Academic journal article International Review of Mission

New Church Rising

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

New Church Rising

Article excerpt

Abstract I had the privilege of participating as a Campbell Scholar at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta with a group of theologians from Kenya, Egypt, Argentina, Jamaica and the US. The theme for our eight weeks together was 'The Mission of the Church in an Age of Uprooted People". This intensive time of dialogue and study helped clarify how the church as a whole has been uprooted from God's desired unity, and provided the space to reflect on the future of the global church from a congregational perspective. The result is this paper in which I explore the present state of Presbyterianism, Protestant denominationalism, and the church as a whole, while also envisioning new paths forward in our global, multicultural age.

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Taking stock

In 2017 we Protestants mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation that Martin Luther launched and that John Calvin did so much to advance. It is an auspicious time to reflect on the state of Protestantism as a whole as we near this historic milestone. What does it mean to be "protestant" today? Who or what are we protesting against? Is it part of our ecclesiastical DNA to always be protesting something?

It was our mother, the Roman Catholic Church, that our Reformation forbears protested so vigorously against. And with good reasons--Luther alone came up with a total of 95 theses, posting them on the Wittenberg door. One of the chief causes of enduring division was the doctrine of justification. Protestants have generally patted themselves on the back for being "grace-oriented" while caricaturing the Catholics as "works-oriented". I grew up around Southern Baptists in the deep South, where Catholics were not even considered Christian. The Presbyterians I knew seemed to be a bit more gracious, as we considered Catholics "almost Christian".

Protestants are not entirely to blame for this animosity. It has taken 450 years since the Reformation for the Roman Church to consider us "separated brethren". As progressive as the participants in Vatican II were, they still could not bring themselves to consider Protestants as members of the true "Church". But we have come a long way in the last few decades. John Paul II was perhaps the first pope to have wide appeal with Christians of every tradition. His unwavering opposition to communism and his staunch social conservatism led to new alliances with Protestant evangelicalism in the US--an astonishing development, considering the longstanding distrust of the Roman See by the evangelical community. The universal outpouring of sympathy and grief over his death was also a turning point: the centuries-old tradition of yoking the papacy with the antichrist was over.

In 1999, official representatives of the Lutheran World Federation and the Roman Catholic Church concluded two decades of dialogue by releasing a "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification". (1) Not only did these two church bodies find common ground on a point of doctrine that the Lutheran Reformation considered "the first and chief article"; more significantly, the mutual condemnations pronounced by the Lutheran Confessions and the Council of Trent over this doctrine were finally lifted after more than 400 years.

The withdrawal of official anathemas is not the only sign of change. Today, most Protestants and Catholics consider each other to be Christian. That is a major paradigm shift that is even more evident on the ground than in cloistered meetings of high church officialdom. What used to be a war between mutually exclusive religions has become in recent years not much more than an intramural skirmish, a sibling rivalry. In this new era, the logic of remaining separate church bodies collapses on itself. The apostle Paul makes this plea to the church:

   I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life
   worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all
   humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in
   love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in
   the bond of peace. … 
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