Christ prayed that his followers would be one (John 17:11, 22). But the global church is clearly and deeply divided—the Catholics broke from the Orthodox, then the Protestants broke from the Catholics, and now the Protestants are endlessly divided among themselves.
American evangelicals are currently engaged in some soul searching about what precisely constitutes an “evangelical”—and whether that designation is even worth keeping. Many gen-Xers and millennials, unsatisfied with the consumer-style churches favored by their parents, have departed for more liturgical forms of worship characterized by creeds, incense, and rituals. And all the while, especially in the global South, Pentecostal churches continue to grow, though not without creating controversy along the way.
In such an unsettled environment, how can Jesus’ prayer for church unity possibly be fulfilled?
Gordon T. Smith, president of Ambrose University in Canada, has an exciting and promising proposal in his book Evangelical, Sacramental, and Pentecostal: Why the Church Should Be All Three. Smith has fashioned a beautiful vision for the unity and interdependence of these major streams of the church.
Smith’s descriptors obviously need some teasing out. By evangelical, he refers to those churches characterized by a high regard for Scripture. By sacramental, he has in mind churches—Catholic, Orthodox, Episcopalian—that place a great deal of weight on the significance of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. By Pentecostal, Smith means churches that seek the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit and aim to recapture the spiritual vitality of the apostolic age.
What Smith offers is no airy-fairy ecumenical project. His point is not simply that we can learn from different traditions, but rather that we need each other to survive and thrive in the modern world. To navigate such global challenges as fundamentalism, pluralism, secularism, and globalization, the church will need the unified witness for which Christ so fervently prayed.
In the bulk of his chapters, Smith takes care to lay out the respective contributions and limitations of the evangelical, sacramental, and Pentecostal traditions.
Evangelicals are right to stress how the Word is dynamically related to God’s redemptive power. Scripture is divine testimony in human words; it communicates God’s very self to us. Yet we must remember that sacramental actions are essential rather than secondary to the ministry of the Word. After all, the Word is most effective among baptized believers who have pledged publicly to live by its commands. And moreover, it is not only meant to be preached, but also received as nourishment at the Lord’s Supper. In addition, Scripture reading relies on the Spirit’s illumination to achieve its intended impact. Otherwise, it is merely religious information.
Sacramentalists are right to see baptism and the Lord’s Supper as the means of grace around which the church gathers to be strengthened and encouraged. The sacraments are not mere symbols, but signs that point to and foster participation in the saving grace of Christ. However, the sacraments have no power or meaning apart from the Word, which informs and sanctifies the sacramental action. What is more, without the Spirit’s presence and participation, any liturgy becomes a cold, stale ritual.
Pentecostals are right that Christian life is lived in the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. We are called to live in conscious and radical dependence on the immediacy of the Spirit in our lives. The danger is that charismatic worship can descend into mere sentimentality if it isn’t channeled through Word and sacrament. Another danger is that a focus on new revelations from the Spirit will lead to the neglect of the creedal heritage of the church and sacraments it has observed since its earliest days.
At the heart of Smith’s vision is an exposition of Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 15, “Abide in me as I abide in you” (v. 4, NRSV). Evangelicals, sacramentalists, and Pentecostals tend to read this statement in different ways. Evangelicals stress that Christ abides in believers through the Word that is read, studied, preached, and meditated upon. Sacramentalists emphasize baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the means by which Christ sustains and abides in the community. And Pentecostals focus on the Holy Spirit, who leads disciples into all truth.
Smith also relies on a brief survey of Luke and Acts, pointing to the significance of Christ’s ascension and his role as the giver of the Spirit. “The ascended Christ,” he writes, “was present with purpose and power in the life of the early church through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.” In Luke’s accounts of the ministry of Jesus and the life of the early church, we see how evangelical, sacramental, and Pentecostal strands are woven together in one body. The church seeks the immediacy of the Spirit’s presence, devotes itself to apostolic instruction, and gathers its baptized members around the Lord’s Table to break bread together.
And just as our understanding of the church’s mission depends on all three elements, so too does the meaning of God’s grace. Evangelicals, says Smith, are right to make the reading, preaching, and teaching of Scripture essential, because God’s Word declares to us the gospel of grace. The sacramentalists are right that we must see the Word’s power embodied in the observances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as these are the signs of divine grace. And the Pentecostals are right that God empowers us through his Spirit, which gives us an intimate personal experience of grace. Without all three perspectives, our understanding of grace will inevitably be mistaken in some way. Smith gives the examples of John Calvin and John Wesley as figures who recognized the importance of rooting the spiritual life in Spirit, Word, and sacrament.
In his conclusion, Smith stresses that “those of an evangelical, sacramental, and Pentecostal persuasion need to attend to the wisdom and insights of those for whom the essence of the church is its life in community . . . a community of the Word, of the Table, and of the fellowship of the Spirit.” He suggests using Christmas, Easter, and Ascension Day/Pentecost as festivals where we give due attention to each of the three expressions of grace in the church’s life.
We could even go further, he suggests, by constructing our church auditoriums in a way that draws attention to the pulpit and the table, and artistically representing the ministry of the Spirit with a banner or stained-glass window. Smith also regards Christian initiation as an opportune moment for the church to draw on these three elements: Scripture read and preached, an invitation to the waters of baptism to be drawn into Christ, and baptismal candidates anointed with oil to represent the gift of the Spirit. Services like this would hopefully beget new believers filled with “deep resilient joy, the fruit of a life lived in dynamic union with [the] ascended Christ.”
The Main Arteries
Anyone who has read Acts 2:42–47 can see that the church is meant to be a community of Spirit, Word, and sacrament. If we prioritize one of these and neglect the other two, we risk severing the main arteries that supply divine life to the church and the nourishment required for a healthy spirituality.
Taking my cue from the writings of N. T. Wright, I would describe a church that focuses exclusively on the Word as essentially a mosque. There is no room for the Spirit to move, and the sacraments are rejected as idolatrous snares. A church that seeks after the Spirit and yearns for its power, while reducing the Word to spiritual McNuggets and neglecting the sacraments as irrelevant to empowerment, is basically flirting with mysticism. All that matters is the buzz one gets from certain worship experiences. And a church fixated on the sacraments, while paying mere lip service to the Word and quarantining the Spirit, is little more than a magic show. God appears like a jack-in-the-box when bread and wine are placed on the table.
Without the Word, we will have an atrophied mind that is easily dragged away by the latest winds of false teaching and is vulnerable to forms of faith that are superficial and shallow. Without the sacraments, we will forget the joy of new birth that baptism declares, while remaining hungry for the fellowship and nourishment that only the Lord’s Table can provide. Without the Spirit, we will be left with the scraps of man-made religion and struggle to be faithful by our own meager strength.
Michael Bird is a lecturer in theology at Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. He is the author of What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed (Zondervan).
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