Moving on (somewhat belatedly) to other happenings on my trip: as Jennifer mentioned we went to a Sunday evening service at Tripp’s church plant, Church of Jesus Christ, Reconciler. It was my first visit to a bona fide house church (well, apartment church, technically speaking), and the congregation of ten was apparently the biggest they’d yet seen.
Reconciler is an ecumenical effort, co-pastored by Tripp, an Episcopal minister, and an Evangelical Covenant pastor. The attendees included a middle-aged man from a nearby Mennonite intentional community, but it was mostly a young, hip group. The EC pastor, with his goatee, black garb and pink-haired wife, accurately embodied his blog address of “priestly goth.” But the attitude of the service was highly liturgical and serious, showing more Episcopalian influence than the low-church origins of two of its pastors might suggest. (The fact that Larry was wearing a clerical collar suggests he has higher-church aspirations, since I’ve never seen an EC pastor wear anything other than street clothes.) Still, there were populist touches: the host was passed around the group rather than administered entirely by the pastor(s), and right after the sermon came a discussion of the sermon, in which Larry’s wife disputed one of Jane’s points.
We used the hymnal from Tripp’s church, North Shore Baptist. I’d never seen a Baptist hymnal before, but it actually included some songs that I knew from the Lutheran church and from PMC. Both Jennifer and I were amused by one difference: the song categories, which normally include functions such as Gathering, Sending, Communion and so on, also had a category called “Invitations/Warnings.” Neither Methodists nor Lutherans would call songs “Warnings,” even when they are.
The idea of healing denominational divisions in this way is interesting, although especially after my visit to the Church of Christ I know that such efforts have only tended to create new factions. I’ve been thinking about ecumenicism a lot lately, in fact, and was needling everybody about it on the trip, and have been needling others since then. (This is what happens when I get a theological fixation.) I have been thinking not so much about the relations between Christianity and other faiths, but how Christian denominations view each other.
Historically speaking, every denomination has viewed itself as the True Church, and other churches as false. But in modern times most moderate-to-liberal Protestants seem to have moved toward a more ecumenical view that all Christian churches (with debatable fringe cases like the Mormons) belong to the Body of Christ. Telford wrote his own version of this here. In fact, it seems fairly common for Protestants to feel offended at the idea that anyone would think them not a Christian. Just today I met a guy at the post-church lunch group who was so perpetually annoyed at the Amish for their exclusivity, and thinking him not a real Christian, that he said he would be happy to get in a barfight with one. (I will leave the unpacking of the multiple ironies of that remark as an exercise for the reader.) My Lutheran pastor, while less crude, was also offended when a Catholic I knew declined to take part in something, since it was self-evident that they “worship the same God.”
But do they? I suppose it depends on how you define God. If you go by a minimal set of propositions, such as the Apostle’s Creed or just “Jesus is Lord,” then I suppose they do worship the same God. But from the beginning of my search probably my greatest preoccupation has been with the character of God, and the impression of God’s character that I get from the different denominations is often very different. So much so, in fact, that I do not think I could follow God as defined by some churches.
So the differences in doctrine don’t (usually) seem to me like airy abstractions detached from Christian life. To the extent that they shed light on God’s character, they are right in the heart of the matter. A few years back I remember a discussion on predestination on Disputations, which I’m not going to try to dig up now, that wound up with somebody asking what difference it all really made. Tom answered something to the effect of, “You become what you love, and if you love the Calvinist God, then you become, for better or worse, a Calvinist.” Graham seems to be making basically the same point here.
Since all most of us know about God is basically what we read and hear about him, it seems inevitable that people form a mental image of him the same way they do a fictional character. And just as you may go to a movie version of a book and find characters realized in ways you never would have thought of, Christians look at each other and see very different impressions of God developed from the same material. So if a Catholic or an Amishman or a Southern Baptist or whatever tells you that you don’t worship the same God as he does, he may be bigoted or self-righteous; or he may just be honest.
It’s here, I think, that the Catholics and the Orthodox have their best case that the church plays a crucial role in conveying the nature of God, and indeed without the church we would never know or care anything about Jesus. Protestants carry the burden of proof in explaining why the traditional magesterium is inadequate — even more so when Protestants themselves can’t agree on the matter.
Wyman Richardson had an interesting series of posts recently on “Baptist Paleo-Orthodoxy”, which is apparently an attempt to connect Baptists to a sort of Christian Great Tradition. It’s in parts one, two, three, four, five, six and seven. Along the way, he acknowledges the difficulty of being passionately attached to some doctrine that has historically been in the minority — in his case believer baptism, but speaking for myself I could add pacifism, as well as a non-Dantean image of the afterlife.
What I’ve been wondering, particularly about myself, is: how much do these attachments stem from a belief that they must be true, and how much from a feeling that you couldn’t bring yourself to worship God if they were not true? This is essentially the difference between the propositional approach and the characterological approach to faith that I described above. The former is more logical, the latter emotional.
As I look at the question of my own baptism, I see that my own faith falls heavily in the latter camp. I am with the Mennonites because I want to follow their God, not because I think they present the most rationally convincing case that God is that way. Hell, if I were being entirely rational I’d still be an agnostic, despite all of Telford’s valiant apologetics. In the circles I hang in propositionalism isn’t particularly admired, but I can also see how a belief in the factuality of things like the Apostle’s Creed makes faith more than wishful thinking. The martyrs, I think, stood not only on their principles but their conviction that ultimate reality was on their side.
This is drifting a ways from ecumenicism, but I think this is lying beneath my growing discomfort with facile ecumenical claims. The responsibility to love one’s neighbor goes beyond the bounds of the Church, so I don’t propose that Christians ought to start burning each other again. I guess I’d just like the churches to take a bit more responsibility for publicly defining the character of God. It seems to me that until there is more agreement on that question, such laudable efforts as Reconciler are doomed to failure.