I have been involved in a number of ecumenical conversations over the years, somewhat formally between world Baptists and Anglicans and between American evangelicals and Roman Catholics, as well as many informal conversations at Duke and Oxford universities and elsewhere. Ecumenical conversations have proven beneficial for my own theological development because they allow one to hear from other Christian traditions and to reflect upon one's own tradition, from within and from without. When engaged from a realistic viewpoint, ecumenical conversations clarify both convergences and divergences between the various Christian traditions, helping to shed light on the glories and inadequacies of each.
And that viewpoint--let us call it 'Christian realism'--provides for difficult though beneficial conversations. On the one hand, there is the hope that Christian divisions may be overcome; on the other hand, there is the constant reminder that significant differences remain. The divisions between the various Christian traditions persist due to apparently irreconcilable historical, theological and ecclesiological foundations. The doctrine of papal primacy is not a mere inconvenience keeping Christians from learning to worship together--it is a sublime Spirit-given truth to the one and a gross human imposition to the other. The doctrine of infant baptism is not a secondary or tertiary roadblock on the highway to Zion--it is a necessary theological building block to the one and a tyrannical violation of human conscience to the other. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not a mere historical footnote--it is a fundamental aspect of biblical inspiration to the one and a puzzling theological claim to the other. No matter what our personal or ecclesial desires, the theological facts on the ground remain: although we may each claim the name of Christ, Christians from the various traditions possess fundamental reasons to retain our divisions.
And yet, because this 'Christian realism' is 'Christian', it is replete with the expectation that these divisions will be overcome by and in Jesus Christ, the one Lord that Christians commonly proclaim. The lack of unity among Christians is not a cause for celebration but for mourning. This reality was brought home to me palpably during this lecture delivered in a Baptist church building at 123 Avenue du Maine in the Fourteenth Arrondissement of Paris. In the audience that evening were Baptist, Mennonite and Reformed Christians, laity and clergy, from across Europe, Africa and the Americas. I had historically and systematically laid open both the convergences and divergences between all three Christian groups, and the divergences seem to be so intractable. Towards the end of my lecture, while reminding us of the divergences, I fell back upon Scripture for hope:
The unresolved nature of this dispute--over what is and what is not 'necessary', 'essential' or 'fundamental'--lies at the root of the continuing division between the churches of the Reformed and the churches of the baptizing tradition. Until that is resolved, it is doubtful there will be a reunion. Ultimately, however, there must be reunion, for Christ is our Lord and He has prayed for our unity (John 17). Surely, there will be no divisions at the great supper of the Lamb as the universal church gathers to worship Him who died for the atonement of our sins, who arose from the dead for the redemption of our bodies, and who will one day return for our glorification (Rev 19).
Christian realism regarding Christian unity. The 'reality' is that the divisions between Christians cannot be quickly papered over or glibly bypassed with some temporary emotional sentiment accompanying a facile theological equation. The divisions between the Roman Catholics, the Reformed, and the baptizing churches are deep and, more importantly, they are fundamental. This is the reality we must face. However, our realism is also 'Christian'. And Christ calls His disciples to display their unity in love. He promised such unity would lead the world to see Him in us (John 13:34-35). The Christian hope is that our divisions will be overcome, and they will be at the least eschatologically, but we must do whatever we possibly can to overcome them now, with integrity, on the basis of His will and for the sake of evangelism.
These ideas continued ringing through my head and heart the next day as I visited the Faculté Libre de Théologie Évangélique in Vaux-sur-Seine, which serves theological students in the evangelical free church traditions from both France and Switzerland. Professor Alain Nisus, their primary systematic theologian, invited me to deliver lectures and take questions on free church ecclesiology, and it was a pleasure to get to know this rising theologian, from whom I hope we will hear more. I also enjoyed my conversations with Professor Neal Blough, whose work on Pilgram Marpeck I have long greatly admired. As I sat through worship and a meal with Professors Nisus and Blough, and their academic dean, Professor Jacques Buchhold, I was reminded of those fundamental truths that hold the evangelical free churches together. (The Paris seminary, whose leading scholar is the highly respected Calvinist theologian, Henri Blocher, has an evangelical confession. You may consider her history here and her confession here.) And yet, even among the free churches, we must admit that we maintain ecclesiastical divisions. I pray these, too, will be overcome, for the sake of our witness to the gospel.