in secular society, Christians can have their conscience informed by their faith. Yet, secular society will have its own principles of operation. As Christians strive to grow closer to God, they increase in their care for the world. Closeness to Christ makes more human than we would be without him. The church will always have a genuine but imperfect holiness as it moves with humanity toward their destiny in Christ. Reflection upon saints of the past should stimulate us toward greater love toward God and service in the world.

            Modern society has imbalance in many areas of individual and corporate life. We find it difficult to have technical knowledge and synthesis of knowledge. What is practical and efficient is not necessarily moral. Specialization moves against contemplation upon a comprehensive view of reality. What is humanity? What is the sense of sorrow, of evil, of death, which continues to exist despite so much progress? What is the purpose of the victories won by modernity? What can individuals offer to society? What can individuals expect from society? Does eternity embrace humanity, or is the meaning of lour lives wrapped up in this world?

            The church finds humanity embodying dignity of one made in the image of God and misery as people who have sought fulfillment apart from God. Wisdom gently draws humanity toward what is good, beautiful, and true. Humanity needs the wisdom of past ages to give it guidance through the many changes modernity has thrust upon it. This does not mean that modernity is bad, but it does mean that modernity does not have in itself all the answers. In fact, the way human beings construct a genuinely modern social world suggests that it recognizes that it does not have all the answers to the desires of human life. Modernity engrosses itself in this world to such an extent that people can get the idea that this world is all there is. We need reminders that God has wired us for more. We remain an unsolved puzzle to ourselves. In Christ, we find humanity lifted up to its destiny as fulfillment of the purpose of God for us. We find our identity in relationship with others.

            Society is not an add on to individual life, but constitutes the sense of self. The only kind of social world that will fulfill the intent of God is one that respect the liberty and dignity of the individual. The social order will need to improve the condition of individuals. Yet, individualism is not enough. We need an ethic of responsibility and participation. What is the meaning of our feverish activity in a modern world? In one sense, human activity is a reflection of the image of God. Nature and society needs to reflect the best for humanity. Reflection upon human dignity, human community, and the profound nature of human activity, is the basis for the relationship between church and world. The church intends to have a healing and elevating influence upon society. Slender threads hold human society together. The church seeks to make those threads a bit stronger. Human activity in modern society is often a flurry of activity. The church seeks to place that activity in a context of meaning and purpose.

            For example, the emphasis in modern society upon individual rights meets a friend in the church. Granted, the church will not accept the idea that liberty means exemption from any sense of responsibility to nature or to the social world. Yet, the church also is a witness to the maturing of human personality in the context of a community. It recognizes that finite things can never satisfy human desire. No matter how sophisticated we get, we will want to know the meaning of life, activity, and death. The church is a witness that only eternity can provide the context for the discovery of meaning.

            Another example is the manner in which the church seeks to influence society. Granted, neither Jesus nor the apostles provided the church with a political or economic agenda. It does not have the power of coercion; it ought not to seek such power. The church reminds society, however, that it must always take seriously the poor and alienated in their midst. The church also reminds political and economic leaders that the unity society needs to hold together are more than external. It requires unity of mind and heart as well. Internal qualities, such as faith, hope, and love, have an important influence upon the manner in which society holds together. In a modern and democratic world, the primary task of the church is to assist in people finding meaning in the midst of all their activity, strengthening the internal bonds that help society function in a reasonably healthy way, and to offer the possibility of healing to those alienated from the modern social world. The church does all of this through helping people recognize their worth and dignity as individuals created in the image of God. The very existence of the church throughout the world is a sign of the future destiny of humanity toward unity. Yet, the church needs to encourage its own members to bring healing to the divisions in which they too often participate as part of their individual cultures.

            A third example is that of human activity. The church itself does not separate worship and piety on the one hand and professional and social activity on the other. Being Christian does not mean shirking responsibility for the care of the natural and social world. The church helps its members by providing the context for forming a well-informed Christian conscience that discerns the will and purpose of God.  Christians in their work places, families, political engagements, involvement in civil society, will bring the enlightenment of Christian wisdom to those settings. Ideally, Christians will bring a Christian spirit into all their social engagements. They bring their witness to Christ in the midst of human society.

            A fourth example is that the church recognizes the help it receives from the modern social world. Because of the universal character of the church, it recognizes the difference between communist, fascist, and military dictatorships on the one hand and the modern social world of democratic institutions rooted in freedom of the individual on the other.            The nature of the weapons humans have at their disposal also suggests that a small group can inflict great harm. Many Christians suffer martyrdom because of the form their social world takes. Many Christians suffer poverty and persecution because of social conditions. In such situations, Christians, other religious people, and other people of good will, have every right to defend self and neighbor in order to prevent greater evil to befall themselves and their social world. The presence of war is a paradox in the human quest for peace. Even the most aggressive persons who use their power to bring wars of aggression, ultimately desire through their conquest or sedition to bring a condition of peace. It is, of course, often a twisted desire, confusing conformity and coerced obedience with genuine peace. Genuine peace arises from respect for each other, in the midst of diversity and difference.

            The difference is rather obvious to the global church. The church values the freedom offered in the latter form of social world, and would seek its adoption in every nation. It realizes the benefits it receives from the improvement of every day life, technology, advances in science, and so on.


Confession Time and openness to new possibilities

            My purpose is to disclose a possible Christian approach to the ethical concerns within modernity. However, in order to do so, we need to admit the failures of both church and modernity in living ethically. As I mention some of these profound failures, the context of modernity is that structurally it makes itself open to change. Among the reasons for this is that modernity already recognizes itself as without clear and distinct foundation or goal. It remains open to new possibilities.

            Christians failed to improve the lives of the masses as it valued ascetic spirituality, otherworld hopes, and friendship with the powerful. Christians failed to respect their Jewish neighbors, and instead labeled them as God-killers. Christians failed to deal with the growth of Islam in the East and instead resorted to crusades. The church obedient to Rome failed to deal with growing challenges to the authority of tradition to shape contemporary life, a challenge clarified by its treatment of Galileo and Martin Luther. Further, the religious wars of the 1600’s remain a disgraceful part of European church history that led to the separation of church from state in the 1700’s. One form of Christianity dominated Latin American countries for centuries, and yet masses of people remained on the margins while the church dined with the wealthy and powerful. Human beings have done horrible things in the name of Christ. Of course, human beings have also done horrible things in the name of liberty, peace, Mohammed, the workers of the world, and any number of others causes. What this means for contemporary relationships with other religions, and in particular the Muslim faith, is that a religion untouched by a modern form of life will trend toward its totalitarian and intolerant foundation. Religion forgets the first rule of religion: Do no harm. Modern Christians need to understand that the generosity with which they approach other religions is not a courtesy that other religions will extend to them, unless the participants in inter-religious dialogue share the perspective of modern life. The religions of the world need to experience the transformation that modern civilization brings to them.

            1492 laid the foundation for the modern, secular, free, pluralistic, democratic culture that Europe has shaped. 1492 was the birth of modern times. The Ottoman Empire, the Indian empire of the Moguls, and China, were far more impressive. In 1492, Europe moved from the periphery of world history to the center. Hegel (Introduction: Reason in History) noted that America is the land of the future where importance for the history of the whole world will be manifested. That year represents the beginning of the influence of European ideas, not only in the Americas, but also throughout the world. The islands, mountains, and rivers had names long before Europeans arrived. Europeans appropriated the new lands for themselves. Christianity came along with conquest, sometimes in service to the state, but often modifying imperial claims in the name of Christ.

            Further, Copernicus and Newton began a scientific and technical revolution that stripped nature of its magic and mystery and placed in service to the improvement of the everyday life of human beings. Science became the art of discovery. Scientific knowledge gave people more control over their lives and futures. Rather than focusing upon the receptive aspect of reason, it directed attention to the analytical and instrumental use of reason.

            The Christian influence in the development of this secular culture consists in the hope for a new world, a new time, the time of fulfillment, the expectation of the coming reign of God through Christ. Consistent with the call of Abraham (and different from the meditating Buddha), the future is something new; it is not the return of the past. Detaching human civilization from nature and making it historical led to the use of nature to improve the everyday life of human beings. We continue to struggle to make progress and equilibrium in nature a reality.

            America becomes representative of the possibilities for the world, in that the experiment of freedom finds its greatest flowering there. For what can we hope? Such a free culture does not bring perfection: war and poverty in particular plague us. However, as representative of a possible future for the world, American bears a unique role, demonstrated in its role in World War I and II, the Cold War, and now the War on Terror. Socialist theology, a theology of peace, ecological theology, theology of human rights, and feminist theology, all have their answer in what follows. The elitist nature of these movements is evident. They want to be the spokesperson for the victims of violence and give public voice for the voiceless. It lives in shared action groups. It rejects the legacy of limited government, economic freedom, genuine political freedom, and individual rights, in favor of a vision of equality that equates it with solidarity and love.

            Yet, the history of the advance of modernity has always had its shadow side. Sin is not just a personal experience; it shows itself in every aspect of the social world. While the Reformation began in Germany in 1517, Cortez sailed for Mexico. When Luther stood before the Diet of Worms in 1521 to proclaim that he stood on the bible alone, Cortez conquered the Aztecs. Hobbes created his Leviathan, a vision of the modern political state as created by people for the purpose of power and destructive in nature. He surrendered the right of individuals to self-determination to Leviathan. When Lessing and Kant published their Enlightenment treatises, slave traders bought Africans and brought them to America. The industrial build up brought with it economic dislocation, class structures, ecological upheaval. Yet, the fact of African slavery and the use of the vast mineral resources in early American history obscure the value of genuine creativity, freedom, and initiative that produced American wealth. In fact, slavery in the South led to the depletion of wealth in comparison with the North. The Third World today consists largely of nations whose governments exploit their people and the natural resources of the land. Europe, the United States, and other free lands, cannot dictate to the leaders or people of other nations the kind of country they will have. The frustration of modern civilization is that all of humanity, including nations presently free, would prosper more if economic and political freedom, combined with limited government and pluralism, would proliferate throughout the world. The debt in which many poor nations find themselves is the direct result of government policies that restrict the freedom and creativity of their people. The use of natural resources that accompanies modern growth protects that which creates income. Thus, it protects farmable land, it will protect air and water, and it will protect renewable resources (whether trees or animals) as long as they continue to have value. We can observe this in the difference in ecological care taken in the USA, Canada, and Western Europe on the one hand and the Iron Curtain nations and the Russia on the other. Improved technology brings greater care for the environment. As a part of nature, humanity recognizes its dependence upon keeping the earth friendly to human habitation. The coming of private property helps preserve the earth as well. As we own anything, we care for it and seek the increase of its value. Pride of ownership encourages proper use of all the resources we have, including the land. Interestingly, the will to both compete and cooperate form the foundation of this economic and ecological behavior.

            Some people condemn Christianity for the ecological crisis that they sense in the world. However, only in the 1700’s did the commission given to human beings in Genesis 1-2 come to represent to scholars unlimited power to dispose of nature. This happened at the time when modern humanity in its self-understanding cut off its ties with the creator God of the bible. It is incorrect to charge Western Christianity as a whole with this distortion of the biblical commission of domination, this failure to recognize the role of human beings as fiduciaries. Only the emancipation of modern humanity from biblical revelation that turned the biblical commission of domination into a subjugation of nature to human beings on their own authority and for their own arbitrary use. The high value that the bible places upon human life does not necessarily lead to contempt for nonhuman nature. In fact, the modern principle of human autonomy guarantees nature far less protection against its limitless exploitation by human beings than does a Christian understanding of humanity.


Modernity and Church in a Post-modern and Post-Christian culture

            Significant portions of people living within modernity offer what they think are fundamental critiques of it and reject it. My problem with this is that I do not see such critics dropping out of modern society by refusing jobs, rejecting families, and refusing to vote and start businesses. As far as I know, they do not drop out of modern society or want to blow it up. My wonderment is how fundamental such a critique and rejection can be if it does not include some of these elements.

            For example, the attempt of deconstructionist authors is one I find confusing. They quite readily deconstruct the texts of others, and yet thoroughly expect that their readers understand them without going through the deconstruction process. Language is simply a social convention by which we construct the world. They typically provide an alienating critique of modern society, and yet offer nothing in its place.

            Generally, as we deal with our own imperfections, we admit them and go on with our lives. We do not surrender and do not commit suicide (hopefully). On the scale of culture, we must admit the many sins of modernity. Yet, we live in a culture that has openness to the future and therefore to change that is greater than any culture in history.

            I will grant, however, that at the modest level of recognizing that reason has its limits, including rejecting the search for foundations for knowledge, is an important maturity of the development of modernity. I grant that the quest for a meta-narrative gives the impression of objective fact rather than the intuition that it is. Meta-narratives that celebrate science, technology, and progress do not provide an objective description of the world. Rather, they provide elements of an intuitive grasp modernity. Yet, the concept of simply local narratives does not work. Culture hangs together. The webs of institutions in society connect at multiple levels. The same is true of the webs of individuals. Consequently, some reflection upon that which holds a culture together is appropriate. Further, human contingency suggests that human knowledge will never become clear and distinct ideas. This means having a foundation for knowledge that gives objectivity and certainty is not available to anyone. We do not construct a building for which we need a sure foundation.

             Reflection upon Christian morality is an attempt to make explicit what is already present in the church and modern civilization. It then attempts to discern the places where the church and modern life cannot travel together, and those places where the church and modernity must make common cause. This ought not to surprise those in the church, for the church itself is only a piece of what God is doing in the world. The grace of God, the life-giving Spirit of God, is at work in people who are not consciously aware of that presence. The church needs discernment as to where the Spirit leads.

The church existing in a modern civilization is part of the web of institutions that assist people to discover the best human life within the context of modernity. We understand the process of the formation of morals when we see them as part of the web of relationships that shape distinctive communities. The New Testament presents a communal ethic (against Reinhold Niebuhr). We understand the bible out of the cultural context we live and out of the specific religious community that influences us. The saints of the church, the office holders of the church, the ritual and worship of the church, and eventually the traditions of the church, shape how we approach the biblical text. In that sense, the question of how one uses the bible for ethical and moral reflection is out of place. We already have an approach when we engage in such reflection. The bible is public text, and thus someone not formed a Christian community can read it with profit. However, apart from a community, many dimensions of the bible close themselves off to the reader.

A simple way of viewing the development of a Christian response within modernity might follow a triadic development. We might begin with the emergence of self out of the interaction of nature and human society. Since we are already part of a culture, we might also understand the emergence of self out of the interaction between the cause established the culture and the present community that forms us. From the perspective of the Christian, the self also emerges out of the interaction of cause that formed Christianity (Christ) and the present community to which one relates. These levels of the formation of self recognize the social self that we are. We are not reducible to some transcendental self that is not social. However, as responsible agents, we continually respond at various levels. For Christians, the challenge is remain open to Christ as the one who shapes us in and through these levels of the emergence of self. God is the active in and through all these levels.

Morality is the constitution of the person as person in the encounter with other persons. Culture provides the concrete ideals of personality and community and the changing laws of ethical wisdom. Religion gives to morality the unconditional character of the moral imperative, the ultimate moral aim, the reunion of the separated in love, and the motivating power of grace. Culture is the creation of a universe of meaning in theoria and praxis. The validity of cultural creativity in all its functions is based on the person-to person encounter in which the limits to arbitrariness are established. Without the force of the moral imperative, one could feel no demand coming from the logical, aesthetic, personal, and communal forms. The religious element in culture is the inexhaustible depth of a genuine creation. One may call it substance or the ground from which culture lives. It is the element of ultimacy that culture lacks in itself but to which it points. Religion is the self-transcendence of life under the dimension of spirit. There is no self-transcendence under the dimension of the struggle for the worth and dignity of individuals without the constitution of the moral self by the unconditional imperative, and this self-transcendence cannot take form except within the universe of meaning created in the cultural act. When morality and culture separate from religion, we call it secular. Morality becomes casuistic and culture becomes empty form. Religion has its ambiguity as well, in the holy and profane, the divine and the demonic, but the most powerful ambiguity is between its spirit and its institutional form. In a sense, religion should find a home in all three dimensions, but instead discovers itself homeless.



Paradoxical relationship between church and modern culture

            These reflections should prepare us to consider the intimate connection between church and culture. Church is open to culture and shaped by it. Church has already shaped secular and modern society. The life-giving Spirit shows itself in culture. Culture already creates spaces for the human struggle for worth and dignity in its quest for meaning, creativity, and the balance of individuality and community. Divine activity occurs in culture in a way that fulfills human worth and dignity rather than breaking it. Divine spirit shows itself in the institutions of culture. Culture does so in providing avenues for meaning, creativity, and the balance of individuality and community. The intimacy of this connection in modernity is because modernity has tolerance and pluralism as part of its values. It rests content with unity in that way, rather than the unity determined by a particular religion or denomination.

            Many religious people doubt whether their institutions can have an objective difference in the public domain. Honestly, a rather wide range of political and economic questions is technical and prudential in nature. As such, Christian theology should not claim competence in such areas. Fundamentalists of left (liberation) and right think they have serious contributions to make the political and economic organization of culture. Other Christians agree with modernity that religion does not matter in public life; one should reserve it for private devotion. Yet, a religion that matters is one that becomes a friend of the believer and goes with the believer wherever the believer goes.

            When the church moves into the public sphere, it does not share a common language with a secular society. The church seems unclear in its concept of what God requires of humanity in our public life in a broken, divided, and threatened world. Such a language would require a discussion of ultimate ends behind individuals and communities. Mainline Protestant denominations in particular received a treasure from the 1800’s and early 1900’s in which their leaders of the past engaged in public discourse, linking private and social matters. Modern culture is open to some degree to change initiated from church, although those changes may be subtle in the way people raise families and contribute to civic society, and may be overt in public policy. The church in modernity is in dialogue with its culture. Another option would be to consider the church a distinct culture within a culture, creating a bubble of Christianity insulated as much as possible from the evils of modernity. Another option would be to view the church as seeking to live such a pure Christian life together that it becomes an example to culture as the way to believe and live. I do not consider either of these options as viable.

            In spite of the intimate connection of church with modern society, it also has a paradoxical relationship to society. Here, I want to consider the theme of the two kingdom approach of Luther, although I will present a view in light of the priority of the future reign of God as embracing both church and world.

            To begin, we need to clarify the relationship between the church, culture, and the future rule of God. This distinction between church and state has its foundation in the distinction between the future God intends and the fractured nature of human reality on the other. The distinction between the ultimate and the penultimate has its source in Christian reflection. The difference between present individual and corporate life is the reason why the church must exist as an independent entity along side the political order. The church cannot be the bridge between the secular and the religious. Hegel thought that the concept of human worth and dignity bridged the gap. One might also suggest that the concept of human rights could bridge the gap. Where human rights still fulfill their function as protective rights that transcend all present orders and flow from our human destiny in God, resisting the totalitarian claims of the state, they witness to the provisional nature of every given constitutional order, even though this order may seek to validate itself by an appeal to human rights. Where there is crying injustice to be righted, where it is a matter of respect for human rights and improving the established order, Christians and their churches should certainly be vocal in support. However, all such reforms will come within the confines of the provisional nature of our human orders and cannot establish the full and final rule of God. Christian faith recognizes that all human ordering of social life is provisional. The church must always exist, therefore, as a unique society alongside the political, economic, and civic order. The church by its existence demonstrates the continuing broken character of every human social ordering. By its difference from culture, the church helps humanize the cultural order in relation to individual citizens, for the church reminds the social order that it has not achieved its destiny in the rule of God. Totalitarian systems rightly recognize the danger of Christianity to their political system at this point.

            The difference of the church from the state helps to humanize the political order in its relation to individual citizens, because the existence of the church reminds the state of the difference between its own order and our social destiny. Humanitarianism and political liberation are not the primary missions of the church. After all, the church and the Christian must always keep the overly optimistic dimensions of science, technology, and political ideology at a comfortable distance from the mission of the church.

            Despite many discussions about the relationship between church and the world, nothing is more unclear than the nature of their relationship to each other. To be church is to be in the world and to be with others who have no relationship to it and may hate it. If God has a vision of human destiny involving wholeness in which we find our individuality respected and genuine community, then the church is a partner in developing that story. One service the church renders is its recognition that God determines the story, not the church.

            The church had its beginning in Jerusalem in 30 AD, confident that God raised Jesus from the dead and expecting the soon arrival of the rule of God in the return of Jesus. The formation of the church represents the provisional formation of a people of God living in that confidence and that expectation, a future that involved the reconciliation of humanity with each other and with God. Given the historical reality that the Jewish people rejected the message of Jesus and his disciples, a rupture between Judaism as a culture and the church was inevitable. The church is not identical with the reign of God. Rather, the church is a sign, although often a faint sign, of the future fellowship that God intends humanity to have with each other and with God. If the church identifies itself with that future, it makes the claims of the reign of God incredible, for the church will always be a quite human fellowship. The poverty of every human endeavor will make a like of the claims the New Testament makes for what God intends. The church is a sign to the extent that it embodies in a provisional way the future reign of God through its proclamation, worship, and service in the world. The church is a sign because of its connection to Christ, and not because it is a sacrament. The church maintains its unity with Christ, even in its brokenness. The church is a sign of the future of humanity in the rule of God by in participation as the body of Christ. The church participates in the divine will to bring wholeness and healing to humanity. The church is not an end itself, but points beyond itself to the future God intends.

            For example, a strong tradition in the church maintains aloofness from the political and economic affairs of the culture in which the church and its members live. When John has Jesus say, “My Kingship is not from this world,” (John 18:36), he suggests that Jesus is not about seeking human power. Pilate’s concern was for Roman rule in Palestine. Jesus suggests that his truth does not take the form of political power. We know that Jesus rejected the political messiah of his time. The rule of God he proclaimed and embodied did not suggest revolt against Rome. In fact, his encouragement of love toward the enemy (Romans) and his advice of non-violence suggests that he did not invest himself in social and economic reform.

            For the church, the way in which the final rule of God appears in Jesus is such that the reality has a power to transform our lives now. We need to acknowledge that the first Christians saw this change in almost exclusively individual terms. One common reason for this is that they expected the end as the return of Christ to occur soon. Therefore, involvement in social institutions was a secondary factor in transformation. More importantly, the Roman Empire was not a civilization open to such involvement from the small band of Christians. Consequently, the New Testament largely adopted pagan virtue and vice lists as his own. Paul also accepted the hierarchical arrangement of the household, with husband over wife, parent over child, and master over slave. However, his counsels to Christians contain a clear element of encouraging a generous and compassionate use of wealth as well as softening the use of power by those in power. Husbands are to love wives as Christ loved the church. Parents are not to provoke children. Masters are to treat slaves with gentleness. The New Testament also encourages living peacefully with non-Christian neighbors. The comments concerning the emperor and the government also suggest that the New Testament regarded political authorities as having the responsibility of restraining evil, and in that sense had common cause with the church. One could argue that in that context, the New Testament simply encouraged members to accept their social responsibilities. Yet, such servile ethic is not binding on all Christians, in all ages, and in all cultures. Once civilization changed so that Christians could hold political office, the social responsibilities of Christians changed. Unfortunately, the emergence of the divine right of kings continued the pagan practice of viewing the king or emperor as the embodiment of a god. Little theological and biblical reflection entered into this restructuring of civilization.

            Paul clearly had concern for both acknowledging grace and faith while also recognizing that genuine transformation of the self and life occurs through the Spirit. Baptism into Christ is a social life, a life with others who have made the same commitment.

            Churches teach through their life together far more than what theologians teach in their books. The life together of the church is a social ethic. We embody the values that we actually hold, not the ones we say we hold. I want to offer some reflections that might point the way as the church and individual Christians reflect upon the moral influence the church can have in a modern society.

            When I become something of a romantic and unrealistic, here is what I wish. The church would embody a peaceful and just community. The church all too quickly and readily speaks to society, without living its best life together. The church would be a compassionate community toward those in membership and community who are separated from the benefits of modern society. The church would also seek to give moral and spiritual guidance to persons who desperately need more than what modernity alone can provide. The church would find more ways to embody its unity, as well as respect the diversity, within the Christian community. The church itself is not able to experience reconciliation. How can the church with integrity offer to the world a gospel that declares that God in Christ has reconciled the world to himself? The church would honor the modern civilization in which it lives as the source of many of the worldly comforts its members and churches have the privilege of receiving. The church refuses to be a body of people who simply waits for God to make the world a peaceful and just place. Rather, the church recognizes the great harm that a society can do by not recognizing the value and worth of individuals, by spreading totalitarian systems of a religious or secular nature, and recognize that in an imperfect and human world love of neighbor requires the use of force to contain the spread of social evil.

            Individual Christians do not arrive at such considerations of conscience in isolation, but rather as part of their communities. The point of such debate within the church is to determine what a faithful following of Christ means in this local, denominational, national, and global environment. Modernity is a complex web of relationship to which simple solutions are no solutions at all. The church and individual Christians need prayerful discernment in such matters. Every Christian community includes as part of its story the culture in which it exists. As the Christian community directs people to Christ, the community and the individuals in it make conscious and subconscious decisions about the way in which their culture and their Christianity entwine. Two extremes might help us.

First, based upon the argument in the writings of John and Revelation, a Christian community can take the view that the culture is so demonic and evil that the only option for Christians is to resist it, oppose it, and set itself against this culture. Examples of this approach would be Tertullian, the monastic movement in general, asceticism, the Mennonite tradition, and some brands of Pentecostalism and Fundamentalism. Some brands of liberation theology have also taken this approach through their acceptance of a Marxist critique of Western Civilization. This approach updates Marx to include profound depths of what it perceives as objective alienation in terms of racism, colonialism, male hegemony, and so on. Every phase of culture comes under critique. Political and economic life favors a small group and oppresses masses. Ethical life as embodied in the culture comes under scrutiny as not consistent with Jesus. The only way to express devotion to Christ is to reject every dimension of culture. The choice is between Christ or Caesar. It depends upon an analysis of culture that determines that this particular culture is not compatible with faithfulness to Christ in any meaningful way. The only faithful response is withdrawal. In reality, unless one becomes a genuine hermit and disengages entirely, one cannot genuinely live this program. No one can separate totally from culture. We take our culture with us wherever we go. At the same time, I can envision certain types of culture in which this would be a faithful and courageous response, such as fascism, communism, military dictatorships, and so on. Further, this view fails to recognize the prevenient grace of God working in the lives of people outside the Christian community. To assume that God has forsaken any culture to such a total degree that one can envision no meaningful and Christian involvement in it is at least pessimistic and at worst arrogant. The Christian belief that every individual reflects the image of God, and therefore has worth and dignity, suggests that every culture has something in it of what God intends it.

Second, based upon a supposed Christian society in which the church and Christianity have long held dominance, a view arises that one sees culture through Christ and one sees Christ through culture. The two are largely in harmony. We might note thinkers like John Locke, Immanuel Kant, and Hegel, as well as theologians like Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Harnack. Such persons may have what William James called a healthy minded, once born experience of their faith. One can view Kierkegaard as a strong opponent of this view. The reign of God became realized a vision of the church as an ethical community that points the way for the rest of culture to be ethical as well. God is the Father of humanity. All human beings are brothers and sisters who need to treat each other in familial ways. Church becomes the teacher of moral values to which all human beings can aspire, and Christ is the greatest example of such a teacher. Such an approach rests upon an analysis of culture that suggests the culture is already on the path Christ would have it. It may analyze the situation largely correctly. However, the connection it develops with contemporary culture means that when the quite human weakness and failing of that culture show themselves, this brand of being church will share in the just criticism leveled against it. Thus, if culture is anti-Semitic or racist, the church will share in the just criticism leveled against it. When politics and economics change, when the intellectual environment changes, such a church loses its cultural conversation partner.

We might consider several responses to the matter of Christianity and culture that lay between these extremes.

One recognizes the unity of God as creator and savior in such a way that the church has the responsibility of lifting culture to what God intends. This view assumes some already existing symmetry between the church and culture, but also recognizes that neither culture nor church is where they could be. Culture enhances church and church enhances culture. Neither would be complete without the other. This response cannot live with dichotomy between church and culture, between Christian and world. Clement of Alexandria represents an early attempt to note symmetry between Plato and the vision of the church. Aquinas is the supreme example of this approach. This view tends to lose the provisional nature of any such synthesis, embodying in present Christian life and institutions the hope of Christ. The open-ended nature of the Christian promises tends to round off into the present experience of the glorification of Christ in the present.

            Theologians of the past had some justification for thinking of the Roman Empire as a partner in creating signs of the future God intends. Its pattern of emperor at the top had a parallel to God as universal lord of the world. Christians living in a modern civilization also have justification for thinking that working with this civilization will offer signs of what God intends for the future of humanity. The risk of this approach is that it will baptize the status quo. Medieval and Byzantine culture are examples of embedding the reign of God in a vision of Christian civilization. Augustine separated church from the political order, and then made the mistake of identifying the reign of God with the church. Although Luther defined his two kingdoms approach differently, he still found the reign of God in the spiritual sphere of the church rather than the political sphere of the political order. The advantage of this position was that it emphasized the spiritual nature of the reign of Christ over the church. However, neither position offered the hope of a universal political vision that might serve as a provisional sign for the reign of God. They maintained a paradoxical relationship between church and culture. Such a vision does not have the energy of reforming civilization.

Another view recognizes the paradoxes of time and eternity, the finite and the infinite, the already and the not-yet in Christian life. This vision lives with the tensions and does not resolve them into a higher synthesis. Here is the divided soul, the person quite aware of the need for being twice born. The Apostle Paul is an example of this thinking. He urged his churches to have an ethic quite similar to any good pagan. He urged them to live in peace with their neighbors. Yet, he also reminded them that they have gone from darkness in the world to light in Christ. Augustine also represents this mentality in his vision of the city of humanity and the city of God. This tension Martin Luther sensed between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God existing together as to spheres to which the church must relate at the same time. Kierkegaard sensed this tension in a profound and radical way. The church is not at home in this world, while it is on a journey toward its destination in the future God has in store for it and for humanity. This view considers the human world as a sinful one with which the Christian must live. It views culture as fundamentally sinful and fundamentally unchangeable.

 The final view of the relationship between church and culture we will consider is the possibility of the church transforming culture. This view assumes enough commonality with culture that the church can influence the culture in what it understands as an increasingly Christian direction. This view recognizes the profound sinfulness of humanity, while also recognizing the image of God in every human being and in every human work. It assumes that culture has some openness to persuasion from the church to become more of what God wants human civilization to be. Given the situation in which Augustine wrote, some dimensions of his writing lend themselves to this view. We can also see this view in John Calvin, in the way John Wesley approached social issues in England in the 1700’s, and in the social gospel movement. This view can tend to have an arrogant assumption that there is a uniquely Christian vision of culture that the church ought to strive toward realization. In our pluralistic age, one can understand the anxiety this approach creates in Jews, Muslims, and secular persons. Further, within the church, the diversity of opinion as to what constitutes “Christian” culture is another reason refuse endorsement of this view as the only legitimate Christian response to culture.

            I have presented in these paragraphs my reflections upon H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture, although the close reader of him will note significant differences.

From the existence of Christians and the church there can and should flow forth reconciling effects for human life in society. Yet, Christian faith retains awareness that all human ordering of social life in this world is provisional in terms of realizing the reign of God. Since the church is only a sign, it cannot transform the world into the rule of God. The rule of God comes from God, and is thus always beyond human implementation. The connection between the church on the one hand and the political, economic, and civic life on the other is the common responsibility for moving humanity toward social institutions that embody in a provisional way the peace and justice that God intends for the future. Of course, no human order can embody this future. The modern who is also Christian will not overly invest in any technological or scientific answer, nor any ideology that constructs a system of ideas that intentionally distorts reality to its own benefit and to the oppression of others.

Ideally, both church and state align themselves against evil. Where this does not occur, (as in communist, Nazi, or other violent and totalitarian regimes) the church must take an increasingly subversive role. Yet, its involvement must maintain detachment from any particular political or economic order, since all such ordering of our social world is relative to the future ordering of the world that God will bring through the coming of the kingdom. Religion, morality, and politics are not the same thing. The church needs to discern its role in the social world within which it carries out its ministry.


Challenges toward modern society

            Modern society faces several critical challenges.

            First, the church will uphold the dignity of family life. The well-being of individuals and the manner in which human society finds itself linked together has its source in the human community called family and marriage. The family is an intimate community, a school of deeper humanity. It needs a generous communion of minds and hearts and deliberation between spouses and deliberation between parents and children. Children need the kind of education that will help them engage society in a meaningful and responsible way and form families of their own. Various generations often come together in the family. They help each other grow in wisdom. They help harmonize personal rights with responsibilities to a community. Political and economic leaders have an interest in recognizing the dignity of the family, protecting it, and promoting it. The advancement of the well-being of domestic life enhances broader human society.

            Second, the church recognizes the diversity of culture on the global scene. A modern culture has diversity in forms of life. It recognizes the responsibility human beings have for shaping a culture that has inner unifying forces as the primary tie that binds citizens and minimizes external force as a source of unity. This sense of responsibility for the progress of one’s social world leads to elevated hopes as well as increased anxiety for the future. Increased exchanges between cultures leads to destruction of the wisdom of traditional societies. Humanity participates in the purpose of God by developing the earth to develop in a way that provides for the whole human family and takes part in social groups. Development of intellectual and emotional life with which God provided humanity enhances the human quest for the good, beautiful, and true. In such ways, the people of the church unite with their neighbors to form the best possible human life. Knowledge of the bible and the traditions of the church is simply not enough for authentic Christian life in a modern society.

            Third, the church recognizes the importance of economic development. In the process, it also recognizes that it has little to offer modern society to help it improve its capacity for economic development. Such principles lay in the arena of the intelligence and passion with which God has graced individuals and groups. Methods of production, involvement of government in regulation, methods of exchange, taxation, and various other matters are part of economic life. Too many governments deny their citizens basic freedom related to family life, political life, and economic life. The church needs to recognize that some social worlds do not advance the everyday life of its citizens, but rather seek their domination and oppression. In fact, such a form of culture is the standard in human history. At the same time, the church recognizes the complexity of human motivation. Every human act, no matter how virtuous or evil, has hints of its opposite in both motivation and objective. Thus, as people pursue economic provision for themselves, they do so out of mixed motives. As people accumulate wealth, the motive and objective will continue to have mixture of good and evil. Such human activity reflects human reflection of the image of God and the misery of the human condition brought through sin. The church needs to check its own tendency toward Moralism and self-righteousness in these matters, as if purity of heart is something one can impose upon society. This should lead the church to recognize that the accumulation of wealth is not inherently good or evil, but a mixture of both. In the matter of relationships between nations, many governments do not respect their citizens enough nor allow enough freedom for the citizens to thrive and improve their domestic life. The global church needs to avoid blaming nations that do respect their citizens for the global imbalance and instead focus its energy upon encouraging Christians in all countries to work toward freer societies. The irony is that increased liberty brings potential for increased community, for the bonds in society become internal rather than external through law and coercion. The church also needs to recognize that one cannot remove economic inequality without doing violence to the rights, worth, and dignity of individuals. Private property is an important dimension of one’s worth and dignity, as one cares for one’s own portion of the earth. It allows for the expression of the uniqueness of one’s personality, vision, hopes, and dreams. It is an extension of liberty and a prerequisite for civil liberty. Free enterprise has its foundation in respect for individuals, for to keep good workers and to keep customers, producers and managers need to learn skills that help them, and therefore increase their effectiveness in gaining profit. Management and labor will need to figure out ways of relating to each other that increases profit. The church will always encourage generosity in dealing with the goods one possesses, but such generosity needs to arise as much as possible out of voluntary decisions. After all, compassion through coercion does not promote virtue in society.

            Fourth, the church recognizes the importance of establishing the most human social world through political life as possible. Political life has its source in the social nature of human beings. This appears to include the recognition by government of the worth and dignity of the individual. It means respect for the property of those individuals. It means a large arena of civil society and domestic society as free as possible from the use of coercion by government. This means free assembly by the people, freedom of political organization, freedom of religion, freedom of speech and thought. Political life exists to promote the common good. Sadly, many governments have no basis in the choice of its citizens. When political life oppresses the masses of people, the people have the right to exert their influence to change that form of government. Christian citizens have the responsibility of loving their country along with their neighbors, as well as loving humanity regardless of the country in which one lives. The universal presence of the church in the world suggests that it does not bind itself to any country or political system. The church is a sign and safeguard of the fact that the worth and dignity of individuals transcends economic and political life.

            Fifth, the church has a concern for global peace and justice. The church should recognize that, at this stage in human history, the modern social world is the best form of social world that would lead humanity toward a world of substantial peace and justice. This means that every government needs to respect the worth and dignity of its citizens. Government also needs to extend that respect to the people of other countries, in that our common humanity deserves respect from every government. This fraternity of humanity and its realization in political and global institutions is the basis for genuine peace and justice. Peace is the fruit of love, a quality that transcends imposition by government. The church can then promote forms of social world in which war is not a live option for resolving disputes. However, at this stage of human history, it would be incredibly naive for the church to be against war. Such an absolute position is not feasible in a human world. Although the church will not promote war, it recognizes that government has the right to defend its citizens from attack and domination by others. It also recognizes that the church does not have within its traditions and life the capacity to make that decision.   

Love as ethical foundation and goal: Improving life in this world

            We need to consider the orientation of Christianity toward the improvement of life in the world. Christianity recognizes that we tell a story with our lives, and that we are accountable before God for the content of that story. Christianity also recognizes that the church and Christians are to mirror the love God has for the world. Asceticism tended to separate love for God from love for the world, as if increasing devotion toward God meant decreasing involvement, care, and love for the world. The interest God has in the world is clear in creation, incarnation, and in the movement toward the fulfillment of creation in the future reign of God. God has an intense interest and involvement in the world. Those who love God need to mirror the care God has for the world.

            God is the ultimate good in the future of the rule of God. Striving for God as the ultimate good beyond the world turns into concern for the world. This corresponds to the intention of God for the transformation of the world through the rule of God. This love for God affirms the present world in transforming it. Followers of Christ share in the dynamics of the love of God for the world, thereby moving beyond the criteria of happiness of oneself. The fulfillment of individual life occurs within the larger context of the love that is the affirmation of the world by God. To participate in the love of God for the world is already communion with God:


1 John 4:16 (NRSV)

16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.


Christianity needs to reaffirm that love for God, no matter how pious, cannot reach God in another world. To love God can only mean to participate in the dynamics of the love God has for this world and for humanity. This is where the classical definition of God needs correction. Love for humanity is participation in the love God has for the world and therefore participation in the coming rule of God.

Schleiermacher is an important partner in this view. He refused every tendency to escape from this world. He devotes his ethics completely to the world and its formation. Valid criticism of this liberal theology needs caution in that they did remind Christianity of the ethical nature of the coming rule of God. The problem is that such a program usually fails to recognize the preliminary character of the best of human achievements. Human action cannot solve definitively the human predicament. At the same time, a commitment to the improvement of the human experience of this world is certainly an ethical objective.

Change is part of the world, and the point is to respond creatively to that change. Love assumes that the existing world need not face destruction. Rather, the world can hope for healing and wholeness as long as it remains open transformation. This transforming love includes criticism of the obstinate tendencies of humanity, of indolence, and of the structures by which humanity would protect itself form change. Humanity has a responsibility for uncovering sin because the destiny of humanity is a better future promised in the rule of God.

Love is the structure of the divine conversion to the world. Communion with God is lively participation in the creative love of God that supports creation, grants them limited duration, and brings them to fulfillment of life by relating them to each other.

As an example, we might consider friendship. To relate to somebody as a person is an act of faith. Of course, it is all too possible to treat human beings as something less than persons. Love envisions in the friend the destiny of the life of that person and the promise of the fulfillment of life. The immediacy of each individual requires respect for the identity of the person in the person’s personal destination to God. Personal immediacy to God precludes interference by others in the mystery of one’s personal decision. Love sometimes must anticipate the potential perfection of the other when such anticipation seems defied by the facts. However, the way of love is to liberate the other toward personal freedom. Genuine respect arising from love includes an ultimate sense of human solidarity with the other person. The possibilities for fulfillment of the life of my friend are not alien to me.

The Christian refuses to focus upon self and “puts on” the neighbor, conducting oneself toward the neighbor as if in the place of the neighbor. The pattern is Christ, who became one with us. This identification of Christ with us encourages us to identify with others so that our lives will intercede on behalf of the neighbor. The Christian refuses to live life from self, but rather from the other and from Christ. This shift of focus helps us to find our true self in a center of our lives that is beyond us. Faith directs our attention toward Christ so that we move beyond ourselves and discover the source of our life there.

Humanity destiny is the same for all humanity, although realized in various ways. Freedom and equality mark all human relations. One asserts this equality in the face of enormous differences in terms of particular possibilities, individual vocations, and social status. Where freedom and equality have become the basis of political life, the individual is the purpose of society. The state is made for humanity, not humanity for the state. The history of constitutional government demonstrates the necessity of limiting the extent and use of political power. Human beings pollute the democratic process when governments and parties bribe constituents, buying off the more powerful elements in the society. The dissipation of public wealth occurs in the attempt to satisfy the narrow interests of pressure groups, whose votes a party thinks it dare not lose. Good politicians have the difficult task of persuading the majority of the people toward the achievement of the common good, even if the majority of the people desires something that is not for the common good. Ancient democracy failed because the endeavor to please the majority became the preoccupation of rival groupings. The common good will thrive in a society where a universal spirit unites the individuals and leads them beyond their narrow self-interests. The happiness of the individual does not define the rule of God.

Peace is premised upon mutual acknowledgement. Mutual acknowledgement is essential to the closest personal community. It is equally essential to peace in international relations. The process of mutual acknowledgement is constitutive for the idea of justice. We can now see the close relationship between peace and justice on the one hand and freedom and equality on the other. Peace is a provisional state of justice that is mutually acknowledged by the several parties concerned. The recognition of conflict is a beginning toward peace. The differences between societies must be respected within the context of common responsibilities for a wider community of nations and of all humanity. Mutual respect, implying the recognition of each other’s freedom, and, at least to some extent, of each other’s equality, is pointedly relevant also to the development of international elations.

An old principle of Christian political ethics is that the unity of humanity corresponds to the universality of the one God. A process of intensified and mutual acknowledgement of different national concerns and cultural styles can achieve the peace of humanity. In such acknowledgment, it is possible to anticipate a provisional realization of the future unity of humanity, a unity for which we must yet wait and work. Continuing conflict within and between societies ought not to surprise us. In our preliminary moment of history, antagonisms are indispensable for bringing present forms under criticism and for the pointing to new possibilities for the reordering of the human community. Conflict gives birth to positive values and the birth pangs are the price to be paid. It is true that conflict can lead to mutual destruction. This is the danger when people attempt to hasten the unit of the rule of God by imposing uniformity and destroying the pluralism of human existence.

The gift of the future rule of God in the matter of ethical reflection is that it does not allow any particular social program to be mistaken for the rule of God. The rule of God is an unrealized future that confronts every present and that will confront a better future situation. The future character of the rule of God opens ever-new possibilities for action while still denying any human institution the glory of perfection that might warrant its making an absolute claim on the obedience of individuals.

Christians who approach sharing their faith in this way function in a way in which they both respect the worth and dignity of those who approach their faith differently and may actually learn from them. This approach values what Christians might learn from Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucius, as well as Christians of other traditions than one’s own. All genuine piety is an experience of God, and therefore Christians can value the experience of God people devoted to other religions have. God has left no culture without direction. However, Christianity also willingly shares the good news they have discovered. Such modern Christians have a motivation of genuine care and concern for their world. Such modern Christians move against the theory of Nietzsche that its morality has its foundation in world-denying resentment. Do you think the world has so much love, joy, and peace in it that you want to keep it to yourself? If we as Christians have discovered strength, abundant life, wholeness, and love in Jesus, we can confidently turn to the world and love our world into a relationship with Jesus.


Consideration of ends and the Public Square        

            Therefore, Christianity has a contribution to make to the public sphere. The church can do this through specific values. However, the church does this primarily through consideration of the way in which present achievements, no matter how great, have a further goal or fulfillment in what God intends. The fulfillment of the good individual life or the good societal life is never in the present, but in the future toward which God moves humanity. The contribution of Christianity toward consideration of the ends or purpose of human action is an important one, even if difficult to define. The vision of the rule of God is not in contrast to experience of the world. The future rule of God has an intimate relationship with human experience of the world. The proposition that the rule of God is the highest good must show itself in human individual and corporate life.

            What I want to consider later is these ends for human destiny.

            As individuals, the ethical end is the reflection of a life redeemed, transformed, and changed into what God intends. We find that intention in the development of individual character that meditates upon and seeks to embody the virtues of the New Testament. Such a life will also avoid the vices listed in the New Testament.

            As an understanding of the destiny of humanity, we need consideration of a social world that involves freedom, equality, fraternity, peace, and justice. Pluralism and tolerance in this arena recognizes that no human culture embodies such values and principles fully. I consider the bible clear that humanity does not possess any of these qualities at birth. Rather, humanity must win them for each other. I would further suggest that peace and justice in the world would not occur without nations first taking the steps necessary to implement in their social world such principles.

            The church itself, as it exists alongside of the political and economic powers, becomes a witness that society does not yet embody the rule of God. Further, the church needs stand apart from power in the sense that if it seeks power to implement its vision through political and economic means, it uses force and coercion, values that go directly against Jesus and the New Testament. Among my concerns throughout is that the church embody the values toward which God is moving the world.


Theology of the Church

The church takes it stand with Jesus Christ and invites others to do so. It opens its communal life and encourages people to open their personal lives to the life-giving Spirit of God. This openness results in a form of life involving devotion to Christ, compassionate use of power, generosity toward others, and actualizing the love of God in Christ that liberates individuals from sin and alienation in relation to God and to others. As such, the church is an anticipatory and sacramental sign of the coming kingdom of God, which is a rule of freedom, a liberated communion of free subjects created and empowered by the indwelling Spirit of the God of freedom. Ecclesia is at once a historical and an eschatological reality, and the tension thus generated is the source of its true vitality.

Whenever active members of the church encounter those outside the church, they are missionaries of the church, voluntarily or involuntarily. Their very being is missionary. The purpose of missions as an institutionalized function of the church is the actualization of a community of the Spirit.

The abiding motive of mission is love toward neighbor as an expression of the ministry of reconciliation that brings together while maintaining independence and freedom. The church must not lose itself in the world. The boundary between church and world serves as a reminder to both of the provisional form of the saving future promised by God. The churches carry out this mission in a context of other communities of faith who share some of the same objectives, while yet competing at other levels. As long as the saving purpose of God is ahead of us, the mission of loving service offered by the church does not end. This includes loving service to people of other religious faiths. Proclamation of the gospel includes a ministry to people of other faiths, certainly not in arrogance, but in loving and faithful service. I would like to think that respect for others and honoring their traditions would be a given while engaged in Christian mission of this sort. This does not preclude the great world religions coming together in a variety of ways to share mission to the loveless and unloved masses of humanity.

The early Christians waited in Jerusalem for the imminent consummation of the rule of God by the return of the risen Lord.  The formation of the primitive community itself was also a partial aspect of the dawning this rule.  The church was a provisional gathering of the fellowship that would find its definitive realization in the fellowship of the kingdom of God.  We cannot identify the kingdom with the church.   It is a preceding sign of our future fellowship under the reign of God.  Fellowship with Christ in faith in the gospel binds believers together into the fellowship of the church.  The future fellowship of the reign of God finds representation already in an anticipatory sign.  The church is nothing, if it is not this anticipatory sign of the coming rule of God and the salvation of all humanity.  If the church fails to make the anticipatory nature of its fellowship clear, it can become arrogant in applying to itself the glory of the kingdom.  In doing so, the poverty of its own character makes the Christian hope incredible.

The Christian community came to think of itself as an ecclesia, not a synagogue. One of the significant factors in this is that in the first century, the Jewish people defined the membership of a synagogue by the number of males involved. In contrast, the secular society of the first century defined ecclesia as an association consisting of both male and female. Further, the secular connotation meant that the term had a decisively non-cultic and non-sacral meaning, a fact of significance both historically and theologically. In a sense, it was an empty, formal term, free of old cultic and religious associations, needing to have new thinkers fill it with new content. The term referred both to the local community and to the church as a collective entity throughout the empire. In that sense, “church” always meant the particular body and the universal community. I might suggest that image of the church today. The church is a particular, local body of believers. The church is a particular denomination that has its historical heritage. The church is the universal embodiment of all the historical forms. This combination of local and general, particular and universal, is important for our perception of Christianity. It allows for each particular historical embodiment of the church to be open to the contributions of others. It allows for a generous spirit toward those with whom might have many disagreements.

            The church is nothing other than its historical forms. Christians cannot appeal to some unchanging essence; nor can we elevate the present above the past. The church is its appearance in history. Fortunately, history continues toward a destiny in which the church helps to shape. That history begins within the New Testament, which both reflects various ecclesiological forms and is the on-going norm for the church throughout history. The church is not properly an object for our veneration or admiration. Indeed, much of the history of the church is a scandal to believing persons: its persecution of Jews, its crusades, its trials of heretics, its burning of witches, its wars of religion, its condemnation of men (Galileo, Luther) and ideas (evolution, democracy), its acceptance of slavery. We cannot overlook the cruelty, fear, narrowness, laziness, cowardice, mediocrity, and lack of love that manifests itself in the church. Yet, such criticism is also addressing a façade of the church; an alienating presentation of the nature church is just as closed to the nature of the church, as is admiration. The Reformation contrast between the invisible and visible church hardly makes sense in light of this history. Christians do not believe in the church, for we are the church. We reserve faith for God. The church directs attention away from itself and toward Christ. The church is more than it appears to be.

            In the context of the multiplicity of denominations and of the plurality of world religions, Christians need to look honestly at themselves as individuals, as institutions, and as churches. Is the church itself Christian? Sometimes, I wonder. Conceit, vanity, and harmful behavior often pass themselves as the work of the Holy Spirit. St. Francis fought in the Crusades. St. Bernard favored the Inquisition. Francis de Sales indulged in persecution. In the time of Shakespeare, England hung six hundred women as witches as the result of one wind-storm. Bodin, one of the great legal theorists of France, denounced witches in court and brought them to death. Although not as bad as in Europe, New England had its own hunt for witches to kill. During the Thirty-year War of religions in the 1800’s, Frederick Von Logau wrote this poem:


If Christ’s way to change the world

Had been to persecute and kill,

Why, then he would have crucified

Those Jews who sought to do him ill.


Churches that pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday do well to focus upon the phrase, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” The sins of the church are far more than the church acknowledges.

            The church is not Christian. The church is on the way to becoming Christian. Members need some recognition of the human nature of the church, and therefore of its frail life and witness. The church is a temple of God, even though that temple is still under construction in terms of numbers and quality.

            In fact, the confessions of the church recognize that sinners are members of the church. Do we dare admit that the church is sinful? We must do so. The church cannot limit its ministry to saints. The chief representatives of the church whether lay leadership, pastors, evangelists, missionaries, bishops, or pope, are also sinners. The church, in which we participate, the church in which we invest our financial resources, as well as time, talent, and treasure, is a sinful church. The only holiness the church experiences is in its contact with Christ. We find holiness in our obedience to particular situations. We allow God to form Christ in the church and in the world. We find this sacredness of the church in its sacramental life most clearly, as it seeks to focus mind and heart upon what is holy.

            The church is the one body of people who have an historical connection to Jesus. Individuality and community are the nature of humanity. The social nature of the individual, the fact that our sense of self comes after our sense of others, the fact that the culture in which we live, has such a formative influence upon us, suggests that individuality and community will also be essential to developing our relationship with God. Christianity calls us out of our subjectivity and toward accountability to a community. What we often call spirituality we do not develop in isolation. Spirituality confronts the whole person, with the hard reality of everyday life with other people, learning to communicate values, meaning, and beliefs with others, and with a wide range of often baffling human behavior.

Jesus did not establish the church, either in the “rock” saying of Matthew or in the calling of the twelve, the latter we are to understand as a symbolic representation of the re-constituted people of God.  Alfred Loisy said, “Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God, and what came was the church.” He meant this in a positive sense. The church longs for an understanding of its origins and for the discovery of what Jesus intended. Did he intend the church we have today? Does the message of Jesus back up the presence of the church?  Collective enthusiasm at Pentecost is not the starting point of the church. Christian meetings with the risen Lord are not the starting point of the church. Rather, proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation into the presence of God is the starting point of the church. The community awaited the consummation of the reign of God as a gathering of friends. Since the religious leaders of the Jewish people rejected both Jesus and the proclamation of the disciples, a rupture in fellowship was inevitable.  Of course, the church and the reign of God are not identical; the church lives in expectation of the future of God; it is a sign of that future. The church is nothing apart from its being as an anticipatory sign. When we do not make this distinction clearly, the church arrogates to itself the finality and glory of the kingdom, even while the poverty of human life and character of its own life would make Christian hope incredible. The future of God is already present in the church and is accessible to people through the church in its life, proclamation, and liturgical life. The church in this way can break the impression that it is a prisoner to its own history and traditions. All too often, the church seems to defend itself against Jesus and his message. The preaching of Jesus oriented itself toward the reign of God as shown in the revelation of the love of God for sinners and thus a saving event. To enter the reign of God is to turn from the world and its values. The reign of God is already present in the offer of grace and forgiveness for sinners; it is not yet present in that the full saving of humanity and of individuals awaits the future action of God. Jesus may have felt that tension because he expected the reign of God over the earth to come soon. However, what is important for today is that the church invites people to enter the reign of God.   Only if the church lives the message of Jesus can it be acceptable for those who are open to the message of Jesus. Does the church receive its message from the message of Jesus and does it live that message convincingly?

The church does not wander around the world, seeking a philosophy of life. According to tradition, the apostles possessed an original and unique authority by virtue of Christ commissioning them missionary preaching and having witnessed the risen Lord. The sign of the apostolic nature of the church carries its own hermeneutic of suspicion, in that the apostolic life of the early church acts as a critique of the present life of the church. While the apostolic witness as such cannot be repeated, the apostolic mission remains, and in this sense there can be an “apostolic succession” (an idea first mentioned by Clement of Rome). The whole church, not just a few individuals, is the rightful successor of the apostles in obedience, and from this obedience derives its authority.

For some, the norms of the apostolic age are to be standards by which we judge future generations of the church.  The official representatives of the Jewish people rejected Jesus and his message.  They rejected the message of the disciples.  A division became inevitable.  The experience of seeing the risen Lord seems to be the basis of the apostolic office.  Their message focused upon Jesus as Lord.  The apostles made the pivotal decision to change their preaching.  They no longer made the content of the preaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom center stage.  Rather, they preached the arrival of the kingdom in Jesus.  In order to remain faithful to the message of Jesus, there was a shift from the kingdom to Christ as the center and content of the preaching of the church. 

For the church to remain faithful to the apostolic mission, the church must include in their entirety their own historical differences since the apostolic age and incorporate them into the message of Christ as a message to the people of their own time.  To be truly apostolic is to allow the final, all-encompassing, liberating and transforming truth of Jesus to permeate Christian community. To be apostolic is to set forth the finality and truth of that which occurred in the person of Jesus and that which the apostles proclaimed.  The mission the apostles set in motion is a dynamic that reaches far beyond the apostolic age and forms the on-going basis for the ministry of the church today.

Although the church must draw its wisdom from the norm of its apostolic heritage, it needs to remain open to the new and distinctive tasks of each generation. The church lives in the past.  It lives in the present.  It lives in the future.  The Spirit unites it all, and the Spirit brings people together and creates the community of faith.  This is why the individual does not experience faith apart from the community. We must discuss faith and community together. 

            This suggests that the particular situations to which apostolic authors addressed their gospels, letters, and histories require discernment as to what in the points beyond their age and remains normative for all ages and cultures. We must recognize the difference between the age of the apostles and our own day, without thereby losing our connection with the mission of the apostles. The task of discernment at this point requires a degree of comity, community, and consensus within denominations, and on some important matters, requires care for the unity of the churches. Denominational leaders need some humility in their attempts to forge into new territory on the one hand and to do so in such a way that does no harm to the unity we seek in Christ.

            New Testament authors accomplished a broad view of the church by a rich profusion of metaphors. Of the many New Testament images, four in particular have dominated subsequent Christian understandings of the church. They are: people, body, communion, Spirit. The bible contains many metaphors of the church: Bride, Flock, Household of faith, Building of God or a spiritual house, body of Christ (spatial image) and People of God (temporal image).

      The earliest and most inclusive image, “people of God,” marks Christianity’s consciousness of being a new Israel related to, yet distinct from, the qdhdl Yahweh. The image carries with it national, ethnic, and political connotations that are never entirely lost but are profoundly modified. Paul broadens it to universal dimensions without losing sight of the fact that it specifies a temporal, historical reality. The ecclesia is a people without national boundaries or a common language and ethnic identity—a peculiar sort of people indeed.

The hope of the future reign of God is political in that it looks forward to a human social life dominated by peace and justice. Yet, Jesus did not announce a political or economic program. His proclamation targeted individuals. The church also aims its message at individuals and their salvation through fellowship with Christ. It is the messianic community, the people of God and chosen by God and sent by God into the world.

            The second image helps to specify the peculiarity: The new people of God is the “body of Christ.” The church as the body of Christ is not just a metaphor.  The realism of the inseparable union of believers with Christ finds expression in this idea.  This idea is basic to an understanding of the church as a fellowship of believers and therefore also as the people of God.  However, since Christians have divided the body of Christ, they cannot experience the full presence of the one Lord. 

            This second image is predominantly Pauline, but it has echoes elsewhere in the New Testament and has been commonly employed throughout church history, often with quite different meanings. “Body” is basically an ethical and social metaphor for Paul, not an organic one. The literal reference to the physical body of the crucified Jesus is already transfigured by the Eucharistic words of institution into a symbol of self-sacrifice and self-divestment rather than of self-fulfillment, which is the customary association of the term. To this is added a second level of meaning when Paul describes the community of faith itself as the “body of Christ.” Paul does not mean in the literal sense of being an organic extension of the incarnation. Rather, Paul means in the sense of the self-giving love of Christ (his “body,” given for us) now defines and constitutes its unique communal structure. Paul lives on in it and is corporately embodied by it to the extent that it actualizes the sacrificial quality of his life.

            This interpretation is borne out by the third image: The body of Christ is in essence a new sort of “communion” or “fellowship” in which each individual finds identity and fulfillment through the other and in relation to Christ. In this fashion, the distinctive love symbolized by Christ’s own broken body is reenacted in the communal fabric of the church. Augustine in particular developed the theme of a fellowship of love, whereas among certain scholastic and Reformed theologians (notably Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and Martin Luther) it was common to speak of the church as a fellowship of faith. Yet it is not faith that constitutes fellowship but the reverse, in the sense that community is the matrix in which faith occurs. Individual acts of faith do not together engender a communion; rather, the condition for the emergence of faith is the new possibility of existence represented by that very communion.

            The representation of the unity of humanity in the reign of God is a broken one as we see it in the historical reality of the church.  This is why proper boundaries between church and world will always exist. However, through its participation in the divine plan of salvation that Jesus Christ reveals, it is a sign of the future of humanity.  In this sense, one divine plan of salvation finds expression in both Jesus Christ and the church as the body of Christ. We cannot separate them. Only in this sense is it dangerous to call the church the mystery of salvation in Christ, as does Vatican II. This view separates Christ from the church. It looks at the church in isolation from Christ as the sacrament of salvation. The biblical basis for this discussion is the following:


(Eph 3:4-9 NRSV)  a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. {5} In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: {6} that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. {7} Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given me by the working of his power. {8} Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, {9} and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things…


            However, note that the text refers to Christ as the mystery of salvation, not the church. Only in the unity of Christ with the church can we describe the church as sacramental in nature.

            The goal of the church is not itself, but the future of a humanity that is reconciled to God and united by common praise of God.  The church has a missionary purpose.  It cannot transform the world into the reign of God.  The kingdom comes from God. 

The fact that the church consists of a fellowship of believers suggests an inner life and structure. This fellowship is not secondary to the faith of individuals, since the church mediates that faith through its proclamation, teaching, liturgy, and common life.

The church is the fellowship of believers. The church is more than the collection of people who have a relation to Christ. The gospel and sacraments become the basis of the fellowship of the church. The Protestant view adds that the church is also the fellowship in which people teach the pure gospel and rightly administer the sacraments. Individual fellowship with Christ is the issue in the Word and sacrament; this individual fellowship gathers believers in the fellowship of the church. Yet, Christ also meets believers in the church. This formulation omits reference to proper church government or agreement in rites and customs. The gospel and sacrament become the only basis of the unity of the church and fellowship, and thus links the individual to the community of saints as in a communion with holy things. See Schleiermacher, Christian Faith par. 24, in which the church is a fellowship that arises and can persist only through human actions. The church finds primary realization in the liturgical celebration of the community assembled at each place.


(1 Cor 10:16-17 NRSV)  The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? {17} Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

(Eph 4:15-16 NRSV)  But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, {16} from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.


The global church is present wherever Christ is present.  The local church is the form in which the body of Christ finds actualization. Each local church is a manifestation of the one church of Christ.  The church as a communion is a network of local churches, the reality of the church finding its realization in local churches. The central administrative leadership that later developed do not form the foundation of the church; rather, that foundation is in the local gathering.

            The church is the fellowship of friends of God and friends of each other, and friends of the world.  This is what the world needs, an open friendship, grounded in the traditions of the past, alive to the present world, and willing to reinvent the church as it goes along.  This is an exciting journey.  Instead of survival, the focus of the church needs to be service, becoming a servant with people, not a servant of an institution.  God is in the world, and the church is most itself when it fully engages with the world.  The church recognizes, in this paradigm of ministry, that compassion and community best reach people.  In such an exciting journey, leadership becomes a matter of discovery and fulfillment.

            Such a fellowship of friends faces reality.  Friends quarrel and debate.  That is the nature of the case.  Yet, it is always possible to hold forth the ideal.  

The inner power required to live ethically in the world requires practices that take us beyond mere ethical conduct.  These practices place one into direct and personal contact with God.  We tend to focus on what humanity can do.  We acknowledge that in the mysteries of the highest wisdom God alone can transform us into people well pleasing to God. Yet even should the church proclaim such a mystery as revealed, the notion that belief in such a revelation would be a dangerous religious illusion. Too often, the church compels certain behavior through fear.  Such acts of piety, considered superfluous by many, are in reality the core of Christian faith and life.  We must prevent all religious illusion.  Acts of piety have as their goal transformed life, leading toward ethical conduct.

            How does the union of individual believers to a fellowship of believers come into being? Surely, it is more than the act of personal trust in Christ. Surely, it is more than the innate human inclination toward fellowship and the related need for sharing.

The call, empowerment, and obligation of individual Christians to give personal witness to their faith are always present. Yet, we cannot detach this awareness from the community of believers. Individual Christians bear witness in cooperation with the fellowship of believers. When we bear witness to that faith, others have the freedom of individual judgment regarding the content of the tradition and the truth claim that it makes. The communal confession of faith, then, assumes independence on the part of the individual as a recipient of what the church teaches. Nevertheless, an individual Christianity aloof from the church is a typical phenomenon of the modern social world, occasioned by the scandal of the division of Christianity into denominations that denounce each other. Another modern trend is that religious confession is a private matter, so that individuality is the true center of religion and religious fellowship in the church appears secondary. At this point, the distance of the modern social world and its experience of Christianity separate itself from that of early and medieval Christianity. Christians who thus alienate themselves from the community of faith make little contribution to it. Such an individual Christianity that remains aloof from the church is part of the historical reality of Christianity in the modern social world. It expresses a quiet criticism of a church life that leaves no room for what those outside can contribute and does not meet their spiritual needs. This criticism is sometimes just. The church cannot always clothe itself under the protection of the gospel at this point. The existence of Christianity outside the church ought to challenge the church to greater openness and reflection on the center of its life.

The question of the kind of unity Christians and churches can expect is a matter that requires great attention. The common confession of faith is a public way in which believers share their individual faith together. It involves agreement with others. The common confessed faith has assurance and adequate consensus only in a common confession, by which we mean substantially the same thing by uttering these particular words. As a part of the liturgical life of the church, the common confession of faith has kinship with baptism and the Eucharist.


(1 Cor 16:22 NRSV)  Our Lord, come!

(1 Cor 15:33 NRSV)  Do not be deceived: "Bad company ruins good morals."

(Phil 2:11 NRSV)  and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Heb 4:14 NRSV)  Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.

(Heb 3:1 NRSV)  Therefore, brothers and sisters, holy partners in a heavenly calling, consider that Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession,

(Rom 10:9 NRSV)  because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.


The importance of such common confession has led to serious discourse about beliefs to the extent of excommunication or exclusion from the Lord’s Table. Such confession was not as important in Israel, where membership in the covenant was biological. They developed some confessions of faith, but the common confession is not the basis of membership in the covenant community. In Christian community, the common confession of faith has the character of a binding public declaration that contractually establishes a legal relation. The confession of faith in the context of the liturgical life of the church has served the purpose of mediating the fellowship of believers, which brings it into close relationship to baptism and the Eucharist.  In the history of the church, differences in confession or lifestyles that are out of accord with the confession have served as a basis for excommunication or exclusion from table fellowship.  The saying of the Q community in Luke 12:8-9 suggests publicly taking sides in a conflict.  That conflict relates to the message and person of Jesus.


And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God; but whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.


When we take sides with Jesus, we establish a lasting fellowship with him and with others who take their stand with him. 

            The confession of faith increasingly took on the character of faithfulness to teachings about Jesus.  Such teachings make clear what we mean by the name of Jesus.  After Easter, the church needed to know that those who spoke the name of Jesus and confessed him really meant the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth.  The connection to baptism meant that the personal confession of the person of Jesus was no longer primary.  Rather, the teaching of the confession of the Christ and the acceptance of its Trinitarian faith became central to the nature of that confession.  The faith of the church defines the confession that individuals make.  The condition of that faith demands agreement with its origin in the apostolic message about Christ.  For this reason, the church and its teaching and confession always stand in need of reform and reformation.  The church cannot look back to some classical initial stage of the church.  It looks ahead to the future of the rule of God as it reflects on its origin in the person and history of Jesus Christ.  The form of its teaching can and must change in the open process of historical experience.  For this reason, the church ought to have patience with the forms of the consciousness of faith among individual believers concerning the making of their personal confession of the common Lord.  The dignity of the confession of faith is that it represents the whole church.  The Creed of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381) have broad ecumenical significance. Yet, we recognize the historical relativity of their formulations. They reflect the Arian controversy. They do not refer to the earthly ministry of Jesus. They do not refer to the Eucharist or to justification. The references to the Holy Spirit and the birth of Jesus refer to the origin of the ministry of Jesus in the Spirit of God. Neither does confession summarizes the content of Christian teaching. We also value the historically significant creeds of Chalcedon (451) and Anathasius (475). Sadly, Christianity no longer has a conciliar way to do continue the formulation and reformulation of its creedal statements in light of new reflections.

The question now arises as to how the mediation of the church by its fellowship, proclamation, sacramental life, and confession of faith has its connection to the immediate faith in Christ that the individual possesses. That mediation occurs as the church passes on its faith to others. Based on the statement in Acts 2:42, we see devotion to the teaching of the apostles as part of the church from the beginning. It focuses our attention upon continuity and identity, regardless of geography or chronology. The Episcopate has the primary charge of guarding the apostolic nature of the church. This observation at least opens up for discussion the place of the pope as a place within the episcopate, belonging to the fullness of the church.

In Paul, the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ.  In Luke, however, the power of the Holy Spirit establishes the church; he views the origin of the church in the enthusiasm of a small band of followers.  Other accounts view the origin of the church in the vision of the risen Jesus.  In either case, the church began proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus.  Any view of the church must integrate these conceptions.  John’s statements are helpful in that they share with Luke an interest in the Spirit as an independent entity closely connected to the work of Jesus.


(John 16:13-15 NRSV)  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. {14} He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. {15} All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

(Rom 8:14-16 NRSV)  For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. {15} For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" {16} it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,

(Rom 8:9-10 NRSV)  But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. {10} But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.


Only by the work of the Spirit is Jesus the foundation of the church, for the Spirit glorifies the Son. Western theology often did not perceive this connection.  It isolated the illumination of the Spirit by faith from the work of the Spirit in creation and even in one's own life.  Instead, we need to view the church as the creation of the Spirit and the Son.  This occurs through the word of the gospel.  If the gospel had remained only an external word, the church would never have arisen.  The church has its grounding in the Son and in the Spirit. The Reformation focus upon the Word has the danger of a one-sided Christological constriction that stresses proclamation. The fellowship of the church mediates the gift of the Spirit, even while the fellowship of the church, far from controlling the Spirit, has its foundation from outside itself in the gift of the Spirit. The church has the responsibility of reminding itself of this foundation that comes from outside of it. The church becomes an anticipation of the future fellowship of humanity renewed in the reign of God.  The Spirit enables us to perceive the grounding of the church, not only in Jesus, but also in the end time consummation of creation. Our understanding of the church has to take this provisional nature of a sign, the horizon of the future of the reign of God.

If we ask what constitutes true community, we are brought to this last and most elusive of the images, the creative work of the Spirit. As commonly used in the New Testament, “Spirit” refers to that modality of divine activity whereby God indwells and empowers not merely human subjectivity but also human inter-subjectivity. True community embodies the distinctive love of Christ, and in that sense, it belongs to the Son. It also derives from the creative work of the Spirit, and in that sense, it is the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” Paul and early Christianity wove themes of community and Spirit tightly together. Augustine and Aquinas even described the Holy Spirit as the soul that animates the body of the church.

            Consequently, the church also lives in the power of the life-giving Spirit. When we speak of “spirit,” we naturally think of the tension between structure and ecstasy. Ecstasy on its own is a retreat from one's center and from genuine community. However, the movement of the divine Spirit requires embodiment in structure.

Christian freedom is the work of the Holy Spirit in believers. Liberation by the Spirit is the basis of a freedom that no longer consists of being able to do whatever we want. Such freedom focused upon impulses and impressions is a pitiful freedom, hardly deserving of the name. Christian freedom combines with reflection upon what is good, both for self and for others. Authentic freedom is reconciliation with God and thus overcoming the alienation that we experience from our true self and from others. We can then experience freedom from the anxiety of finite human life, fear of others, and from the powers of this world. The Holy Spirit grants this freedom.


(Rom 8:11-21 NRSV)  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. {12} So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh-- {13} for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. {14} For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. {15} For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, "Abba! Father!" {16} it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, {17} and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. {18} I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. {19} For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; {20} for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope {21} that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

(2 Cor 3:17 NRSV)  Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.


The same Spirit that is the basis of the individual immediacy to God is also the basis of the communion of saints, the fellowship of believers, and the body of Christ. The work of the Spirit releases and reconciles the tension between the fellowship and the individual in the concept of the church and with it the underlying tension of the modern social world between individuality and the social world. The work of the Spirit is a sign of the overcoming of this tension where individuality and community find their fulfillment in the reign of God. As the Spirit produces its form through faith, hope, and love in individual Christians, we can see in a clearer way the place of individuals in the life of the church. The Spirit not only helps individuals participate directly in Christ, but also experience genuine fellowship in the body of Christ that unites individual Christians with all other Christians. The church becomes a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. In this way, the Holy Spirit leads the church to its center in worship and then radiates out from there into everyday life. The Spirit of God is at work in all of human life and in social structures. We find that Spirit at work as individual members united themselves with others by their dedication to a common cause. That work is in a broken form, given the human condition. The common cause may be unholy. Even where the cause finds holy expression in family, civic relations, economic and political life, we find the work of the Spirit in broken form. The work of the Spirit in the fellowship of the church has a cause that it receives from beyond itself, in the reign of God, of which the sign of fellowship, word, and sacrament is a provisional sign. This sign finds expression in the lives of Christians in their sanctification through faith, hope, and love, and in the liturgical life of the church.

The presence of the Spirit in the life of the church and believers relates to the phenomenon of life in all its breadth in the world, from creation, to sustaining life, and to the consummation and fulfillment of life in the end. The Orthodox Church has done a better job at relating salvation to creation, while not emphasizing eschatology, even though its liturgy for Epiphany does this in a beautiful way. That which presupposes something else, and then adds to it, suggests gradation of value in creation that points toward the superiority of conscious life. The word “spirited” comes closest to expressing the meaning of Spirit here. Spirit is the principle of life and vitality in the universe. We see evidence of this spirit in psychological and sociological factors. We cannot explain humanity solely by reference to the environment. We come face to face with ourselves, thereby liberating ourselves from captivity to biological drives or from the shaping by the environment. As a result, we ask questions and receive answers and commands. We do not receive clarity in either answers or commands, whether in general form or specific application.

The Spirit of God is active in creation, breathing life into the world that God has made. This presence in creation helps us to understand the role of the Spirit in bringing life to human beings. The Spirit of life gained victory over death in Jesus. The Spirit teaches us to know Jesus of Nazareth and moves our hearts to praise God through faith, love, and hope. Yet, the work of the Spirit does limit itself to making intelligible what would otherwise be unintelligible. The same Spirit who gives life to all creation also gives new life to believers now by dwelling in them.


(Rom 5:9 NRSV)  Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.

(1 Cor 3:16 NRSV)  Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?


The Spirit fulfills the work of Jesus in the world. The Spirit gives the hope of new life for humanity, so that death does not have the final word. Among the positive insights of 20th century, biblical exegesis has been this connection between the giving of the Spirit and eschatology. The Spirit is the awakening power by which the risen Lord created the church as a provisional representation of the whole world of humanity that God justifies in Christ. However, we must also make the future saving work of the Spirit related to the creative work of God.

            The New Testament closely relates the work of the Spirit with that of the Son, in creation, in the creation of the church, and in consummating human history and creation. The risen Lord imparts the Spirit to believers. The material difference in laying on of hands or the sending by the Father is not significant:


(Luke 24:49 NRSV)  And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

(John 20:22 NRSV)  When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit.

(Acts 2:33 NRSV)  Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.

(Acts 8:15-17 NRSV)  The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit {16} (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). {17} Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

(John 14:26 NRSV)  But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

(John 15:26 NRSV)  "When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf.

(John 16:14 NRSV)  He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.


The Spirit continues the work of Jesus by recalling what Jesus said by bearing to witness to Jesus, whom the Spirit glorifies. In this way, the sending of the Spirit by the Son relates to the special nature of his work in connection with the revelation of salvation. We cannot limit the work of the Spirit to continuing the ministry of Jesus, however. Rather, both the Son and the Spirit have their life grounded in the Father. Paul stresses the relation between the Spirit and the resurrection life of Jesus. John depicts the hypostatic power that is distinct from Jesus but that glorifies Jesus after his parting from the disciples. Both supplement the eschatological function of the Spirit. Christ gives the Spirit as a gift to the church as an anticipation of the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit because that end has appeared in the ministry of Jesus.

            Individual entities in the world have life in themselves, even though their source is in the Spirit. The Hebrew Scriptures speak of the Spirit as capacities for insight, artistic gifts, prophetic inspiration, and leadership charisma; yet, the gift of the Spirit ends at death. The New Testament, through its emphasis upon the role of the Spirit in the resurrection of Jesus, brings the work of the Spirit into a vision of the end of the human history. The Spirit is the gift in which the fellowship of the Father and Son find fulfillment in mutual love, finding fulfillment in Trinitarian life. The Spirit becomes a lasting possession of believers. Yet, this imparting of the Spirit as gift is a transitional stage in the work of salvation. The form of the gift does not mean that the Spirit comes under our control, but that the Spirit comes to us and makes possible our independent and spontaneous entry into the action of God in reconciling the world. We participate in the movement of the reconciling love of God toward the world.

            The gift of the Spirit aims at the building up of the fellowship of believers. By faith in the one Lord, we have unity with all other believers. The Spirit respects our individuality while at the same time bringing us into fellowship of the community of the church. The work of the Spirit toward salvation unites individuality and community. The historical separation of the risen Lord and the gift of the Spirit that Luke suggests is an important theological statement about the relation of the church to the Spirit. The church has a firm connection to the end time gift of the Spirit, and is thus a provisional community, a sign of the future action of God. At Pentecost, Luke portrays the gift of the Spirit with five elements. He portrays the foundation of the church as a unity of ecstasy and structure. The ecstatic experience of the disciples created a faith in the disciples that the crucifixion almost destroyed. Pentecost also initiated an experience of love that expresses itself in mutual service. Pentecost provided a unity while maintaining the individuality of those who experienced the gift of the Spirit. Pentecost provided the missionary impulse, a universality that drove the church beyond itself to new cultures and peoples.


Christian worshipping community

            At first sight, worship appears to be what people do, suggesting suspicion on the part of those who do not genuinely participate in it. Worship can become a substitute for action and an escape by which we conceal from ourselves the real demands of Christian discipleship. Yet, far from withdrawing from life, worship is a way of concentrating our inner energies on life. Many participants have a magical and mythical view of worship. Yet, true worship occurs when God comes to people. It can lead to prizing worship for itself, as if an aesthetic enjoyment. Worship degenerates when it is nothing more than a projection of human achievements and self-centered aspirations. The initiative in worship is not people, but God. In that context, worship is offering the best that believers have into the praise of God. If we can identify false worship, we tacitly recognize the reality of true worship. Worship conforms us to Christ. Worship focuses for us the movement of creation, reconciliation, and fulfillment of the saving purpose of God.

Worship is our response to the overture of love from the heart of God. We worship because of who God is and what God has done. For that reason, worship has priority in our lives. We gather with the confidence that Christ is present and that Christ will heal, touch, teach, and disrupt. Worship needs to still all humanly initiated activity.  This allows the Spirit to move and guide public worship.  Praise brings us into worship.  In praise, we see how totally the emotions need to be brought into the act of worship.  Singing is meant to move us into praise. If worship does not change us, it has not been worship.  If worship does not propel us into greater obedience, it has not been worship.

            Celebration brings joy into life.  Joy makes us strong.  We cannot continue long in anything without it.  Celebration saves us from taking ourselves too seriously. We will never have a carefree indifference to things until we totally trust God.  When we trust God, we are free to rely entirely upon God to get what we need. To cultivate the art of celebration, we can use the gifts of fantasy and imagination.  We can turn family events into times of celebration and thanksgiving.  We can take advantage of the festivals of our culture and really celebrate.  We can develop our own festivals.

            Worship requires some outward ordering of time to be accountable to its inner reality of worship toward God. Recurrent signposts of the liturgy keep us connected with the community of faith through time, such as singing, scripture, psalms, and sacraments. Each new service of worship is a living event, new act of praise, confession, and prayer. Worship as a community brings us beyond ourselves, while still respecting the uniqueness and independence that we bring. Worship respects both the importance of silence and the importance of words. We cannot express much that happens in worship apart from music as the pastor integrates it with the totality of worship. Worship involves pastoral prayers on behalf of the people.

            Clergy and laity alike too often approach church as a theater, where those who attend are the critical audience and where the minister is the actor whose art they are expected to enjoy and to criticize. When we have a genuine relationship with God, the stage is there still, but now those who attend are on the stage. They are the actors. The audience is there as well; only this time God is the audience. The preacher is there also, but inconspicuous. God is the prompter. The preacher is behind the wings whispering the text that the actors speak aloud before God. The responsibility has shifted here. The relationship between preacher and congregation has shifted. They collaborate now. The preacher is the helper. The preacher furnishes a text by which they may examine themselves before God. Here is a new attitude toward worship. As Kierkegaard noted in Purity of Heart, worship is a time when clergy and laity alike come before God and review our lives under the loving gaze of God.


Christian Sacramental Community

            I prefer to think of grace as operative in all relationships. Yet, sacraments allow the Christian community to focus upon certain dimensions of our relationship with God, the Christian community, and the world. Out of such relationships, grace arises to move us closer toward being the person God intends us to be. We might think of certain signs that point forward to the human community God intends. In the church, those signs are the sincere preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. We connect ourselves to the destiny God has for the church and for humanity.

The sacraments have things, words, and the proper person to dispense the sacrament. The sacraments consist of word, sign, and thing signified.  Since the word “sacrament” has many meanings, we dare not seek in a work of theology to restrict its use too narrowly. Generally, we can limit the word to a thing or action to a reference to Christ as the mystery of salvation. Any understanding of the sacraments of the church must maintain the centrality of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The question of other sacramental acts is whether it has its origin Christ, and whether it has the function of a sign that expresses the mystery of Christ that unites Christ and the church. This criterion also applies more broadly to the worship life of the congregation. The sacraments encourage the practice of virtue. Typically, Sacraments have clergy preside over them in order to assure accountability to the apostolic witness and to tradition. Baptism, confirmation, and ordination have a character that one ought not to repeat. The grace represented in them, their unity in Christ, suggests that respective denominations need to respect each other enough to accept their validity. The relationships suggested in these three sacraments do not need repetition, even if we may continually need reaffirmation and renewal of what they symbolize. Baptism, with its completion in confirmation, and the Eucharist, are the primary sacraments of the church.

Baptism and the Lord's Supper deal with the fellowship of individuals with Jesus Christ.  They are part of the appropriation of salvation in individual Christian lives.  There is strong evidence that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were early recognized as sacraments in the life of the early church.  Jesus was baptized.  At Pentecost, as the first persons were received into the Jerusalem church, there was baptism as a sign of initiation into the church.  References to baptism are sprinkled throughout the New Testament, and even throughout the first three centuries.  Baptism was a sign of entrance into the kingdom of God and membership in the church of God.  The Lord’s Supper, likewise, was central to the worship experience of the early Christians.  Thus, all four Gospels record its existence, though John does so in a very different manner that I will share later.  It would appear, however, that these two sacred moments were almost universally practiced in the Christian churches down through the centuries.  I would like to consider the possibility that we regard a sacramental connection with Jesus on broader terms, such as table fellowship with Jesus and the baptism of Jesus himself.  For example, the works of mercy mentioned in Matthew 25:35-37, the proclamation of Jesus, the offer of forgiveness, commissioning of the disciples, and the healing ministry of Jesus, could become the basis of a sacramental view of works of mercy, preaching, penance, ministry orders, and healing today. The sacraments can have their only basis in Christ, not in the church.  If a sacrament communicates grace, the church must connect every sacrament to Christ, who is the bearer of grace. The sacrament is a sign commemorating the past event of the passion of Christ.  The sacrament is a sign of the working of grace in us.  The sacrament is a prophetic sign of future glory.  Since the Middle Ages, the church has tended to view the sacrament in the context of its liturgical life. First, the sacrament is a sign commemorating the past event of Christ’s passion. Second, it is a sign of the working of grace in us. Third, it is a prognostic sign of future glory. To this description of the complexity of the sacramental event and the multiplicity of its aspects, we must add the unity of the sacrament as recollecting participation in the one saving mystery of Christ.

The function of rituals is to structure experience. Specifically in the Christian religion, the rituals of baptism and Eucharist serve to demarcate the profane world from the people of God and to claim the latter as a sign of the ultimate triumph of the holy God over the worst that chaos, sin, and evil can achieve. The rites of baptism and the Eucharist will serve as a permanent reminder to the church of its sacrificial character, since both symbolize the unity of the believer with Christ, and especially in his death and resurrection. Both rituals offer a sign that points toward a symbol of the center of the church, namely, fellowship and union with Christ. For that reason, neither ritual has a magical or superstitious quality.

            There are non-sacramental traditions that reject the concept of sacraments.  Our Quaker brothers and sisters believe that all of life is a means of grace, and indeed that all of life is a sacrament.  They reject any external forms or acts as unnecessary to the means of grace.  Rather, the sacraments are to be received only inwardly and spiritually, the only baptism they recognize is an inward baptism of the Spirit, and the only communion they recognize is the inward communion with Christ. 

The physical objects used in the sacraments are one of the ways God uses to communicate a spiritual presence. However, this is not a magical communication, where the object communicates this spiritual presence regardless of the faith of the one who receives the gift. The fear of this magical approach has led to an intellectual or moral interpretation of the sacraments, or, as with the Quakers, to interpret the sacraments in terms of a mystical inwardness. In fact, one could say that we maintain spirituality better by not having physical objects, as in the traditional use of the sacraments. Yet, the physical symbol participates in the power to which it refers. The question arises as to whether the physical objects are necessary at all. We could, and do, experience the work of the Spirit outside of these external signs and symbols. Yet, God always has a medium to communicate the Spirit. The connection of the work of the Spirit to external means arose out of the concern that movements would lose their connection to Christ if they were simply movements of the Spirit.

Critics throughout the history of the church have been conscious of the need to differentiate the sacraments from magical performances. Sixteenth-century humanists—such as Erasmus, John Colet, and Thomas More—were openly contemptuous of contemporary superstition and credulity, and believed that a reforming pope could purge the church of it. That Protestantism was not itself free of superstition is proved by the persecution of “witches” throughout the seventh century. However, as a whole the Reformation was characterized by critical alertness to the power of the clergy to exploit credulity, and rejection of Roman Catholic sacramental religion as “superstitious” was universal.

The brief but remarkable treatment of the sacraments at the close of Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793) has importance beyond its brevity. Here he is concerned with the illusions that religion promotes and that as a philosopher he feels entitled to dispel. The principal illusion is that trust in the causal efficacy of what are called (misleadingly) the means of grace dispenses one from the effort of doing all that one can do to live a good life. According to Kant’s philosophical doctrines we cannot know anything at all about alleged supernatural aids. What we do know are the moral laws under which we must live a good life, and these provide us with the criteria for interpreting the major religious duties of private prayer, churchgoing, and the practice of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. Pouring scorn on the “heathenish superstition” of supposing that baptism washes away sin, Kant interprets initiation as a solemn beginning of a life of continuous moral education. Communal participation in the Eucharist, he holds, promotes the idea of “a cosmopolitan moral community.”

Here the impact of the substitution of a moral for a supernatural frame of reference is obvious. Kant is sarcastic of the way in which believers come to see themselves as divine favorites, but who fail by comparison with the naturally honest person. As the social performance of the church came increasingly under unfavorable scrutiny in the nineteenth century, the suspicion grew that its fundamental devotional life fostered dangerous illusions.

            Sacramental theology has continuous dialectic between the external rite and interior intention. The tendency of the classical tradition had been first to maximize, and then to defend, the guaranteed effectiveness of a validly performed sacramental ritual. However, at every stage of the process a counter-thesis can be observed which reemphasized the necessary dimension of interiority, the personal participation of the recipient in the meaning of the rite. In Augustine’s heritage to Western theology, two elements played a vital role in preserving the dialectic. These have been, first, awareness of the sign character of all sacraments and, second, emphasis on the corporate nature of the church in its sacramental life. These two have constituted a permanent endowment merely awaiting favorable conditions for their rediscovery.

The origin of a general theory of the nature of sacraments in classical theology lies in the work of Augustine of Hippo. His theory of signs, developed in a work formative for the whole of medieval educational theory. On Christian Doctrine (396–427), embraces the sacraments as a means by which interior meanings are expressed by one agent to another. According to Augustine, a person who properly understands what is referred to by a sacrament is in a position to use and venerate it rightly. Christians have only a few, simple and sublime sacraments (here Augustine instances baptism and the Eucharist), which are contained in the teaching of Christ and the apostles.

There is, then, a distinction between the sacramental sign, the bread or wine, and the thing that is the sacrament, the act of being united with Christ in the fellowship of the church. A recipient may have one, but not the other, if that person fails to understand the spiritual sense or meaning of the sacrament or approaches it unworthily. This theory is coherent with Augustine’s seminal understanding of sacrifice, according to which ritual acts of sacrifice signify the offering that God truly desires, namely, love of God and of the neighbor. When the Eucharist is offered by the church, it signifies the true sacrifice of Christians through the great High Priest. Augustine has no hesitation in following the traditional designation of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, because the whole theory of sacrifice is already embraced by a theory of signs. The “language” of signs is only dangerous to the spiritually obtuse. Accordingly, there is no contradiction between this theory and the treatment of the sacramental elements with the utmost veneration.

We need to have a dynamic view of movement and relationship. The sacraments are pieces of earthly stuff that are meeting places with this God who exists in ecstatic movements of the Spirit of love from Father to Son. The material signs convey the grace in the sacrament. These signs are symbols in the sense of enabling us to participate in the reality to which they point. The grace is in this act of participation.

Modern people tend to have discomfort with the particularity of divine action. However, we can take seriously particularity if we understand the presence of God as participation. God summons us to participate in God, who with great humility participates in our lives. Thus, the whole world is the body of God in the sense that the Eucharistic bread and the church meeting are the body of Christ. They are a place of meeting, and a point of being drawn into the life of God. Sacraments draw us deeper into the heart of the interweaving flow of relationships in God. The key is participation, so that God is always open to make room for the world, while remaining an event of relationship within the self of God. The Trinity is not only in the world, but the world will increasingly become what it is in the Trinity.

Inasmuch as the Christian community is a sign of the destiny of the whole human race and not an isolated entity pursuing its own ultimate salvation, the realization, or attempted realization, of holy equality inside the community constitutes a permanent judgment on the forms of segregation and inequality—racial, class, and sexual —practiced in society as a whole. Not that such equality has been invariably practiced. The history of the church shows the compromises that have found a ready home inside the church’s own structures, let alone in the church’s witness in society. Sociologically it seems that the cost of undermining the norms of a society is their partial adoption. The cost of the promotion of sacred equality in a rigidly structured society is the adoption of a hierarchy; the cost of the pursuit of universal brother- and sisterhood is the creation of a separated church conscious of its boundaries. A fenced Eucharist declaring the love of God for all humanity is the paradoxical consequence of the church’s witness in the world.

Although baptism is an individual event that takes place in a unique space and time, it has lasting effects. One does not become unbaptized. We may not yet appropriate it and may forget it. What is done cannot be undone.

Baptism symbolizes spiritual rebirth. Baptism is the gate to the spiritual life, through which one passes to become part of the body of Christ. In baptism, people recognize themselves as children of God. Water is the physical symbol, and the words invoke the blessing of the Trinity. I do not find it helpful to refer to the remission of original and actual guilt at this point. Rather, baptism of an infant acknowledges the grace of God with the child, that God does not leave this child alone, but rather will continue to call the child into a relationship with God.

I would like to base what I am about to say concerning baptism and the Lord’s Supper on an ecumenical text entitled Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, developed by the Consultation on Church Union.

            Concerning baptism, the Matthew tradition says in Matthew 28:18-20:


And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”


Churches that continue this practice understand it to be a rite of commitment to the Lord who gives grace to God’s people.

            Baptism is, first, participation in the death and resurrection of Christ.  Paul speaks of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection through baptism.


(Rom 6:3-11 NRSV)  Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? {4} Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. {5} For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. {6} We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. {7} For whoever has died is freed from sin. {8} But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. {9} We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. {10} The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. {11} So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.


In this experience, the power of sin is broken and we become new and liberated people. We are baptized into Christ, or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we thus have a relation to the Triune God. We no longer belong to ourselves, but to God. Baptism is an act of transfer. Baptism becomes a seal in this way.


(2 Cor 1:22 NRSV)  by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.


We share in the fruit of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the Apostolic Constitution we read: “baptism is given with a view to the death of Christ, the water instead of the tomb … descent into it dying with Christ, and ascent out of it rising again with him.” This is why baptism has a close link to the call of discipleship.


(Mat 28:19 NRSV)  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …


Disciples who follow Jesus on his way let their own lives grow into a unity with the way of Jesus. Even though they do not have to suffer crucifixion, their dying is still linked to that of Jesus, so that the vicarious significance of his life and death counts for them in their own living and dying. It demands of disciples their adherence to Jesus. Their lives are no longer their own. They belong to Jesus and through him to the Father. Just as Jesus did not remain dead, so the disciples receive new life. As a sign, baptism points the disciple in the direction that Jesus has established. Faith rests in something outside of the believer. The Christian life is a process of dying with Christ, and at the same time, by the Spirit the new humanity, the resurrection life, is already at work in Christians. Much of the traditional teaching on baptism focuses too much on baptism as the beginning of Christian life rather than influencing the whole of Christian life. Detaching confirmation from baptism was a step in this unfortunate direction.

            Second, baptism means conversion, pardon, and cleansing.  There is forgiveness of sins and a new ethical orientation through the worked of the Holy Spirit.  The New Testament often links conversion to God and baptism in the name of Jesus.  What is the basis for this?  The proclaiming of the presence of the rule of God and its salvation in those who in faith rely on its all-determinative future is a motive for conversion to God.  The New Testament does not speak of baptized Christians as experiencing conversion.  Rather, conversion is what people experience, and then they experience baptism.  The one act of baptism makes the ship of the new Christian life ready once and for all.  If Christians can also fall from grace, they can always regain it.  Baptism is there all our lives.  Christian life works out in practice what baptism signifies.  Although penitential practice began in the second century, only in the sixth century did the church formally recognize the need for repentance after baptism in confession of sin. This took place in the public confession of sin, as well as private penance and absolution. This public confession should address baptized Christians, not as people separated from God through their sin. One of the positive results of Luther’s theology was to reunite the inward sense of penitence with baptism and to describe it as the task of daily appropriating the conversion and regeneration accomplished at baptism. The tension between indicative and imperative in Paul presupposes this understanding of baptism.  The indicative of baptism will not automatically find fulfillment in the lives of the baptized.  Rather, it stands over against them as something that they still need to work out in their lives.  Our new birth in the act of baptism is definitely achieved on the level of the sacramental sign, but in the earthly life of the baptized, it needs the appropriation by faith. In the case of baptism, it does not take place in a single moment but has to be done throughout our lives. Penitence and conversion take place over the lives of the baptized. Such daily penitence characterizes the normal course of Christian life. As long as sin is kept hidden in private life, it is controlled, in spite of the related hypocrisy. When it regains dominion over our lives it tends to burst across the boundaries of private life despite all the rules of prudence that may suggest themselves.

If we are baptized into our own faith, everything is insecure. 

            Third, baptism means the person receives the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Just as the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, the Holy Spirit raises to new life the person baptized. Of course, this Spirit had already been active in the life of the person who is baptized.  Yet, in baptism there is a special recognition that God pours out the Holy Spirit on the baptized person as the first installment of the life to come, nurturing the life of faith in the heart.

            Fourth, baptism means a person is incorporated into the Body of Christ.  Ephesians 4:4-6 speaks forcefully of this: “There is . . . one baptism, one God and Father of us all . . ." Here is the sign of our unity as Christians, and not just membership in a particular church.  Though baptism is an individual experience, it also identifies the individual with the Christian community.  There is a strong need to recover this baptismal unity in the churches today.  When there is a transfer from one denomination to another, there is a strong need to respect the sacramental integrity of the other church and accept the baptism as valid.

            Fifth, baptism means the kingdom of God has broken into this world.  Baptism is a sign that the person baptized has become part of a new reality that looks forward to the victory that Christ will have in this world.

            With all of this unity among the churches as to what baptism means, there is strong disagreement at two places. 

      One disagreement is over who is eligible for baptism. Infant baptism, a practice at least as old as the third century, but by no means universal even in the fourth century, was in part motivated by the desire to ensure, in an age of high infant mortality, that the benefit of immortality might be theirs too.

            All churches agree that adults are proper subjects of baptism.  The disagreement comes over whether children and infants are proper subjects of baptism.  In the missionary practice and theology of the early church the relation between baptism and faith involved faith first, and then baptism.  The rise of infant baptism changed this practice.  The reference to the baptism of households does not solve this matter, although it formed the basis of the practice. In the third century, Cyprian and Origen said it was already an ancient practice.  In the church of the West, after Augustine the doctrine of original sin became the most important reason for infant baptism.  In 418, the Council of Carthage decided that infants need baptism for the remission of sins.  Without baptism, they were excluded from the kingdom of heaven.  By the time of Augustine, the practice was sufficiently established for him to use it as an argument for the presence in infants of original sin. Augustine held that infants who died unbaptized were not saved, indeed they were punished, albeit lightly, for their sin. The view that baptism was literally necessary for salvation was the view held by the classical tradition, subject only to a few exceptions, such as those who died on their way to baptism. The enormity of the number of the damned led in later centuries to the theory of a “baptism of desire,” among those persons of good will whose ignorance of the appointed way of salvation could not be held to be their fault. The Reformed churches retained infant baptism because they regarded baptism as accepting the covenant of the grace of God.  Such a covenant is not just for adults, but for their children as well. Karl Barth said that faith and free confession of the baptized is a prerequisite for baptizing them. He also rejects the view that baptism is a sacrament, but rather a human action that responds to the divine act and word.  Baptism does something even for the converted that they could not do for themselves. They must receive that gift. Thus, baptism of infants is more complex than do those who practice adults only baptisms admit.

      Classical theology closely followed Paul and other New Testament writers in seeing the inner transformation of the believer in baptism as a miraculous act of God, the Holy Spirit. It commonly summarized its benefits as remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament firmly links these to the last days, but with the waning of eschatological consciousness, the church increasingly placed emphasis on the literal possession in the present of supernatural qualities or gifts, especially the guarantee of passage through death to immortality.

The question arose, what then of baptism by heretics? In the middle of the third century, the Latin theologian Cyprian of Carthage argued with some consistency, on the premise of the unity of the church, that since the Holy Spirit indwells the church, there can be no bestowal of the Spirit by those separated from it. Those, moreover, in schism from the church are no better than heretics, since schismatics plainly do not believe in the church’s indivisibility. Because they have become spiritually dead, they are in no position to bestow the Holy Spirit.

A century and a half later, Augustine was compelled to reexamine the basis of this theory and dissented from Cyprian. The church, he argued, is a mixed body. Priests do not convey the Spirit, but the great high priest Christ acting through the priest. The priest may be a person of little spiritual capacity, or he may be in schism, or even a heretic. Nonetheless, if he administers Christian baptism, that person is validly baptized. However and here is the rub, the effects of baptism will depend upon the state of the recipient. If the recipient persists in schism or heresy, that person receives no benefits; indeed he or she may be the more certainly damned.

The distinction between the validity and the efficacy of the sacrament is of great importance to the classical tradition, which followed Augustine in this matter. It enabled the church to assert the guaranteed and miraculous objectivity of the sacrament when administered in the authorized manner. For this the technical term, first appearing in the thirteenth century, was ex opere operate (by the deed done). However, at the same time a reservation or caveat could be entered relating to the internal state of the recipient, who would receive no beneficial effect if he or she stubbornly persisted in offering an obstacle to the proffered salvation. In this case, the effect of the sacrament would not be beneficial but disastrous.

            Baptism cannot bring salvation without faith.  It always relates in some way to the faith of the baptized.  However, my faith does not make baptism.  It receives it.  Baptism does not become effective to the salvation of the recipients by the ritual act alone.  Rather, faith is the only way to appropriate this gift.  After all, baptism presupposes the absence of opposition and a readiness in principle to receive the gift.  In what it signifies, baptism as sacramental act aims at the faith of the recipients.  Therefore, the baptism of children and infants is permissible.  Further, if we understand baptism as a gift whose reception is not tied to a specific stage of the power of human judgment and decision, why should baptism be denied to the infant?  Are adults totally different in the matter of vouching for their own faith? Who of us can guarantee our perseverance in faith? Children have a helplessness and openness that adults need to recover in baptism. Infant trust is not explicit faith in Christ. Yet, we can speak of heartfelt trust and faith that infant has. Churches that practice infant baptism emphasize the community of faith that supports the child.  At the same time, the child will need to make a personal profession of faith in order to receive the full fruit of baptism.  Those who practice only adult baptism emphasize the explicit confession of the person who responds to the grace of God as it has come through the community of faith.  Some churches have gone the way of accepting both practices as valid within their sacramental practice, and this may provide a way in which unity can be achieved on this issue. 

            Not all infants should be baptized, but only those of baptized Christians. However, the suggestion by the Augsburg Confession that infants without baptism could not be saved is not in line with New Testament witness of the welcome that Jesus gave to children. Yet, this fact puts into question the idea that faith is a prerequisite for baptism.

Re-baptism is the one practice that inevitably causes division, for it requires the position that the previous baptism is invalid. Most denominations now have a liturgy for the reaffirmation of baptismal vows, which in most cases is sufficient to mark significant moments of spiritual renewal in the lives of church members.

A further problem for literalism existed in relation to postbaptismal sin. There are strands of the New Testament (for example, in Hebrews) which suggest that, after the baptismal forgiveness, no further opportunity for repentance existed. In the early church, we hear that converts were occasionally in the habit of postponing baptism until their deathbed in order to ensure against the possibility of postbaptismal sin. However, plainly such a practice was incompatible with the rapidly growing custom of infant baptism, and another method had to be found for the institutionalization of forgiveness. Here is the origin of sacramental penance—a term derived from the root poena, or punishment—the discipline imposed by a priest before or after absolution, as a satisfaction for sin. Since absolution could only be given by a priest in virtue of his endowment with the power of binding and loosing (the “power of the keys”), the integral character of the sacraments of baptism, penance, and ordination in the classic system comes into sight.

            A second area of dispute between the churches has been the mode of baptism.  This has meant sprinkling, pouring, or immersion, and some even stress that in the immersion must be in moving water, not a baptismal font or a lake.  Many churches accept all modes of baptism as valid within their sacramental practice.

            Throughout this explanation of baptism, I have been stressing the unity that the churches can have on this issue.  My own hope is that the churches will be able to become broad enough in our vision of Christian unity that divisiveness over this issue will become outdated.  We need to respect the baptismal rites and traditions of others.

Confirmation refers to growing in grace and strengthening in faith.           In confirmation, they receive strength from the Spirit for witness to the faith. With confirmation, we have oil that symbolizes conscience. The words refer the confirmation of their salvation in the name of the Trinity. The oil with the sign of the cross upon the forehead urges recipients to profess their faith in Christ to others.

            As the practice of infant baptism spread, the lapse in time between the act of baptism and the personal confession by the baptized found expression in the rite of confirmation.  Here is a dying to other religious commitments one could make and a commitment to life in Christ.  The intent here is to support Baptism, giving the baptized person a more full understanding of life in Christ.  As a means of grace, it emphasizes the element of personal choice in accepting the Christian faith for oneself.  Accepting the baptismal confession by candidates for confirmation does not mean the end of the personal appropriation of the faith.  Rather, it is only the beginning.  In confirmation, the response of faith is deliberate and explicit. Baptism stresses the responsibility of the community toward the child. Confirmation stresses the strengthening of the instruction of the children in the community. Indeed, experience shows that after confirmation many young people enter on a period of alienation from the Christian faith.  Therefore, we ought not to regard personal confession as the central theme in confirmation.  That confession is not a finally laid foundation.  Rather, we need to focus on strengthening and blessing of those who have come of age by the Holy Spirit, whom they already received at baptism.  If we are baptized into our own faith, everything is insecure.

The Eucharist nourishes us with divine food. In the Eucharist, Christians offer Christ and themselves before the Father. With the Eucharist, we have bread and wine mixed with water. The elements of bread and wine are common elements take from grain and grapes, and worked upon with human hands in quite natural ways. Yet, the elements as signs of Christ, and the words of the liturgy, move us beyond ourselves. Even if we have some internal examination, we do so in the context of an awareness of the presence of Christ. The elements focus upon the presence of Christ in the Christian community. Some argue that the body of Christ ascended to heaven and therefore cannot be present in the sacrament. I do not find this convincing. The body of the risen Lord refers to the essence of who he is, and that essence is present in Holy Communion, if we are open to receive, reflect, and ponder upon that presence. With the words of institution from the gospels and from Paul in I Corinthians, the nourishment that Christ offers for the journey of life becomes part of the life of the believer in a symbolic way. The recipient responds in faith, and the grace experienced unites the believer to Christ and to the community. It sustains life, increases one’s experience of life in Christ, repairs life in Christ, and brings delight as spiritual food. We receive strength to practice the virtues of the Christian life and to exhibit the grace of Christian life.     

In the early church, the Eucharist was the central act of worship.  Jesus shared in many meals in his earthly disciples. Paul records this meal in I Corinthians 11:23-25 in the context of passing on to this congregation an important ritual that he expected them to follow.  Each of the first three gospels also records this event.  As instituted by Jesus, the church continues its practice as a sign of the kingdom of God.  Many Protestant churches have missed an important worship experience by having it once a quarter.  In the history of Methodism, this arose because the ordained clergy were circuit riders.  They visited their parishes every month to every quarter.  When clergy became stationed in one congregation, the quarterly practice of communion continued. 

The Council of Constance in 1415 denied the cup to the laity, a mistake that has far reaching connotations. The Reformation restored communion of both kinds, bread and cup. Trent rejected Luther’s emphasis here. However, the Vatican Congregation of Rites declared in 1967 that Holy Communion is a clearer sign if people receive both bread and cup. Insofar as Christians cannot unite in full fellowship around the same table to eat the same loaf and drink from the same cup, their missionary witness is weakened at both the individual and the corporate levels.

            The Lord's Supper is the primary sacrament of the church, the only one instituted by the earthly Jesus.  He did so in the context of a communal meal, thereby affirming the fellowship of his disciples with him and with each other. It needs to be the sign of the future fellowship that all humanity shall participate in at the end of time in the kingdom of God.  The Lord's Supper, therefore, is not just the goal toward which ecumenical discussions can move.  Rather, it can be the power of God in the present, urging us onward toward the unity that the church desperately needs in its contemporary missionary situation.  The fundamental assertion that I will advance here is that everyone who partakes of Christ’s meal enters into a fellowship—with Jesus as well as with all others who take part in this meal—the reality of which far exceeds human comprehension.  It is sad that such a gift that Jesus has given to the church has become the occasion for such division.

            As early as the Emmaus experience on the day of Resurrection, recorded in

Luke 24:13-35, Christians recognized the presence of Jesus Christ in the breaking

of bread. The traditional Jewish practice of taking bread, blessing and thanking

God, and breaking and sharing the bread took on new meaning for them. The same is true in John 21, where the disciples slowly recognize the risen Lord as the one present. The primary biblical traditions for the Lord's Supper are found in Mark 14 and I Corinthians 11.  The history of interpretation of these texts has clearly placed too much emphasis upon the elements.  Thus, when the phrase "This is my body...This is my blood" is used, detailed discussion concerning the nature of this act takes over.  This leads to the debate over transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and memorial.  This isolation of the gift from the personal nature of the event in the Lord's Supper is one of the great errors of the Christian tradition.  We must overcome it.  Much of this discussion focused upon the nature of the presence of Christ in the Supper.  For Roman Catholic tradition, there appeared to be an emphasis upon the sacrifice of the Mass, as if this were a re-presenting of Christ as the sacrifice for the sins of the world.  In Protestant circles, this teaching removed the unique nature of the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross.  In the process, many lost the connection with experience of the reality of fellowship with Jesus now in the Supper.  It became little more than a remembrance of a past event, rather than experiencing anew fellowship with Jesus.

            The ritual of the Lord’s Supper, according to the account Paul gives in 1 Corinthians, expressed the sacred equality of each of the worshipers with each other in a world of unity and harmony, symbolized by the one bread of which each was partaker. The ritual involved a cultic commemoration of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, in which he designated the cup as “the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor 11:24); it was to be celebrated “until he comes.” However, just as baptism increasingly came to signify the present possession of qualities and gifts, so Eucharistic theology increasingly dwelt on the present miraculous transformation of the bread and wine effected by the priest. Thus, the second parallel development can be observed, that of literalism in the interpretation of the rite. The difference, however, is that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine offered far greater opportunity than the water of baptism for identification with a miraculous transformation. Not merely is the bread and wine specifically blessed by Jesus, but the delivery of them to the worshipers is accompanied by a formula in each ease, “This is my body.… This is my blood.” The elements are not to be regarded as ordinary bread and wine but are transformed to be saving bread and wine. Because they are food in the natural order, the most popular image of interpretation becomes that of “nourishment” of the soul.

            The work of Joachim Jeremias has given much support to the idea that the Lord's Supper was a Passover meal. If it is, we could justify the focus of interpretation upon the concept of expiatory sacrifice.  However, many scholars dispute his work. If the focus shifted from sacrifice to that of the future table fellowship with Jesus in the heavenly kingdom, a new possibility for interpretation becomes more possible.  We have many stories of the meals in which Jesus participated.  He used the imagery of the banquet to describe the future fellowship with God.  Such teaching would be more consistent with the life of Jesus, who was a messenger of the kingdom.  The last supper Jesus had before his death continued his prior practice.  These meals had become anticipatory signs of the coming reign of God.  The Lord's Supper, understood from the standpoint of the pre-Easter Jesus, makes much more sense as a celebration of the kingdom and fellowship with Jesus.  Here is the basis of the fellowship of the disciples of Jesus after his death.  This opens the possibility of included the table fellowship of Jesus with tax collectors and sinners and disciples as a pattern for the Lord's Supper.  It is a sign of the future unity of humanity in Christ. 

            Still, how are we to think of the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper?  At issue is the full and personal presence of Christ.  The doctrine of transubstantiation did not develop until the 12th century.  Many theologians began to think of the incarnation as a model to answer the question.  Christians share in the path of Jesus to martyrdom.  If we call the supper of the Lord a sacrifice, then what Jesus himself did at the supper is a sacrificial sign.  The supper grants fellowship with Christ and the forgiveness of sins.  The Eucharist concludes with a reference to the Holy Spirit inclusive of the participants and involving them in mission.  The fellowship of the Lord's Supper also unites the fellowship of believers.  In I Corinthians 11:27, Paul most likely means that eating and drinking in an unworthy manner involves self-examination toward breaches of the fellowship that ought not to exist between members of the body of Christ.  Reformed theologian F. Leenhardt, along with Wolfart Pannenberg, has suggested the concept of "transignification," or a "transformation of meaning."  In this way, the focus shifts from the nature of the elements, which is material and will pass away, toward the meaning of the elements for us as we partake of the Supper.  In fact, this is what happens in daily life.  People do many things by habit.  However, one day it all takes on new meaning.  Then, we are given a new motivation for living and loving.  The same can be said of the Lord's Supper.  The presence of Christ in the Supper and in the elements is in such a way that our own view of reality and faith and life can be altered as we become open to God in new ways.

            All of this suggests that the focus of our discussion of the Lord's Supper needs to move away from the traditional discussions and become open to new possibilities brought about by the missionary situation of the church.  As a meal of the kingdom, it is related to fellowship with the historical Jesus and the guarantee of the future meal to be enjoyed with him.  The continued need for forgiveness of sin reminds us also of the sacrificial nature of the cross and of an important aspect of the Supper, although this loses its centrality.  We then accept the transformation of meaning made possible through the presence of the risen Christ in our midst in the unique way that that presence comes through the Lord's Supper.   Through all such discussions, the focus remains the personal character of our participation in Jesus through the supper.

            It is time to recognize the Lord's Supper as the primary sacrament of the church, the only one instituted by the earthly Jesus.  It needs to be the sign of the future fellowship that all humanity shall participate in at the end of time in the kingdom of God.  The Lord's Supper is not just the goal toward which ecumenical discussions can move.  Rather, it can be the power of God in the present, urging us onward toward the unity that the church desperately needs in its contemporary missionary situation.  The fundamental assertion that I will advance is that everyone who partakes of Christ’s meal enters into a fellowship—with Jesus as well as with all others who take part in this meal—the reality of which far exceeds human comprehension.  It is sad that such a gift that Jesus has given to the church has become the occasion for such division.  The Lord's Supper is not the expression of a human fellowship.  It is not an expression of a specific church.  The supper does not belong to the church.  It is the supper of the Lord.  We issue the invitation to eat and drink to all followers of Jesus.  No church has the right to extend the invitation only to their own historically conditioned fellowship.  We have some disagreement over whether the invitation ought to be limited only to baptized Christians.  For some, church discipline requires that we maintain the link between faith and lifestyle.  For John Wesley, the supper was a converting ordinance, in that one could experience conversion while receiving the supper. He also said that he invited to the Lord’s table all to whom he invited to come to Christ.

            We are sinners, constantly in need of divine grace. God is gracious and loving, always making available the grace we need. Grace is God’s love toward us, God’s free and undeserved gift. Several words describe how grace works in our lives. Prevenient grace is that which “comes before” anything we can do to help ourselves. Although we are all bound by our sinful nature, grace gives us enough freedom of will to be able to respond to God. In truth, all grace is prevenient—we cannot move toward God unless God has first moved toward us. God seeks us out, pursues us, calls us to come into the loving relationship that we were created to enjoy. Convicting grace makes us conscious of our sinfulness and urges us to repentance. Justifying grace forgives and puts us into right relationship with God. Sanctifying grace enables us to grow in holiness of life. Perfecting grace molds us into the image of Christ. The grace of God is made available to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and works in our lives

through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

            While divine grace reaches us any time and in any way that God chooses, God

has designated certain means or channels through which grace is most surely and

immediately available. These means are not to be understood as ways of earning salvation, for that is an unmerited gift. They are, rather, ways to receive, live in, and grow in divine grace.

First, the supper of the Lord is a thanksgiving to the Father.  The early Christians “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47a, NIV). As we commune, we express joyful thanks for God’s mighty acts throughout history—for creation, covenant, redemption, sanctification. As a remembrance, the liturgy expresses thanksgiving for creation as well as the work of Christ. This thanksgiving will lead to the words of institution, at which bread and cup become the medium of the Christ’s presence. Yet, the whole action of the Supper has the character of a remembrance. In the Eucharist, we have the opportunity as believers to express our thankfulness to God for all God’s blessings.  The Eucharist signifies what the world will become -- an offering and hymn of praise to the Creator, a communion of the body of Christ, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.

            Second, the Eucharist means that we believers give a memorial of the crucified and risen Christ.  This anamnesis, remembrance, or recollection of the sacrifice of Christ is an interpretation of the statement in Paul and Luke to do this in remembrance of him. Paul has the additional statement that it proclaims his death until he comes. The Supper relates to the atoning death of Jesus, yet is no mere remembrance of a past event, for that event has continuing significance for believers. The early church took this remembrance further than a human act of remembering, but the self-representing of Jesus by his Spirit. As a believing remembrance, the liturgy begins with “Lift up your hearts.” Believers move beyond themselves and are with Christ in the act of recollection. Christ has made the one sacrifice necessary for the sins of the human race.  Christ and all that he accomplished for us is present in the Eucharist, granting us communion with himself.  The Eucharist is the sacrament of the unique sacrifice of Christ, made actual in the Eucharist and presented to God on behalf of the church for the human race.  It is at this point there has been some division between Protestants and Roman Catholics.  While Roman Catholics speak of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, Protestants reject this terminology. In the fact, Luther considered the mass and its concept of sacrifice as the greatest abuse of the power of the Pope. Trent in fact separated offering and communion, celebration and sacrifice. If fact, many Catholic theologians have recognized that if there is truly one sacrifice of Christ, which their church now clearly teaches, there may be little sense in continuing that particular terminology.  Another source of division at this point is the mode of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We must affirm the full and personal presence of Christ in the sacrament. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” he connected the bread to his person. As a sign, the bread points to something other than itself. The sign indicates the presence of that to which it points. What is signified in the sign is an indication of presence. In one sense, we can think of this only as Jesus himself distributes the bread. This demonstrates the wisdom behind the stories of the risen Lord sharing a meal with the disciples. We will make few advances until we recognize the whole Eucharistic liturgy as remembrance, the place, of Christ’s real presence. The remembrance does not effect that presence, for the words of institution are at the center of the recollection. The historical Jesus in his death, passion, and the Last Supper, is what we remember. The Lord who is present at the Supper is the one who died on the cross and is the risen Lord. We are to think of the presence of Christ at the Supper in terms of recollection of the earthly story of Jesus and his passion. The present reality of the risen Lord is identical with that of the Jesus of history in such a way that the life of the risen Lord is the reality of his earthly history transfigured by its participation in the eternity of God. The community recalls the earthly path of Jesus to his death and is thus sure of his presence in the signs of bread and cup. He is present only as the by means of the recollection of the historical Lord who went to his death. We see this in Paul, who stressed “the new covenant in my blood.” The issue in the words of institution is the presence of Christ’s whole person, not the bodily presence of Christ. We can dispense with the one sided debates about the elements.  As we break and eat the bread and pour out and drink from the cup, we share in the path of Jesus toward martyrdom. The Supper is a matter of sharing fellowship with Jesus on his way to the cross. Faith involves letting oneself be taken up into the actual sacrifice of Jesus, not an additional offering to God. The form of the service is that of a meal, not that of an offering. We offer ourselves to God in Christ. The meal reflects the turning of Jesus toward us in fellowship. This was the point of the table fellowship of Jesus throughout his life. It looks forward to the heavenly banquet that Jesus will share. We can view the Supper as a sacrifice only in the sense of, at the Last Supper, the obedience of Jesus to his mission, the consequence of which was the cross. Meal and sacrifice go together in this Supper. Participation in the Supper suggests forgiveness of sin, even as the table fellowship with Jesus in his earthly life already suggested this forgiveness. In all of these differences, we recognize that faith on the part of the person who receives the sacrament is essential to discern the presence of Christ.

            Third, the Eucharist means an invocation of the Holy Spirit.  The act of human recollection mentioned in the previous paragraph is not enough. Recollection must pass over into prayer for the presence of the Lord. The epiclesis, or invocation of the Spirit, has its connection to the raising of Jesus from the dead. Only by the Holy Spirit does the risen Lord become present to believers. The liturgy of the Greek Church rightly calls on the Spirit to make Christ present to us in the form of bread and cup according to his promise in the words of institution. The Holy Spirit makes the presence of Christ a reality.  No human act can make Christ present; the Holy Spirit is the one who makes the historical words of institution of Jesus present and alive for us. The promise of the Lord that he would be present to his disciples in bread and cup finds fulfillment in this prayer. Calvin taught that Christ is present in the community through the Spirit. The Spirit is already present in the community; this prayer makes the presence of Christ actual and real in the bread and cup. The Spirit is the source of all prayer; without the Spirit believers can neither give thanks, pray rightly, nor even bless each other. The celebration of this Supper is remembrance, the presence of Christ as a gift for us, participation in his offering, and all of this as thanksgiving in the power of the Spirit.

            Fourth, the Eucharist means a community of the faithful.  The Eucharist is communion with Christ, but is also communion with the whole body of Christ.  Table fellowship with Jesus finds expression in uniting of the participants in the feast with each other in a fellowship in which the saving future fellowship of humanity in the kingdom is already present in a sign. While deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event. The first person pronouns throughout the ritual are consistently plural—we, us, our. First Corinthians 10:17 explains that “because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” It is a sign of a lasting relationship between Jesus and his followers as well as between the followers themselves. The Supper depicts the fellowship of Christians. Paul could ask, “Is Christ divided?” It is a fact wherever Christians deny fellowship to other Christians, for they are indeed members of the body of Christ. It seems to me, then, that to deny believers the right of communion because they come from different denominational backgrounds is a denial of the intent of the Eucharist. The oneness and unity of the people of God are most clearly seen in the Eucharist.  Yet, Paul does speak of an unworthiness that excludes from participation in the Lord’s Supper. He appears to mean that participation in Christ’s body involves the mutual fellowship of the participants and thus necessarily includes preserving this fellowship by mutual regard. The self-examination that I Corinthians 11:28 demands relates to breaches of the fellowship that ought not to exist between members of the body of Christ. The apostle presupposes faith in the participants. He also assumes some correspondence between faith and life, suggested by his recommendation of separating themselves from people who are in gross violation through their way of life. Such failings do not just affect the individual, but also the whole community. They entail a breach of the fellowship of believers grounded in Christ. The Supper is not the church’s supper, but the supper of the Lord. The invitation of Christ does not restrict itself to any historically conditioned gathering of followers. The word of institution that the one officiating speaks in the place of Jesus is to all followers. Any restriction of this invitation has to be justified before the crucified Christ. The Supper appears to assume that participants are followers of Jesus. Tax collectors and sinners were present at table fellowship with Jesus because they desired fellowship with Jesus. The Last Supper was for disciples. This link between the Supper and discipleship is an important one, for we become open to the charge of cheap grace. The only “restriction” is that one seeks fellowship with Jesus. Although many theological issues related to the Supper remain, we do not have to solve them before we have an open invitation. A sign of this reality is when we offer communion to children, of whom we cannot say that they understand fully what the Supper means.

            Fifth, the Eucharist means a meal of the kingdom.  It is a vision of the final rule that God seeks to establish on the face of the earth.  God has promised renewal of the whole earth, and the Eucharist is a sign of that renewal.  The Eucharist calls the people of God to be servants and witnesses in the world in anticipation of the great heavenly banquet.  In the Eucharist, we have “precious food for missionaries, bread and wine for pilgrims on their apostolic journey.”  We are united into one people around one table for one meal, “because Christ invited to his feast all for whom he died.”

            Through Eucharist, we receive healing and are enabled to aid in the healing of others. Sozo, the root of the Greek word used in the New Testament for healing, is also translated as salvation and wholeness. Much of this healing is spiritual, but it also includes the healing of our thoughts and emotions, of our minds and bodies, of our attitudes and relationships. The grace received at the Table of the Lord can make us whole. As those who are being saved, we seek to bring healing to a broken world.

            Holy Orders allows the church to receive proper governance and spiritual growth. It has its foundation in the New Testament teaching that ministers are to stir up the grace of God among those whom they minister. Further, Paul makes it clear that some are apostles, pastors and teachers, evangelists, and so on, thus that everyone is not a minister in that sense. Holy Orders usually has a public service in which symbolic actions like a stole, chalice and bread, bible, and other symbols of the faith are handed over to the newly ordained. The words include receiving authority preach the word, serve the sacraments, and provide leadership to the church, in the name of the Trinity. The effect is to enable the minister to become a means of grace to others.

            Holy Orders or Ordination is a dying to a secular way of life and dedicating oneself in a special way to Christ and the church.  The limitation of clergy to celibate males has long been a corrupt practice. It moves against the natural desires of males. In fact, it has led to great abuse. It led to the clergy becoming the laughing stock of medieval Europe, as many celibate clergy also had many children. Today, it has opened the door to the abuse of primarily male children. As canon law in the Roman Catholic communion, it needs re-evaluation as an experiment in ministry that failed.

            Christ called the Twelve, and the church has continued to believe that God calls people into this kind of service in the church.  As a means of grace, the ordained clergy exist to serve the church by the preaching, teaching and prophetic offices, as well as example of life. Clergy are symbol-bearers of the presence of God. A symbol represents that which otherwise we could not grasp. A symbol serves to enable our participation in what it represents. The church in all its symbols seeks to connect people to God. The clergy are one of those symbols. Clergy have no choice but to aid or detract from the spiritual journey of those to whom they serve.

The priesthood of all believers has too often focused upon religious individualism as separate from accountability to the community. The priesthood of believers was not just a form of individualism, but connected the individual to the communion of saints who prayer for each other. It acknowledges the freedom that believers have in Christ. Yet, this meant that individual Christians had the right to judge the teaching of ordained ministry. The task of clergy becomes to assist laity on their way to independence in their relation to God and to scripture. The mediating role of the clergy becomes the small role of helping others achieve a direct relation to God. To view clergy as having a more important role than that is to hamper rather than serve the gospel that clergy proclaim. This Reformation view continued the piety of the medieval church, as well as the teaching of Duns Scotus and William of Occam as they stressed the immediacy of individuals to God apart from all mediation by the church. One result of the Reformation and Enlightenment reflections on the ministry of word and sacraments is to lessen the distinction between clergy and laity. The pastor is not a parental authority figure that speaks for God.  Pastors have become fellow travelers on the journey of life who share the insights and wisdom that they have on the way. If all believers are priests, then all believers can draw people closer to God. All believers are laypersons in that in some areas of their lives others lead them spiritually. The primary task of such priests is to share insights and experiences and guide others in their quest for meaning and significance. The constitution of the church in Vatican II is a late recognition of the importance of this concept.

            Many clergy lose a sense of the excitement of the spiritual quest. They have a spiritual boredom, and indifference to matters of religion, or simple laziness. Such lack of enthusiasm is the root sin of clergy who would seek to nurture the spiritual growth of others. It can take the form of a lust for power. This external source of power has its root in role and status. One acquires external power by playing the game. The first rule is to be inoffensive and non-threatening. Another form of this lack of enthusiasm is the avoidance of one’s own spiritual emptiness by becoming as busy as possible. Clergy withdraw to protect themselves from confrontations for which there is no energy. Clergy become angry and cynical. Another from the lack of enthusiasm is the fear of becoming vulnerable. It can take the form of steeping oneself intellectually in the bible, theology, or philosophy so that laity becomes excluded from communication. Pastors are on an inner journey that leads to the desert, where we find both demons and angels. They do not need to justify their existence on any other basis.

We have no fixed number of gifts given to the church.  After all, the tasks the church needs performed keeps changing, given the differing situations it faces.  The common calling of all Christians is to bear witness to Jesus Christ as salvation for all people.  In principle, the Roman Catholic and Reformation churches have no difference on the concept of the priesthood of all believers.  All Christians are priests and have the same spiritual standing.  Such a concept is difficult to reconcile with a special calling for preaching and sacramental life.  One way to deal with this tension is to derive the special ministry from the general ministry of all Christians.  For Luther, though every believer has the power to preach the word and administer the sacraments, the use of that power requires the assent of the community.  The fellowship of Christians acts as a whole on its apostolic basis and in faithfulness to its apostolic origin.  We cannot base the authority and form of church leadership in terms of the office of the bishop on an order the apostles set up.  However, uniting the teaching authority and leadership in the episcopate corresponds to the apostolic ministry of preserving the churches in their evangelical teaching.  The apostolic gospel functioned as a given norm in the process of developing the Episcopal office.  That norm alone gave validity to the office of bishop.  The fellowship of believers has a voice in the selection of bishops because the office is rooted in the churches. 

            The call to ministry begins with an inner call, in which the person prays and practices Christian discipleship, and out of the life sensing the direction of God toward pastoral ministry. One evidence of this call is a curiosity for the things of God. Further, this calling evidences itself in a curiosity for the ways God is at work in the lives of others and in the community of faith. The outward call involves the affirmation of the community that God has indeed called the individual. The criteria of that typically involve reaching a certain chronological age that others find acceptable; convinced that ordained ministry is their best response to God; have personal gifts like self-awareness, patience, love, and respect for others; have good health; have good character; have the capacity to preach and teach and have accountability to scripture and tradition.

            Preaching is a means of grace because it speaks the images, symbols, myths, and meanings that are saving and are a hermeneutic of the self-disclosure of God. The language of preaching is metaphor. Our desire to know like God, that is, with certainty, ends up erecting idols. Analogy arises relationally out of our self-awareness. We speak of the relationship between God and self, or God and community, in models drawn from the social world. Yet, we must move beyond analogy if we are to speak adequately of God. We recognize that God is more than anything we experience in personal or social life. Dialectically, we may speak of the otherness of God, although taken to an extreme we would end in silence (the way of negation). We are mysteries to ourselves and to others. Illustrations should have a clear analogy with the idea of sermon, a clear parallel between structure of the sermon and the shape of the illustration, and appropriate to the content of the sermon. The preacher should have only one illustration within a move. Preachers are not poets; however, they should enjoy putting words and images together in order to amplify faith.

            Words give life significance and make human life possible. We act, relate, and think within language. Although we communicate in many ways and with numerous other gestures, nothing conveys meaning apart from words. Human society is an exchange of words. The power of life is in words. The communication model of language views words as things we use, as signs by which people trade ideas. The expressive model of language views words as a medium of self-expression. Language arises from the depth of the self or some subjective intuition that reaches into dimensions of life beyond empirical or rational realities. Yet, words are not arbitrary signs or expressions of rationality. Language is incurably social (and thus not fully expressive). Our view language must go beyond both models and acknowledge the mystery of words in human consciousness. Words shape a view of the world; support a system of value, and from tacit beliefs by which we live. They are social products that follow a game of rules. Language points beyond itself; reality is far more than language. We speak selectively, including some things and excluding others. Grammar itself imposes restrictions upon what we want to say. Self-expression frequently surprises us who create the words. Different languages provide difference perceptual ranges, opening some lived experiences and closing off others. Language can feel like a veil between us and reality because of its limitations. Yet, we explore the mysteries of the self, life together, and nature, through language. We explore the beyond our world by dancing on the edges of language. New meanings emerge by metaphorical process, by the word play of imagination. Through metaphor, paradox, polyvalence, and other linguistic stretching, we bring out new meaning. Preaching is a language of disclosure; it is communication and invocation. Preaching is a connotative language used with theological precision. The language of preaching is the shared vocabulary of the congregation – about 5000 words. The language of preaching must be theologically apt. It is not simply self-expression, for preaching also has a concern for and love of the neighbor. Language is a social given. Language is also a damaged gift in its racial bias, anti-Semitism, and sexism. The matter of style is one in which we use styles for the preaching of the gospel and the forming of faith. Style needs to be concrete, verbs of color and precision, sparing use of adjectives, use of the pronoun of “we,” and prefer present tense, active voice, and simple, short sentences.

With words, we name the world. Language constitutes the world in consciousness. It also enables us to conceive ourselves as selves in a world. Language names a seen and unseen world into consciousness. Words may misname and thus distort the world in consciousness. Language can lie and misrepresent the world in consciousness. Words are weapons, words coerce, and words lie. Suspicion of language, however, should not sour a sense of wonder. Language is miraculous indeed. Words do not create the world, but language does constitute the world in consciousness, the significant social world in which we live.

With words, we hear and tell stories. We construct our own life story lines. Designing a plot is an act of interpretation involving a particular reading of meanings, values, causalities, and so on. Others can tell us a wrong story.

Preaching can rename the world as God’s world. Preaching can change identity by incorporating all our stories into the story of God. Preaching constructs in consciousness a faith-world related to God. Preaching transforms identity by adding a new beginning to our stories. Preaching tells a story with transcendent dimension. All our stories are stories of the God who is with us. All our stories are episodes in some larger than life story of God. We live our lives as a story wondering what is going to happen next. Preaching sketches an ending, for it tells of the denouement of the story of God with us. Christian faith is teleological. In visioning conclusion, preaching transforms the human story. Preaching does offer a vision of denouement that can transform our stories and, thus, our identities. If the story of God with us will end in a world reconciled then we must revise all our stories. Christian preaching can transform narrative identity. By locating our storied lives within a framework of beginning and end, Christian preaching poses the possibility of faith. We sense that our life stories may be related to the purposes of God that span human history; we may be living in some sort of God with us story. Perhaps in every episode, we live with mysterious grace.

Beyond naming and beyond the story is the reflective symbol. Sometimes in a story, a character will emerge and become central so that story becomes the story of character. Central characters do form in stories and do function in a symbolic and reflective manner. In Christian preaching, we may see Jesus emerge as a central character in the human story. The character of Christ transforms the genre of the human story. Joyce Carey suggests that wise writers will begin with the sketch of a central episode, working back to a beginning and outworking an ending. For Christian preaching, Jesus and his new community is the central episode God intended for the human story. Human history becomes the story of Jesus. We are not isolated selves anticipating a someday personal salvation. We do not chatter vacuously until the end. Now we live in the momentum of a denouement when the poetry of consummation fills the prose of everyday life. The hermeneutic of Christian preaching is social and teleological (eschatological, oriented toward the future). Christian preaching tells a story and names a name. It rewrites our individual stories into the story of God with us.

Language is one of the means God uses to communicate a spiritual presence. Language is the primary means of communicating with others, arising out of the social character of human life. Within the church, however, words have a sacramental influence through the reading and teaching of the bible, and preaching. Christ is the word of God, the words of the bible direct readers to Christ, and the proclaimed word is the living voice of the church. When people experience a divine word in the midst of human words, something is communicated beyond both speaker and hearer. The proclaiming of the word is a task and a responsibility for the church. Clergy have training to carry out their responsibilities in light of the best of church tradition and of contemporary forms of communication. Yet, they could never hope that their human words could bear the divine word unless these words were governed first by the bible and then were used by the Spirit to become a living word to, for, and with the church. The same Spirit must also find receptive hearers.

T. S. Eliot spoke of his work as “a raid on the inarticulate.” Preaching is a raid on the inarticulate and the inexpressible. Words are the currency in which the preacher deals; we must be careful not to deal with them loosely, because if they are debased or devalued, there is no other currency in which to deal.

A preacher should revere language. There is no excuse for sloppy language. Words must make definite suggestions, not only in their definition but in their sound. There are words that caress, words that lash and cut, words that lift, and words that have a glow in them.

Why is it, then, that so many preachers do not enjoy preaching? Why do some busy themselves in minor matters when they should be studying and meditating? Why do others creep out of the pulpit after delivering their sermon, overwhelmed with a sense of failure and guilt? Ministers often believe preaching is the number one priority of their ministries, but it is also the one thing they feel least capable of doing well. What causes this insecure attitude toward preaching? Phillips Brooks said it best: Preaching is the communicating of divine truth through human personality. The divine truth never changes; the human personality constantly changes—and this is what makes the message new and unique.

The three most important words used in the New Testament for “preaching” are euangelizomai, “to tell the good news”; kerusso, “to proclaim like a herald”; and martureo, “to bear witness.” All three are important in our pulpit ministry. We are telling the good news with the authority of a royal herald, but the message is a part of our lives. Unlike heralds, who only shouted what was given to them, we are sharing what is personal and real to us. The messenger is a part of the message because the messenger is a witness. God prepares the person who prepares the message. Martin Luther said that prayer, meditation, and temptation made a preacher. Prayer and meditation will give you a sermon, but only temptation—the daily experience of life—can transform that sermon into a message. It is the difference between the recipe and the meal.


Listen again to Phillips Brooks:

The notion of a great sermon, either constantly or occasionally haunting the preacher, is fatal. It hampers the freedom of utterance. Many a true and helpful word which your people need, and which you ought to say to them, will seem unworthy of the dignity of your great discourse. Never tolerate any idea of the dignity of a sermon which will keep you from saying anything in it which you ought to say, or which your people ought to hear.


Let me add another reason for insecure feelings about our preaching. In our desire to be humble servants of God, we have a tendency to suppress our personalities lest we should preach ourselves and not Christ. While it is good to heed Paul’s warning (“For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake”—2 Cor. 4:5 niv), we must not misinterpret it and thereby attempt the impossible. Paul’s personality and even some of his personal experiences are written into the warp and woof of his epistles; yet, Jesus Christ is glorified from start to finish.

We must know ourselves, accept ourselves, be ourselves, and develop ourselves—our best self—if preaching is to be most effective. We must never imitate other preachers, but learn from them everything we can. We never complain about our circumstances or ourselves but find out why God made things that way and use what God has given us in a positive way. What we think are obstacles may turn out to be opportunities. Stay long enough in one church to discover who we are, what kind of ministry God has given us, and how God plans to train us for ministries yet to come. After all, God is always preparing us for what God already has prepared for us—if we allow that preparation to happen.

Preaching is not what we do; it is what we are. When God wants to make a preacher, God has to make the person, because the work we do cannot be isolated from the life we live. God prepares the person for the work and the work for the person, and if we permit, God brings them together. Preachers need to live in Christ. To know Christ is to die with him in his death and rise in the likeness of his resurrection. To have Christ living in us, life within life, to have his life breathe life into us, to love with his love, to unite consciously to God by our union with Christ, to know that nothing can separate us from the love of God, is to know how to preach Christ to others. Christianity is not rhetoric or doctrine. Christianity is the living, life-giving experience of Christ. One may preach by silence as well as by words. One’s life becomes luminous because Christ is in it.

Preachers often seek a way to develop sermons within a couple of hours a week. That is often the expectation of the congregation as well. This indicates the priorities of both parish and pastor. Preachers confess their lack of commitment to preaching or perhaps even to thinking. Congregations demonstrate their desire for a chaplain, counselor, or manager. Yet, clergy are ministers of word and sacrament; other parish activities derive their meaning from this, our essential calling. Short cuts to sermon preparation do not exist. No human being can churn out rapid-fire creativity. The process depends on thinking, often unhurried thinking, imagination, and technical skill. Quick sermons are usually bad sermons. Ultimately, the issue has to do with priorities, which then focuses our attention upon a theological understanding of ministry. Functionaries never have time; ministers of the gospel do. Moving from a whole field of meaning in consciousness to a sermon is a staged process that is bound to take time. Most good preachers find it essential to schedule certain times during the week when they engage in that difficult, solitary task of study. The intense, public roles of pastors compete with the ability of the pastor to make time to prepare for preaching. The result is all those congregations who lament the demise of vibrant proclamation in the church of today. We must read everything, talk to everybody, and listen too, noting how people speak and how they hear. We must go to movies, jotting down interesting phrases, stories and insights. Paying attention to and imitating others can help us find our unique voice.

People who are in church have a different story than those outside the church. Their story includes the fact of their relation to the Christian community and how they got there. Preaching inevitably directs itself to those in church. The primary task of preaching to those outside the church is that of laity. We seldom take this preaching task of the laity seriously. Laity cannot just live their faith; their friends and neighbors must know why they live the way they do. The pastor nourishes the church so that the church might move beyond the confines of the congregation, proclaiming Christ in word and deed. The work of the pastor will also be as a witness in the world in witness, evangelist, missionary, and apostle. However, we cannot easily divide the church from the world. The pastor does not need to look far to encounter the world. The line between church and world cuts through our own hearts.

The sermon is not about clergy or the relationship of clergy to the congregation, but about the gospel. Personal narrative tends to direct attention to the preacher rather than the gospel. Sermons emerge from the consciousness of a preacher and are for a particular audience. Within the consciousness of the preacher is some field of meaning that has resulted from interpretation. Because preachers do not merely express themselves, but concern themselves with the forming of a faith consciousness of a congregation, they will be deliberate in designing the plots of their sermons. The design of a sermon is never arbitrary. The sequence chosen will be an act of interpretation dictated by a theology. Sermons are plotted scenarios for consciousness. We must grasp the notion of intentionality in preaching. The preacher is conscious of a field of meaning formed by a text and is conscious of a congregation, a collection of people in a particular time, place, and cultural moment. The preacher is interpreting a field of meaning and interpreting a congregation in a situation. The preacher aims consciousness toward a particular field of meaning, but also aims consciousness toward a particular congregational mind. The preacher may have some purpose in mind, even if it is something as vague as mediation. The preacher is also conscious of an aiming to do. Our sermons focus on a field of understanding, something in view. Our sermons will intend a structure of meaning. Sermons have a field, but within a field intend a particular structure of meaning. Preaching also intends toward the common or shared consciousness of the congregation. Preaching also intends to do in its performative nature of language, in that it is re-forming and transforming. Most sermons also have secondary intentions.

Preaching consists in the clarification, exposition, interpretation, and re-appropriation of the written word. Preaching naturally takes place in a Eucharistic setting.  Both word and sacrament have the function of making present the saving work of God in Christ. The Eucharistic setting can save preaching from the cult of personality that often afflicts Christian churches today. It is a remembrance of the saving event.  It also points to the future of God for creation and for humanity.  Successful preaching integrates worship into a unity.  Preaching emphasized the prophetic aspect of pastoral ministry. We listen to the Scripture together. We will talk about the way in which the word of God meets us with the help of the Spirit. It declares the good news, inviting persons to Christ. It comforts, encourages, and inspires devotion, dedication, loyalty, and discipleship to Christ. It imparts clear, understandable teaching. It builds moral sensitivity and awareness and elicits changed behavior. While laity also witness to the gospel, one hopes that the witness of clergy will prepare themselves to speak representatively for the body of Christ. Good preaching that articulates the relevance of the biblical history in the light of the future of God brings members of the community into the context of salvation history.  In doing this successful preaching converges with the dynamic at work in the hymns and liturgy and the biblical readings and the common confession of faith.  Preaching can also integrate members of the specific congregation into the unity of the faith of the church.  Preaching needs to become one of the ways in which the church expresses its fundamental unity. 

            God uses words to make spirituality real to speaker and hearer. Although preaching is a public act, it speaks to the heart. It speaks from one set of experiences to another set of experiences. Preachers draw upon the historic and global experience of the church, as well as their own experience. The words of the bible are the central revelation given to the church. The bible is not the only communication of the Spirit through words. Words become the Word of God as the Spirit enters a person’s life. Any human word can become the Word of God to us if it hits our minds in such a way as to make us reflect upon matters related to life issues. The biblical words are the criterion for the Word of God that we experience in life.

            Preachers speak of God to people, which can sound either absurd or presumptuous. Preachers dare to speak of God. Preachers speak to people who have an intricate connection to the natural and social worlds. Preachers stand between the mystery that is God and the mystery that is human life and dare to mediate the presence of God. Preachers will need to help people become accustomed to having their present reality subverted by the biblical text. What qualifies us to preach? Maybe the sign of a calling would be a disposition toward God and neighbors in faith. Preachers have curiosity toward the things of God, as well as curiosity toward how other people grope with the mysteries of being human before God. The call to preach is a call to mediate the presence of God. Christian life is a strangely hidden reality. Preaching brings that reality, that new humanity, to further clarity and reflection. The reality is this: human consciousness is not fixed; it is historical, differently shaped in different ages. The only constant we may find is the structure of consciousness, but certainly not in the content of consciousness. This is why texts can tap new meanings for new and different audiences. What preachers interpret is not the original situation of the text or the psychological state of the writer.

Summary Statement:  Baptism

            All of life can become a sacrament to us. Anything in the world can re-direct our focus away from ourselves and toward the fellowship we have with Christ. The grace and love of God come to us apart from sacraments and church. However, two sacraments have special significance: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Let us reflect a moment on baptism.

            Baptism involves the common physical element of water surrounded by the words of the ritual, especially invoking the blessing of the Trinity. All Christians submit to the water of baptism, ignoring the boundaries established by people: race, gender, or economic class. The water of baptism becomes a meeting place for individuals, Christian community, and God. Every time the church baptizes a person, we are saying that person is part of the plan God has to change the world into what God intends. In that sense, baptism is a prophetic act. Baptism is our “Yes” to God and our “No” to that part of the world that rebels against what God wants. The church does not intend anything magical. The sacrament declares the intention of the participant to orient life toward Christ. Parents make a decision to orient their family life toward Christ when they bring their children forward for infant baptism.

            The practice of baptism has its source in the life of Jesus and in the life of the apostolic church. John the Baptist baptized Jesus. The first believers in Jerusalem received baptism. Paul baptized households, including women, children, and slaves. The first centuries of the church witnessed the growing practice of baptism for both adults and children.

            The United Methodist Church respects the beliefs and values of the parents of our children. Some parents will choose to have their children baptized. Baptism of an infant acknowledges the grace of God with the child. God does not leave this child alone, but rather will continue to call the child into a relationship with God. Confirmation becomes a time for the child to say “Yes” to what their parents intended for their child at the time of their baptism. Dedicating children in the presence of the community and waiting for baptism until the child responds to the call of God in their lives preserves the importance of faith in receiving the grace of God. The United Methodist Church considers the amount of water used in baptism, as with sprinkling, pouring, and immersion, as a personal matter, each maintaining important biblical images. Further, Christianity needs to recover baptismal unity in the churches today. Baptism is about Christ, not us as individuals or denominations. Regardless of the age in which one experienced baptism, regardless of the amount of water used, baptism orients the church toward fellowship with Christ. When one transfers from one denomination to another, churches need to respect the sacramental integrity of the other church and accept the baptism as valid. For this reason, the United Methodist Church discourages re-baptism.

            During the baptism ritual, the congregation re-affirms its commitment to orient its life toward Christ. Believers grow in their fellowship with Christ throughout their lives. Confirmation and other reaffirmations of the Christian faith help believers recognize that this transformation continues throughout life. Christians as individuals and the church as a community define themselves by their fellowship with Christ. This connection with Christ symbolized in baptism reminds us of the moral transformation needed in Christian life, a transformation that continues throughout life. Therefore, along with the external rite of baptism, the church understands the importance of faith to receive the gift of grace offered in baptism. Baptism, far from being a ceremony, reminds the church of its core beliefs and values in a word that would often distract it from its central purpose of fellowship with Christ.

Baptism symbolizes spiritual rebirth, the gate through which one passes into the body of Christ. Here is the sign of our unity as Christians, and not just membership in a particular church.  Though baptism is an individual experience, it also identifies the individual with the Christian community. We need the support of other people to correct us, support us, and tell us the story of the Christian faith.

            Baptism is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-11), symbolizing breaking the power of sin and becoming a new and liberated people. Major changes in life rarely occur without the pain of suffering, of changing and growing, of letting go and trusting God. We transfer ownership of our lives from self to God. We re-direct faith from self to God.

            Baptism means conversion, pardon, cleansing, forgiveness of sins, and a new ethical orientation through the work of the Holy Spirit. The fact of baptism does not make the goal of the Christian life actual in the one baptized. Time matters in the development of Christian life. Baptism is a reminder that believers still have much upon which to work in orienting one’s life to Christ.

            Baptism means receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Just as the Spirit raised Jesus from the dead, the Holy Spirit raises to new life the person baptized. God pours out the Holy Spirit on the baptized person as the first installment of the life to come, nurturing the life of faith in the heart. Confirmation refers to growing in grace and strengthening in faith. If we use oil and the sign of the cross upon the forehead, it urges recipients to profess their faith in Christ to others.

            Baptism means the kingdom of God has broken into this world.  Baptism is a sign that the person baptized has become part of a new reality that looks forward to the victory that Christ will have in this world. The church acknowledges its hope for a world transformed into what God intends, as God has shown humanity in Christ.

Summary Statement: The Lord’s Supper

All of life can become a sacrament to us. Anything in the world can re-direct our focus away from ourselves and toward the fellowship we have with Christ. The grace and love of God come to us apart from sacraments and church. However, two sacraments have special significance: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Let us reflect for a moment upon the Lord’s Supper, also called Holy Communion and Eucharist.

            The Lord’s Supper has the common physical elements of bread and wine (United Methodist Church uses the fruit of the vine as grape juice) surrounded by the words of our ritual, giving thanks to the Father for creation, the gift of the Son, and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. All Christians kneel at the same altar, regardless of one’s race, economic class, or gender. All Christians receive both bread and wine as we equally testify to our fellowship with Christ.

            Everyone who partakes of Christ’s meal enters into a fellowship—with Jesus as well as with all others who take part in this meal—the reality of which far exceeds human comprehension. The meal anticipates the fellowship God wants with each individual, between individuals, and that God wants for humanity. The Lord’s Supper becomes a meeting place for individuals, Christian community, and God.

            Through Eucharist, we receive healing and power to aid in the healing of others. Sozo is the root Greek word used in the New Testament for healing, salvation and wholeness. Much of this healing is spiritual, but it also includes the healing of our thoughts and emotions, of our minds and bodies, of our attitudes and relationships. The grace received at the Table of the Lord can make us whole. As those on the path of transformation, we seek to bring healing to a broken world.

            The United Methodist Church respects the beliefs and values of parents in reference to whether their children receive communion before confirmation. The Lord’s Table belongs to Christ, not to the United Methodist Church or to the minister. The Lord who embraced children in his earthly life would not turn children away. Communion becomes a teaching moment between parent and child as to what the church means in receiving bread and wine.

Many Protestant churches have missed an important worship experience by having it once a quarter.  In the history of Methodism, this arose because the ordained clergy were circuit riders.  They visited their parishes every month to every quarter.  When bishops appointed clergy to a congregation instead of a circuit, the quarterly practice of communion continued.  Crawfordsville First United Methodist Church celebrates communion once a month and other special days of the church year.

            Every time the church celebrates the Lord’s Supper, we are saying that the church identifies itself with the plan God has to change the world into what God intends. In that sense, the Lord’s Supper is a prophetic act. The Supper is our “Yes” to God and our “No” to that part of the world that rebels against what God wants. The church does not intend anything magical. The external rite of the Supper requires the openness or faith of the individual to receive the grace of Christ offered in the Supper. The church recognizes a distinction between the sacramental sign, the bread or wine, and the thing that is the sacrament, the act of union with Christ in the fellowship of the church. The sacrament declares the intention of the participants to orient life toward Christ. The sacrament draws us deeper into the heart of the interweaving flow of relationships in God. We make this clear when we announce that the bread is the body of Christ and the wine is the blood of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is about Christ; it is not about us. In particular, the Lord’s Supper refers us to the significance of passion, suffering, and death of Christ. It reminds us of the sacrificial character of the Christian faith.

            The Lord’s Supper has its foundation in the table fellowship Jesus had with his disciples, the meals of the risen Lord with the disciples, and the centrality of the Supper in the apostolic churches. This meal also anticipates the heavenly banquet of the church with Christ.

            The invitation to the Lord’s Table is inclusive in that the church invites all persons who seek the presence of God in their lives to come. The act of receiving bread and wine in a Christian community signifies some openness to the presence of God in one’s life. John Wesley said that he invited to the table of the Lord all whom he invited to Christ. Denominational affiliation is not a consideration. The Supper depicts the fellowship of Christians. Paul could ask, “Is Christ divided?” To deny believers the right of communion because they come from different denominational backgrounds is a denial of the intent of the Eucharist. The Eucharist exemplifies the oneness and unity of the people of God. The Lord’s Table becomes an anticipation of the unity of all Christians and churches that we already have in Christ. The Lord’s Supper proclaims the fellowship Christians and churches have with Christ. The Lord's Supper is not the expression of a human fellowship.  It is not an expression of a specific church.  The supper does not belong to the church.  It is the supper of the Lord.

            With the words of institution from the gospels and from Paul in I Corinthians, the nourishment that Christ offers for the journey of life becomes part of the life of the believer in a symbolic way. Because they are food in the natural order, the most popular image of interpretation for the bread and wine becomes that of “nourishment” of the soul. The recipient responds in faith, and the grace experienced unites the believer to Christ and to the community. It sustains life, increases one’s experience of life in Christ, repairs life in Christ, and brings delight as spiritual food. We receive strength to practice the virtues of the Christian life and to exhibit the grace of Christian life. The elements focus upon the presence of Christ in the Christian community. We experience that presence if we are open to receiving, reflecting, and pondering upon that presence. This view of the Supper shifts attention from the nature of the elements, which is material and will pass away, toward the meaning of the elements for us as we partake of the Supper.  In fact, this is what happens in daily life.  People do many things by habit.  However, one day it all takes on new meaning, a new motivation for living and loving.

            The supper of the Lord is a thanksgiving to the Father.  The early Christians “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47a, NIV). As we commune, we express joyful thanks for God’s mighty acts throughout history—for creation, covenant, redemption, sanctification. As a remembrance, the liturgy expresses thanksgiving for creation as well as the work of Christ. This thanksgiving will lead to the words of institution, at which bread and cup become the medium of the Christ’s presence. In the Eucharist, we have the opportunity as believers to express our thankfulness to God for all God’s blessings.  The Eucharist signifies what the world will become -- an offering and hymn of praise to the Creator, a communion of the body of Christ, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.

            The Eucharist means that believers give a memorial of the crucified and risen Christ.  This anamnesis, remembrance, or recollection of the sacrifice of Christ is an interpretation of the statement in Paul and Luke to do this in remembrance of him. Paul has the additional statement that it proclaims his death until he comes. The Supper relates to the atoning death of Jesus, yet is no mere remembrance of a past event, for that event has continuing significance for believers. As a believing remembrance, the liturgy begins with “Lift up your hearts.” Believers move beyond themselves and are with Christ in the act of recollection. Christ has made the one sacrifice necessary for the sins of the human race.  Christ and all that he accomplished for us is present in the Eucharist, granting us communion with himself. As we break and eat the bread and pour out and drink from the cup, we share in the path of Jesus toward martyrdom. The Supper is a matter of sharing fellowship with Jesus on his way to the cross. Faith involves letting oneself be taken up into the actual sacrifice of Jesus. The form of the service is that of a meal. We offer ourselves to God in Christ. The meal reflects the turning of Jesus toward us in fellowship. This was the point of the table fellowship of Jesus throughout his life. It looks forward to the heavenly banquet that Jesus will share. Participation in the Supper suggests forgiveness of sin, even as the table fellowship with Jesus in his earthly life already suggested this forgiveness.

            The Eucharist means an invocation of the Holy Spirit.  The act of human recollection is not enough. Recollection must pass over into prayer for the presence of the Lord. The Holy Spirit makes the presence of Christ a reality.  No human act can make Christ present; the Holy Spirit is the one who makes the historical words of institution of Jesus present and alive for us.

            The Eucharist means a community of the faithful.  The Eucharist is communion with Christ and communion with the whole body of Christ.  Table fellowship with Jesus finds expression in uniting of the participants in the feast with each other in a fellowship in which the saving future fellowship of humanity in the kingdom is already present in a sign. While deeply meaningful to the individuals participating, the sacrament is much more than a personal event. Even internal examination takes place in the context of the worshipping community and with the assurance of the presence of Christ. First Corinthians 10:17 explains, “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” It is a sign of a lasting relationship between Jesus and his followers as well as between the followers themselves.

            The Eucharist means a meal of the kingdom.  It is a vision of the final rule that God seeks to establish on the face of the earth.  God has promised renewal of the whole earth, and the Eucharist is a sign of that renewal.  The Eucharist calls the people of God to be servants and witnesses in the world in anticipation of the great heavenly banquet.  In the Eucharist, we have “precious food for missionaries, bread and wine for pilgrims on their apostolic journey.”  We unite into one people around one table for one meal, because Christ invited to his feast all for whom he died.



Christian governing community

            The ecumenical movement has its origin in the world missionary conferences, and in particular the International Missionary Council, the Faith and Order movement, and the conference on life and work. The latter movement was activist, with a slogan of “doctrine divides, service unites.” Through the modern politicizing of almost every activity, we can see that service no longer unites. Further, the church cannot so easily dismiss doctrine as an important component of our quest for visible unity.

Positive dimensions of the separated churches: unity, not conformity

Unity does not mean totalitarian uniformity. Unity does not mean submerging legitimate differences, for to do so would be to impoverish the church of the strength that these differences represent. Our conception of unity is rarely global enough. Beyond pluralistic confusion is a profound yes to our profession of the gracious self-giving of God in creation, in history, in all human striving for that which is best, and especially in the gift of the Son. Catholicity can no longer mean the intention of incorporating all peoples and religions into the church in a kind of grandiose Christian imperialism, nor can it permit the church to escape quite particular and often partisan commitments such as to the liberation of oppressed peoples and races. Denominationalism itself has been one way that the wholeness of churches finds expression in particular bodies of Christians. Too often, catholic has meant a totalitarian approach to church life. “Universality” must rather refer to an “inner wholeness” and to the future universal redemption of humanity. Moreover, the doctrine and practice of the church need continual reformation. Everything humanity touches is wounded with contingency, and thus open to further interpretation, clarification, repentance, and renewal.

            In the post-Reformation age, we at least need to consider the positive dimension of this division of the church. Denominations reflect the particularity of the church. For example, denominations often have their foundation in the need to address changing social conditions. The disinherited of a culture often needs a form of religion that is emotional and focuses on future reward. Nietzsche called this the religion of slaves. However, this addressing of specific needs to a disinherited group often lifts the group to new heights, rather than make people comfortable with their present misery. Such expressions of emotion and hopes for the future help some groups bear the burden of the present with hope, as well as inspire action toward a better for themselves and their children. The spirituals of the slave offered hope for liberation in America. The churches of the middle classes offer support for the moral and ethical values needed by that class to continue the improvement of daily life. Middle class churches often assist individuals in dealing with the various sources of suffering and pain in their lives, as well as offering ways of being generous with time, talent, and treasure with those who do not experience the fruits of this world in the same way. Churches often address the unique needs of a particular race or ethnic group. Some ethnic groups enjoy three hours of worship, and others require one hour or less. Christianity needs more diversity globally, for the global church will benefit from genuinely Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Indian, African, and many other indigenous forms of Christianity. In a country with as many segments as American life, such as rural, urban, and sub-urban, and so on, the particularity of some denominations in addressing those needs is welcome. In the past, differences between sections of the nation, such as north, south, west, and so on, also often provides a basis for denominational life. Styles of worship are also quite diverse in terms of liturgy, music, and preaching. I would conclude that the separated churches accomplish much in the cause of sharing the good news of what God has done and continues to do through Jesus Christ.

            Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians ground authority in their history and worship, and believe this historical grounding essential for the integrity of the church. If the papacy is to achieve its end as an expression of Christian unity, then it will need to discharge its office in a spirit of sacrificial service to separated churches. The exercise of its teaching office needs to keep in mind and heart these separated churches. The Orthodox churches have clung to divisive and nationalistic proclivities, a practice that if abandoned would enhance Orthodox witness to the world and benefit all Christians. Those out of pietistic, revivalist, and evangelical traditions emphasize openness to new forms of ministry to which God may call the church. They need to be present at ecumenical discussions. They need to be increasingly discerning of the life-giving presence of the Spirit in other denominational families. They need to practice hospitality and pursue a genuinely catholic spirit. They need to broaden their view of what it means to be apostolic in its historical sense. They can work for the health of all communities. Mainline Protestants generally find themselves somewhere in between. The church has grown in its outreach through this separation.

            When we think of the catholic or universal nature of the church, this is not a call for uniformity. This is a call to recognize the universal church, even as believers engage in worship, fellowship, and service in a particular church. My concern is that in the respect that we might gain for the particularity of denominational expression, we compromise too quickly to the segmentation of modern life. Christians in every denomination and in every local body of believers need to recognize their connection to the universal body of Christ. This balance of particularity and universality is an important dimension of Christian witness. The failure of Christians to bring reconciliation even within the Christian community is a testimony to the weakness of its witness to Christ.

Christianity has outgrown the antagonism of its denominational age.  All Christians have the right to presume that the congregation and denomination in which they receive resources sufficient for the journey of human life, as they understand it, is a valid expression of Christian community. They experience grace in a way that leads to the fullness, wholeness, and health of human life. Therefore, reasons for making it a purely private matter have disappeared.  The relationship between Christianity and the social order have the possibility for renewal.  The social sense of Christians as the people of God beyond confessional statements, tolerance and respect for other forms of faith, and a new sense of being close to the Jewish people, create this possibility.  A common lifestyle distinguishes the fellowship of the elect from the ways of the world.  Modern Christianity has largely forgotten this point.  Members think they must adjust to the world instead of consciously differentiating themselves from its rules and forms of life.  God allows the law of acts and consequences take effect in the destinies of many nations.  We cannot restrict judgment from God to biblical revelation. 

Separated churches have made genuine progress toward doctrinal agreement. The document on baptism, eucharist, and ministry is an example. Churches have discovered appreciation of various worship traditions. Churches draw upon the liturgical and devotional resources of each other. Churches have begun to consult each other concerning their common life, even if the area of homosexuality is one where some churches seem willing to make decisions without regard to other traditions.

            The Christian Church now exists in a diversity of denominational traditions and local bodies of believers. To use my imagination for a moment, I would find it a helpful sign of Christian unity to simply have churches place into their name something like this: Christian Church (Disciples), Christian Church (Roman Catholic), Christian Church (Lutheran), Christian Church (Presbyterian), Christian Church (Episcopalian), Christian Church (United Methodist), and so on. In such ways, we could acknowledge to the world our unity in Christ, while also acknowledge the blessings and challenges that diversity has brought. Of course, it is not helpful for anyone to declare themselves to be the only true church, for it does not acknowledge the reality of a divided church and body of believers. We need to acknowledge many of these differences in history and tradition, ritual, church government, and style, are among those things indifferent, in which we can join hands in service, worship, and learning as we experience our oneness in Christ.



Apostolic call to unity


The churches need to recognize the unity they already have, as well as recognize the promise of unity God makes and to which God calls the church. This unity is already visible, in virtue of our common faith that unites us to Christ. Baptism, confession of faith in Jesus Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, common fellowship, holding the one apostolic faith, preaching the gospel, and breaking bread form the unity the churches already have. Every time local churches celebrate the Lord’s Supper, persons of every race, gender, and economic class kneel at the same table and receive the same bread and cup. This Supper contains in symbolic form the intent God has in the church to unite people at one table. The churches need to commit themselves to the apostolic vision of unity and for their own healing. The visible signs of Christian unity call us to further expressions of that unity common prayer, common witness, shared conviction, and mutual acceptance. This commitment will lead us to further shared theological discourse, further shared witness in mission, and further shared witness in deeds of justice and mercy.

The apostolic witness is reasonably clear concerning this call to unity. In particular, Ephesians represents a call to unity.


Ephesians 1:9-10 (NRSV)

9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Ephesians 2:19-21 (NRSV)

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, 20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. 21 In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;

Ephesians 4:4-7 (NRSV)

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.


The prayer of Jesus in John makes it clear that spiritual or invisible unity of the church is not sufficient. The apostolic call to unity is one that the world must see. Friendly division is still division. We can become anesthetized from the wound of division. The world needs to see the reconciliation God brings to the world in Christ in the ordinary life of the church.


John 17:20-23 (NRSV)

20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.


Such texts remind us that the call to Christian unity is not a modern invention. Rather, the visible unity of the body of Christ in the world is intrinsic to the gospel message. Visible unity reflects the transformed life that God intends in the church and the world. Yet, it also represents an end toward which the churches will always need to strive. The extent to which the church does not show the world its unity in Christ, it harms its witness. God gathers people together in Christ precisely to bring unity to divided humanity. Yet, Christians also need to acknowledge that other Christians often embarrass them by their public pronouncements. We want unity in witness, yet we often conflict over the nature of that witness. We rightly celebrate diversity and difference. Yet, imperfect humanity can use diversity toward sinful purposes. Discerning the difference between valuable diversity and destructive diversity requires much meditation and reflection. For example, cherished group identities, often rich in historical memories of nobility and courage, can be permeated with contempt for traditional inferiors, hatred for traditional oppressors, and fear of traditional foes. In fact, many denominational families face internal divisions far deeper than the historical divisions of those families. I Corinthians 1 suggests that such divisions highlight the particularity of the group while at the same time obscuring who Christ is for believers and for the world. Clarifying particular strengths and insights of our traditions often occurs at the expense of clarifying to believers and to the world the Christ to whom we direct people. We tend to relish the marks that distinguish us from others, rather than that which brings glory to God. Emphasizing distinctive features often lead to emphasizing what divides rather than what unites. We can boast of our denominational loyalty instead of boasting in the gospel. Too often, divisions between churches reflect divisions in society between class, culture, ethnicity, or status. Rather than bringing reconciliation, the gathering of men and women into churches reinforce those divisions. In America, the attempt to discipline members can easily result in clergy leaving to another denomination and members moving to the church down the street.

Unity requires fidelity to normative tradition. This suggests normative teaching and authorized ways of ordering common life. Such work toward unity in these areas is life-giving and related to the truth claims of Christian teaching. Yet, the burden of separated churches is a burden shared by all. Working against visible unity, or accept its absence as the norm, is to resist the work of the Spirit toward reconciliation. The realization of this unity will require structures and institutions by which the common faith requires expression.


Modern resistance to unity


The influences of modern life, especially the spread of voluntary organizations and freedom, led to increased segmentation of Christianity. Yet, the segmentation of the church lessens this potentially powerful sign to the world of the direction God is moving in reconciling humanity to each other. Our divisions contradict and jeopardize the gracious gift of unity God gives the church and toward which God moves the church.For example, when churches 98% and 98% black worship within blocks of each other, one wonders if the world would notice the church more if they worshipped in the same building and especially celebrated communion at the same table.

            In a modern social world, religion has become largely a private matter. We cherish our particularity. We look with suspicion on the political and economic forces that impose homogeneity. We celebrate diversity and pluralism. As long as Christianity can find no other institutional form than mutually antagonistic denominations, one cannot expect modernity to listen too carefully. Continued insistence upon the particularity of denominational positions and counter-positions increasingly confines the church to a sectarian ghetto. Working to overcome these oppositions is itself a testimony to universality and catholicity of the Christian faith. Overcoming such divisions would make the church an increasingly authentic sign of the destiny of humanity and become a vehicle for achieving that destiny. One could legitimately argue that secularity is a direct result of sectarian strife within Christianity of which modernity grew weary. Denominational narrowness and antagonism in dogmatics contributed to the discrediting of theological discourse.

The negative influence of separated churches

            The failure of Christians to bring reconciliation even within the Christian community is a testimony to the weakness of its witness to Christ. The division of the church into various denominations makes it harder to affirm catholicity (universality and authenticity). How can we say that the whole church is present in the local congregation in a time when congregations often value their independence from their own denominations, let alone minimize their connection to other denominations?

Unfortunately, the institutional church has not done especially well in discharging its function as a sign of hope.  The church has divided itself.  The clergy are intolerant and seek power.  The church has accommodated to the changing modes of the world, while continuing a narrow approach to what is biblical.  Such realties do not give evidence of the liberating breath of the Spirit.  The church has constantly stood in the way of the commission it has, even though that commission arises from the foundation of its nature. However, the destiny of the church assures that even an obscured sign is a sign.  God can purify this sign.  The power of such renewal comes from the gospel, which reminds the members of the church that they belong to Jesus Christ and that the unity of the body of Christ binds them together.

Historic episcopate and beyond

Nevertheless, a particular form of ecclesial polity emerged that used “apostolicity” as its legitimation, namely, one that was sacerdotal, Episcopal, and hierarchical. By its very nature, this polity vested authority in a group of specially sanctioned individuals, and its tendency was to become increasingly monarchical and absolutistic. Obviously, it was necessary for the post-apostolic church to adopt some form of definite institutional structure, including an ordered and recognized ministry, and it was probably inevitable that this structure should reflect the patterns of religious and political authority characteristic of Hellenistic and Roman culture. What occurred was the loss of charismatic forms of ministry present in the apostolic church, and the adoption of a juridical model of reality with its accompanying system of rewards and punishments. While these developments are regrettable, it should be acknowledged that true Christian faith and practice survived in countless individuals, that the church helped to shape, for better or for worse, the values of Western civilization, and that, despite obvious abuses and corruption, the institution was for the most part effectively governed and led.

      The apostolicity of the church should not be used as a cover for authoritarianism, dogmatism, and hierarchalism. Küng points out that the New Testament term for ministry is diakonia, meaning service—service in the love of neighbor and of God—and that such service ought to characterize all ecclesial offices, including the highest, the petrine office, whose primacy should be one of service and ministry rather than dominion and authority. True authority is exercised by means of service and issues in freedom—both within the church and on behalf of suffering, oppressed humanity. Such a ministry of service and liberation is all too rarely accomplished. Küng himself is unprepared to propose structural reforms by which the abuses of authority might be controlled, relying instead on the voluntary renunciation of power by those in high places.

The authority of the church has been a major issue throughout history. We need to acknowledge the treasure present churches have in the apostolic church and in the churches of the ecumenical period. The early creeds are themselves historically conditioned. They excluded error, rather than provide detailed exposition of what Christians believe. No one intended that the confessions of faith end theological explorations. At the same time, present churches need to recognize that all of the churches of the ecumenical period, such as Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, and Rome, have erred in matters related to faith and practice. The church ought not to have the authority to ordain anything not in the bible as required of all the faithful. The church does not fulfill the promises that God has made either to the church or to humanity. The church is on a pilgrimage or journey, rather than resting in the fulfillment of some divine purpose. We find the meaning of the church in what it is moving toward, rather than what it is. The church does not fulfill the promises that God has made either to the church or to humanity. The church is on a pilgrimage or journey, rather than resting in the fulfillment of some divine purpose. We find the meaning of the church in what it is moving toward, rather than what it is.

            I want to be quite clear. The church needs to take quite seriously human imperfection. The church needs to take seriously that its history and present is always short of the destiny toward which God draws it. Every decision of the church or of the bishop of Rome is provisional. Every decision also is a sign of the direction toward which God is moving the church. The church has every right and responsibility to struggle with discussions that the New Testament starts, thereby helping contemporary Christians understand the bible and Christian teaching better. Now, for any church after the New Testament to start a conversation the New Testament does not have, make it binding upon all Christians, and then declare that it is infallible in doing so, demonstrates the pride and self-righteousness contained in sin. Further, God alone determines whom God will accept. Therefore, to define any teaching, and then declare that no one can experience salvation that does not believe it, is not a prerogative any human being or human institution enjoys.

The church is both fallible and defectable, as well as an authentic sign of hope and grace. We need to affirm both. Human corruption does not escape the church. The arrogance of power as centered in the pope brought disunity between East and West. The same arrogance brought the doctrinal fissure of the Reformation.

            No human institution has the right to claim that it realizes the rule of God in its life. Every human institution, including the church, is a proleptic embodiment of the future. That means it is also a provisional sign, open to the future in surprising ways. The eschatological nature of the church stated in chapter viii in The Dogmatic Constitution of the Church needs to find its way earlier in the document and applied to church councils and the pope. The Christian community will make no moves toward unity until the Roman Catholic Church confesses that it has made errors in matters of faith and morals and seeks to correct them. It needs to have some openness to renewal and reformation from the perspective of seeing the bible in new light, in light of new exegesis and new experiences. Openness to the future that recognizes with humility what any human community can discern concerning the will and purpose of God. In order for the church to remain apostolic, the church, its pope, its councils, need continual openness to the apostolic documents and criticism of the present faith and morals of the church.

            Speaking of the infallibility of one person is useless.  Not even the church can make a statement that from the outset cannot be false.  The church is too diverse to speak of an infallible source.  That diversity is working itself through the Roman Catholic Church as well, but it is also evident in the Christian world.  Therefore, we do not need to rule out the possibility that the Petrine office of the bishop of Rome might become a visible sign of the unity of the whole church.  This can happen as long as a practical restructuring of the office subordinates it to the primacy of the gospel.  Vatican II has subordinated the teaching office of the pope to the Word of God.  Consistent with the model in I Corinthians 15, tradition and reception have gone together throughout history.  The teaching office of the hierarchy submits its teaching both to the authority of the gospel and to the receptivity of the people.  The Reformation teachings of grace alone and faith alone, we can understand in the context of the universal availability of grace and the personal response to that grace as the foundation of our connection to Christ. The Reformation teaching of scripture alone, where the bible, itself a product of the church and tradition, is a reflection of the norm for further Christian reflection and living. The bible does not have some intrinsic power to shape the church, for the living church continues to work out its life together with the bible as a norm and source. The verbal inspiration of the bible is the foundation of the Reformation view of scripture alone. Scripture finds its formation within Christian community already in existence through the preaching of the church. The recent Roman Catholic dogmas have found some standing within Roman Catholicism and little standing among the people in other denominations, as well as have questionable status when one submits them to the norm of church teaching, the bible. Here I think of the primacy of the Pope, the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin into heaven. The traditionalism, intellectualism, ritualism, and monasticism of the Roman Catholic Church appear to many persons as precisely the forces and institutions against which Jesus fought.


Acceptance of mutual ordained ministry

Christian churches will have to come to a place of accepting the unity of ordained ministry.  All ordained ministries have an Episcopal character. The ambiguity of direction connection with the historic episcopate needs to be laid aside, recognizing that God has used denominational diversity to further the mission of the church. The assumption of the Roman Catholic Church is that the ministry of every Christian sect has a fatal flaw that does not permit the grace of Christ to connect in a saving way with those who believe it. This arrogance has always been the source of sectarianism in Christianity. Even if the Roman Catholic Church view or the Ecumenical view resulted in one institution, new division would arise from the sociological view, as well as from prophetic criticism and the need for reformation. From the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church, all other churches have a defect in their ordination. I would suggest that, if the Bishop of Rome could see his role as nourishing others, taken from the command of the risen Lord to Peter in John 21, rather than the authority of Peter over others in Matthew 18, a powerful witness could show itself to the world. The arrogance of the past could give way to humble service to global Christianity. The willingness of the Orthodox churches and many Protestant denominations to forgive the Roman churches its past injustices, as well as the willingness of the Roman church to forgive, would be a powerful sign to the world of what Christ can do in the lives of those who believe. After all, that is the primary test of the truth of Christianity.

Luther focused upon the preaching and sacramental authority of ordained ministry.  He did not speak of the leadership function of the ordained ministry.  John Calvin expanded the role of the ordained ministry toward exercising a leadership function.  The church needs people who are publicly and continually responsible for pointing to the fundamental dependence of the church on Christ.  These persons also emphasize the unity of the church.  The local ordained ministry has an awareness of the universal body of Christ.  The only difference between the ministry of all Christians and the ministry of the ordained ministry is that the latter is done publicly, and in the name of the whole church.  The ordained ministry does not act in its own name.  It represents at the local level the unity of the whole church and on the authority of the commission to teach the gospel. In the discharge of their office, the ordained ministry acts in the name of Christ and represents the whole church that goes back to the apostles.  The acts of all ministers relate to this unity of the total church.

Ordained ministry continues the ministry of leadership begun by the apostles.  Ministers who act with the authority of Jesus Christ share in the saving mystery of Christ.  The church calls the ordained ministry to perform such functions publicly.  This ministry helps unite Christ and the church, and in that sense, it is a sacrament.  Luther argued that because of the emergency in his period, any ordained minister has the right to ordain people to ministry. The churches of the Reformation had to declare that much of the pre-Reformation church was superfluous, un-Christian, or anti-Christian, in order to make such a radical break as they did. After all, the church is present wherever a congregation of Christians holds fast to the word of the gospel.  Where no episcopate exists, the church entrusts to any Christian the task of proclamation.  Such a calling and ordination are the work of God.  The Council of Trent pronounced an anathema upon anyone who taught that anyone but a bishop could ordain.  Luther accepted apostolic succession and the general rule of Episcopal ordination, while pointing to the emergency of this own time.  Apostolic succession today means succession in the teaching and faith of the apostles, rather than succession in office.   An essential part of ordination is that it takes place in preservation of the unity of the whole church.  In spite of everything, we have not lost the sense of the unity of Christianity.

All Christians have the right to presume that the congregation and denomination in which they receive resources sufficient for the journey of human life, as they understand it, is a valid expression of Christian community. They experience grace in a way that leads to the fullness, wholeness, and health of human life. Therefore, reasons for making it a purely private matter have disappeared.  The relationship between Christianity and the social order have the possibility for renewal.  The social sense of Christians as the people of God beyond confessional statements, tolerance and respect for other forms of faith, and a new sense of being close to the Jewish people, create this possibility.  A common lifestyle distinguishes the fellowship of the elect from the ways of the world.  Modern Christianity has largely forgotten this point.  Members think they must adjust to the world instead of consciously differentiating themselves from its rules and forms of life.  God allows the law of acts and consequences take effect in the destinies of many nations.  We cannot restrict judgment from God to biblical revelation. 

            Churches need a ministry of leadership at a regional level, such as bishops have classically provided.  Even the most congregational of denominational polity eventually build such a structure. In some sects, the pastor becomes elevated to “bishop” when the local church gives birth to other local churches. The unity of the church finds expression in regional ministries serving the local church, including the global fellowship of all Christians. Providing this connection between local churches, often in order to join in ministry together, moves against parochial interests and broadens concern for the global mission of the church. The network of local churches already experiences its unity in the one Lord; it does not need to exist in obedience to a bishop (or Pope) to express that unity.

            Zeal for righteousness has caused hurt to come upon many good people. We need to listen generously to others. Church government is a matter of New Testament presbyters who teach, deacons who serve, and bishops elected from geographical area to guard against division, a first among equals. The church needs to limit continually its own authority because of the potential abuse of power, as Paul notes in the household rules. This includes care in applying the ecumenical councils. An irenic and generous spirit is important in such exercise of authority where needed.

            We at least need to consider, therefore, the question of a universal ministry of leadership for Christianity.  The Roman Catholic Church claims to have such a ministry in the primacy of the bishop of Rome.  They believe the basis of this power is divine right in Matthew 16:16-18 and John 21:15-17.  Most exegetes consider these statements as limited to Peter, no matter what they in fact mean.  The need arose in the history of the church for a voice of unity and a universal norm.  However, the issue of authority became acute during the reformation. Later, when the infallibility of the pope became dogma of the church, the issue of the authority of the church became further acute.  Unfortunately, as the bishop of Rome strove for supreme power, the possibility for this office to symbolize lessened.  The ecumenical interest here must become a concern to us all.  It is true that unity is an important element of the church.  Christians could choose to symbolize this unity through one person.  If the church can work toward having one person whom truly speaks for the entire church, and not just one segment of the church, it enhances the witness of the church. 

Unity of the teaching office of the church

            Among the dangers of separated churches is that theological teaching takes the form of a monologue concerning distinctive doctrines that reinforce adherents and emphasize separation. The question of the truth of what a denominational family teaches is secondary to maintaining distinctiveness. This approach reflects a tribal approach to the body of Christ. It leads to consumerism, as Christian groups accommodate to cultural patterns. Even resistance to culture becomes another consumer strategy.

            The separated churches could take steps toward unity here by including theologians from other denominational families as part of their doctrinal commissions. Official statements can keep their eye on how they affect other denominational families, other religions, and secular society. Educational institutions can encourage ecumenical approaches among their scholars.

            The teaching office of the church in history continues to submit to the norm of scripture, while at the same time developing that teaching in light of the challenges of the present. The accountability of individuals working out their beliefs and values “in fear and trembling” in the context of Christian community means we do not do so as isolated individuals or as islands of theological reflection. The church does not exist when it does not have the courage to say that something is “anathema.” If the church tolerates everything, if everything is equally valid opinion among Christians, then we have ceased being church in a meaningful way.

            The unity of the church is clearly an “essential” or “spiritual” reality based on the unity of God, for division and disunity mark the churches empirically. Ecumenical discussion must not have its foundation for the historical embodiment of this diversity to renounce their uniqueness. On the one hand, true unity does not exclude diversity and plurality, which are facts of life and which may, as Karl Rahner suggests, help us to perceive the “radical and fundamental truths and realities of Christian faith and of Christian existence more clearly than perhaps would be the case if everyone were in the same social and ecclesial situation.” On the other hand, as Rahner, Küng, and others have pointed out, there really is no theological justification for the divisions in the church, which are the result of failure, guilt, and sin. The recognition of valid diversity, of productive plurality in belief, liturgy, and practice, should not be allowed to legitimate unproductive division, separation, and hostility.

The church discovers its unity in Christ and in the common sacred book, and not in historical expressions of the church. The church cannot recover its unity by going back to the New Testament, for it reflects the diversity of the church even in the first century. The unity of Christianity we discover at a level deeper than what is obvious at a social level. Christians have unity at a more foundational level than many realize, even if the divisions of the church are real and serious. What unites Christians in their profession of faith is more fundamental, decisive, and significant for our wholeness as human beings and as Christians than that which divides us. This profession of faith in Christ points toward a future defined by the reconciling work of God in Christ. The church can recover unity only in its destiny as body of Christ, and as such the sign of what humanity will be, even if that sign remains a dim and fractured one.