I love the Acton Institute. I especially love to see over 800 people, from over 75 countries, that gather each year for Acton University in Grand Rapids. Last week was another exceptional Acton University meeting. I hope some of you will try to come in June, 2013.
One of the most valuable parts of an Acton experience is to be with Christians from every part of the world and from every church tradition; i.e. Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. You sit with people from these backgrounds, you share meals together and then you gather at receptions and enjoy a glass of wine and some wonderful food. All in all it is a fantastic week! Even when a presentation is not up to par, at least for my tastes, I enjoy listening to the discussion and interacting with friends, old and new. You attend 12 seminars, four plenary evening sessions and several other unique gatherings, both formal and informal. Students often are subsidized and faculty and presidents can attend on scholarship if they qualify.
During the last year I personally recruited seminary presidents and deans, seminary faculty and board members, graduate and seminary students and business leaders from many backgrounds. This is actually a job that I do as part of our overall ACT 3 contribution to missional-ecumenism. One of the students I recruited is a dear friend named Ryan McGinnis. I have had the joy of teaching Ryan, through a mentoring process, for a course he took at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA. Ryan has a most engaging blog site and is a young man who is finding his “own way” as God teaches him and guides him in following Christ’s way. I believe in Ryan and I believe in his future. I believe that he deeply loves Christ and wants to serve him where God leads. I also know that he is open to learning from the entire Christian Church. He has wrestled with what church to be a part of and why. He has even blogged about this but when he does people show up trying to convert him time and time again. So when Ryan wrote a blog about meeting so many young, devout Catholics at Acton I took a unique interest. These young and zealous Catholics tried to help convert Ryan to Catholicism. (This is very common in such settings. No one employed by Acton has ever tried to convert me or vice versa!) I could not help but think that Ryan’s blog should be read by my own readers, both Catholic and Protestant. Here is a man who asks the really hard questions, but in the end it is the one really important one that truly matters for those who love Jesus, regardless of their church affiliation and ecclesial convictions. Ryan understands my teaching on missional-ecumenism and this blog shows why. You have honored me Ryan but more than this I believe you have listened to your own heart and conscience and the gift of the Holy Spirit is evident here.
Why I Won’t Be Converting–and Neither Should You
Ryan J. McGinnis
I feel like a “Stretch Armstrong” – pulled in directions uncomfortably far. But truth be told, I enjoy this sort of pain. I’m sort of an ideological masochist.
The Acton institute has been a fantastic experience and if you’re concerned about issues such as poverty, the environment, healthcare, and so on, you’ll be surprised at the kind of resource this Catholic institution will provide you.
The conversations shared with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ was enlightening, but I was also exposed to something I thought I left behind: People trying to convert me.
During the course of these exchanges I shared my deep appreciation of the Catholic faith and how it’s contributed to my faith. I was then asked, sometimes in jest and sometimes more seriously;
“Then why aren’t you Catholic?”
For those who then spent hours seeking to persuade me, you provided the answer to your own question.
There is a difference between those who exude Christ when you’re with them, and those who are an ambassador for their institution. In my tradition I am more familiar with the latter. I thought this to be a major flaw with evangelicalism. But alas, it is prominent everywhere.
This is the attitude that we must avoid in striving toward missional ecumenism. That ecumenism is only possible when you just “get with the program and become a part of my denomination.”
Find a place to call home, that affirms and develops your faith and relationship in Christ. Glean from those who contribute to your faith, but do not accept that you, a committed follower of Jesus Christ and member of his body are an illegitimate bastard child because of the tradition from which you come or the tradition in which you do not belong.
Such Christian unity is merely a dog returning to his vomit – ecumenism disguised as unity but perpetuating only of schism.
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I very much appreciate this fellow’s openness to sharing fellowship with Christian brothers and sisters, and Acton provides a wonderful space and sphere in which to interact with the most pressing concerns of our human life today. But he is mistaken as to the motive of those who seek his full communion with the Catholic Church, and he rather quickly defines the words at issue (like ‘unity’, ‘Church’ and ‘schism’) without stopping to ask if he has defined them correctly. At the very least, he has an obligation to recognize that Catholics do not accept his definitions, nor does the Church. What appears to be a narrow expression of cultural particulars (which he believes to be inappropriate) is actually his failure to recognize his own definition of those terms, and to critically ask, “Do I have the right definitions?” My current relation to the Catholic Church has little or nothing to do with my subjective assessment of its meeting of my spiritual needs and preferences, as he seems to imply.
Your comment, Jason, infers the same kind of fundamentalist mentality that I’m used to as an evangelical, just under a different banner. You suggest that I have somehow misused words like unity and schism, inferring that because of your theological tradition you have earned the right to define them, and that because I do not share in your Catholicity my definitions are invalidated. Rather presumptuous, don’t you think? During similar dialogues with other Catholics I would ask “so are you saying that my expression of the Christian tradition is inferior or illegitimate? Is that not what you are trying to tell me?” The response was a quick changing of the subject, time and again, because to admit this would be to reveal the true intention: dialgoue with evangelicals committed to church unity, affirm their displeasure with their faith tradition, and promise them resolution in the Catholic faith. That’s been the standard exchange with Catholic fundamentalists who have sought me out. Your attempt to suggest that my assessments are subjective is weak – if the Catholic Church wasn’t meeting your needs spiritually you wouldn’t be a Catholic – to suggest otherwise is, well, dishonest. You would be like all the other nominal Catholics swarming Evangelical megachurches looking for a vibrant and personal faith – (whose standard populace consists of 70-80% former Catholic – see McKnight’s “Finding Faith, Losing Faith”). Your rule of engagement is that I first assume your authority as you understand your faith tradition (which by the way, the Catholics of rank and sway that I interacted with, in my expierence, do not share in your assumptive audacity). Your epistemological presuposition, as stated in your comment (that my definitions are not recognized by “Catholics” nor “the Church”) assumes that Catholics are the Church, period – which is no different from an evangelical fundamentalist Christian who assumes every Catholic is hell bound. These assumptions are great hindrances to the unity of the Church, and subsequently to the Gospel – I am truly grateful that more people are able to be exposed to this in a public forum.
In reading these two comments, my question is,” where is the unity between these two men”? What will be the foundation that these two men will build their unity on?
Jason, Ryan and I share unity in Christ as Lord. What could matter more? This is my fundamental position. Is it Jason’s? I know he believes that I am a Christian but I am not sure that he believes the answer to this question in the same way that Ryan and I do. I further believe that we all recognize Jesus is Lord but Jason has added the Catholic doctrine of the church to this affirmation, in effect saying that to confess Jesus as Lord means to confess the church as he does, thus in a Catholic way. While the Catholic Church affirms what Jason says/believes about itself what he fails to also affirm is the way they actually confess it in their relationships with non-Catholics. (I think he would not agree with this statement but I hope he will enter into this aspect of Catholic life together.) So, as long as Catholics like Jason believe that agreement on their clearly Catholic view of the church is essential to ultimate or complete unity then there cannot be the kind of unity that we (Ryan and I) desire and work for and from as his brothers. Again, Jason’s way of stating this is not how many Catholics and Catholic leaders see this at all. This is not an attack on Jason’s character as our brother but it is a sad fact resulting from our present state of blindness. There are many Catholic readers of this blog who would not take Jason’s approach. The irony is that there are bishops and priests among them, affirming that the Catholic Church is “the” historical and true church (with Jason) while also agreeing that Ryan and I should be received in loving Christian fellowship (sans eucharist). Another irony, the Catholic Church recognizes that Ryan and I are properly baptized but still we cannot commune until we are admitted formally to her fellowship. The point is that most of those Catholics at Acton who are recognized leaders in the Catholic Church do not treat us as outsiders who cannot share a deeply personal Christian fellowship with them by the Spirit that is centered in the absolute Lordship of Jesus. Further, Jason defends the “motive” of the man Ryan reference in his story, a man that he doesn’t even know. The young man was very insensitive and rude to be honest about this. This defense says a lot about the form of argument that Jason makes without knowing the man in question. What I do strongly agree with Jason about is the need to define what unites us and divides us. Having said that we are brothers and sisters, however, trumps even this attempt to define everything just so. I believe that this should count for far more than continual debates about who is right and who is wrong and why we who are wrong (Protestants) must convert and enter the only Christian communion on the earth. This position smacks of ecclesial high-handedness in spirit even if we respectfully recognize the doctrinal view for what it is, as I do and have done for years. Further, to deny that one’s own needs/desires/understanding are not part of their decision as to where they will unite with the visible church (remember, Jason is a convert to Rome) does not seem quite right. Jason seems to plainly say that he joined the Catholic Church because it is obvious (in charity I would say that it may be to him) that this is the true and only church. Well, it is not that obvious to me or to Ryan. The point is that such arguments fail to convince me of my need to convert and when I say so I am still recruited by zealous Catholics for membership in what they believe is the one and only true church. I accept our present divide and then work prayerfully for greater unity. It seems Jason accepts the present divide and then works and prays to convert those outside the Catholic Church who are nonetheless true (and rightly baptized) Jesus followers. I do not believe his method and approach is that of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity or of serious Catholic (academic and professional) ecumenists where I have had the joy of such discussions. I am grateful to dialogue and work for unity while we honestly disagree on some very important issues. I am fine with respecting Rome’s claim while I still disagree and discuss it as I do here, in love and for unity. This is missional-ecumenism.
I found your response to Ryan and Jason interesting and much needed for my ears! Everything you state l agree with, yet l often forget in conversation! One thought l had while reading your post was that it seems all too natural to defend my “church” (meaning denomination) while talking with other Christians because in my heart is the best of all denominations! (I know
in my mind this is a personal subjective truth and that my denomination is best only for me.) There was a time that l was working for my congregation as Deacon of Outreach. I never tried to force people to join my church. In fact l encouraged people to attend a Christian church near their home. My logic in this was simple. Many people are more inclined to attend worship if the church is close to them. This is especially true during inclement weather. I believed that was eliminating one more obstacle to their church attendance. Of course some objected to my doing this. It is my belief that we witness to others, not to build up our church, but rather to build up Church for eternity. That said l wonder if Jason, if given the chance (Which he has by reposting on your blog.) would he retract some of what he said? I say this because in my exuberance for God and my love for my home church l have been known to do the same only to regret doing so at a later time! I hope this makes at least a little sense. Of late l have been hesitant to post on blogs or fb due to the difficulty in being understood without body language and voice tone. Lastly, again allow me to thank you for this topic. I need this to be grumed into my head frequently! God’s blessings on your labors for the Kingdom.
Sorry about the typos. That was supposed to say that while l know in my heart that my denomination is the best for me, in my mind l know that is only my love for those l attend worship with that causes me to feel that way and l know rationally that it is not so. If this makes no sense just delete the entire post!
There is no need to apologize Leslie. Your message came through beautifully. God bless you.
[…] around on the interwebs had this to say in response to a blog I had written, and that John had reblogged: I very much appreciate this fellow’s openness to sharing fellowship with Christian brothers and […]
Interesting post-within-a-post at @JohnA1949’s blog: http://t.co/3PjtSH2d “…ecumenism disguised as unity but perpetuating only of schism.”
[…] transformed. This includes the economic structures of nations and households.John H. Armstrong of Reflections of a Missional-Ecumenist writes about sharing life with Catholics at AU:One of the most valuable parts of an Acton […]
For me, as a second year in a row participant, the week was spent simply sharing life amongst God’s people. I never viewed it as a “Catholic” event.
…of course you did not call it a “Catholic” event.