Two Kingdoms Ecumenism [Part two]

Brad Litttlejohn
This is the second in a series exploring the theology of Two Kingdoms across a variety of topics. The first article can be found here - Editor

Evangelicals, always a couple decades behind the latest mainline bandwagon, have in recent years become very fired up about ecumenism. And yet, we rarely seem at all sure what it's supposed to mean. Does it mean that we're all just supposed to love each other? Or that we need to break down the walls of separation and become one global denomination? Or that we should all celebrate the Eucharist weekly with an open communion policy? Or perhaps that everyone else just needs to convert and join the OPC? The confusion was well-evident in last year's "Future of Protestantism" event at Biola University, where all seemed to agree that there was a problem, but necessarily what it was, much less how to solve it. So what is church unity? Let's consider come candidates. 

Institutional unity is certainly one, and this is the sort of unity the Catholic Church prides itself on--a single worldwide juridical authority structure, no matter how much variation in faith and practice might be concealed under this imposing exterior.  From this standpoint, is the unity of the Catholic Church really much different, or much deeper, than, say, the unity of the United States, which as we know is profoundly pluralist and polarized? 

Before Vatican II, to be sure, Catholics might have claimed a second kind of unity as well, a liturgical unity consisting of shared practices, symbols, and rituals, preeminently the Eucharist as the sacrament of unity. It is this ideal of unity that particularly prevails still in the Orthodox churches, but Catholic liturgical practice has fragmented enormously in recent decades. 

A third kind of unity might be the unity of faith, that is, a shared creed or pattern of belief. For many Protestants, this is the only kind of unity that matters, and indeed, until the twentieth century, Christians of nearly every stripe would have considered this essential. But opinions have always differed as to how far such unity must extend--must the true church be unified within the Westminster Confession? The Augsburg Confession? The Nicene Creed? 

Finally, there is a unity of spirit--do Christians think of themselves as one? Act toward one another as if they are one? Do we treat one another with the love of Christ, and see ourselves as sharing a common cause and destiny?

The ecumenical movement, whether in its mainline or evangelical forms, has often oscillated between these four poles, unsure which to prioritize. While each may reinforce the others, they may also be sharply at odds. For instance, the fourth, unity of spirit, often prevails more across institutions than within them, given the frequent bitterness of denominational politics. And yet is such unity enough? Mustn't it be given some concrete form? 

From a Protestant two-kingdoms standpoint, the whole discussion needs to be firmly grounded by the reminder that it is not the church's task to make itself united, but simply to witness to its union. The Church is one in Christ, the cornerstone on whom the whole building is built, the vine from which all the branches give life, the bridegroom who has bound himself to each of us. Nothing we do can actually destroy this unity. "Is Christ divided?" Paul rhetorically asks in 1 Corinthians 1:13. While many of today's apostles of ecumenism might point despairingly at the contemporary divisions at the church and say, "Yes! See how we have torn apart the body of Christ?", Paul's answer is clearly "No! That is impossible. Your divisions are telling a false story about who you are." 

Put another way, the Protestant ought to recognize that the task of ecumenism is always a matter of the church's sanctification, not its justification. Our divisions, however great, never threaten the being of the church, or our standing in Christ, but they do certainly threaten our well-being. Christ's spiritual rule remains intact however fragmented its earthly manifestation. Of course, this is no excuse for complacency, any more than justification by faith should entail antinomianism. On the contrary, it is an urgent summons for the church to display the unity it has in Christ, both for our own spiritual health, as we learn to love, and learn to learn from, one another, and for the integrity of our mission to the watching world. With this in mind, let us revisit our four forms of unity.

From a Protestant two-kingdoms standpoint, institutional unity is suspect. The institutional form of the church is part of its outward garb, and the juridical authority needed to police the boundaries of any institution is seated firmly in the temporal kingdom of law. In this realm, local variation and regional administration are the norm, and we should be no quicker to embrace one-world church government than one-world civil government. Where many institutions jostle for position in the same geographical space, however, as typifies our modern condition, this may pose a problem; or, it may not--it all depends on how well unity of faith and unity of spirit govern these relations. 

Liturgical unity clearly falls under the same heading. Obviously there are certain core features of Christian worship and practice which we are bound in obedience to our Lord to maintain--the two sacraments, prayer, and the reading and preaching of the Word, at the very least. But the forms these take are largely prudential, and have varied enormously through time and space. Certainly it might strengthen the church's life together and its mission to cultivate more common practice on many disputed points (i.e., the charismatic gifts and the frequency of the Eucharist), but we must not mistake these forms as the ground or even the primary signs of the church's unity.

Unity of faith looms much larger. If ecumenism is a matter of the church's sanctification, and if we are justified by faith, then, it would seem, the faith of the church must be foundational, preceding the ecumenical task as a sine qua non. And yet, the "one faith" that does ground the church's unity must not be complexified beyond the faith that justifies, which we all know can be very lacking in doctrinal sophistication, and yet still pleasing to the Lord. In going beyond this basic confession of Christian faith, and hammering out more extensive areas of shared doctrine, we certainly aid the sanctification of the church, but must not confuse this with the definition of its essence.

Perhaps none of the four highlights the distance between the church's justification and its sanctification so much as the fourth, unity of spirit, the love that binds believers together. Nothing is so important for us to cultivate, and yet nothing so often, or so thoroughly, eludes us. In lamenting the pettiness and hatred that divides us, we must never be driven to the point of despair, since Christ promises to hold us together despite our attempts to pull apart. But neither should we pooh-pooh the many manifestations of Christian unity that we find in the civil and cultural sphere, as somehow irrelevant to the real spiritual unity of the institutional church, as some so-called "two-kingdoms" theorists do today. 

Protestant ecumenism, then, values all the outward tokens of the church's unity in their proper place, while learning not to make a fetish of any of them.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at