just an apprentice

the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholic Christians in Dialogue

I came across a wonderful statement that grew out of dialogue between Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholic Christians. The statement is the product of consultation, beginning in September 1992, between Evangelical Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians. It is wonderful to see the Body of Christ across the various traditions working to bring about the unity for which Jesus prayed: "My prayer for all of them is that they will be one, just as you and I are one, Father--that just as you are in me and I am in you, so they will be in us, and the world will believe you sent me." (John 17:21)

Here are some of the tension points that arise in such a dialogue between divergent theological streams and traditions:

  • The church as an integral part of the Gospel or the church as a communal consequence of the Gospel.
  • The church as visible communion or invisible fellowship of true believers.
  • The sole authority of Scripture (sola scriptura) or Scripture as authoritatively interpreted in the church.
  • The "soul freedom" of the individual Christian or the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the community.
  • The church as local congregation or universal communion.
  • Ministry ordered in apostolic succession or the priesthood of all believers.
  • Sacraments and ordinances as symbols of grace or means of grace.
  • The Lord's Supper as eucharistic sacrifice or memorial meal.
  • Remembrance of Mary and the saints or devotion to Mary and the saints.
  • Baptism as sacrament of regeneration or testimony to regeneration.

I realize that Anabaptism would not fit tightly into the theological contours of Protestant Evangelicals. However, there is significant overlap, Anabaptist distinctives notwithstanding. I would observe that while there is much that is good in this statement, I miss the voice and perspective of Eastern Orthodoxy in the dialogue. I realize that participation in ecumenical dialogue is somewhat problematic for the Orthodox church. My heart grieves for expressions of division that do not enter into the fullness of Jesus' high priestly prayer.

During class (Conversations With Anabaptist Theology Today) last night, Brinton Rutherford referenced Myron Augsburger's perspective that one should be committed to a particular theological system in order to engage with other traditions across the body of Christ. I guess that is one of the tension points in my journey. How can I be enriched by that which is True (or central to the Gospel) in other theological traditions? How can I enter into the unity that Jesus prayed would be expressed in the Church. In each of the tension points named above...must I choose between one side or the other? Is that what Augsburger means by being committed to a particular theological stream?

I had a thought while singing a particular worship song on Sunday morning at SMC. The song was "You are Worthy" sung by Michael W. Smith. The song is unique in that men sing one set of lyrics and notes and women sing another set of lyrics and notes. Both sing at the same time. The result is both musical harmony and lyrical harmony (complementarity). I wondered if that might be what unity in the Church might be like. We do not see unity that is expressed institutionally across theological traditions. But is it possible that we are singing divergent words in our worship and witness that are complementary and producing a greater harmony?

Am I being unfaithful to my own tradition (Anabaptist) if I embrace practices that are not a part of my theological stream? What is acceptable and what goes to far in the view of my own ecclesial community? Many in the Mennonite Church have embraced much from other streams that is not at the core of (and one could argue at points is a departure from) core Anabaptist theology. We see this in the embrace of everything from worship music, to ministry models, to curriculum for Christian Education, to popular teachers from the broader stream of contemporary Evangelicalism. I don't think I need to give specific examples.

So it is okay to put a fish on our vehicles--a symbol from the early church, but we are uncomfortable with the practice of making the sign of the cross--also a symbol from the early church.


Lord, let our memory provide no shelter for grievance against each other.

Lord, let our heart provide no harbour for hatred of each other.

Lord, let our tongue be no accomplice in the judgement of each other.


  • At 9:53 PM , Anonymous dml said...

    What do you mean by this?

    "My heart grieves for expressions of division that do not enter into the fullness of Jesus' high priestly prayer."

  • At 8:26 AM , Blogger Brian Miller said...

    I think there are several edges to what I mean. One aspect of what I mean was touched on in a recent piece by Myron Augsburger in the MWR (Dec. 5, 2005). He writes, "Mennonites have a subtle spirit of condescending exclusiveness. We tend to regard other Christians as inferior and miss out on an inclusiveness that could enrich us."

    He goes on to say, "We do accept a limited measure of ecumenicity. We borrow a few patters in worship and liturgy, but very selectively--accepting either what is too popular for us to miss or what we deem best suited to our spiritual formation."

    Augsburgur says, "We need an ecumenical spirit that is distinct from ecumenical organization."

    I guess I would start there in my answer to your question. I am homesick for a view of the church that is inclusive--yet does not sacrifice a commitment to the Faith we have received. Like Paul, could we say, "that which I received I passed on to you." Or have we become too skeptical, too formed by Modern Enlightenment to be able to believe that the Scriptures and the worship of the Church are more than just something we make up, or interpret, or create as we see fit or as makes sense from our lens.

    In my class Tuesday night, Brinton Rutherford noted that Christian theology of the classical era says, "God exists." God is the subject period. After the Englightenment, with the radical shift toward individualism, theology says, "I think God exists." "I" is the subject and God is the object. So we have moved from thinking of the architecture of Theology as Dogmatics, or even Systematic Theology. We see theology moving toward more of a "Constructive" formulation. We do theology (God words, God thoughts) from the bottom up, not from God down. We begin with our experience and try to explain God through that lens. We are skeptical of anything that begins with a foundation in revelation. Because of course the interpretation of that revelation depends on the perspective and experience of the individual.

    This has been one huge sidebar to the question of "expressions of division." I believe that when Jesus was praying that we (the Church) would be one, just as the Father and he are one he meant a oneness that is deep and even spiritual grounded in wholeness and truth. I don't think Jesus was praying for a superficial oneness.

    I write as one whose own views have shifted. Whereas at one time I would have looked with skepticism and eyes of superiority on believers outside of the Anabaptist/Evangelical/Charismatic stream...I have come to see that the Spirit of God is at work throughout the whole Church. My prayer is that we would work toward reconciliation, unity, and a true understanding of the Church.

    In my own emerging theology, I sense a movement toward a more inclusive ecclesiology, that allows for the possibility that we (our church, our denomination, our historical stream) does not have the sum and total of truth and/or the way of faithful worship and witness. I pray that we could join our "distinctives" together with the whole and perhaps not even view them as "ours." Could we let go of the need to define ourselves as seperate from the whole, or distinct in some way. I know this is not possible outside of the working of the Holy Spirit, for history has created some real rifts and tensions that cannot be minimized. But could we allow ourselves to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work to bring about the fulfillment of Jesus' prayer that must be owned as the eschatalogical reality we are moving toward when all things will be brought together in Christ.


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