As president of a confessional, Christian graduate school serving a large urban demographic, I have the opportunity to join other believers in gatherings that are deliberately ecumenical: interdenominational, multi-ethnic, even cross-linguistic, and always with a mind for Christian unity. I have rarely regretted attending any of them.
That said, some of these gatherings have been more effective than others, the least effective being those comprised of little more than a sanctified coffee klatch followed by a joint statement memorializing our choice of sweeteners, and the most effective being those where actual differences between groups are discussed and possible avenues for collaboration explored. A gathering I attended in late August was very much an example of the latter, more effective sort, and I give thanks for that.
This was also the only gathering I have attended that was addressed by the Pope.
Initiated by the global evangelical program known as the Lausanne Movement, this evangelical-Catholic dialogue has developed over the past five years into a regular meeting of church leaders, theologians, and lay people to discuss ways in which they might work jointly in the support of the gospel mission around the world.
John Armstrong, the Protestant co-chair of the gathering, described the group as “an intimate gathering of the body of Christ from many segments and demographics of the world.” The participants all share the view that such collaboration need not diminish the strong theological commitments of any community, but that there still ought to be positive areas in which we can join together in mutual service.
The meeting began on a Wednesday night at the bucolic campus of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois, and the frank discussion quickly moved into a variety of topics including several difficult ones such as the Council of Trent, which is particularly anti-Protestant but still binding for Catholics, and the Catholic doctrine of the church as the prolongation of the incarnation of Christ (presented by Father Thomas A. Baima, the Catholic co-chair of the event), as well as social issues ranging from care for the poor, abortion, and the recent developments in gender and sexual ethics in the West.
And then we received the letter from the Pope.
One does not often receive papal correspondence, and so the letter soon moved to the center of the conversation (a full English translation of the letter can be read here). The letter is addressed to Pastor Norberto Saracco, a Pentecostal pastor and friend of the pontiff from his time ministering in Argentina. Pastor Saracco was also a participant in our gathering, and the letter was clearly intended for a public reading.
In the letter, Pope Francis strikes a characteristically charitable and unifying chord. He begins by remembering his diocesan work with evangelical members of the Lausanne Movement, particularly how they “shared the Word and prayer” (the notable absence of “sacrament” highlights the dilemmas that arise in ecumenical interactions). He refers to the unity of the church as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and its division as ultimately a result of our own sin, one which impedes our unified witness to Christ around the world.
In the letter, Francis also cites recent, public instances of Christian persecution around the world and the impact they have had on his understanding of Church unity. “The one that persecutes does not make a mistake, he doesn't ask if they are Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox. . . . They are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, and that is enough. This blood challenges us,” he writes. Indeed it does. The global plight of the Christian in the twenty first century ought to unify those who follow Christ and seek to proclaim his gospel in word and deed.
This issue also raises the question of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to share in that, for lack of a better word, communion in which the church is united in his suffering. Not all who share in his suffering, for instance, can share in the same sacramental table, due to different understandings of the meaning of Christ's presence at the table or altar. Similarly, not all of those targeted by ISIS or North Korea agree about the meaning of the church or the content of the gospel we proclaim. All religious persecution is horrific and wrong, but we do not define the community of faith by those whom the persecutor victimizes. How ought we to think about other persecuted groups who hold to a heretical understanding of the incarnation or the deity of Christ? We are united with them in their humanity, but are they Christ's church?
These questions are not without significance, touching on the person of Christ and the nature of faith, and the answers will only come from an engaged discussion of the authority of Scripture, the historical witness of the church, and the clarity with which the councils, creeds, and confessions give expression to the teaching of the Bible. These discussions can get into the weeds quickly, to be sure, but they are nevertheless crucial to moving toward meaningful unity. True healing comes once the illness is diagnosed.
In the letter, Francis goes on to borrow from Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullmann when he calls all Christians to a “unity in reconciled diversity,” and it is here where he offers a practical way toward unity: the way of charismatic renewal.
Vatican watchers have long noted that Pope Francis has shown signs of sympathy, even collaboration, with the charismatic movement in Argentina and around the world. We were not surprised, therefore, that he plans to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the charismatic renewal movement coming in 2017 by inviting “all Christians of all confessions” to celebrate Pentecost in St. Peter's Square and to pray for Christian unity in the Holy Spirit.
On this point, I hope all Christians can agree. Our unity as the body of Christ must be through our unity in the spirit of Christ (1 Cor 12:13; Eph 4:1-6). We have major differences about what that means and how the spirit works, however, and these differences must not be minimized. You probably will not find me in St. Peter's Square next year, but I will be in prayer that the church will move toward unity by a spirit of unity.
The unity of his people, after all, is what was on the mind of Jesus himself as he was about to delivered unto death. In his High Priestly Prayer (John 17:20-26), Jesus asks that his people might be one as the Son and the Father are one. If the Son asks for unity for his people from the Father , we can rest assured that the Father will not deny him. In this sense, unity is already obtained. Unity is not an ideal or a goal, but a fact, just as the Trinity is a fact. Because of the spirit of Christ in the body of believers, poured out during that first Pentecost, true ecumenism is ours to enjoy.
Now it falls to us to repent and live toward that reality.
Scott Redd is president and associate professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.