White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

In the Church: Finding Common Ground Across Denominations

Published Thursday, May 3, 2007 By Ann Henderson Hart

Playwright Eugene O’Neil, who was reared on the road by actor/parents who were performing in various cities, lamented of his unstable life: “I was born in a hotel room and God-damn, I’ll die in a hotel room.” While O’Neil turned his tortured experience into great art, including the memorable Long Day’s Journey Into Night, he suffered greatly throughout with alcohol, broken marriages, and a suicide attempt. Sadly, his words proved prophetic; he died alone in Boston’s Shelton Hotel in 1953.

Admittedly, most of us will not lead O’Neil’s highly volatile life, but we all will face personal suffering. Who of us will be exempt from cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, the loss of a spouse or child? Our fallen world is brutally defective because of sin and we endure the consequences every day. Sometimes they are as subtle as a new wrinkle on our face, a first white hair; at other times they are as dramatic as the pains of childbirth or the sudden death of a friend.

Yet those of us who call ourselves Christians, bearing Christ’s name, do not despair. We see ourselves as pilgrims in this world, and the church as a place of comfort and nurture. God has promised to meet us there in a unique way and he gives special grace through the preaching of his Word and the administering of the Sacraments.

Our Fractured Common Ground

If we worship in denominations that are self-conscious about the importance of the church, we recognize some profound scriptural truths: The church is divinely instituted. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. Christ gave himself for it. We are to grow up in it with Christ as the head. The more we understand these truths, the more we should feel compelled to be in conversation with Christians of “like precious faith”-whether they are in our own denomination or not. How can we live in isolation when every Sunday many of us recite the Apostles’ Creed and repeat the phrase, “I believe in one holy and catholic church”?

Too often we can attend our denominational church, its camps, and other functions and never discover the broader “catholic church.” A ghetto mentality creeps in where we view different denominations as “the other kind.” My dear Christian mother, for instance, cried bitterly when the young Camelot president John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. A life of great promise was cut down so violently. I have a vivid memory of her saying through her tears of the yet unidentified assassin, “Let’s just hope he’s not a Baptist.” For my youthful ears, the subtext seemed to be, “better if he’s Presbyterian or Lutheran, at least he would not be one of us.” We are most at peace in our ecclesiastical comfort zone. And we relish our internal shorthand about others, although it can be incredibly unloving and dismissive. If we’re honest with ourselves, many of us have had thoughts like these: “The Episcopal Church elected a gay bishop. That’s the end of the story for me.” “Presbyterians and Reformed believe in election, well, that seems awfully cold and uncaring.” “Lutherans really believe that you eat Christ’s body and drink his blood during the Lord’s Supper?”

How do we move beyond our comfortable but often biased denominational assumptions to embrace the wider Christian church?

C. S. Lewis-Compassionate, Christian Ecumenist

In a New York Times editorial at the end of last year, marking the fortieth anniversary of C. S. Lewis’s death, writer Joe Laconte made some interesting observations about the English professor’s ability to relate to people of varying religious beliefs. He mused that perhaps because Lewis was an atheist who converted to Christianity as an adult, he was able to ask the hard questions and avoid self-righteous zealotry.

In his popular book Mere Christianity, Lewis offers some cautionary remarks on making too many concessions in relating to the wider church. He writes that a “mere Christianity,” where only those doctrines are discussed that we all accept, is an incomplete Christianity. He likens this kind of lowest-common-denominator Christianity with living perpetually in the hallway of a house rather than entering one of its rooms, “where living is meant to be done.” Even though we may have to go through a hallway to get to a room, Lewis argues, it is the room that is our destination, not the corridor. Thus, he encourages Christians to accept and embrace that set of particular doctrines that we find to be true upon investigation.

Yet I suspect many of this magazine’s readers would be much more comfortable in the rooms off Lewis’s great hallway. In fact, to build on Lewis’s image, I would love to see all of us who consider ourselves part of “the holy catholic church” to stay in this hallway for an evening and talk about what we have in common. Ideally, champagne would be flowing and appetizers in abundance on silver trays. Okay, there could even be Martinelli’s sparkling cider for the hard-core teetotalers! But one rule would be enforced. You would have to mingle, circulate, and get beyond your own denominational experience. The Sabbatarians couldn’t stay in one corner and the theonomists in another. Christians in the mainline denominations would have to mix with “aliens and strangers” from some of the most conservative denominations-like, arguably the Orthodox Presbyterian Church or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church. A string quartet would offer an evening’s worth of music including great hymns, Psalms, and even some praise songs. Undoubtedly, there would be music to upset everyone! And the uncomfortable would gravitate inevitably toward their familiar rooms. But they would be surprised. For this one night, the doors to their rooms, their comfort zones, would be locked.

“Back on planet earth,” as Woody Allen would say, this will never happen in our lifetimes. Yet at the end of history, will the Marriage Supper of the Lamb be that very different? There we won’t sit by denominations. We won’t control the catering for that event or the placement of each table’s name cards.

The Disciples’ Baggage … and Ours

Like Christ’s first disciples, we have a tendency to argue among ourselves and make self-aggrandizing comparisons. “Who will be the greatest?” “Who will sit at Christ’s right hand in heaven?” “Others may deny you, Lord, but not me!” All these statements sound so pathetic and yet so familiar to our own experience.

In Christ’s profoundly moving high priestly prayer, recorded in John 17, he was thinking not only about his immediate disciples but also about his disciples of today and every other age. In this prayer, he asks his Father that his followers be characterized by unity:

I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.

Matthew L. Becker, a member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS), refers to this prayer when he challenges his own denomination toward greater unity in a paper called “Beyond the Open Door.”

[As] pilgrims, we can’t afford to be isolated from our fellow pilgrims as together we live in exile. Jesus prays in his high priestly prayer for the unity of all those who call upon him and confess him before others. The LCMS is part of a much larger pilgrim band. We cannot forget this, especially so that we can comfort our fellow pilgrims, pray for one another, strategize with one another, take joy in one another, act with one another. But even in all of these actions, our focus is not upon ourselves; our focus is upon our common Christian mission and our common gospel witness to the world that does not yet know God in Jesus Christ. God has opened the door of His grace for us, and so now he wants to call others through us into that same marvelous light of His grace.

Must the “Holy Catholic Church” Mean the Catholic Church?

Some Protestants have found denominationalism a major stumbling block and the lack of authority deeply unsettling. Author and professor Thomas Howard speaks for a segment of Christendom when writing about his personal faith journey from Evangelicalism to the Catholic Church. Although Howard writes with deep affection of his evangelical parents and Christian upbringing, he was still haunted by the lack of unity and authority in the Protestant church. He says:

My happy Evangelical view of the church’s unity as being nothing more than the worldwide clutter that we have under our general umbrella was, for good or ill, not what the ancient Church had understood as the word unity. As an Evangelical, I could pick which source of things appealed most to me: Dallas Seminary; Fuller Seminary; John Wimber; Azusa Street; the Peninsula Bible Church; Hudson Taylor; the deeper life as taught at Keswick; Virginia Mollenkott; John Stott; or Sam Shoemaker…. It is disastrous if I invest any of the above with the authority that belongs alone to the Church. But then who shall guide my choices?

The question of church authority is a haunting one. But for those of us who consider ourselves children of the Protestant Reformation, we still see problems in the Catholic Church that have not been overcome. Instead, we embrace a confessional tradition-whether Reformed, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Reformed Baptist, or another, and are grateful for a full-orbed, rigorous expression of the Christian faith that sustains us and gives us profound truths through all of life’s challenges.

But do we need to feel guilty for working out our salvation in “different rooms,” in Lewis’s words, or can we defend denominationalism?

Do Denominations Threaten the Church?

Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr considered the disunity of Protestant denominations a stain on Christendom. He wrote, “Denominationalism … thus represents the moral failure of Christianity…. Before the church can hope to overcome its fatal division it must learn to recognize and to acknowledge the secular character of its denominationalism.”

While Niebuhr’s critical words plagued several generations of Christians, Hartford Seminary Professor Nancy T. Ammerman offers a different analysis. She recently participated in a national study through The Hartford Institute for Religion Research, with funding from the Lilly Endowment. Researchers conducted extensive interviews in 549 congregations in 1997 and 1998 with particular attention to eight denominations. These denominations ranged from the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches to the Assemblies of God and Vineyard churches. The researchers found that virtually half of those interviewed said they no longer take their tradition for granted. The denomination they identify with is “no longer a matter of enclave and birth, but now a matter of faith and practice.” The study continues, “These congregations see their theological heritage as a gift, intentionally teach newcomers about the faith, and celebrate their own unique worship traditions.” In conclusion Ammerman says, “Perhaps we need to reopen our dialogue with Niebuhr. These congregations in which distinct identities are being chosen and nurtured do not seem to be worse for it…. Unlike the denominationalism Niebuhr feared, they are building distinctions based more on ritual and doctrine than on social divisions.”

Building Bridges of Unity Across Denominations

In the early years of this new century, we should make every effort to live in unity with Christians from other faith traditions. We are not the ones who have to discern the “invisible” from the “visible” church. Instead, we must be willing to give a defense of the hope within us. We can also try to be characterized by three attributes to build the Christian community-curiosity, humor, and humility.

First, we should have a healthy curiosity about people from other faith traditions. Most of us are time-starved and have to make tough choices in what we read and listen to. I think it is essential, however, to develop listening skills and a curiosity about how others express their faith. A good place to start is a new radio show on Minnesota Public Radio called Speaking of Faith. It has been very well received far beyond the heartland. In fact, the show now airs in six of the top ten markets nationwide. Its format is simple and effective. Host Krista Tippett invites people to talk at length about their faith. Tippett, the granddaughter of a Southern Baptist minister, was reared in the church and quickly “shed” it when she went away to college. During those years, she described herself as an agnostic. But now, years later, she describes herself as serious about the faith and worships in an Episcopal church. Her show is well worth a listen to hear the range of spiritual hunger people experience. You must draw your own conclusions. In my listening, I am saddened to hear how few people talk about finding comfort in the organized church. Whether you agree with Tippett’s guest or not, you are forced to think in different categories.

This stretching should also characterize our reading habits. While we read Modern Reformation, we should also be skimming the pages of Christian Century, Christianity Today, First Things, Books and Culture, and other publications to see what others are saying about their faith.

Second, we should be able to laugh at ourselves. This doesn’t mean that we are making fun of the great doctrines of the faith. Rather, we can laugh about how God uses us, jars of clay, to hold his mysteries. Perhaps the greatest example of one who can make fun of a faith tradition is Garrison Keillor’s take on Lutheranism. For almost 30 years, he has been delighting radio audiences with his radio program, Prairie Home Companion, where he talks of his fictional boyhood home, Lake Wobegone, and the predominantly Lutheran community there. Robert Fulford wrote of some of Keillor’s affectionate Lutheran bashing in an article called “Can Garrison Keillor make Lutherans funny?” in the National Post. “To Keillor [Lutherans] are the people for whom the word repressed was invented. Their life goals are modest. A sign outside a Lutheran church announces the topic of that week’s sermon: ‘It could be worse.’ Keillor says that Lutherans who go to psychotherapists for help are told to pull themselves together.” In another story, Keillor says, “Mother was a true Lutheran, and taught me to Cheer up, Make yourself useful, Mind your manners and, above all, Don’t feel sorry for yourself.” “Nobody is meant to be a star.”

Dr. Ammerman agrees about Keillor’s appeal. “No one has described that old denominational world better than Garrison Keillor,” she wrote in the Christian Century. She also can’t help quoting him:

I was raised in Iowa, went to Concordia, Swedish, I’m proud to say. Got a job at Lutheran Brotherhood, and I never was sick one day. We sit in the pew where we always sit, and we do not shout Amen. And if anyone yells or waves their hands, they’re not invited back again.

Finally, a word about humility as a tool to building common ground with other believers. We see God reveal himself in creation and in special revelation in his Word. We are commanded to “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). We can learn from church historians, the church divines, and systematic theologians. But there are mysteries we will never fathom. “God’s ways are not our ways.” We are just pilgrims in this world. But the place God commands us to worship him and to learn more about him is the church. It is there that we see him for who he really is and we see ourselves for who we really are.

In a turn of Eugene O’Neil’s haunting opening line, I hope we can all say, “Born or baptized into the church, and God willing, I’ll die in the church.”

  • Ann Henderson Hart