This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination's proposed ecclesiology document, "Wonder, Love and Praise." These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is the first of a three-part response to the document written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.
In this series of blog posts on “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church,” I will seek to offer a comprehensive reading of the document. Nonetheless, in this post, I will mostly focus on the invisible church and the question of people of other faiths and the issue of legitimate diversity. I also follow the Statement’s structure of affirmations that God’s love is for all people, it is transformative, and creates loving communities.
The second conviction “The saving love of God is meant for all people” is addressed under the title “Community of Salvation and Community as Sign” (WLP, pp. 22ff). The Committee notes that while there are no normative models for understanding the church, the notion of ekklesia may hold promise in maintaining a wide range of meanings of the church. Ekklesia is a Greek word commonly used to mean an assembly or gathering, and Christians in the past have used it to refer to a particular community of Christians, the sum of such local communities, or the whole people of God in all times and places. Beyond etymological considerations, the Committee makes a theological judgment that ekklesia in all its connotation is a fitting expression of the church because communion is embodied in the form of community. The Statement goes on to add that ekklesia is not the only mark of the church as there are additional marks of the church, namely, the pure Word of God preached and the Sacraments duly administered, displaying faithfulness in worship, edification and redemption of the world (WLP, p. 25ff).
The Committee then makes a strategic move using the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church as a segue into a discussion about the larger communion (WLP, p. 26ff). Traditionally the notion of the invisible church has recognized the possibility that there are persons who are saved or on their way to salvation though they may not be part of the visible church. The Committee agrees and says that persons who are not explicit members of the visible church may be participants in the one ekklesia of God and share in the communion. It clarifies that this position does not impose the category Christian and affirms the possibility that God’s koinonia may occur in different forms and places. In an attempt to expand the notion of the church, it asserts that the church understood as God’s one ekklesia, the community of salvation, is not coextensive with the churches we are familiar with.
Church’s discussion about the visible and invisible churches is a good reminder that the church has long been cognizant of at least two things: one, not all who are part of the visible church belong to Christ; and two, the possibility of God’s relations with people outside the visible church. The language of the visible and the invisible church can be helpful and sufficiently complicates one’s ecclesiology. Its built in eschatological reserve points us to the need for humility and openness, ongoing repentance and growth, and God’s love for all people. One might add here not only to be mindful of the traditional notion of “the invisible church” but also those who are visible but invisible in our midst, those who are seen but unseen.
While the language of the visible and the invisible church is generative, it immediately brings to mind the move Karl Rahner made in coining the concept of “anonymous Christian,” in this case the invisible church. Rahner’s intention was well-taken as he sought to expand the scope of “Christian” to include those who are outside the realm of explicit Christian faith and practice through no fault of their own but live in the grace of God and somehow attain salvation. However, this was taken as another way of extending Christian imperialism upon other religions and cultures.
Similarly, whereas the language of the invisible church may be well intentioned, it again seeks to assimilate others as a double of itself. Notwithstanding the Statement’s qualifications, there is a striking similarity between anonymous Christian and invisible church. While for Christians the notion of koinonia, ekklesia, or community of salvation may accurately and inclusively describe our relationship with God and others, it may not be so for people of other faiths and cultures. No matter how altruistic one’s intention may be in adopting a larger expansive concept “the one ekklesia of God,” one cannot overlook that the church has a history of effects and can be another unfortunate attempt to colonize the other and the different.
If the church must choose the expression “one ekkelsia of God” to refer to God’s relation with others in the world, then it must be mindful that it may be only one analogue to understand another analogue in its evolving intramural conversation, privileging one tradition over the other. Perhaps the first movement toward interreligious dialogue is not a handshake or a hug that enfolds the other in our straightjacket of the invisible church, but a nod of profound respect and acknowledgment that can hopefully lead to better understanding through their self-description. In doing so, the church may come to a place where its previous understanding of communion may have to be modified, stretched to its limits, discarded, or transformed into a new creation.
Moving on to the role of the visible churches, the Statement suggests that they participate in the larger ekklesia and are to be the explicit sign and servant of God’s self-giving to the world (WLP, p. 30ff). In a rather realistic and humble assessment, the Statement reveals that the church fulfills its tasks “more or less well.” The church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic not on account of its performance that falls short, but because of God. This is an important insight and a beautiful promise to maintain in thinking about the visible church, especially on the issue of legitimate diversity. However, as alluded to earlier, it is not clear how our fallibility and God’s work are coordinated so that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, the difference that makes to the kind of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity the church manifests. Maybe the church’s identity is not so much a possession but an ongoing process of coordinating our prayerful labor with the work of the Holy Spirit.
Then, what appears to be a commentary on “The Church,” the Statement raises the issue about “legitimate diversity” in the church (WLP, p. 31ff). It first acknowledges that because the Triune God is the very source of communion, the unity in the church is dynamic and relational, not monolithic uniformity. The gifts of the Spirit differ and human beings and cultures differ. Thus, it radically affirms the importance of diversity; however, it emphasizes that diversity must be legitimate, as opposed to illegitimate diversity. It rightly points out that this process of discernment is lacking common criteria of discernment and mutually recognized structures. The section ends with promise to return to this topic at a later point.