A Short Documentary: The ACT3 Conversation on Christian Unity

Last Monday (February 23) I reported to you about the ACT3 Network Conversation on Christian Unity that I conducted with Fr. Robert Barron on Monday, February 9, at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois.

One of the very best ways to see and feel such an event is to watch a documentary-style report. Our ACT3 videographer, Tim Frakes, once again made an extremely good (short) video about this gathering. The entire dialogue will be available very soon on YouTube broadcast. For now please share this documentary video with your friends and encourage them to help ACT3 reach the church and her leaders with this vital message of missional-ecumenism.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Evangelism, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 3 Comments/Likes

Ft. Thomas Baima on the Power of Christian Unity

The Very Reverend Dr. Thomas A. Baima is a full professor of systematic theology and Vice Rector for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Graduate School at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein Seminary. In 2012 Tom was elevated to Vicar of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese while retaining his duties at the seminary. He is one of my dearest and most treasured Catholic friends. When I did my first public dialogue on Catholicism and evangelicalism, more than a decade ago, Tom was my first partner in this new venture for ACT3. I learned so much from him that evening in Naperville as we faced a large crowd and answered many questions. After that evening our friendship quickly flourished.

For Tom both ecumenical and interreligious work is rooted in ecclesiology and soteriology. Jesus the unique Savior, united with his Body, the Church carries out the Father’s mission to the world. This mission is universal. Tom’s particular focus is to establish relationships through which misunderstandings and divisions might be lessened and room created for the movement of the Holy Spirit to call Christians to unity and to clear away the obstacles which stand between non-Christians and Christ. Tom believes that the modern ecumenical movement (which he distinguishes from any particular institutions at the service of the movement) is the work of the Holy Spirit. As such, a Christian is obliged to discern how this sign of the times is to be received and enacted personally. For Tom, ecumenism is the condition of the possibility of effective evangelism. If we wish to fulfill the Great Commission, Christians need to overcome the obstacles to the credibility of the Gospel which we have introduced to the world by our division. The Book of Common Prayer, one of the great pieces of English literature, warns us to “be aware of the great danger we are in because of our division. . .”

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Personal, Roman Catholicism, Unity of the Church | 2 Comments/Likes

Fr. Robert Barron on the Importance of Christian Unity

Yesterday, I gave you a report on the recent dialogue that I did with my friend Fr. Robert Barron. Last fall Fr. Barron was interviewed by ACT3 on his ideas about Christian unity when we had our Lausanne Catholic-Evangelical Conversation at Mundelein. Today I publish a portion of that interview. The timing for this video is perfect since I spoke of Fr. Barron’s work yesterday and our dialogue at St. Procopius Abbey on February 9.

The entire video presentation of the February 9 event will be available here very soon. We will also have a three-minute PBS-type documentary video that captures the highlights and news of that special evening. This too will be published. Please share these interviews as widely as you would like. I believe they are a unique witness to God’s grace and the work of John 17 in our midst.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 5 Comments/Likes

An Evening for Ecumenical Conversation @ St. Procopius Abbey

P1250149On Monday, February 9, St. Procopius Abbey (Lisle, IL) hosted a wonderful evening gathering dedicated to Catholic-Evangelical ecumenism. Several hundred guests, representing scores of Catholic and Protestant parishes throughout the Chicago area, gathered to listen to two long-time friends engage in a ninety-minute conversation about Christian unity. Taking their cue from the current actions, and written initiatives, of Pope Francis the two conversation partners addressed the possibilities and problems inherent in this new ecumenism. The Very Rev. Dr. Robert Barron, Rector/President of University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, and the Rev. Dr. John H. Armstrong, a Reformed Church minister and adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College. Dr Armstrong also serves as the founder and president of the ACT3 Network in nearby Carol Stream, Illinois, who sponsored the event. Both Fr. Barron and Rev. Armstrong shared personal stories and answered questions. The dialogue was moderated by Rev. Dr. Chris Castaldo, Lead Pastor of  New Covenant Church in Naperville. Dr. Castaldo also moderated the Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue between Dr. Armstrong and Francis Cardinal George, hosted by Wheaton College in March of 2012.

P1250113Fr. Barron and Rev. Armstrong have done five previous public dialogues of this type, all in college and university settings in the greater Chicago area. Each dialogue has sought to explore our common faith, as well as our remaining significant differences, both for the purpose of bearing faithful witness to Christ our Lord. This event had the same purpose. Both speakers gave short opening statements. Dr. Armstrong focused on Saint Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (On Commitment to Ecumenism) by drawing attention to the sections on the value of dialogue, especially section 40, on “Practical Cooperation.” He urged deeper relational friendships to the end that we explore “a dynamic road to unity [through] unity of action [that] leads to the full unity of faith.” Fr. Barron cited Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) which says, “I invite all Christians everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ.” Fr. Barron stressed that we have clearly made common cause for many wonderful acts of mercy and education that we share together but we have more work to do if we would draw greater strength from one another. After Dr. Castaldo asked both speakers several questions a microphone was opened to the guests at the Abbey to ask questions. A number of great questions and responses followed over the next 50 minutes.

P1250212This event was sponsored by ACT3 Network, a mission dedicated to “empowering leaders and churches for unity in Christ’s mission” and hosted by the Abbey. It was a first for ACT3 to work with the Abbey in ecumenism but is not hopefully the last such endeavor. Almost 200 people enjoyed the evening and left into the cold night air filled with joy in the gospel of Jesus Christ. A short documentary was filmed about the event as well as a full-length video that is in production stage. Both video presentations will be available at www.act3network.com.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Biblical Theology, Love, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | Leave a comment

National Workshop on Christian Unity 2015

2015-splashLast year I mentioned speaking at a plenary session at the National Workshop on Christian Unity in New Mexico. This year the workshop is in Charlotte, North Carolina, April 22-25. I will be helping the leadership team establish a new partnership group within this historic event. This new group is called “Ancient-Future Faith Evangelical Partners.” I hope that some of you will join me/us for this wonderful event. Here is the link to see the program and sign up: http://nwcu.org/2015-nwcu-highlights/

I will be speaking on Tuesday evening at CharlotteONE in the city center and attendees at the NWCU will be invited to attend this millennial gathering.

I believe one-day registration can be done on site. Make your plans now and keep me posted if you are planning to come.

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Missional-Ecumenism, Unity of the Church | 4 Comments/Likes

The Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue: Reflections on Ecumenism for the 21st Century (Video)

The resource that we provide today is “old” but still quite useful. This dialogue took place some years ago at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois. There is much here to glean but this is very long. It runs ten minutes short of two hours so only those who really enjoy this kind of dialogue will watch it in full. This was available in DVD for some years but we stopped selling it and now provide it without charge to be viewed through our ACT3 Network online resources.

The moderator is the ABC television news anchor in Chicago. The four speakers are identified at the beginning of the program.

If I look like a different person to you in this program it is because this event took place before I lost a considerable amount of unnecessary weight. Some who do not see me very often ask me, “Are you sick?” So far as I can tell I feel much better now than I did when this video was made. Enough said.

Posted in ACT 3, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Personal, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, The Church, Unity of the Church | 8 Comments/Likes

ACT3 Network Video: An Introduction to Our Mission

Last fall (2014) a friend, who is a professional videographer with solid credentials, partnered with me to make a new video. Another friend gave ACT3 a generous gift to make this new “ACT3 Introduction” video. This has been on our home page for several months but not on the blog site.

Today I am pleased to tell you that I believe this to be the best presentation of our vision and work that we’ve ever made. It gets to the point by telling a narrative that works well in relating the work of our mission. Please pass this along to your friends and please do pray for me and the growing work of ACT3.

 

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Current Affairs, Education, Evangelism, Love, Missional Church, Missional-Ecumenism, My Christian Unity Story, Personal, Renewal, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | Leave a comment

Debating Doctrine and Preserving Unity: What Conservative Christians Can Do (2)

Unknown-1In the story that I related yesterday I ended with a friend who was teaching an adult class in his church and a couple that had quit attending because my friend did not embrace a six-day, twenty-four hour, recent creation of the earth. My friend asked me to pray as he responded to this relational breakup.

After two weeks this friend reached out to the husband in this story. he writes that this man has been his friend for decades. They met for breakfast together.  My friend writes, and I know this to be true from first-hand knowledge, “John, this is a subject that I have studied deeply for several decades.” After the breakfast meeting he wrote to me saying, “Ironically I found that the relational side of things was, to some degree, restored through our time together. However, the cognitive side seemed blocked. This brother was not open to ideas that contradicted his view. His presumption seems to be that his view is Scriptural (hence others could not measure up). I chose to only share enough to help him see that there are material problems/unknowns in all camps (including the secularist) and simply left it there.”

The good news is that this man and his wife came back to the adult class the following day. It seems there is a restored relationship. This is what my friend desired and why he acted as he did and sought my prayer for him. But, he adds, “It would seem unlikely that we will ever be able to discuss many of the deeper matters of the Christian faith since these land mines abound.” How truly sad and how completely common this response is, especially among older and more conservative Christians.

This story underscores a major reason why young adults are fleeing such churches in increasingly large numbers.

There are several things that I take away from this story.

  1. Conservative people tend to think that what they are currently thinking, about almost everything, is right. The adopt what has been called “confirmation bias.” By this means they then read and process what confirms their current understanding of “the truth.”
  2. This way of thinking and responding is not the way of Jesus. Jesus taught us to “keep on asking” and to search for truth just as you would for a lost coin. His kingdom is not known by embracing a list of “confirmed” truths but rather as a way of living that is discovered through a process that we call living faith.
  3. There is no absolute certainty this side of the Last Day. We can have a settled assurance and deep hope but this is not the same as certainty. Certainly says that everything we believe is true just as we understand it. We tend to believe, if we think this way, that acting otherwise is dangerous. The fact is that acting in this way shuts us off to both love and truth. Truth is a path, not a fixed list, and love is the way to walk this path toward Jesus.
  4. Evangelical Christians do not always make the careful theological distinctions that Catholic theology has understood at this point. We could learn a lot if we understood this Catholic way of thinking. Catholic theology sees a difference between dogma (what must be believed; e.g. resurrection, the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the Trinity, etc.) and doctrine (Christian teaching). A lot of Christian teaching is both important and helpful but it is not dogma. We can disagree and retain loving relationships in the Truth; i.e. Jesus Christ. I have learned this best within my pursuit of unity both relationally and intellectually.
  5. We must always “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” regardless of what we disagree about. This really is the hard work of ecumenism, or the work of pursuing unity. It is easy to talk about this stuff, it is entirely different to work at it as if our very life depended on it. Very few Christians take unity seriously. They would rather be right than pursue deep unity. Until we change this pattern I do not see the Holy Spirit moving freely in our churches in the days ahead. We have “quenched the Spirit” by our reactions to one another. How can we miss the clear and obvious fact that these two things are connected?

Unknown-2My friend concluded his message to me by writing, “Our mission ahead in ACT3 is to seek the unity of true believers around our core and common calling from Christ thus we will face many hurdles like this one.  It should come as no surprise that the approach most likely to work is relational and no force impacts relationship more powerfully than genuine love. This is why I look forward to your next book and have taken the time to pen these words as a kind of encouraging commentary on why that work is so important.”

Thanks dear friend. You have supported me, shared your financial gifts generously with ACT3 and now you have encouraged me once again. I hope that those who read this blog will be encouraged to genuinely love others and pursue unity. I pray that they will pursue unity even with conservative Christians who stubbornly refuse to follow the actual way that Jesus gave to his disciples, the way of love and deep relationship over my personal beliefs about doctrine. (Remember point number four above when you read this final sentence!)

Posted in ACT 3, American Evangelicalism, Biblical Theology, Love, Missional-Ecumenism, Orthodoxy, Personal, Roman Catholicism, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 12 Comments/Likes

Debating Doctrine and Preserving Unity: What Conservative Christians Can Do (1)

UnknownA very good friend, who is mature and wise from solid life experience, recently taught what he describes to me as “a somewhat ecumenical message in my adult Sunday School class (while unpacking the Greatest Commandment).” He told his class that when true believers disagree on peripheral matters we are to remember that we are in the family of God and that our Lord prescribes a loving way to humbly engage with one another. If we engage with each other in the way our Lord taught us then we are able to both teach and learn.

One of the examples my friend used in his adult class was the subject of differing views of creation that are held by Christians. (The discussion was much wider but this issue was the one that troubled a few.) At the end of this class someone with whom my friend has ministered in their local church context for well over thirty years (he adds he felt this relationship had been at a fairly deep level) came forward to ask a question. He wanted to determine if the teacher believed in six literal, twenty-four hour creation days as he understood Genesis. The teacher answered the couple as gracefully as he could. My friend then wrote to ask me to pray for this situation. He related that this family had not been in the adult Sunday School class since that day and this was several weeks ago now. My friend wrote in a deeply moving way, saying:

“John, the whole thing has grieved me more than it should. The message of missional ecumenism is so sorely needed. There are few things more disconcerting to me at this stage of my life than to witness at close hand the battles among professing believers while the church continues to decline. How can we miss the clear and obvious fact that these two things are connected?”

Indeed, why do Christians continue with a pattern of life which says: “I will have no close relationship with a person who is wrong about understanding the Bible?” We are not even talking about the kind of dogma here that denies the historic faith of the Christian Church which is centered in Christ, not our various views about the Bible. The people in this congregation are all serving and worshipping Christ within a very conservative church. (I know this to be a fact because I have preached in this congregation more than once.) I wrote to my friend and assured him of my prayer. I asked him to get back to me when there was more to say about this couple’s response and his follow-up effort to rebuild their relationship.

My friend wrote to me again last week to tell me “the rest of the story.” He says that he encouraged the adult class to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph. 4:3). He then applied this Pauline text, in his particular local setting, to all kinds of potentially divisive issues that confront true believers when they have honest differences regarding peripheral issues in Scripture. The divisive issue, in this particular context ended up being about the age of the earth. (On my Facebook wall some readers are provoked when I bring up such issues and then note that they are inherently destructive of healthy Christianity!) My friend had taught his class that there was much that God has not chosen to fully explain to us, especially about the beginning or end of time, He taught them that there are many true Christian believers with differing views regarding what Scripture says about this matter. The major principle he stressed was that we have much to teach and learn from each other and a great deal more to learn from science as we move forward. Yes, indeed.

 

 

Posted in American Evangelicalism, Biblical Theology, Love, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, The Church, Unity of the Church | 12 Comments/Likes

The Way of Jesus (2)

GBK Uganda brighter croppedWe welcome once again Rev. Dr. George Byron Koch as our guest blogger.

As the Church moved out from Israel into the surrounding cultures, and the leadership of the Church became more and more Gentile, this understanding of following the Way, which was very Jewish and rabbinic, changed into a process of analysis and proposition construction—the development of theology, doctrine and Christian tradition. That is, the focus moved from how one behaved to what one believed—from following the way of a person and His teachings, to believing in a set of logical propositions: From acting to asserting.

This began innocently enough: Paul in his speech on Mars Hill (Acts 17) to contextualize the Gospel for Gentile listeners (who were, incidentally, Greek philosophers). Or when Origen wrote Contra Celsum (“Against Celsus,” ) a defense of the Way put into philosophical categories and syllogisms, because the Way had been ridiculed by the Greek philosopher Celsus as silly and lacking the philosophical foundations and rigor of the Greek schools.

The creeds are key examples of this focus on propositions. Whether the Nicene, Apostles’ or Athanasian, they are statements about the propositions we accept. There is not one word about how we are to live and act. The Way of Jesus is absent. Go reread them if you don’t believe it. This should unsettle us.

The problem is compounded by the multiplication of such propositions (creeds, confessions, doctrines, theologies, traditions)—as various Christians dispute with each other—and diverge, following paths that separate us from each other, and further from the Way.

In fact, we have worshiped our propositions—basically worshiped our own ideas about Scripture, tradition, and even the Way, and shunned, anathematized and sarcastically spoken against each other. Even if my favorite doctrine is right—or more right—than yours, my disdain, condescension and venom toward you and your ideas is sin. And it separates us. The same is true for you.

We have allowed our “defense of the truth” of our propositions to divide us from each other, rather than acting in love, following the Way, the halakha, of the One Who embodies truth.

The mean-spiritedness of our attacks on each other is stunning. And wrong.

Remember Paul’s words:

“Use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” (Galatians 5:13–15)

And let us not forget what James said. You can almost hear the exasperation in his voice:

“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.’ You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:14–20)

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying doctrine is without value. In fact, as a method of understanding basic ideas from Scripture it can be useful. But IF AND ONLY IF that understanding actually leads to loving action. Even demons can have their doctrine right, but loving action never follows their beliefs!

We have sadly moved from Paul’s “contextualizing” of the Gospel to a religion often more focused on the worship and defense of propositions, than the acting out of love in our relationship with God and neighbor. The love of propositions has replaced acting with the love of Christ.

We lost our way. We lost the Way.

When Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17, they were a mess of puffery, misunderstandings and bad doctrines, but He patiently taught them His Way, nudged them back when they strayed, protected them, and demonstrated to them what this Way of love really entailed—to act like the teacher, the rabbi. He prayed this for them and for us: “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”

We disdain Jesus and His prayer when we shun each other over ideas, and put out those who do not affirm precisely our propositions. There is no love of God, neighbor or even “enemy” when we do this.

Obviously, no one of us will have all of his propositions correct. No theology, doctrine, confession, worship or tradition will get it all right. Should we wrestle respectfully? Of course! We can grow from that. But true unity in Jesus will not come from all agreeing to identical propositions, but from following His commands and learning to live and love as He did.

The doctrines and creeds are insufficient unless they are followed by loving action. “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

Now to make it real: I confess my worship of my favorite ideas, and my condescension toward those who do not agree. Even where my ideas are “right,” my heart is wrong when I speak and act hurtfully toward you.

I ask for the forgiveness of any I have slandered or even held in disdain in my worship of propositions—from you, and from my rabbi, Jesus. I desire to never again to be so misdirected, or to repeat such sin.

You too may need to confess this—to make it real. And then we must covenant to honor rather than devour each another.

Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets stand under these two commands.”

Do we imagine that our doctrines, theologies, creeds, confessions and traditions stand above these two commands—or should they stand under them, as do all the Law and the prophets?

And of those with whom we might disagree? How are we to behave?

Jesus said, Love your enemies and pray for them,” and Treat others the way you want to be treated.”

And near the end He prayed for us, “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”

That unity comes from following His commands and His example—acting with the love He taught and lived. His halakha. It is how we can be one.

That is the Way of Jesus. Follow it.

Author

The Rev. Dr. George Byron Koch (coke) is the Chairman of the Board of Act3 Network, and a strong advocate for unity in the body of Christ. He has been the Pastor of Resurrection Church in West Chicago since June of 1994. He’s the author of several books, most recently What We Believe and Why, a primer on the Christian faith and life, now in use across denominations in more than 64 countries. He is also the author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, from Christianity Today to The Wall Street Journal. His personal website is at GeorgeKoch.com.

Posted in ACT 3, Biblical Theology, Church History, Missional-Ecumenism, Personal, The Church, The Future, Unity of the Church | 30 Comments/Likes