Unity in the United Church of Christ: A Theological Reflection

UCC(This year marks the twentieth anniversary of my address to the Executive Council of the United Church of Christ, which I gave in Cleveland , Ohio, on October 17, 1993. I was asked by the Executive Council to reflect theologically with them prior to their meeting. The address that follows is the result of that invitation. This address was also published in Papers from the Initial Meetings of Confessing Christ, November-December 1993.  I reprint it here as given with a few small editorial changes.)

Let me begin my reflections by invoking the motto of the great Reformed Pastor Richard Baxter (1615-1691), which can be translated as:  “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, diversity; in all things charity.”  (He seems to have got it from the German Lutheran theologian Peter Meinerlin). Baxter referred to essentials as “necessary things” and to nonessentials as “doubtful things,” and it seems to me that many of the strains we experience in the UCC are because of the difficulty in distinguishing between what is essential and what is nonessential, what is necessary and what is doubtful, by which Baxter meant what is open for discussion. To make these distinctions in the United Church of Christ will not be easy, but I am convinced that unless we carry out a continuing and wide-ranging debate on what constitutes our essentials, both our unity and diversity will continue to be imperiled. I speak to you as a lover of the church, a local church pastor who has been through the chairs of denominational and ecumenical life.

I worry about the church these days. Any alert church person knows that the church is undergoing profound and far–reaching changes.  The church of tomorrow will not look like the church of today, of that we can be certain. A flurry of books has appeared on the decline of the mainline churches, such as Loren Mead’s The Once and Future Church, Leander Keck’s The Church Confident, and Jackson Carroll and Wade Clark Roof’s Beyond Establishment: Protestant Identity in a Post–Protestant Age, just to name a few of the most recent ones. All describe changes that are taking place, using words like “crisis” and “malaise.” All offer some tentative steps that may help the church to move in fruitful and faithful directions. None can see clearly what the future church will look like.  Mead is convinced that the new church that is being born out of the old mainline will not be seen clearly during our lifetimes and I tend to agree with him. God is doing a new thing, of that we can be sure, but just what it is that God is doing is not so easy to say.

To prepare ourselves and our church for this future requires the debate about which I have spoken, a debate grounded in study and prayer, a debate that clarifies and articulates what it is that constitutes the United Church of Christ, a debate that seeks passionately to discern the essential defining marks of our life about which we need unity; that defines, too, what are the nonessentials that can be left to Christian freedom in a wide-ranging diversity, and how do we recover the charity in all things that  the Apostle Paul said is the greatest gift God gives to those in the body of Christ?   Let me share with you some of the threats to our unity that I see.

Threats to Unity

1.  A Faulty Inclusivity

The first threat to our unity that I want to suggest to you is what I call a faulty inclusivity. I believe that the gospel creates its own diversity, addressing and calling all sorts and conditions of people. But diversity of “races, tongues and nations” or even theological viewpoints is not the same thing as diversity of faith. To paraphrase P. T.  Forsyth, “Diversity is a fruit and not a root.” Our diversity is rooted in the unity we have in Christ, and in that unity let us strive to be as diverse as possible. But in many cases our diversity has been regarded as a creed extended to everyone and everything without adequate account for the essentials that define our community.

The church needs to be both authentically inclusive about some things and carefully exclusive about others, and needs always to pray for wisdom to discern the difference. Listen to what Loren Mead has to say about this:  “At its worst, exclusivity becomes rigid and legalistic, separating the righteous from the unrighteous according to manmade standards . . . But exclusivity is important because it speaks of something more important than these limited boundaries.  Exclusivity states that there must be a place where a decision, a belief, or an action marks the difference between who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.’ Exclusivity demands that one who identifies with the Christian community stands for something, not for everything. At its best it engages and focuses energy and anchors community life. Inclusivity goes in the other direction. It opens its arms wide to the diversity of the world, inviting the stranger into community without question. At its best it represents hospitality and prevenient grace — acceptance before it is asked or earned.  It points to the acceptance of the unacceptable.  At its worst it degrades the meaning of membership to a ‘laissez faire’ anything goes.”  (Loren Mead, The Once and Future Church, Alban Institute, 1991, p. 48)

Now I would be the first to cry foul if I perceived the UCC to be faced with a crisis of exclusivity: of rigid, arbitrary, and legalistic bars to membership or participation, but that is not our problem. In the culture of the United Church of Christ “exclusive” is considered a bad word, “inclusive” is a good word. A friend of mine who is a UCC pastor and spent some of his formative years within the ranks of conservative evangelicalism says that the word “inclusive” in UCC circles reminds him of nothing so much as the word “inerrant” in evangelical circles. Nobody really defines it, he comments, but we all are supposed to know what it means, and if you aren’t you are in trouble. It’s used as law, not as gospel. Our problem is not in the area of exclusion; our problem is a faulty inclusivity that often fails to distinguish between the authentic need for Christian confession around membership and the desire to be tolerant and nice.

Let me offer a personal anecdote.  A decade ago when I was relatively new to Berkshire County my friend, the local rabbi, made an appointment to see me. He seemed uncharacteristically nervous and it soon became clear why. Two of his congregants had informed him that they were “members” of one of our UCC churches in Southern Berkshire, and that the pastor of that church told them that there was no problem belonging to both the synagogue and the church, because we worship the same God, “and we are open here to people of all religions,” including, I later found out, some who identified themselves as Buddhists, and some who are Hindus. I told the rabbi that I found that interpretation of local church autonomy incomprehensible, and would look into it.

When I mentioned this to a member of the Church and Ministry Committee, I was told that each local church is responsible for forming its own covenants and requirements for membership and that this church was within its rights. I can’t imagine that the founders and framers of the United Church of Christ ever imagined that a local church would or could decide to become a syncretistic religious fellowship across faith boundaries.

When I talk this way about excluding people from membership in our churches who clearly are not practicing Christians, who are honest enough to say they do not confess faith in God and do not consider Christ to be the head of the church, I hear in response that we are not a creedal church. That is true in comparison to the way creeds function in other communions. We do not hold them up like litmus paper to test people’s orthodoxy. They are “testimonies and not tests.” Nevertheless, the United Church of Christ is a Christian Church in the classical Christian tradition.  Our constitution says that we honor “the historic creeds and confessions of the Christian Church.” We are a church, not a sect, and though we provide space and freedom for a wide variety of viewpoints and perspectives we do not make it up as we go along. Essentials such as the Trinity, the headship of Christ over the church, the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the authority of the Bible, just to name a few, are not optional items to be embraced or discarded at our whim. They belong to the whole Christian church of which we are a part. Members join our congregations by profession of faith and that faith has content. Which leads me to my second threat to our unity.

2.  Amnesia about the Church’s Traditions

We are forgetting our heritage. Leander Keck says the mainline churches are like people who inherit a grand estate, but instead of moving in and inhabiting it they have camped out in the backyard, “because they neither knew nor cared how to live in the house.”  (Leander Keck, The Church Triumphant, p. 16) We live in an ahistorical culture where memories are short and tradition is not valued, and, unfortunately, the church is not exempt from that amnesia. But those who lose touch with the living theological heritage we share are condemned to be constantly reinventing the wheel. Now there is a kind of traditionalism that resists all adaptation and change and elevates tradition to the place that only scripture should occupy. This is not what I am talking about. Rather, I refer to an authentic appreciation for the rich tradition that is a treasure bequeathed to us from the past. The church historian Jaroslav Pelikan offers us this epigram;  “Tradition is the living faith of the dead:  traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” (Jaroslav Pelikan, The Vindication of Tradition, p. 65)  Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the British politician and writer, called the social contract a “partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”  That is what tradition is in the church, the place where the communion of saints get their say.  As Chesterton put it, “Tradition is only democracy extended though time.”  (G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), Orthodoxy, 1908)

We will always need to find ways to tolerate those in the church that like to color outside the lines; Jesus and the prophets did no less. But let us have lines, even if we have to struggle about where they need to be drawn. Let us have lines, not as boundaries that exclude so much as plumb lines that give a true measure. There can be no pristine orthodoxy. Even the so-called Vincentian canon, the notion of orthodoxy defined as that which has been believed always and everywhere, is a fiction, and none of the doctrines of the church quite measure up to it. Doctrine develops, orthodoxy gets redefined. John Henry Newman said that “Authentic orthodoxy has to change in order to remain the same. In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be mature is to have changed often.”  (John Henry Newman, Essay on Development, quoted in Jaroslav Pelikan, The Melody of Theology.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 55)

So when I speak of orthodoxy I do not mean a rigid, unchanging set of dogmas, but rather that collection of articulations and expressions that allow the church to give God “right praise” which is what orthodoxy means. This includes knowing whom it is that we are praising.  I am arguing for what Hans Frei called “a generous orthodoxy.”  “Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing,” he said, “but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing.” Such orthodoxy’s lines are never fixed or rigid, and must always be redefined. It is the responsibility, even the duty, of the church to do this, as the preamble to our constitution exhorts:  “[The United Church of Christ] affirms the responsibility of the church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” But it is not just any faith that we must make our own, it is this faith, previously defined as the “faith of the historic church expressed in the ancient creeds and reclaimed in the basic insights of the Protestant Reformers.” So the historic faith in its basic contours must be made our own, not something new of our own making. And when what is essential gets redefined by each generation, the ecumenical church must get its vote across space, and the communion of saints must get its vote across time. So deciding what is essential for the church’s life must not be left to the whim of every local church and pastor or judicatory on an ad hoc basis.

In this regard, I am dismayed by reports of local pastors using ad hoc baptismal formulas in their baptismal liturgies in the name of inclusive language. This is putting enormous strains on our unity both within the United Church of Christ and ecumenically. I have represented The Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ on the Massachusetts Commission on Christian Unity for nearly a decade. Over that time I have had to defend us against the questioning of some of my ecumenical brothers and sisters about whether we are a bit loose and free with some things on which we thought we had agreement, such as baptism by water in the “name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” In the past, when somebody asked me about irregular baptisms in UCC congregations, I always explained the nature of our covenantal model of ecclesiology and indicated the traditional formula as it appears in the Book of Worship. At the commission’s annual meeting last year we were told about a neighboring state where a common ecumenical baptismal certificate had been created as a tangible expression of Christian unity. This had been signed by judicatory leaders representing Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and every mainline denomination except the United Church of Christ.  The fact of a conference embracing such a policy makes my previous defense seem disingenuous. It takes little imagination to foresee the ecumenical implication of such a move.

The United Church of Christ is struggling mightily and at every level over the issue of language, as you all know from following the debate that rages around the New Century Hymnal. But it is not simply a matter of a correct or an incorrect approach to this vexing subject.  Professor Gabriel Fackre has identified at least nine discrete positions in relation to inclusive language. This taxonomy of the issue may well help us to sort out its complexity and come to wise solutions. One wise elder suggests that the Hymnal will only be successful if everyone is a little offended by it. But can we ever get it just right? Leander Keck suggests what is behind the call for flawless words is “a technological view of language.” He writes, “What makes this view of language so attractive during the eclipse of God and the entropy of religious vitality of the mainline churches is the implication that proper (i.e., “politically correct”) manipulation of metaphors can bring God back and vivify proper religious experience. Indeed, wherever the God-Reality has been collapsed into our language for God, one can scarcely avoid thinking that changing God-language changes God too, making us the creators and shapers of God instead of acknowledging that it is we who are the created and the shaped.” (Keck, p. 54-55)

A related form of amnesia that threatens our unity and the integrity of our mission is our forgetfulness of the language of Zion, the biblical and theological thought-world that is or should be the church’s proper primary language. I have been noticing for some time now how therapeutic, managerial and political language dominates the church’s discourse. Where once the church spoke of sin and grace, covenant and promise, holiness and righteousness, now we are more likely to hear other tongues. Therapeutic language speaks of co-dependence and dysfunction; managerial language speaks of goals and objectives and accountability; political language speaks of victimization and oppression. These are helpful perspectives to be sure, and the church has always adopted and even baptized the language of the culture around it, but always in the past as second languages.  I am struck by how much these foreign tongues completely dominate churchly discourse. Like second-generation exiles we have forgotten our native tongue and no longer know how to speak to one another in it. And since we no longer speak it in the home and less and less in church it is highly unlikely that our children will learn it, except a few nostalgic phrases the way many second generation immigrant families hold on to scraps of language they learned from grandma. Which leads me to my next point.

3.  The Failure of Transmission

Related to historical amnesia is our failure to transmit the faith to the next generation. The reasons for this are complex and far beyond our control. The network of support structures that not so long ago supported Protestant America are, for better or worse, gone.  The culture will not make people Christian, and in a church as heavily identified with culture as the UCC is, the intentional transmission of the faith will be all the more critical as the culture changes and becomes more secular.

I am currently involved in a doctoral project entitled “Christian Literacy:  Remedial Catechesis for Adults” in which I have designed an eight-week adult curriculum entitled A Course in Basic Christianity. There are 29 participants from my local church in the program, which is in its fourth week. Already we have learned some interesting things. This sample of people has few birthright members of the UCC or its predecessor bodies. The majority learned the faith elsewhere. Most have more understanding of the basic contours of the Christian faith than they thought, but they have had little experience of thinking and speaking theologically. They find, however, when they do it is empowering and exciting. They are relearning a forgotten language that once they knew. This was truer for the older members than the younger ones, however.

In the late nineteenth century Horace Bushnell wrote Christian Nurture and challenged the prevailing conversion model of his day. But Christian nurture then had the support of the family, the school and the culture as well as the church. That synthesis is over, and Christian nurture is now a failure everywhere. The Puritans worried about an unregenerate clergy. We should worry about an unnurtured clergy and laity, and muster everything in our power at every level to educate and nurture our people in the basics of the faith.

Likewise we need a renewed emphasis on evangelism. We are doing this in my congregation, having participated for three years with the Evangelism Institutes sponsored by the Board of Homeland Ministries. Transmission of the faith is never merely done by Christian education but also by invitational evangelism. But of course, it is not opinions that one feels compelled to evangelize about, it is good news; if you regard what you believe as a preference rather than the truth, evangelism will wither, as it so often has and does in our churches. Which leads me to my next threat to our unity.

4.  The Loss of Truth as Criterion

Another threat to unity is the increasingly accepted belief that there cannot be any such thing as truth, only personal preference.  “You like chocolate, I like vanilla. You like Hinduism, I like Christianity.” This is not what religious tolerance once meant, but as it is increasingly getting to be understood, tolerance is becoming a subtle faith of its own that believes that all religious claims are private and relative. This especially undermines Christian faith, which is not a philosophical system at all, but rather a claim about God acting in history. Christian faith is, as Leslie Newbigin once said, “Primarily news and only secondarily views.”  (A Faith for this One World.)

This ideology of pluralism states that all opinions are equally valid, and in doing so relativizes all religious truth claims. Many of the baby boomers who are joining our churches do not believe the Christian faith is true over other faiths, they merely have a preference for it, out of historical nostalgia or familiarity.  In his new book, A Generation of Seekers, sociologist Wade Clark Roof finds that baby boomers are generally inclined to like choice, tolerance of different lifestyles, mixing religion and psychology, and doing what works for them. Roof calls this religious consumerism and individualism “transformed narcissism,” and he suggests that it is what much of what America’s religious future will look like. The genuine openness (as well as the faulty inclusivity) of the UCC is very attractive to some of these people. That is the good news. The bad news is that their loyalty to denominations is very low, they pick and choose only the parts of the faith of the church that meets their needs, they are notoriously lousy givers, and if they feel moved to leave for a better deal or just stop being interested they will drop out without a thought. Every pastor knows this crowd. According to Roof, for the boomers tolerance is equated not with respect across religious lines so much as the belief that religion is an individual enterprise and one cannot talk of truth but only of preference. In an increasingly pluralistic society this attitude is highest among the best educated, those who make up one of our core constituencies. How we deal with the question of truth in a pluralistic world then becomes a pressing question for us, and has many implications for our unity and diversity.

To my mind the most eloquent of the recent Christian thinkers on this question is Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a British theologian who was for forty years a missionary in India.  Newbigin makes a convincing case that the learned spokesmen and spokeswomen of contemporary Christianity who argue against making exclusive claims of truth on behalf of the gospel are in fact not making Christianity more available to their contemporaries, as they often argue, but are embracing an alternative view of history, an alternative faith actually, and in so doing are selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.

To judge the gospel by the prevailing worldview is to betray it, for the gospel itself is a view of history that calls into question every other way at looking at human history and destiny. To take but one example of how this works let us look at the interpretation of a biblical text. According to modern views a text is best understood from some outside perspective, an Archimedean point from which the observer can make sense of it. From this point of view we examine the text but the text doesn’t examine us.

Newbigin uses the now well-known example of Karl Barth “as he sat under his apple tree in Safenwil, when he discovered to his astonishment that the Apostle Paul was not only addressing his contemporaries in Rome but was actually addressing Karl Barth, and an answer was required.”  (Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralistic Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989, p. 98)

Newbigin might say that we have tried to understand the gospel from the point of view of the world, when in fact the world must be understood from the point of view of the gospel. He in no way rules out dialogue and discussion with other faiths and points of view, but admonishes us as Christians to be clear that we have a position that makes claims for itself, which cannot be denied by deciding in advance that all views are equally valid. That is of course just what the ideology of pluralism asks of those who come to the discussion.

One of the dogmas of the ideology of pluralism is the refusal to even consider the question of truth; even some Christians are now asking that truth questions be put aside for the sake of some elusive unity.  Newbigin wants to claim that the Christian religion is the truth, not a truth, one among many. This of course flies in the face of modernity, challenging perhaps its most widely held dogma, that in “private” matters like religion there can be no truth.

Newbigin argues for a view of the Bible as universal history, not as merely a sectarian story for a peculiar people, but the story for all people.  He supports this claim by arguing for Israel and the church to be seen in terms of election to fulfill God’s intention for all humanity, and, finally, for Jesus Christ to be understood as the clue to history. In spelling this out he articulates an interpretation of history that does justice to the biblical narrative.

Jesus Christ, “the clue to history,” is the clue as well to the church’s mission.  Since we need not be ashamed of the particularity of God’s way with the world, we can abandon the reductionism that tries to distill Jesus’ ethics out of the particularity of Jesus’ person. With the coming of Jesus the kingdom of God can no longer be understood as a formal concept “into which we are free to pour our own content in accordance with the spirit of the age.  The kingdom of God now has a name and a face: the name and the face of Jesus. When we pray, ‘Your kingdom come,’ we are praying, or ought to be praying, as the early church did, ‘Maranatha: Come, Lord Jesus.’ The fact that liberal Protestantism separated these two, was willing to talk about the coming of the kingdom but not about the coming of Jesus, is a sign of betrayal.”  (Newbigin, p. 134)

Newbigin decries the conflict between those who see the purpose of the church as the preaching of the gospel of salvation and those who see it as the doing of God’s will of righteousness and peace in this world. He says, and I agree, that this conflict is profoundly weakening the church’s witness. He suggests both parties would benefit from renewed focus on the new being in Christ, the “prior reality, the givenness, the ontological priority of the new reality which the work of Christ has brought into being.” (Newbigin, p. 136)

5.  Loss of Charity

The final threat to our unity is not about substance, but about style. I will call it the loss of charity, which is the Christian term, although in secular discourse it is often called loss of civility. Christians are admonished “to tell the truth in love,” but in the current climate of the church it gets harder and harder to do that. By charity I do not mean denying or glossing over differences. It should be sufficiently clear to you by now that I have strong opinions and I am willing to share them. I expect that others will do likewise, and let the opinions stand on their own. But that is getting less and less possible in the church. The insight that all politics are personal has made all discussions personal. Attacks are frequently made ad hominem.

Loren Mead names this in The Once and Future Church, “Much of the bitter anger in the theological and political conflicts in our denominations comes from the depths of persons who have a sense of loss of the church they loved. The conflicts may be about substantial concerns, but often the anger that surrounds them comes from those feelings of loss. I see this anger in bitter debates leading to the firing of some pastors. I see it in the way clergy scapegoat their executives or denomination. I see it in the way clergy talk about their lay people and the way lay people talk about clergy. I see it in the way people at all levels engage in civil wars or try to purge one another for one reason or another. I do not deny the fact that there is often truth behind many of the angers, but our age of change and the loss of the familiar puts a bitter edge to the anger, often violating the spirit of community.” He concludes, “Building a church for the future will take all the sense of community we can get.”  (Mead, p. 62-63)

It‘s a hard time. Angry and bitter words are spoken, and they hurt. People are more and more pigeonholed into groups and positions. I find time with my clergy colleagues to be less and less a time of support and solidarity and more and more a time of nervous defensiveness.

I know you as members of the Executive Council have been the targets of hard and hurtful accusations. The conflict with the Biblical Witness Fellowship was hard to understand from the sidelines. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Biblical Witness Fellowship, but I think I understand their sense of loss that things they hold sacred are not valued by many in the United Church of Christ. At least in the circles I move they have little or no significance or impact. Nevertheless, I have frequently heard very uncharitable things said about them that would be completely beyond the pale if said about any other group in the United Church of Christ, which makes me wonder aloud whether our church’s cherished sensitivity to and concern for marginalized groups can include them. I have also heard and read invitations for them to leave the United Church of Christ if they can’t get with the program. I think it would be most unfortunate for our church if that came to pass.  P.T. Forsyth once said, “The church is not to be sneered at if it refuses to place itself wholly on one side or the other of a mere economic, social, or political question and stake its Lord’s fortunes there.  It is bad for a Church, and it might be fatal, to be only on one side in a civil war.”  (Forsyth, Socialism, the Church and the Poor.  London:  Hodder and Stoughton, 1908, p. 33)

Our Unity is in Christ

Which is to say that our unity can never be based on like-mindedness, on some political solidarity or shared cultural life, movement or cause.  No, we are admonished to have the same mind among us that was in Christ Jesus, and it is our relationship to Christ, the head of the church, that we find our unity with each other. It seems to me that our polity is the attempt to order our life by the fact of our unity in Christ. When I was a theological consultant to the UCC sub-committee on ecclesiology I remember Reuben Sheares returning again and again to the point that the parts of the church are in relationship with each other because of the fact that they are in relationship to Christ. The key phrase in the constitution is “in mutual Christian concern and in dedication to Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, the one and the many share in common Christian experience and responsibility.” I recall thinking, “My God, he really means that! ” and thinking as well, “What a radical belief that is.” Its implications are crystal clear: unity cannot reside in offices, whether we have bishops or not, nor in liturgies, or in creeds, or in causes, or in polity procedures. That is why both Book of Worship and Manual on the Ministry are more descriptive rather than they are normative.

What it means is that we live our common life out in dizzying freedom, the freedom in which Christ has set us free. And those of you who have been on Church and Ministry Committees and wrestled with vexing decisions in the life of our church know that because of that freedom our polity is a lot like the proverbial little girl with the little curl: “When its good its very very good, but when its bad its horrid.”

So to state the obvious, but often overlooked fact, the United Church of Christ has its unity in Christ. What does that mean?  It means our unity is something God-given that we do not create or make happen. The Statement of Faith of the United Church of Christ declares: “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and Risen Lord, God has come to us, sharing our common lot.” In Jesus Christ, God has come to us. Our unity is the result of an act of God, and therefore we need always to look to the acts and purposes of God as attested in the scriptures.

This means we must give up modern theology’s inclination to look at the life of Jesus alone, as if we could know him by analyzing his teachings or delving into his personality. To know who Jesus is is to know what he does, and chiefly in his cross where he saved us from sin and death. This is how early Christology developed (see, for example, Marinus de Jonge Christology in Context:  the Earliest Christian Response to Jesus, 1988) and it is still the way Christians come to know Jesus personally, by what he does for us, not by contemplating his nature. As Catherine Mowry LaCugna says, “The mystery of God can be thought of only in terms of the mystery of grace and redemption. We can make true statements about God — particularly when the assertions are about the triune nature of God — only on the basis of the economy, corroborated by God’s self-revelation in Christ and the Spirit. Theological statements are possible not because we have some independent insight into God, or can speak from the standpoint of God, but because God has freely revealed and communicated God’s self, God’s personal existence, God’s infinite mystery. Christians believe that God bestows the fullness of divine life in the person of Jesus Christ, and through the person of Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit we are made intimate partakers of the living God.”  (LaCugna, God For Us ,The Trinity and Christian Life.  San Francisco:  Harper & Collins, 1991, pp 2,3) To know Jesus is to know him as Christ crucified, as Christ within the self-revelation of the triune God. The act of God in the cross of Jesus and the raising of Jesus, the Christ-event, disclosed Jesus’ identity within the activity of God, so that the church’s subsequent reflection and articulation of the person of Christ arise from that event.

We see this throughout the New Testament. So C. H. Dodd writes, “The great thinkers of the New Testament period, while they worked out bold, even daring ways of restating the Gospel, were so possessed by its fundamental convictions that their restatements are true to its first intention. Under all variations of form, they continued to affirm that in the events out of which the Christian Church arose there was a conclusive act of God . . . ” (C.H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, 1936, p. 185)

The same is true for the theological discussions of the early centuries. So, for example, the Christological and Trinitarian controversies were focused around the vexing question of how the “man of Nazareth” who died on the cross for our salvation and the Eternal God were related. In these debates it is what God does that tells us who God is. For example, St. Athanasius dedicated his career to defending the notion that Christ is God, since Christ is our Savior and it is only God who can save. The doctrine of the Trinity, which is the specifically Christian way of speaking about God, guards this critical Christian truth from being lost or diminished, for it summarizes what it means to participate in the life of God through Jesus Christ in the Spirit.

Too much modern theology cares little for the Trinity and has either diminished or let go altogether the central Christian affirmation that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”  (2 Corinthian 5:19)  That act of God in Christ centers on the cross, the lost chord in modern theology. Jesus Christ is our crucified as well as our risen Lord, and, it should go without saying, he couldn’t be the latter without having undergone the former. So with Paul, we preach “Christ and him crucified.” Otherwise, we are in danger of losing what Forsyth once called “the cruciality of the cross” and with it the whole sense of the triune God’s cosmic intervention and continuing activity in the world over which God holds sovereignty and exercises providence.

It is from this loss but a short leap to John Hick’s dubious conclusion about the non-exclusivity of the gospel, as if the gospel, which is about what God has done could abandon its central claim so that it might take its place among the religions. It should come as no surprise to us that someone who edited a book entitled The Myth of God Incarnate should follow it with one titled The Myth of Christian Exclusivity.   If one denies the incarnation then it is quite true that Christianity has nothing unique to say to the world.

But Christian faith does have something unique to say to the world, that God acted in a certain way at a certain time in a particular person: “Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Lord.” The reality of our unity as the United Church of Christ lies not in discounting or neglecting the particularity of the Christian revelation, but rather in the very act of recognizing and acknowledging it as a gift from God who has acted on our behalf.

But if the gospel is particular in form, it has universal implications. The act of God in Christ was for all the world, for every people in every age.  The Holy God who created heaven and earth and the atoning Christ who saves humankind from sin and death mutually indwell one another along with the Holy Spirit who makes Christ our contemporary.. Could there be a scheme more cosmic than that? Need we to look any further than the activity of the Triune God for our mission toward our fellow humans and within the whole created order?

In Colossians Paul speaks of this cosmic Christ, in whom dwells all the fullness of God. The universality of the gospel lies in its discrete particularity: “God with us” in the human Jesus Christ. So that biblical scholar Martin Dibelius is able to say in his commentary on Colossians, “As Paul confirmed the cosmic significance of the faith in Christ, he maintained the exclusiveness of Christianity and saved the Christian Church from becoming just one mystery religion among others and from being submerged and overcome by syncretism.” (M. Dibelius, Handbuch zum Nuen Testament 12, 1953, p. 39)

Does Christianity then make exclusive claims for itself against the other religions? You bet! Certainly we must be open to dialogue and conversation with other religions, and there are many things we can learn from them, and many common causes we can make with them. But since the gospel is about an act of God that defines both God and humankind, we cannot abandon our central claim, nor can we accept that there might be other gods. Paul tells the Corinthians they can eat meat sacrificed to idols since the idols do not exist,  ” . . . even though there may be so–called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”  (1 Corinthians 8:5,6. NRSV)

Likewise the creeds of the early church insist that there can be but one God and Lord. In the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed the church confesses its faith in one Lord Jesus Christ (echoing 1 Corinthians 8:5ff); the Apostle’s Creed uses the Johannine rather than the Pauline formula:  ” . . .his only son our Lord” (echoing John 3:16). Both creeds clearly extend the New Testament faith that there can be but one Lord.

It is a challenge for the church today to remain clear and unapologetic about our faith in Jesus Christ, the one in whom God has acted, as the sufficient revelation of the Holy God, while at the same time remaining tolerant and open to others, and carrying about ourselves a proper Christian humility, befitting those who have been given all things by God through no credit of our own.

Many gods vie for our loyalty today, various cults and sects, New Age spirituality, and the subtle secular God’s of success, power, wealth, war, political ideologies of the right and the left, and other forms of seduction. God has made us worshiping creatures. We will worship someone or something and if it is not the Holy God something else will fill the vacuum.

In the face of these other calls to our allegiance, we are challenged to know Jesus Christ not only as the Lord of history and the savior of the world in whom all the fullness of God dwells, but also as our own personal Lord and Savior. We are challenged by him to take our faith with utmost seriousness. He calls us to decision, to commitment, to conversion, to repentance, to a new way of life with him.

I am convinced that the United Church of Christ from the very outset has been a daring ecclesial experiment in Christian freedom. If we seek our unity elsewhere than in Christ, we have no future together. In Christ, our future is promise.

I would like to end with a prayer by P.T. Forsyth, which some of you may know because it is in the back of the Pilgrim Hymnal.  Let us pray:

A Prayer for the Church

We beseech thee, O Lord, for thy Church throughout the world.  May it grow in the faith of the cross and the power of the resurrection.  May thy spirit minister to it continually the redemption and reconciliation of all things.  Keep it in thy eternal unity, in great humility, in godly fear, and in thine own pure and peaceable wisdom so easy to be entreated.  Make it swift and mighty in the cause of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Cover, establish, and enlighten it, that it may see through all that darkens the time, and move in the shadow of thy wing, with faith, obedience, and sober power.  (P.T. Forsyth, Intercessory Services for Aid in Public Worship.  Manchester, England:  John Heywood, Ltd., 1896, p. 8)

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2 thoughts on “Unity in the United Church of Christ: A Theological Reflection

  1. Richard, I used to read your blog regularly when I was working at my last job (as part of my job, incidentally!). Obviously I should have carried on. This is a marvellous, clear and Christ-centred piece, and I’m glad a friend pointed it out to me.

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