Friday, July 25, 2008

Two Possible Purposes of Ecumenical Discourse

Over at the Boar's Head Tavern (July 24-25, 2008) there is a big dispute going on about the Lord's Supper and Baptism.

The whole discussion is interesting for the substance. But even more interesting is the implicit issues (the meta-discussion) about what ecumenical discussion is supposed to do.

For people like me, or Josh S, or John H, who have been baptized in one tradition and then moved to another, it's obvious what the purpose of ecumenical discussion is. It's to get you to evaluate the claims of the denominations and chose the one that is true. (Whether on the basis of evaluating its truth claims, or using "genetic" criteria like apostolicity, or evaluating the fervor or good works is for this purpose irrelevant.) Thus it is crucial to draw distinctions, and particularly draw distinctions that divide denominations by their very nature. Southern Baptists don't have apostolic succession, and can't, by their very nature. Catholics don't have believer's baptism and can't by their very nature. Some distinction like that is very useful for motivating a move from one tradition to another, much more useful than vague and ambiguous ones like the presence of good works, spiritual fervor, etc., all of which vary widely within a single denomination.

Now it's true, we all know people rarely are argued into a different denomination. That's a bug in our system: we're too proud to change. But fortunately, the Spirit can get around that. Stymied in a frontal attack, He can sneak around the rear and by Bible reading and Christian contacts and web discussions and so on change less strongly defended beliefs which then leave our doctrinal Maginot Lines isolated and defenseless. (John H describes the process here.)

But as Michael Spencer points out (key posts here, here, here): that all assumes that moving denominations is like voting in an election. You make your decision in a secret ballot, and go back to your life without direct consequences. But that's just not so. Our denominational choices come from our life stories. Often times its just a simple issue of location. For example, if you live in most parts of eastern Kentucky, becoming a Lutheran is in practice flatly impossible. (Unless giving up your job and moving for a denominational change is something you have to do.) There's simply no Lutheran church near enough. Or what if you are married to a woman who absolutely will not worship in an Orthodox church? Then being an Orthodox church member might be impossible. (Of course that depends on how you evaluate the priorities of marriage and denominational affiliation.

In sum, people with particular types of lives are practically speaking excluded from certain denominations.

Michael Spencer then turns to his basic belief: it is unbelievable that Jesus would prevent those who have heard his message and Gospel from living Jesus-shaped lives, simply because of some fatality of birth or life story that keeps them from belonging to the right denomination.

If this is so, and if a Jesus-shaped life depends on His presence in church fellowship, then it must be the case that no denomination that is Christian at all can claim to have any decisive advantage to the Jesus-shaped life that all do not have. If one denomination claims an infallible teaching magisterium, then either all have it or the claim is false. If one denomination claims to have Jesus's body present in Communion, then either all have it or the claim is false.

To put it a bit differently, while Michael Spencer accepts the "scandal of particularity" with regard to Jesus, he does not accept it with regard to denominations. That a believer in Jesus is saved, while a non-believer is not, he accepts. But that a Lutheran Christian is advantaged in the Christian life by his membership in a denomination in a way that a Baptist is not, this he categorically denies is possible.

Thus he insists that there cannot possibly be any way in which a Southern Baptist believer is qualitatively disadvantaged in the Christian life, simply from not being a member of a Catholic or a Lutheran church. All denominations must have equal resources for the Jesus-shaped life, if only the members of them would claim them.

In this case then, the hard-edged "by their very nature" denominational distinctives are not good, but bad. Lutherans and Baptists and Catholics can all share emphases and idea and spiritual advice. Each one can find his or her spiritual life enriched by that -- without moving to a different denomination. Southern Baptists can have a higher view of the Lord's Supper. Catholics can take evangelism more seriously. Lutherans can try to be less cranky . . .

But once it gets to a claim that our priests are infallible because they have received a charism as members of the Catholic church, or only we are really baptized because only believer's baptism is real baptism -- suddenly that is a claim that doesn't do any one any good unless they move. And if they can't move -- if they can't just believe that where they are -- then that claim will have the effect of intoning at them: You are disqualified from being Christian. You live in the wrong part of Kentucky. You are married to the wrong woman. You have the wrong social ties -- and as a result, your Christian life will always be second-rate.

So by their very life stories, John H and Josh S and me will see ecumenical discussion as having exactly the opposite purpose and characteristics as Michael Spencer will. For us, it's to sharpen distinctions and force a change. For him it is precisely to muddle distinctions and force our Christian denominations to converge. For us, the fact that no one ever directly changes their denomination due to a web discussion forum is a bug. A bug the Spirit can get around, but still, a bug. For him, it's a feature: only by people refusing to change denominations will Southern Baptist churches become sacramentally minded, and Catholic churches emphasize new birth.

Those who switch denominations have a lot of Scriptures on their side -- if they ASSUME that getting the right denomination is the same thing as becoming Christian. Those who don't have a lot of Scriptures on their side -- if they ASSUME that being in a particular denomination is like being in a particular marriage or job.

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