DT NIles
The late Indian theologian-evangelist, D.T. Niles, relates the story of sitting in the 1954 Assembly of the World Council of Churches and listening to a great sermon by Archbishop Michael of the Orthodox Church. He said that for half an hour he listened to the bishop speak of the church as it is spoken of so wonderfully in the Bible. Then, without warning, the audience discovered that the bishop was talking about the Orthodox Church. The Episcopal Bishop of Washington leaned over to Niles and said, "D.T., she'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes."

Niles goes on to say that this happens whenever one group of Christians, or another, begins to talk about the church. We think, in our own minds, that they are talking about the whole Christian church when in fact they are talking about our own church; e.g., Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, etc. Niles says it is true for all of us: "She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes!" There is a wide gulf between the church we confess when we say we believe in "one holy catholic church" and our own church or particular expression of the church.

I have found this to be the biggest barrier of all to serious ecumenism. My Catholic and Orthodox friends, whom I love and regard with deep esteem, still insist (over against each other as well as all Protestants) that one of them is "The Church." One has to be wrong and both know this much. Pope John Paul II desired the unity of the two ancient churches and saw little come of his efforts. Protestants have generally proven to be far more willing dialogue partners with Catholics than the Orthodox.
In some ways this is an odd thing since the Eastern and Western churches were united for ten centuries and share a strong common bond in the way they read the early church fathers. This may say more about the power of culture to divide us than it does about theology, which makes it even more tragic to my mind.

If one studies this long enough they soon see that there were moments in church history when it could have been a very different story but those moments are now past. This has led many to conclude that no serious effort for unity should be undertaken now since there is no chance at all that we will ever solve the differences between us.

D.T. Niles expressed my view plainly when he wrote: "Our primary task is to ask God to tell us how we, in our day and generation, and in the places where God has put us, can so enter into the reality of the Church that those who see us can see in us and through us and by us the Church made visible—visible in beauty, visible in its freshness, visible as the bride and body of Christ. We do not change the Church. It is the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ. All we can do and must do is to make that Church visible, a little more visible, that men may see it in its beauty and its power" (The Message and Its Messengers: Missions Today and Tomorrow, D. T. Niles, Abingdon Press, Nashville

[1966], 19).

Niles describes the day the Church of South India was formed, a wonderful story for those who are to read it. (The missional theologian Lesslie Newbigin had a major role in this union of several churches.) The church became free of Western mission societies on that day but Niles reminds us that the church is never free as we think of freedom. It is not ours. It is Christ's and we are not free to make it into what we desire. There are limits given to us by the nature of the church and the teaching of our Lord. We have profound differences about the "nature" of the church but this does not mean we simply sit down, figure it all out and create the church we believe is the right one. Such an idea is bereft of biblical and historical reality.

The evangelical problem, with regard to the church, is precisely this—we think the church is a human institution that we can remake anytime we desire. We can read the manual and then tinker with it and fix it. This view of reformation has nothing to do with the views of the magisterial Protestant Reformers but it seems to be the dominant view of many of their heirs five centuries later. Until we repent of this huge mistake we will never seriously consider what the reality of the church really is before God.

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  1. Ed Holm March 25, 2009 at 9:01 am

    Like so many problems in English caused by having one word represent a number of ideas (i.e. snow, which can mean anything from flurries to a blizzard) “church” tends to mean anything from the Church universal to my little white church with the steeple down on the corner. Most of us think of church as our own particular brand and experience. It makes it hard to see that any other quite makes the grade. In the book “Pillars of Flame” by Maggie Ross that I have recently rediscovered Ross talks about the experience of the ancient Semitic Christian tradition in a church from the Syrian Christian variety which is free from the influences of Hellenistic vocabulary and concepts. Ross states: “While we do not have a clear idea of the early dissemination of Christianity in the region without elevating the Syrian tradition to the mythological status of “pure Christianity,” this tradition is invaluable to us in the West as a resource of an ancient Semitic Christianity. It offers a passionate and unified vision of the love of God incarnate in Christ, indwelling the creation through the Spirit, unifying and transfiguring the universe, a vision toward which we in the West have been slowly and painfully struggling as we stagger away from the debris of exhausted philosophical categories, the shattered scholastic synthesis, the collapse of the illusion of objectivity, the corpses of holocausts, and the moral bankruptcy of nuclear commitments.” (whew!-my comment) Anyway, there is much to discuss but it is always through the lens of our own experience that we filter our view and temper our language.

  2. John Paul Todd March 25, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    You’re always surprising me John. D.T.Niles? Really, John. The spirit and the principles expressed are excellent, and exactly what I have found to be true in my own context.Today I brought the Lenten meditation at a ecumenical luncheon and basically spoke to our common center from Paul in Galatians. I was representing the Baptist heritage and I emphasized the main priority among them in 1600’s whether in England or America: the dignity and liberty of conscience in matters of faith. Unfortunately we have a very real problem in granting oneanother that kind of freedom in Christ without bringing in the human structures of the organized churches. Someone, I don’t recall who, said it as clear as I think it can be said, when he called all such structures the “scaffolding”, necessary in this present age for constructing the True Church, but not part of its essence. It will all be taken down in the end and does not have the promise that “the gates of hell will not stand against it”.
    Liked your ACT3 weekly too.
    John Paul

  3. George C March 25, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    I think it is very likely that much of the problem stems from the tinkering that somehow became the norm about 300AD.

  4. Bryan Cross March 26, 2009 at 8:30 am

    The Catholic [and Orthodox] conception of the Church as an hierarchical institution is not a cultural accident. It comes from her conception of apostolicity. The Reformers redefined this term to mean “the doctrine of the Apostles”, but for Catholics and Orthodox, it means much more than that. So the paradox is that even though Orthodox and Catholics are now divided, yet we both retain a higher conception of what it means to be unified than do Protestants, for whom hierarchical unity is superfluous.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  5. John H. Armstrong March 26, 2009 at 8:42 am

    These four responses run across a significant gamut of views. They reveal “why” we remain divided to this time but they do not necessitte that we give up. Nor do they say we cannot find a “new” (old) way forward out of our present schism. The moment we accept schism as desirable and acceptable is the same moment that I believe we surrender to serious error. Most evangelicals do not understand this or do not care. I am not one of them.
    I agree with Bryan on the explanation that he gives. I disagree, obviously, on the definition of the concept of apostolicity. With the magisterial Reformers I believe the heart of the matter is not the institution (Rome or Constantinople) but rather the “core orthodoxy” of the apostles, which I see in the Great Creeds. We will not solve this on a blog but your comments Bryan help both parties charitably see what we are dealing with in our differences. Thanks for the clear word.
    George “seems” to be saying what primitivists have always argued: Go back to the pre-Constantinian age and you find the hsitorical church and its unvarnished truth. I simply do NOT agree with this premise, as my posts I think routinely show. I should (and may) blog on this point sometime in the not too distant future.

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