Thursday, November 29, 2012
My article from this week's Algona Upper Des Moines about Ecumenical Worship
Q: Why is it that some local congregations do not take part in ecumenical services and their pastors do not participate publicly in events which involve the clergy of other denominations?
Questions of church fellowship, such as joint worship or communion participation can become especially sensitive in small, closely-connected communities like those found in Kossuth County. For people in many congregations, refraining from participation in joint worship might seem quite foreign, if not offensive, and because of the strong ecumenical tendencies of many denominations over the past two generations, many might wonder why others do not participate jointly like their churches and pastors do.
Because Christianity was largely united under one or two large communions for approximately its first 1500 years, it was not until after the Reformation that it became common for Christians of different types to live in the same area, and therefore find themselves in a position to struggle with this question.
The consensus at that time was that it would be inappropriate for Christians of different types (Lutheran and Reformed, Roman and Anabaptist, etc.) to engage jointly in worship or other official acts until they had resolved their differences. This remained the consensus until a movement arose in the United States in the 19th century which sought to focus on the things Christians had in common and disregard the teachings on which they disagreed.
Some might be familiar with the saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This approach has been popular among many segments of Christianity, because the framework allows them to focus on the commonalities while avoiding disagreement over differences. While the idea, especially its inclination toward civility and tolerance, is appealing, it also raises the question of what teachings constitute essentials and who gets to decide.
So, for example, there are groups of Christians who desire to affirm every doctrinal distinctive, and even some things that are mere opinions, as essentials, and therefore insist on dividing, even over the most intricate of minutia. On the opposite end of the spectrum, others consider nothing essential and place even the most foundational teachings of Christianity under the judgment of the individual to understand as they deem appropriate.
Often, observers are under the impression that pastors and congregations to decline to participate in joint worship or other ecumenical activities do so out of a sense of superiority or elitism—as if they believed their brand of Christians would be the only ones in heaven, as I’ve often heard it described. While there are occasionally instances where that is the case, they are truly rare, and it is typically not true.
Most pastors I know who make the decision not to participate do so out of a desire for clarity and because they do not want to confuse observers or give the impression that doctrinal differences are insignificant. They are not typically seeking to defend their ideological purity or avoid defiling themselves by contact with others, but rather to prevent misunderstandings regarding the nature of the various churches’ positions.
I know many Christians who are very passionate about a teaching they once believed wrongly, but later learned otherwise, and as a result saw a transformation from despair to inexpressible relief. For them, the concern that others not undergo the same experience takes precedence over the impulse to participate in joint worship with their neighbors.
For others, they desire so strongly for all Christians to become truly unified (“of one mind” as Paul says in Philippians 2:2) that they believe separation furthers that goal by giving an incentive to discuss and resolve differences. This would be comparable to the observation that it is healthier for married couples to resolve their differences rather than merely overlook them.
I know that in our area, a majority of congregations, even those who do not participate ecumenically in public worship, sustain beneficial connections to their broader communities, and that most of their pastors engage in positive professional relationships with other local clergy and even participate behind the scenes to achieve common goals and satisfy charitable needs in the community—attempting contribute to the good of the community in any way possible, yet without compromising their own convictions.