At the dawning of this century, Christians in Europe and North America harbored great expectations. Many leaders confidently looked forward to completing a mission that was nothing less than the Christianization of the world. For us at the end of the century it is easy, it is all too easy, to dismiss such expectations as “triumphalism.” Those who succumb to that temptation often seem to be dismissing the Christian missionary mandate itself. Was, for example, the Apostle Paul guilty of triumphalism?

And yet it does seem obvious that the great expectations of that earlier time have been disappointed. Christians underestimated the forces of secularism, especially of secular nationalism, that would soon throw Europe into the abyss of World War I, destroying Europe’s dominant position in world history. The thoroughly secularist nature of the European powers became increasingly evident in many ways. Consider, for one neglected instance, their betrayal of their promises to the Christian people of Greece. The Europeans had promised to restore Greek political control over their ancient settlements in Asia Minor. But, beginning after World War I and continuing to the present time (as evident in the unhappy plight of Cyprus), it became clear that the power politics of the West was now indifferent to the situation of Christianity in the world. Eastern Christians thought the Christian factor would somehow count with a putatively Christian West. They were bitterly disillusioned, and remain so to this day.

The alienation of the Western powers from their cultural and religious roots, and from their consequent sense of historical mission, also played a part in the decolonization movement following World War II. In the post-colonial period, Christian churches in the Third World have demonstrated considerable missionary vitality, especially in Africa and some parts of East Asia. At the same time, however, we have witnessed a remarkable resurgence of other religions, notably of those we call “world religions.” Most particularly, Islamic missions have become a formidable challenge to Christianity. This new situation could hardly have been anticipated by Christians who looked forward to this century with such great expectations.

In Europe itself, the forces of secularization, allied with economic affluence, have made dramatic progress in alienating the popular mind from the Christian origins of Western culture. Where once the Christian churches exerted cultural sway, they have become a besieged minority. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the churches themselves have in many ways bought into a secular mindset. In preaching, teaching, congregational life, and sometimes in liturgy, they have pursued a course of accommodation to secularism. In this way they hope to get a more sympathetic hearing for the Christian message. It is now apparent, however, that the strategy of accommodation is self-defeating.

Accommodation to secularity is in fact perceived as a sign of weakness, as a loss of Christian confidence. It has frequently been noted that the mainline and accommodating churches are in decline, while conservative churches continue to grow. Evangelicals and fundamentalists are not embarrassed to challenge the prevailing patterns of thought and behavior associated with secularity. This growth, however, does not come without paying a price. That price includes a loss of openness to the human situation in all of its maddening variety, and a quenching of the unprejudiced search for truth. That said, the irony is that those churches that are dismissed as irrelevant by more “sophisticated” Christians often turn out to be most relevant to our secular societies. These societies are marked by a pervasive consciousness of dissatisfaction and indeterminate longings, and that is the consciousness most effectively addressed by Christians who have a distinctive message that challenges the spirit of secularism.

Secularism can be challenged by irrational protest or reaction. Such reaction, however, is too often accompanied by a closing of the mind to legitimate questions raised to Christian faith, and by an unwillingness to examine honestly the beliefs that Christians want to defend. The more promising response to secularism takes the form of an open and rational (although not “rationalistic”) inquiry into both the roots of modernity and the content of the Christian tradition, including the biblical writings. A rational attitude necessarily involves critical reflection, but if such reflection is truly critical it applies itself not only to the cultural tradition but also, and with equal rigor, to the critics of the tradition.

A critical assessment of the biblical tradition and the history of Christian doctrine need not be carried out under the sway of secular modernism. Rather, such an assessment ought to be undertaken for the sake of the Christian message itself. Indeed, that message makes such a critical assessment both necessary and possible, for it includes an understanding of the unity of faith and reason. The alliance between faith and reason has been a mark of the Christian tradition since the second century, if not earlier. Because there is only one God, the creator of all, who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, there can be only one truth for all human beings. The idea of “universal reason,” therefore, should not be seen as an invention of modernity. It has its roots in the Christian doctrine of God, and was the motor force of early Christianity’s understanding of its universal mission. The confidence that every particular truth must finally be consonant with the one God and his self-revelation continues to be the condition that makes possible the formative and transformative power of the Christian faith in the life of persons, societies, and cultures.

If that power has seemed to be on the wane in recent history, it is due in large part to the widespread assumption that reason and faith belong to different realms, or represent different, even conflicting, dimensions of human experience. Modernity struggled for the emancipation of reason from faith, and many theologians of the modern era found it convenient to accept the separation of the two. What became a breach, both wide and deep, between reason and faith cannot be blamed simply on modernizing theologians and subjectivizing pietists, however. That breach began with the breakup of the Western church in the sixteenth century as a result of the failure of the Reformation movement.

The virulent conflicts between confessional churches and their theologies undermined confidence in the unity of faith and reason. Rational truth can only be one, but Christianity presented itself to the emerging modern world in a divided state of conflicting truth claims. By the time the churches ran out of zeal for battling one another, many thoughtful people had arrived at the conclusion that the one truth was not to be found in any of the contending confessional parties. The history of Christian division and confessional warfare helped give rise to a secular culture that was determined to free itself from religion altogether. The former alliance between faith and reason was dissolved as more and more people began to assume that faith is “religious” while reason is “secular.” As a consequence of these several break ups, Christian faith largely lost its power to transform personal, social, and cultural life.

Those who would adapt the content of Christianity to secular standards may think that they are restoring the lost consonance between faith and reason. Such adaptation is a pathetic and dangerous substitute for that consonance, however, because it is a one-way process. The secular culture is allowed to do all the transforming. An authentic alliance between faith and reason, on the other hand, holds the promise of producing real alternatives to the secular interpretation of reality, while also respecting what is true in the experience of secularity. But Christianity cannot regain its transforming power without a restored confidence in the singularity of the message that distinguishes it from other interpretations of reality. The churches must recognize that as their first and most important task.

According to Christianity, the message of the kingdom of God is the indispensable condition for meaningful human life, individual and social. The kingdom of God is not something that we can bring about, nor is it identical with the life of the church. It is, rather, the horizon and criterion of individual and social life, including the life of the church. The church’s mission is to be a sign of the kingdom. The kingdom itself is the content of the eschatological hope for the transformation of our mortal lives through participation in God’s eternal glory by the power of his Spirit in the resurrection of the dead. The advance pledge of this hope is the crucified and risen Christ. Now in an anticipatory manner, and one day fully, we overcome the limits of our present and provisional existence by participating in the new life that entered the world in the resurrection of Jesus.

In its Constitution on the Church ( Lumen Gentium ), the Second Vatican Council described the church as a sign and instrument of that eschatological hope. (The description of the church as sign of the kingdom, although not as instrument, was adopted by the World Council of Churches in 1968.) According to Vatican II, the church signifies the promise of unity with God and communion among human beings. Unity with God has first place in our human destiny, and flowing from it is communion with one another. In the years since the Council, that order has often been reversed. It is suggested that human community is the ultimate goal, and it really does not matter what the basis of such unity might be. In this “secular ecumenism” the church is viewed as an agent of political and social transformation resulting in the unity of humankind. Only by maintaining, with Vatican II, the priority of communion with God, however, can the Christian hope comprehend the inevitable unsatisfactoriness of all social and political arrangements. That priority also distinguishes the church from every other form of human community. The church is the communion of those who share faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and are joined in him through baptism and eucharist.

What the church does most distinctively serves the world most powerfully. It is precisely as a liturgical worshiping community that the church is most effectively a sign of the ultimate destiny of every human being and of humanity as a whole. That ultimate destiny of all human beings is to be one with God and, through that unity, one with one another. Human beings can associate in many ways in order to achieve a measure of community, even of communion. A gang of criminals is undoubtedly a community of sorts. But the kingdom of God is not community-in-general. It is communion with God through Christ in the power of the Spirit. That communion is the destiny of humankind, and the church, especially in her liturgical life, is the present image of that destiny. Thus the life of the church is itself an integral part of the message of the church, namely, the proposal to the world of its future in the kingdom of God.

The existing churches live up to their nature and mission to the extent that their life reflects the paradigm of the liturgical event: that is to say, to the extent that they give evidence of the unity of Christians based on their unity with God in one faith, one baptism, one eucharist. If the regional and worldwide associations of Christians were structured according to that paradigm, they would exist as communions of communions, communions of local congregations gathered around the celebration of the liturgy. To a degree, the churches today do manifest that basic structure, but only to a degree. They are more often perceived as regional or worldwide institutions much like other social institutions, with bureaucratic structures and disciplines of their own. Moreover, the separate existence of churches on various levels presents the picture of a multiplicity of religious parties in competition, and frequently in conflict, with one another.

Roman Catholic and Orthodox theologians have in recent years taken the lead in developing a “communio” ecclesiology or doctrine of the church. Such an ecclesiology holds great ecumenical promise. Communio ecclesiology is responsive to the Protestant emphasis upon the local congregation where the pure gospel is preached and the sacraments are rightly administered (Augsburg Confession, 1530). At least in principle, communio ecclesiology offers a common basis for ecumenical thinking about the church, but a number of problems remain. Two are deserving of particular mention.

First, the churches do not all mean the same thing when they refer to “the local church” as the basic unit of ecclesial life. The local church may mean the worshiping congregation in a particular place, in which case the universal church would consist in a communion of local congregations. In Roman Catholic usage, however, “local church” means the diocese or episcopal see. In the early church a diocese was a small geographical unit centered in a place of worship, whereas today a diocese is more like a regional organization of local congregations. Diocesan organizations find their unity in having one bishop rather than one gathering for worship. In this view of the local church, the bishop is understood to preside at the common eucharist, although in fact it is usually a priest and not the bishop who is presiding in a particular congregation or parish. This practice raises the question of how the ministries of priest (or presbyter) and bishop are related, a question of great ecumenical moment. If the episcopal dignity is derived from presiding at the eucharist, it would clarify the “communio” structure of the church to underscore the episcopal nature of the ministry of the presbyter wherever the bishop is not actually present. On the other hand, if episcopal ministry is defined in terms of supervision of local churches, it must have its criterion in the eucharistic unity celebrated in each place.

The first problem, then, is to clarify what is meant by “the local church.” The second and closely connected problem has to do with hierarchical authority in the church’s life. It is obvious that there must be some kind of supervision, both within and between congregations, to maintain unity in the one faith. Such supervision was exercised by the apostles, and from that there emerged hierarchical forms of ministry”first among the itinerant prophets of early Christianity, then in the form of episcopacy as an office of regional authority, and later in more embracing offices such as those of metropolitans and patriarchs. Hierarchical forms of ministry are intended not only to provide supervision, however. The hierarchical minister fulfills also a representative function representing the unity of apostolic faith to the people of his church and, at the same time, representing his people to the other churches. Unfortunately, things have not always worked out that way.

The history of hierarchical office has been marked by a tendency toward forms of supervision that are not consonant with the nature of the church. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant . . . just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25f.) It is no secret that in the history of the church the behavior of its hierarchs has not always been distinguishable from that of the gentiles. Everyone who has authority has to be keenly aware of the temptation to exercise power in order to mold the church according to his (or her) own ideas. Resisting that temptation requires more than simply calling oneself a servant.

In Christian history, the most effective remedy against the abuse of authority has been the development of conciliar structures at the several levels of the church’s life. The remedy does not work perfectly, but it is the only one we have; and if ministry is to be truly representative, it will be ever necessary to emphasize the accountability of hierarchical authorities to conciliar institutions. Again, this is a two-way representation. A minister represents the members of a local, regional, or even worldwide church, but he also faces the other way, representing to those members the apostolic gospel and thus the authority of Jesus Christ himself. In actual practice, these two directions of representation are not always, so to speak, in synch”and this has posed the most difficult problems when it comes to the exercise of authority in the church. The minister cannot be content simply to represent the mind of his constituency, for their opinions and moods must sometimes be opposed for the sake of the gospel. In such cases, however, the minister should not enforce his judgment upon the members, even if he can do so. His role is simply to give testimony to the word of God as he discerns it. His ministry is not to impose but to propose and persuade.

One of the purposes of representative institutions in the church is to teach authoritatively. This is the task of both hierarchical ministry and conciliar bodies. Authoritative teaching represents, first of all, the authority of Christ, but also the communion of the church on its many levels from local assembly to universal fellowship. Except on the local level, such teaching authority is little developed in Protestantism. During the Reformation era efforts were made in that direction, but most Protestant churches did not succeed in developing the procedures and institutions necessary to securing within their confessional families the continuity of representative teaching. As a result some churches, notably the Lutheran churches, became quite traditionalist. They elevated the authority of their sixteenth-century confessional writings, and these writings became a wan substitute for living offices and procedures of teaching authority. They cannot, in a manner representative of their confessional family, respond authoritatively to changed circumstances and fresh scriptural insights.

The Roman Catholic Church, on the other hand, was considerably more successful in devising ways to continue the exercise of authoritative teaching, but not without paying the price of excessive rigidity. If authoritative teaching is representative teaching, it must actually be received as authoritative and representative in the Christian community. It is not enough simply to claim that such teaching is representative. The community of Christians addressed by their teachers will either receive or not receive the teaching in light of their faith in Jesus Christ and of the scriptural witness to God’s revelation in Christ. In the process of reception it becomes apparent whether or not the teaching was representative.

Moreover, the form of such teaching is always related to, and limited by, historical conditions of language and patterns of thought. A teaching may be representative of the church at a particular time, but perhaps not of the entire church or not in a way that retains its importance in later periods of the church’s history. A teaching may not be expressed in the final form appropriate to the truth that it intends. Such a teaching will be authoritative to the degree that it actually turns out to be representative, both of the Christian community and of the word of God. It is never exempt from critical examination by comparison with the gospel as witnessed in the apostolic writings. It need not fear critical examination, as though it would thereby lose its authority. Any teaching that reflects a high level of representation in the ecclesial community possesses authority. The critical examination we have in mind presupposes that the teaching has authority and is to be taken very seriously indeed.

The purpose of authoritative teaching is to witness to the content of the revelation of God in Christ. Its purpose, therefore, can only be served by intense examination and discussion in the light of the Scriptures, even if it turns out that the form of the teaching must be modified as a result of such reflection. Whatever procedures are developed, it is of the utmost importance that the churches find a way to exercise authoritative teaching in a representative manner if the unity of the one faith and one church is to be given plausible expression. By avoiding the more rigid claims to unchangeable teaching authority, we can advance the prospects for nurturing a consensus among the churches on this issue. We know from history that unnecessary rigidity in enforcing particular decisions by teaching authorities has been combined with the corruption of ecclesial ministry by the arrogance of power. Therefore the ecumenical discussion of this question is particularly sensitive and often painful. Nonetheless, a resolution should not be deemed impossible, for it is painfully obvious that the community of Christians needs the unifying strength of some form of continuing and representative teaching authority. That unity, in turn, is necessary to the church being a sign of the ultimate destiny of humankind.

There is no blinking the historical fact that the clarity of the church as sign has been grievously obscured. It is obscured when congregations of Christians are seduced by the spirit of secularism, so that the difference between the new life in Christ and the “lifestyles” of the world is no longer obvious. The clarity of the sign is tragically obscured by the moral derelictions of the clergy, since they represent the church, being, as it were, signs of the sign. Most painfully, however, the sign is obscured by the divisions within the church. The churches are separated, and each particular church must recognize that the fullness of its being church is thereby impaired. In such a situation, the ecumenical task”the quest for full communion among all Christians”is not optional for those who would be faithful to the church’s Lord.

In the past, each separated church declared that it was the only true church. The pretension of each undermined the credibility of all. The situation today, however, is in same respects more intolerable. Christians of different confessional traditions now officially recognize one another as Christians, and yet they still remain separated and have not even withdrawn the condemnations that their traditions hurled at one another centuries ago. Christians across the several ecclesial divides increasingly recognize that their divisions are no longer justified, and they know that continuing those divisions enervates the church’s mission as a sign of the kingdom. The credibility of every church is undercut by this situation, and particularly the credibility of any church that claims to be the only true church.

Certainly each church should strive to be faithful to the vocation it has received from the Lord, but that vocation can never mean that it is the only true church. Since he is Lord of all who confess his name, communion among all Christians and their churches is a mandate integral to faithfulness. Being true to the nature of the church is incompatible with the claim of any one church to be the only true church. To be sure, ecclesial communion presupposes unity of faith in obedience to the one Lord. Unity of faith, however, does not mean complete conformity in the understanding and interpretation of the one faith. Between churches and within churches, there will always be differences in our understanding of the faith, since, as Saint Paul reminds us, our knowledge is imperfect and will remain so until Our Lord returns in glory.

Now we confess our faith together. Different interpretations need not prevent ecclesial communion, for such differences are an inescapable consequence of the plurality of our historical circumstances and experiences. Unity is necessary because we are in fact united by the one Lord. If it is the case that Christians and churches mutually recognize one another as Christian”and, with few exceptions, that is the case today”then it follows that communion is mandatory. For all our churches, it is an indispensable requirement of being the church of Christ.

At the edge of the third millennium, it should be apparent that the ecumenical question is of paramount importance in the life of the churches. Ecclesial communion is required to restore the credibility of the church as a sign of the kingdom, which is the future of humankind. Different confessional traditions may continue to enrich the historical self-consciousness of all Christians. They may continue as resources for the fresh formulation of the one faith of the one church, which is an ongoing task. But the different confessional traditions must no longer separate those who recognize one another as Christians. The ecumenical movement of this century has made remarkable contributions in specifying the basis of such mutual recognition. One thinks, for example, of the work of Faith and Order in producing the Lima document on baptism, eucharist, and ministry, or of the more recent common articulation of the apostolic faith as it is summarized in the Nicene Creed.

If leaders in the several churches recognize that unanimity in all matters of theological interpretation is neither possible nor necessary to ecclesial communion, and if they recognize that the mandate of Our Lord himself makes communion between churches mandatory, then they should now decide to enter into urgent discussion on the concrete conditions for resuming ecclesial communion. Since those conditions will differ somewhat between different churches, it will be necessary to explore their details in bilateral discussions. Nobody can predict precisely what would come from such an effort. The critical thing now is a sense of urgency in undertaking such an effort, knowing that no church can be fully true to the Lord or to its own nature as a sign of his kingdom unless it engages the ecumenical challenge.

If, then, the church in the third millennium is to be the church for the world that her Lord calls her to be, we desperately need a revival of confidence in the distinctive Christian message of the kingdom of God. Secularism’s oppressive hegemony can only be broken by Christians who have the nerve to refuse to accommodate the faith to the spirit of the age. In the words of the Hartford Appeal issued by American theologians in 1975, the church must be “against the world for the world.” This requires, of course, that we not identify the faith with any one confessional tradition, especially with any one tradition emerging from the tragic divisions of the sixteenth century. It requires also that Christians resist the widespread separation of faith and reason that implicitly denies that all truth is the truth of the one God revealed in Jesus Christ. Moreover, it requires relentless effort to develop more adequate patterns of authoritative teaching ministries”ministries that represent Christ to the community and represent the community to all its members and to the world. Each of these requirements is necessary to, and is advanced by, the ecumenical imperative of full communion among all Christians”so that the church may more believably be a sign in time of the promised future of humanity in the kingdom of God.


Wolfhart Pannenberg is Professor of Systematic Theology on the Protestant Theological Faculty at the University of Munich and Director of the Institute for Fundamental Theology and Ecumenics.

Articles by Wolfhart Pannenberg

Loading...