Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Challenge of Ecumenism...

I am truly grateful for the insight into the current ecumenical dialogue between Baptists and those of other Christian expressions, especially our Roman Catholic friends. A special thank you to Steve and Cameron for their generous insight into the contemporary situation, as well as the opportunity from my friend Bruce to engage in this area. As a Baptist in the most 'classic' sense, I've been concerned primarily with our own intra-denominational divide, rather than the greater divisions within Christ's universal church.

As Baptists, we are a loosely connected association, held together by only the most modest of ties: a spartan ecclesiology, simple biblicism and a tacit commitment to the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20. It should come as no surprise that we have splintered into so many disparate elements. It would seem that as soon as we Baptists attempt a more binding theological (read 'creedal' or 'confessiona'l) communion, we find a way to disagree over the minutiae and part company; sometimes neatly, sometimes messily, but always with great pain. In the past 40 years, the pain of separation has been felt in almost all Baptist sects - Southern Baptist, Cooperative Baptists, American Baptists, Baptist General Conference and the list goes on and on.

The result of this messy separation is not just a falling out between churches and denominational entities, but most prominently in our own children. Many of our children no longer see the point in being "Baptist." All they have known is struggle and infighting. Indeed many of my former students at Howard Payne University - most of them in fact - were not concerned about 'remaining' Baptist. There are now other churches that can meet their spiritual needs and they have no problem letting go of what they perceive as 'the futile struggle in Baptist life'. Indeed, even I was one of those at one time. But now these young men and women seek a way out or a way through. Unless Baptists find a way either to find unity or respect diversity, then our future is truly, 'post-denominational'…

A Brief, Personal Recap of Baptist Fragmentation

In my personal experience of Baptist life in Texas, Virginia, the Pacific Northwest and now the Northern Rockies, I have slowly categorized my experience of Baptists into several distinct family groups according to the following loose collaborations: Reformed, Moderate, Liberal, Fundamental and now Bapto-Catholic. What follow are some brief, quasi historical descriptions. None are intended to provoke debate or scholarly critique, but rather to elucidate the popular mindset.

Some segments of the Baptist family have sought unity within a strictly Reformed understanding of Baptist roots, stemming from the early London confessions of the seventeenth century. In the United States, this has led to an increasingly narrow Calvinistic theology of this group.

Some elements of the Baptist family have sought refuge in the modernist thought of E. Y. Mullins with its emphasis on individual and local church autonomy. This has led to what is called the 'moderate' Baptist church; a church that has defined itself over and against its more theologically rigid relatives. Of this moderate branch, there are many variations some professing the 'Calminianism' so aptly detailed by James Leo Garrett or a more Arminian Baptist position as exemplified by Roger Olson, to name a few.

The propensity to elevate individual autonomy has had further consequences though and led to an even more 'liberal' expression of Baptist life. This expression finds its expression in the rejection of fundamentalism in the 1920s as exemplified by Harry Emerson Fosdick in the north and Carlyle Marney in the south. Both of these distinguished thinkers explored the boundaries of faith and ethos, and were drawn to faith as psychological reflection and ethical action. This expression of Baptist life is highly influenced by the Social Gospel movement inaugurated by August Rauschenbusch earlier in the 20th century.

Yet another element of the Baptist church rejects both of its aforementioned cousins in favor of its own modernist theological leanings by elevating scripture, usually the King James Version, to a place of inerrant epistemological authority. This element is usually designated as 'fundamentalist' or 'primitive' Baptist. Yet others find unity in ethnicity, such as German, Swedish, African-American or Korean Baptists, for example, and their ethnic inclinations and commitments.


A recent expression of the Baptist family, coming out of the struggles of the late 20th century and related to the moderate branch of the Baptist family, is the Bapto-Catholic movement. Recovering liturgical and spiritual practices from the post-Niceaen church and seeking to create a healthy ecumenical dialogue with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and other ancient expressions of the church, the Bapto-Catholic movement seeks to create a renewed future for Baptists. Bypassing or ameliorating the current fixation on the Reformation as the source for Baptist life and thought, the Bapto-Catholic movement is gaining traction within a younger generation of Baptists.

A more recent Baptist expression is the "emerging, postmodern Baptist." This expression of Baptist life draws from a veritable potpourri of theological and liturgical strains, but intentionally refuses to be dominated by any one strain. Roman Catholic and Orthodox influences are readily evidenced in the worship of these churches while at the same time one can find influences of Jewish and Buddhist spiritualities layered over a distinctly Reformed theological understanding. Since the movement itself allows for infinite variations, there are really no variations.

I realize that all of these vignettes are merely reductionist caricatures and ultimately reflect my own perception, good or bad. Yet even my opinions have popular roots, and to some degree have merit.


What then is our direction? Are the Reformed, Fundamentalist, Moderate, Liberal, Bapto-Catholic and Emerging expressions our only options as Baptists? Is there another way? Prior to Vatican II (1962-1965), the World Council of Churches (b.1948), a primarily Protestant grouping of churches was the voice of ecumenism. Post-Vatican II, ecumenism became a priority of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all Roman Catholic theologians were behind this ecumenical quest; some, such as Hans Urs von Balthasar, were concerned that such a quest would be injurious to Catholicism. Ironically, it is von Balthasar's theological outlook that holds the greatest potential for creating ecumenical bridges between the various Christian expressions from the Roman Catholic side. On the Baptist side of the divide, James McClendon and Stanley Grenz stood as ecumenical standard bearers; and McClendon more so than Grenz. Yet Grenz's theology may have more promise for ecumenical engagement from the Baptist side!

The question comes back to how we understand the challenge of ecumenism. According to canon law, only the pope can call ecumenical councils. Does this mean that non-Roman expressions of the Christian faith must adhere to that dictum? Is it legitimate for denominations to engage in ecumenical discourse with other Christian expressions if itself is experiencing disunity and division? Shouldn't the ecumenical ideal begin in our own house? Some theologians have already answered these questions for themselves. Many of us either have not asked the questions, or we aren't concerned about them.

This is the challenge of ecumenism… from my perspective.

1 comment:

  1. I like your perspective. 100%
    LeRoy

    ReplyDelete