Our Common Bond and Commitment to Christ

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

There are many practical reasons for Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox to cooperate together that come out of our common need to survive and serve as Christians in a difficult environment. But there is another reason which I personally find more compelling – the theological fact of our brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ. If we are brothers and sisters in Christ, we ought to be able to love one another. That does not just mean that we should work up sentiments of solidarity during the week of prayer for Christian unity. It means that we should be committed to one another in an ongoing, practical way.

I would like to turn to a teaching in scripture that does not get the attention that it deserves. The teaching is expressed most clearly in the First Letter of John, although it is to be found in many other places in scripture. First John is concerned with distinguishing between “those who have gone out from us,” a group that many would identify as a Gnostic or proto-Gnostic sect, and true Christians. John picks out a number of marks of true Christians: belief in what we would now call the doctrine of the Incarnation, a moral Christian life, and the experience of the Spirit. In addition, he picks out love of the brethren as an identifying mark essential to being a Christian.

By “the brethren” or “brothers and sisters” John means fellow Christians. In this he follows the usage of the rest of the New Testament, except where the term is used to mean “fellow elders,” and, of course, where it means natural brothers and sisters. The New Testament, scholarship tells us, never speaks of the brotherhood of the human race. That does not mean that the idea of some solidarity with the human race is foreign to Christian revelation. It simply means that we cannot read such a notion into places where the word “brethren” is used in the New Testament. “Brethren” or “brothers and sisters” means “fellow Christians,” and “love of the brethren,” as the phrase in 1 John is rendered in the Revised Standard Version, means “love of our fellow Christians.”

First John stresses the love of the brethren in several places. Chapter 3:13-18 summarizes the teaching well and states it in a way we cannot easily ignore: 

We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death…. By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech, but in deed and in truth.

This, and similar passages, have often been used in merely humanitarian ways, but while there may be humanitarian passages in scripture, this is not one of them. It is very evangelical. In attempting to state the marks by which to distinguish true Christians from false brethren, John is interested in criteria that directly relate to the fundamental reality at the core of Christianity – our relationship to Christ himself and to his work of redemption. He chooses love of fellow Christians, since to love fellow 

Christians because they are Christians is to recognize the importance of belonging to Christ. As the gospel saying puts it, the relationship we have with fellow disciples is more important than the relationship with our mother and natural brothers and sisters. Love of the brethren is an external, behavioral indication of a genuinely Christian spiritual state.

First John says some strong things about the love of the brethren. It says that it is essential. It says, in fact, that if we do not love the brethren, we do not have eternal life in us. On that basis, 1 John sees it as obligatory. We are obligated to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters in Christ, and laying down our lives at least involves the sharing of goods with them when they are in need. We have, in short, concrete duties toward them, duties which touch our pocketbooks. Further study of the scriptural teachings on love of the brethren would indicate that we have considerably more obligations towards them, such as defending them when enemies attack them, and so on. In other words, scripture teaches that we do have special obligations to our fellow Christians, and fulfilling them is essential to being a Christian.

Such a statement leads naturally to the question, “Who, then, is my brother in Christ?” Tackling that question theologically would detain us in an issue of sufficient size to keep us from discussing anything else here. Rather than doing that, I simply want to observe that in the course of the last fifty to seventy-five years, there has been a massive change in attitude among the Christian people. The result of that change is that we here at this conference are likely a body of Christians who all recognize one another as Christians, even though we represent a considerable diversity of theological conviction and church loyalty.

Many of us might want to add some qualification to the term “brother,” such as “separated brother.” Most of us would not go on to recognize all the churches that others belong to as fully acceptable as churches or perhaps even as churches at all. I would not be surprised if some of us were still of the opinion that the Catholic Church is an apostate church, and the Roman Catholic Church has not yet officially come to the point of recognizing Protestant bodies as anything more than “ecclesial communities.”  Nonetheless, that does not obscure the significance of the revolution I am describing. 

Recognizing one another as Christians

A hundred years ago, Roman Catholics would have normally viewed Protestants as people who needed conversion to Christianity and who would only be saved by way of exception when they had a desire for the truth but because of ignorance could not recognize it in the Catholic Church. And, many, if not most, Protestants would have returned the compliment. 

Many Protestants still view Catholics and Orthodox in such a way. But a large number of Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals are at the point of recognizing one another as Christians, Christians who have made some serious theological errors and who belong to faulty churches, no doubt, but Christians nonetheless. They would not extend that recognition to all of the members of the other groups, and there is certainly no way of getting us all to agree on where to draw the line, but we do take the perspective that a large number of members of all the other churches turn out to be Christians. That, then, puts us in the place of needing to recognize a gospel demand for cooperation that goes beyond the Christians in our own church to whomever we can see to be true Christians, and that recognition will at least unite a substantial number of Evangelicals, Catholics, and Orthodox.

Second Chronicles 28:1-15 provides a scriptural illustration of the importance of this obligation. It narrates a war between Israel and Judah, fought under Ahaz of Judah and Pekah of Israel. Israel resoundingly defeats Judah and leads many of them into captivity to slavery. As they are bringing the captives back, the prophet Obed goes out to meet the returning troops with this message:

Behold, because the Lord, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand, but you have slain them in a rage which has reached up to heaven. And now you intend to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem, male and female, as your slaves. Have you not sins of your own against the Lord your God? Now hear me, and send back the captives from your brethren whom you have taken, for the fierce wrath of the Lord is upon you.

(2 Chronicles 28:9-11)

We should note a few things here. First, Israel and Judah were in a state of schism and had no united government. Nor was either in a fully acceptable spiritual position from the other’s point of view – or from God’s. Second, God did not rebuke them for fighting one another. He seemed to regard some fighting between them as acceptable and even seemed to view it as a punishment of Judah’s sins. But he was very concerned that they had not followed the rules of how to treat brothers during their conflict. The Israelites slaughtered their defeated brothers and led the rest captive to enslave them. They also, as the next verses make clear, neglected to provide for their needs: food, clothing, shelter, and medical care. 

I might note here that many of us fail to perceive the significance of this passage because we have lost an awareness of the view that there are different rules of fighting that apply depending on the relationship, a view that was certainly accepted in the Old Testament. The chief point is simply that even in such an unlikely situation as that in 2 Chronicles 28, the Lord was very angry when his people did not treat their brethren as brethren.

Brotherly love and cooperation

What sort of brotherly love might be practical and appropriate in a group like ours? One area would be cooperation in missionary and evangelistic work. I have been impressed with much of the missionary study and writing that emerges from places like the Fuller School of World Mission and the U.S. Center for World Mission. I have noted how often their writings draw lessons from Catholic missionary workers. Yet I rarely see indications that Catholics are aware of them.

I can add a personal observation. The first covenant community I was a part of was called an ecumenical community, that is, a community composed of Christians from differing church backgrounds. We did not start out being ecumenical, though. And we did not originally decide to be an ecumenical community primarily because we wanted to be ecumenical. In fact, two of the first leaders of our community were rebuked by a Catholic bishop the year before our community began for not being adequately cooperative with the Catholic Church’s new ecumenical interests. Some of the original Protestant leaders of our community have testified that they came to our group, before it was much of a community, because they thought it might provide a chance for them to save some Catholics.

We started being ecumenical because of the new openness in the 1960s that drew together Christians of a wide variety of churches into grass-roots renewal movements and local groups. Many of those groups, however, faded, affiliated with a church body, or became churches themselves. We were one of the groups that remained ecumenical, and I believe a key reason was that we began a serious effort at evangelism.

As we evangelized together, we discovered that we were more effective than we would have been if we had evangelized along denominational lines. Modern Americans are not nearly as responsive to Catholic evangelism or Orthodox evangelism or Lutheran evangelism as they are to basic Christian evangelism. Many people do not discover this, because what they describe as evangelism is either a form of church renewal or a form of retrieving ex-church members. They either appeal to people in church environments or those who once were affiliated with a church environment. However, when we go to evangelize in a secular environment such as a student or business environment, and appeal to all the people in the environment, then we discover the limitations of denominational evangelism.

As our community became more successful in evangelism, we found ourselves a growing body of people who had come to a deeper Christian commitment, but who did not want to leave our churches. That has been a constant complication of our community life, one that in many ways we might have preferred to avoid, but one that has unexpectedly put us in positions where we found we could do the Lord’s work where others were not able to. The chief benefit that it has provided for us locally, however, has been the ability to evangelize effectively. 

Spiritual Renewal

Another area in which Christians could cooperate is spiritual renewal. We can be helpful to one another in learning how to be more effective in spiritual renewal. The Catholic charismatic renewal is a movement in the Roman Catholic Church that has clearly gained some of its effectiveness in spiritual renewal from lessons it learned from Evangelicals. Catholic charismatics were initially criticized for bringing Protestant revivalism into the Catholic Church. (The attacks normally centered more on questions of culture and technique than on doctrinal matters.)

 However, when one traces the history of revivalism back to its roots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one finds that the Protestant renewal movements had learned from earlier Catholic “revivalists,” especially the Franciscan and Dominican friars. Accounts of medieval Catholic revivalism such as “The Great Alleluia” of 1234 would no doubt curl the hair of some of the modern Catholic critics. At any rate, the history of renewal movements shows an ecumenical sharing that has been both successful and helpful.

Yet another area for making our brotherly love practical is the sharing of pastoral wisdom. We clearly confront the same challenges, because we live in the same society. Normally, the same things work or don’t work when employed by Protestants, Catholics, or Orthodox. Here I would give Pastoral Renewal magazine as a good example of how we find many of the same things helpful.

Cooperative ecumenism

I have pointed out two important bases for cooperation. Now I would like to discuss an obstacle that we need to deal with as well, that is, theological disagreement. There are many points of the faith we do not agree on, and we often believe those points to be important to the integrity of the faith. We recognize our disagreements as serious. We may be very polite about the language we use to describe one another’s views, but we do not like the kind of ecumenism that is sometimes called “lowest common denominator ecumenism” or “the ecumenism of compromise.”

I have been struck by what seems to me an undeniable fact: ecumenism in the past often has led to the watering down of Christian conviction and the entry of theological secularism. The reason appears to be rooted in the way in which points and principles of disagreement have been built into the foundations of our different systems of doctrine. If we try to eliminate the points and principles of disagreement, we usually end up undermining the whole system without realizing it. I believe that such an effect could be avoided; or, to put it a different way, that dialogue ecumenism could be done successfully and not undermine basic beliefs in the various churches and traditions. That, however, goes beyond the scope of this paper. Here I only wish to make clear that I am not talking about this type of ecumenism.

I would like to call to mind an important distinction here. Ecumenism has too often meant something which happens between the officials of church bodies and which is carried out by officially appointed theologians dialoguing with one another. There is, however, another kind of ecumenism, sometimes known as cooperative ecumenism, that proceeds on a different basis. It is a kind that has flourished increasingly in the last fifteen years in this country, sometimes in an irresponsible way, but often in a very positive way. This is the kind of ecumenism that I am concerned with.

Cooperative ecumenism has to proceed on the presupposition that we do not have full agreement or full unity and do not expect it for some time to come. It requires that we love one another as brothers and sisters even now, looking forward to the time when the Lord will make greater unity possible, and in the meantime we will cooperate where we can and whenever we can to strengthen the worldwide Christian cause and the Christian people. The rule should be: whatever builds up, that we will try to do. Sometimes that rule indicates not cooperating in certain ways, though we might be personally ready for them, because of the need to take into account others who do not see things our way or to avoid worsening relations between the churches. Nonetheless, the spirit behind such an approach is to seek to lay down our lives for all those whom we recognize as true brothers and sisters in Christ, and with them to advance the cause of Christ. That, I am proposing, is the proper basis of cooperation.

Dialogue ecumenism and cooperative ecumenism proceed on two different bases, practically speaking. Dialogue ecumenism proceeds on the basis that we need to discuss our differences and try to seek agreement. Cooperative ecumenism proceeds on the basis that we will cooperate where we can in matters of common concern, even though we have disagreements. That does not mean we do not talk about them. Often one of the most helpful things we can do is to educate one another in our differences so that we do not presuppose something that we should not. It certainly does not mean that we regard the differences as unimportant. But the purpose of coming together is not to work out the differences but to love one another as brothers and sisters and work together in spite of the differences.

Some principles for cooperative ecumenism

Cooperative ecumenism proceeds, when effective, on certain principles that can be stated as follows:

  • We need to accept the fact that there are issues that divide the churches, and we need to abide by the limits that our churches have set. We cannot solve fundamental inter-church problems and should probably not try to. Nor should we act as though they did not exist. We therefore have to accept that each of us will believe the doctrines of our church and be faithful to its essential practices and current discipline.
  • In our sharing together we will emphasize the central core of Christian teaching and practice that we share in common. We will do this partly because these truths in themselves call for such emphasis. But we will also emphasize the common central core of Christian truth because we can thereby foster our unity and serve the convergence of the entire Christian people.
  • In discussing our differences together, we should
    • aim at having the peace in our relationships which will enable us to discuss differences in a loving manner
    • avoid discussing those things we cannot yet discuss peacefully, gradually widening the circle of the things we can discuss as we experience the peace and trust to do so
    • not be embarrassed by our own beliefs, nor be apologetic about them
    • regard the things other Christians hold that we disagree with as mistakes a good Christian could make rather than as wrongdoing or a denial of Christianity
    • not discuss our beliefs in a polemical way, but state them in the way that would be most acceptable to others
    • ask whether the discussion is building up love and unity in the body of Christ or tearing it down.
  • We should learn about points of doctrinal and theological dispute:
    • so that we can avoid expressing ourselves in ways unacceptable to others because of doctrinal commitments in certain circumstances such as:
      1. leading in common prayer
      2. proposing a common course of action
      3. stating an opinion that we think the group as a whole should hold
    • so that we can educate one another in our differences when that would be helpful.
  • When we can, we will talk together, help one another, and serve one another, so that we prevent our theological and cultural differences from poisoning our brotherly love, and so that our personal unity can provide the basis for a more complete unity among the whole Christian people. 

Cultural obstacle to cooperation

The cultural obstacle to our cooperation is a human one. To describe it, I want to rely on an analysis done by Christopher Dawson, the British historian. It comes from a book he wrote during World War II called The Judgment of the Nations, a book that I personally regard as prophetic. The book was written to state the program of a movement called the Sword of the Spirit that developed during the war. Dawson summarized the goal of the movement in the following words: 

What we must look for is not the alliance of temporal power, as in the old Christendom, and an external conformity to Christian standards, but a re-ordering of all the elements of human life and civilization by the power of the Spirit: the birth of a true community which is neither an inorganic mass of individuals nor a mechanized organization of power, but a living spiritual order.3

One of the concerns of the Sword of the Spirit was to bring together Catholics and Protestants in Britain in a common response to the crisis of the hour, a crisis that the leaders could see was a crisis for Christian society. Ecumenical cooperation of that sort was not common then. In advocating what he called a “return to Christian unity,” Dawson gave a helpful analysis of some of the main roots of disunity. 

He wrote that the fundamental problem of Christian disunity is the problem of schism. In practice this problem is so closely associated with that of heresy, i.e. differences of religious belief, that they are apt to be confused with one another. But it is nevertheless important to distinguish them carefully, and to consider the nature of schism in itself, for I believe that it is in the question of schism rather than that of heresy that the key to the problem of disunity of Christendom is to be found. For heresy as a rule is not the cause of schism but an excuse for it, or rather a rationalization of it. Behind every heresy lies some kind of social conflict, and it is only by the resolution of this conflict that unity can be restored.4

He based his view on a historical analysis of the history of divisions among Christians.

But, whatever view we may take of the causes of any particular schism and the social significance of particular religious movements, there can, I think, be no question but that in the history of Christendom from the Patristic period down to modern times, heresy and schism have derived their main impulse from sociological causes, so that a statesman who found a way to satisfy the national aspirations of the Czechs in the fifteenth century, or those of the Egyptians in the fifth, would have done more to reduce the centrifugal force of the Hussite or the Monophysite movements than a theologian who made the most brilliant and convincing defense of Communion in One Kind or of the doctrine of the two natures of Christ. Whereas it is very doubtful if the converse is true, for even if the Egyptians had accepted the doctrine of Chalcedon they would have found some other ground of division so long as the sociological motive for division remained unaltered.5 

Further on, Dawson draws this conclusion:

It is, above all, necessary to free the religious issue of all the extraneous motives that take their rise in unconscious social conflicts, for if we can do this, we shall deprive the spirit of schism of its dynamic force. If we can understand the reason for our instinctive antipathy to other religious bodies, we shall find that the purely religious and theological obstacles to reunion become less formidable and more easy to remove. But so long as the unconscious element of social conflict remains unresolved, religion is at the mercy of the blind forces of hatred and suspicion that may assume really pathological forms.6

Dawson goes somewhat farther in the weight he attributes to the sociological factors than I would, but, nonetheless, he puts his finger on what, in my observation, is a core difficulty in matters of Christian unity – personal relations difficulties. When two groups of people, be they nations or smaller groups, come into conflict in such a way that they desire to separate from one another, they become open to theological disagreements. They desire to believe differently. This is the principle behind the schism of Jeroboam and the altar at Bethel. Hence, when we are dealing with the ecumenical problem, we are dealing with intercommunity and intercultural suspicion and hostility as well as theological issues. And insofar as there is a spiritual problem at the base of the human relations problem, it can well be described as schism. The cause of schism is putting something human above Christ as the point of unity and division in our personal relations, so that we join with and separate from others over something other than faithfulness to Christ.

Our commitment to Christ

I believe there is a solution to this aspect of the problem of Christian unity, and the solution is our common commitment to Christ. It lies in our together putting above everything else our commitment to Christ and to the cause of Christ in the world. Practically speaking, it lies in that cooperation we are discussing. It lies in working together in practical ways to strengthen one another in Christianity and in working together in practical ways to defend Christianity and to bring the world to Christ. It lies, in short, in an approach opposite to the kind of ecumenism I think so many of us dislike. The other ecumenism tries to unite Christians in a common dedication to accommodation to the world and to secular goals. Unity comes from putting aside an explicit focus on Christ and with it all the theological differences that come from different teaching about Christ and his work. For us, however, ecumenism should be a matter of restoring Christ to the center as Lord and working together where and as we can until he expands our unity. The basis of cooperation, I propose, is our core Christian commitment, one that Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics have in common.

We are in an era in which the world is putting a question to us. In many countries, faithfulness to Christianity involves loss of wealth, position, and life. Historians tell us that our age has more martyrs than any other. And for the most part Christians are given a choice: they can accommodate. They can compromise without even giving up everything involved in Christianity, and thereby avoid personal loss and death. They are told, for instance, that if they are simply willing to work for the common good, the collective, the nation, and put aside their otherworldly preoccupations and divisive concerns, they do not have to experience any penalties. As near as I can see, in such situations the theological secularists tend to find ways to accommodate. They do not die for Christ. On the other hand, true Orthodox, Evangelicals, and Catholics frequently find themselves undergoing the same persecution as one another at the hands of the same persecutors.

Facing death brings one to a peculiar clarity about what is important in life. I propose, then, as the basis for our cooperation, the willingness to die for our Lord Jesus Christ. Cannot those of us who pray for the grace to be able to die for him, if martyrdom comes our way, recognize one another as brothers and sisters in him? Can we not work together for him until such time as the world puts the final question to us too, and we are called on to witness to him with our lives?


Notes:

3. Christopher Dawson, Op. cit., p. 160.
4. Ibid., p. 171.
5. Ibid., p. 178.
6. Ibid., p. 179.


This article by © Steve Clark, is excerpted from Orthodox, Protestants, Roman Catholics: 
What Basis for Cooperation?
 which appeared in the April/May 2015 Issue of Living Bulwark. It was first published in New Covenant Magazine, 18 no. 11, 1989, pgs. 27–28.

Top photo of a prayer and worship service held at the Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity in Winchester, England, to mark the celebration of Pentecost in May 2016: photo source on flickr.com, and copyright © 2016 Diocese of Winchester, with permission to use for publication.

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