I Belong to the One True Church

From Geoffrey Wainwright, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life (Oxford, 2000).

How might my generation's fellow theologians benefit from attending to Lesslie Newbigin's work? He has affected my theological life in many, surprising ways (an offhand comment inspired my formal study of Islam, which has transformed my appreciation of both it and Christianity!). Newbigin's contributions are so many and so impressive that I could not do justice to more than a few here. Instead of even trying, I recount one basic contribution that drives my appreciation of the others.

Before my exposure to Newbigin, I had a fairly typical attitude towards Christian denominationalism: First, that political differences between denominations are by and large adiaphora, no more relevant to Christian life than the differences between California's and Nevada's political structures are relevant to American citizenship. Second, that theological differences (defined of course in terms of "doctrine" rather than mere "polity") between denominations necessitate a search for the One True Church and emigration to it (after all, God must have provided one for diligent seekers to find).

Many of my fellow evangelical Protestants at Fuller Seminary were engaged in similar quests for the ultimate denomination. Our role as enquirers was to study the traditions' various polemics, in order to declare a winner of the ecclesiological debate. (The search was especially urgent for those on the ordination track. "Check out the Covenant Church," I overheard one say to another. "They've got it all!") Some found what they were searching for. One friend's laborious search led him powerfully to the fundamentalistic Reformed tradition, then to a reformed Episcopalian splinter group, then finally into Eastern Orthodoxy, where he lives an entirely satisfied life in the priesthood. Others have never quite finished their quest, and remain unsatisfied with both their present location and their other denominational options. Still others have given up, concluding that there simply is no One True Church. For these the greatest temptations, both fatal to Christian theologians, are either to settle for ecclesiastical mediocrity or to give up on organized Christianity entirely. I myself switched allegiances many times in my heart. But unlike my Orthodox friend, I could never find a tradition with which I was entirely comfortable.

Newbigin's ecclesiological vision, developed in The Household of God and elsewhere, saved me from my search for the One True Church, by offering me an alternative I had never considered. "The Holy Catholic Church has not ceased to exist, defaced and divided though it is by our sin," he claims in The Reunion of the Church (113). However, like the Corinthian body, circumstances have divided the universal Church not into one true fellowship and many counterfeits, nor even one Church and other mere "ecclesial bodies" or "vestiges of the Church," but into mutually compromised factions with continuing, legitimate ecclesiological claims on each other.

Schism does not annihilate God's presence to the divided fellowships, for "God in His mercy has not allowed our sinful divisions to destroy the operations of His grace" (113). By reifying their divisions, the factions' ecclesiological justifications even preserve their hard-won strengths. Yet schism does compromise God's presence throughout the Church, for no denominational camp can live up to the full promise of the Church of Jesus Christ. So the factions' ecclesiological justifications afflict their internal health and their external witness. Furthermore, as Newbigin brilliantly argues in The Household of God, they frustrate the very divisions they seek to justify, by revealing the Holy Spirit's work in supposedly illegitimate rivals and pointing the factions beyond themselves and towards each other. My fellows and I were feeling the effects: Appreciation of the partly incompatible insights of more than one tradition, frustration at each tradition's own inadequacy, and restlessness at the prospect of accepting the failings of any one of these as God's will, when life together in Christ seems to promise so much more than the status quo.

My fellows and I had failed to understand that these flawed Christian fellowships were compromised not simply because of the positions they had taken, but in part because of the way they had taken up these positions against others. We took the parties for granted when they contended they were Johannine children of light and darkness, rather than childish Corinthians. We had bought into their common claim that one tradition could be entirely right, or even simply be fundamentally sound, apart from the resources of the others. This mistake led us either into the overrealized eschatology implicit in the various denominations' claims to be the One True Church (even those of traditions that in other respects championed futurist eschatologies!), or to its abandonment for an utterly futurist eschatology where the current institutional fellowships of Christians would have only a weak relationship to the invisible Church of Christ (an easy move for those of us with strong premillennial heritages).

Newbigin's diagnosis decisively refutes these false opposites. It resists the smug exclusivism of any one position -- Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox), Magisterial Protestant, and "Pentecostal" (Free Church) -- while simultaneously resisting both the facile inclusivism that simply adds all these traditions up into one pseudo-ecclesiological umbrella, and the convenient pluralism that considers each of them self-sufficient or essentially commensurate. After Newbigin, I have stopped searching for the One True Church, for he has helped me see that I already belong to it.

Yet this insight is not a license for ecumenical complacency, for my local church and its denomination are paradoxically neither one, nor true, nor even Church, insofar as we fail to practice Christian unity on the local and global levels. I cannot dismiss the important claims that divide the Christian traditions. In fact, now that I understand how division harms those even on the right sides of the debates, I must take them more seriously than ever. The indicative- imperatives Paul applied to the Church in Corinth apply also directly to the Church in Los Angeles, as they apply to the universal Church: Be one, as you really are one (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7, 2 Cor. 7:1). Many of the issues that divide Christians are legitimate issues. Some are crucial enough to warrant prolonging the visible disunity of Christ's Church until they are settled (for instance, those facing the Church in Galatia). Yet the Church's unity is no less pressing. In its absence, no theological dispute that has led to schism can truly be resolved.

Thus Newbigin has transformed how I understand my task as a Christian theologian. Because a reunion of churches "is a reunion of divided parts of the Church, not the return of dissident brethren to the one Church" (108), my task is to resolve debates rather than to win them, to reconcile all sides rather than to beat the opposition. Newbigin has also reformed my evangelical "church-shopping" habit. Rather than looking for one true denomination or local church, I have started simply discerning where God wants my family and me. Frustration turned to relief as my criterion went from doctrinal blackballing to fruits-testing: Where among God's divided people can we bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit and best exercise our spiritual gifts? As a worshiper and teaching pastor, where can I take joy in the holiness of my own tradition, and lead others to appreciate the holiness of Christ's traditions around us? Where can I work most productively for our local and global reconciliation? Ironically, it is by pointing out the ecclesiological incoherence of contemporary Christianity that Newbigin lends ecclesiological coherence to my work in one of Jesus' estranged churches, on behalf of all of them.

I stress this one argument of Newbigin's because many today so need to appreciate it. The most popular opinions of denominationalism in American Christianity, both evangelical and liberal, are theologically poor, and getting poorer. Denominational partisanship is losing its appeal, as ecumenists had hoped. Sadly, so is the theological confidence that produced the hard- won strengths of the denominations in the first place. They are being replaced not by Christocentric, evangelical, ecumenical ecclesiology, but by pragmatism, consumerism, pluralism, relativism, and theological apathy. These have little to offer hungry disciples, and even less to offer the unchurched. In their own ways, all such ecumenical heresies accept a divine household divided against itself. They settle either for ecclesiological anarchy, or for a "reconciled diversity" which is institutionalized ecclesiological incoherence and denominational pride. Consequently, afflicted traditions are suffering in every other area of Newbigin's lifetime achievements as Wainwright chronicles them: Faith, evangelism, ecumenism, Church leadership, mission, dialogue, ethics, liturgical and homiletical power, theology, and apologetics.

Like the WCC itself, Newbigin's ecclesiological vision was inspired by frustration at the impotence of divided and competing missionary efforts in the mission field. As the years have gone on it has only become more obvious that that mission field is the whole world, including even the churches that occupy it, and the WCC itself. How long will it be before not only the world, but even the churches themselves, fail to see the sonship of Jesus on account of their own divisions (cf. John 17:23)?

Yet here too, Newbigin has something to teach us. Where phenomenology sees mainly centrifrugal forces that atomize Christians and further splinter and hollow out their traditions, faith and hope still confess one holy catholic Church with Christ as its center, and work to manifest it. Newbigin's account is finally eschatological, his vision of organic Churchly unity "a credible sign of that eschatological unity when it is moving toward it, and when it is already embodying a foretaste of it in its own actual life" (as In Each Place claims). The goal is forever burned in the Christian consciousness by Luke's image of Pentecost evening: All believers together, having all things in common, growing in number and in favor with all the people (Acts 2:42-47). "The central and simple fact of redemption into Christ makes outward division intolerable," writes Newbigin in The Reunion of the Church, "and it is this central certainty which makes us sure that ... we shall be led forward into unity of heart and mind and into the full riches of the inheritance of the Church." Such a vision of the unseen will never settle for an endless postponing of the fulfillment promised and required now; nor for a veneer of interconfessional conciliarity; nor for illusory utopias built on theological sand; nor for the lure of In Each Place's "monolithic imperialism which, in the name of unity, crushes that blessed variety which God the Father has so lavishly bestowed on his creation."

There is no question that "sinful self-will operates to keep us separated," and that only the Day of the Lord Jesus will see its final defeat. I have no idea how episcopal, presbyterian, congregational, pastoral, and other structures might work together in my local context following the "death and rebirth of many forms of church life as we have known them" (New Delhi 1961). But if God has intended these structures to function properly in the age for which they are ordained, then so they will. My generation should pay attention to Newbigin, if only to avoid being left behind when that extraordinary work of the Holy Spirit finally comes.