Three opposing positions that also exist among evangelicals.

Three vocal groups in the international ecumenical movement may enter into open conflict at the Vancouver assembly of the World Council of Churches when it meets on July 24.

According to a veteran observer, each group has a different conception of Christian unity. The first, in which the Eastern Orthodox play a prominent role, thinks of unity primarily in doctrinal terms. The second, stimulated by Third World sensitivities, insists that true unity can be realized only in a community in which individuals and groups are granted political and economic equality. The third emphasizes a theme popular among North American and Western European feminists: the transformation of the church into a mutually supportive “community of women and men.”

This brief survey has implications for the evangelical community. For one thing, many evangelicals are surprised that a concern for “sound doctrine” is a vital presence in the mainstream ecumenical movement. Last year I completed a three-year stint as a member of the Faith and Order Commission of the National Council of Churches. Several of us came from evangelical denominations. (The commission regularly appoints representatives from nonmember churches.) The presence of evangelicals (including some from NCC member denominations), Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and persons loyal to other confessional traditions resulted in some interesting and often high-level theological discussion.

My friend’s analysis suggests that there is no unified “liberation” program in the ecumenical movement. Evangelicals often tend to classify the women’s movement, North American minority groups, and Third World movements under a single “liberation” rubric. But this hardly does justice to the complex realities of the situation.

The most significant difference is the one between North American and European feminism, and Third World and North American minority movements. Many in the Third World see feminism as yet another attempt to impose a “Northern” agenda on the worldwide church. Feminists see Third World and minority movements as often characterized by an oppressive patriarchalism.

It would be unfortunate if evangelicals were gleeful about these tensions in the ecumenical movement. Similar debates have taken place at many of our national and international gatherings. Even when the tensions are not officially acknowledged, they exist on our campuses and in our churches. None of us can hide from the issues raised by struggles among the defenders of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and (forgive me) orthosexy.

This conflict can be read as a challenge to the Christian community to integrate a concern for sound doctrine, the healing of personal relationships (one dimension of the feminist program), and the struggle for economic and political justice. Each emphasis has a long history as a proposed basis for Christian unity. In various Christian traditions, doctrinal tests for unity have played an important role. In reaction against the “dead orthodoxy” that these tests sometimes produce, various groups have attempted to reorganize the Christian community in terms of “loving fellowship” or “true brotherhood.” Others have challenged both doctrinalism and communalism by calling for the establishment of a “community of goods” in which Christians would model egalitarianism.

If my friend’s predictions are correct, then, the tensions that will surface in Vancouver will not be new. Nor can they be dismissed as peculiar to the atmosphere of an “anything goes” ecumenical movement.

The banner of the Vancouver Assembly is “Jesus Christ—The Life of the World.” This “logo” could be the basis for dealing with the three competing models of Christian unity. It is, properly understood, an appropriate starting point for integrating doctrinal soundness, the healing of relationships, and the work of justice.

In Colossians 1 Paul describes Jesus Christ as the one who gives life to the world: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” But then he observes that Christ is “the head of the body, the church.” If we understand who Jesus Christ is, we will see that the unity of the world, the cosmos, is closely tied to the unity of the church. The one who gives life to the world vivifies the church.

Evangelicals believe true unity cannot be achieved apart from a “high Christology.” But we have a lot of work to do if we are to understand the implications of our Christology for the issues to be debated in Vancouver. The heaven-sent Son of God has given us a Word that applies to all of life—to the life of the whole world. Our orthodox professions must attempt to build a worldwide community of healing relationships, a community that is committed to the work of justice, of peace, and of righteousness.

The task of integrating the various essential elements of a unified church is not an easy one. But neither are we called to initiate that task from scratch. The life-giving Lamb of God has already initiated a redemptive program in which truth, healing, and liberation dwell together in perfect unity.

RICHARD J. MOUWDr. Mouw is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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