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The Ecumenical Movement and its Critics: A Reply to Jordan J. Ballor

By April 1, 2011 No Comments

The summer of 2010 witnessed a significant event in the history of the worldwide Reformed family of churches: the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) and the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) organized a Uniting General Council (UGC) to join them together in the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC). This new fellowship of Reformed, Presbyterian, Congregational, Waldensian, United, and Uniting churches was the outcome of a process that began for WARC in Accra, Ghana in 2004 and for REC in Utrecht, the Netherlands in 2005. Almost one thousand delegates, guests, visitors, volunteers, and staff representing 80 million church members from 230 denominations in 108 countries came together at the Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex on the campus of Calvin College to give visible expression to the unity of Reformed Christians worldwide. The theme of the UGC was drawn from Ephesians 4:3: “Unity of the Spirit in the Bond of Peace.”

This theme was further articulated into nine sub-themes, corresponding to as many sections into which the delegates were divided for the purpose of preparing reports to present before the plenary sessions of the council. These sub-themes include Reformed identity, theology, and communion; Christian unity and ecumenical engagement; justice in the economy and the earth; worship and spiritual renewal; leadership, development, and nurture; gender justice; youth empowerment; mission; peace and reconciliation.

As a member of the press, I chose to cover the section on Christian unity and ecumenical engagement. The study paper distributed to section members to guide discussion proposed several topics with the expectation that these would form the basis of a report together with a list of recommendations to present before the council. The common thread that connected most of these topics was the concern for justice. This connected nicely with the subject for a new round of Roman Catholic-Reformed dialogues, “Justification and Sacramentality: Christian communities as agents for justice.” Another topic invited the Reformed churches to explore what it might mean to associate with the 1999 Lutheran- Roman Catholic statement “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” which could serve as a theological foundation of the commitment to justice.

The members were agreed on principle that future ecumenical engagement should focus on the implications of theological positions for social justice and action. In a memorable moment during the final meeting of the section, one member argued eloquently that “Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth” (the Accra Confession) should be the horizon against which the newlyformed WCRC participates in any future ecumenical dialogue. The confession would constitute an invitation to ecumenical partners to give witness to the common concern for global economic and ecological justice as a matter of faith.

This desire for the Accra Confession to be central to the future life and witness of the WCRC, however, provoked fierce reaction from its critics, including the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. The Acton Institute maintained an exhibit in Spoelhof Fieldhouse during the entire event. The presence of this Grand Rapids-based organization was not surprising in itself. What made the exhibit stand out, however, was the large table on which were stacked complimentary copies of a book bearing the provocative title Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness (Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library Press, 2010). Since issues of economic injustice, so painfully evident in the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse and global market meltdown, were a high priority at the proceedings, I was curious to see how its author Jordan J. Ballor would address them in his book. So I availed myself of a free copy and eagerly began to read.

Ballor’s declared intent in this work is a “critical engagement” (3) with the ecumenical movement, by which he understands primarily the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), WCRC, and the World Council of Churches (WCC). Before profiling each of these organizations, however, he devotes the opening chapter to laying out what he regards as the problem affecting the ecumenical movement generally. The activity of these organizations, he contends, makes binding on member churches the various pronouncements on economic systems and policies about which there should be legitimate differences of opinion. Because some member churches will object to the stances reflected in these pronouncements, they will resent the summons to adopt them as a condition for continuing membership in the ecumenical organization. By adopting controversial positions, then, ecumenical organizations risk undermining the very cause that they are trying to promote–the unity of the church.

The question then arises: what is in these pronouncements that churches would find objectionable? There is remarkable unanimity among the LWF, WCRC, and WCC on the causes of economic and ecological injustice in the world. There is certainly no “confusion of tongues” here, as Ballor himself acknowledges (88, 105). Readers will notice especially the parallels between “The Call to Participate in Transforming Economic Globalization,” which the LWF issued in 2003, and the Accra Confession, “Covenanting for Justice in the Economy and the Earth,” which WARC (now WCRC) released in 2004.

Both of these ecumenical documents identify the culprit as “neoliberal economic globalization.” It is important here to clarify the first term in this obscure phrase, since it has less currency in North America than in other parts of the world. “Neoliberal” does not refer to a member of a new left-wing political party. Rather it modifies “economic globalization.” Together they refer to the liberation of capital, which especially in the post-Cold War era, freely crosses political borders and extends into every area of life in the continual search for opportunities for investment with the expectation of unlimited returns. For the LWF’s “Call to Participate,” the engines that drive this relentless activity are powerful transnational corporations and financial institutions, which establish policies and practices to advance their interests at the expense of peoples and resources and the governments that are supposed to protect them.

The WARC/WCRC’s Accra Confession extends this narrative by asserting that this economic activity is defended by “empire.” According to the Reformed statement, empire is “the coming together of economic, cultural, political, and military power that constitutes a system of domination led by powerful nations to protect and defend their own interests” (art. 11). This abstract definition is fleshed out by explicitly identifying as these nations the “United States and its allies” (art. 13), which both protect and defend their interests through international finance and trade institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization) on the one hand, and through military operations waged to enforce compliance with the global economic order on the other.

The verdict of the Accra Confession is that this system of empire stems from a totalizing ideology that insists “there is no alternative,” claims “sovereignty over life,” and “demands an endless flow of sacrifices from the poor and creation” (art. 9). In contrast to and defiance of this totalizing ideology, Christian churches confess that there is one God, the “creator and sustainer of all life,” and one Lord, Jesus Christ, who came into the world so that all may have life in its fullness (John 10:10, art. 16). Guided by the Holy Spirit, Christians follow this Jesus who is found among the poor and the marginalized and who calls his followers “to put justice ‘for the least of these’ at the center of their community life” (art. 19, 27). Christians are called therefore to reject unjust economic systems that “exclude the poor, the vulnerable, and the whole of creation from the fullness of life” (art. 18). The “signs of the times” demand that the churches take a stand: human beings cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24, art. 15, 21).

Do ecumenical organizations have the authority to make these kinds of pronouncements? If they do, are they exercising authority in a sphere proper to the church? And even more radically, are they exercising it properly at all?

Ballor answers these questions decisively in the negative, enlisting the support of three interpreters of the ecumenical scene who themselves critically engaged the movement in their own time. The first is Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), leader in the Nazi resistance and in the German Confessing church. In a 1935 essay “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement,” Bonhoeffer asks about the ecclesial status of the fledgling movement. Can the ecumenical movement claim to be an institutional form of the church? If not, then by what authority can its organizations make pronouncements binding on the confessions of the member churches and the consciences of individual Christians?

While acknowledging that Bonhoeffer’s essay appeared more than seventy-five years ago, Ballor nevertheless insists that in the intervening decades the ecumenical movement has not been able to answer the question about its ecclesial status definitively (6). Does he mean here that it has not answered the question to his own satisfaction? Ballor is not clear. What is missing from his account, however, is that Bonhoeffer did not live long enough to witness the WCC’s adoption of the Toronto statement (1950), which has provided the foundation for subsequent discussion of the question about the ecclesial status of the ecumenical movement, at least as it is manifested in the WCC, until now. In that statement the WCC denies that it is a “superchurch,” an embodiment of the una sancta of the Creed. It does not legislate or act on behalf of its member churches. It does not broker unions among these churches. Rather, it seeks to fulfill its mandate by bringing them together to engage in intensive dialogue with one another, especially for the purpose of promoting their common witness and solidarity in service.

The WCC can propose initiatives or issue statements only in the form of an appeal. It does not force their implementation or reception among member churches, which it regards as agents responsible for themselves and their own engagement with ecumenical matters. On the other hand, the WCC has always held onto the hope that the churches will come to a deeper awareness of what they share by virtue of their communion with the one Christ and thus be more able to manifest this unity by speaking and acting as one. It is in calling the churches to this awareness that the WCC serves as an “instrument of the ecumenical movement,” a phrase it has used to refer to itself throughout its history.

Paul Ramsey (1913-1988), professor of religion and ethics at Princeton University, did believe that the ecumenical movement should speak and act on behalf of the churches. But Ramsey’s complaint is that on social and economic issues the movement is confused about its own proper task. That task should consist in articulating Christian ethical principles that serve to inform deliberation and debate on problems in the existing social order. However, by instead endorsing specific policies, the ecumenical movement denies individual Christians their freedom to arrive at their own conclusions and political choices. Ramsey adds that the modern church in a post-Constantinian order should not presume that it any longer enjoys a position in which it can give tutelage to secular powers on the affairs of the state. The church should focus rather on cultivating its own “distinctive ethos” (12). Only in diligently doing so will the church be able to offer a credible prophetic witness to the world.

It is hard to imagine what specific content such a witness would have, especially in regions torn by social conflict. Arguably the churches would be abdicating their prophetic role by remaining neutral on critical policy issues as Ramsey would wish. In any case, Ramsey thus shifts the terms of the discussion from the ecclesial to the ethical. Here it is worth noting that with both Bonhoeffer and Ramsey the questions and challenges to the ecumenical movement remain on the formal and abstract level. Only with the third and final thinker Ballor brings forward does there emerge a material question that is decisive for his critique of the ecumenical movement.

Ernest W. Lefever (1919-2009), ethicist and foreign policy researcher, repeats and further develops the questions that Bonhoeffer and Ramsey raise. But Lefever also adds the substantive criticism that WCC circles are captive to an ideology that distorts their perceptions of problems in the social order and leads to revolutionary prescriptions for change. Specifically, Lefever is referring to liberation theology, which adopts the “Marxist interpretation of history” and strategies for reform (14). Liberation theologians, according to Lefever, “tend to accept the neo-Marxist myth that colonialism, neocolonialism, and transnational corporations are the causes of poverty in the Third World” (16-17). Moreover, they underestimate the values of the “market economy” in producing and distributing goods and services, preferring instead a “government-controlled economy” (16). Looking through the lens of a neo-Marxist ideology, the WCC sees only a direct cause-effect relationship between “Western capitalism and imperialism on the one hand and poverty, oppression, and militarism on the other” (17). From the ecclesial through the ethical questions Ballor arrives here at the heart of his critique: the social witness of the ecumenical movement has been compromised, if not ruinously corrupted, by a social ethic determined by neo-Marxist ideology.

Lefever’s criticisms evidently serve as the basis for Ballor to advance the astonishing claim that the ecumenical movement is comprised of “revolutionary elites” who serve the “ecumenical-industrial complex” by imposing their “neo- Marxist” ideological agenda on churches through their respective organizations (5, 97-98). This gross caricature obscures a more realistic view of these organizations. They are, in fact, far more politically diverse in their composition than Ballor assumes.

Perhaps this diversity is nowhere better illustrated than in the conflicts among WCRC members following the reception of the Accra Confession at WARC’s General Council in August 2004. Delegates from the Eastern European churches were largely opposed to the confession’s critique of global capitalism, an economic system to which they credit an improvement in their standard of living after the deprivations endured during Soviet-era Communism. A Dutch delegate in Grand Rapids last summer expressed to me that the churches in her country resented the term “empire,” especially as identified with the United States and its allies. To another delegate who was otherwise sympathetic with the confession’s critique, this identification seemed insensitive to particular contexts, even the Global North. It is far from apparent that the current economic system of “empire” benefits any but the smallest fraction of the United States, where, for example, in 2007, one percent of Americans claimed no less than 23.5 percent of the nation’s income. Clearly, there are victims as well as perpetrators in the Global North. Still others complained that the term “empire” is just too ideologically loaded, contributing nothing to a thorough analysis of a complex reality, as well as lacking theological substance.

Even if these critical voices were in the minority, they did not go unheeded. In 2009, the Evangelical Reformed Church in Germany (ERK) and the Uniting Reformed Churches in South Africa (URCSA) drafted “Global Dialogue on the Confession of Accra”–the Johannesburg Declaration–in response to these criticisms. It sought to formulate a definition of “empire” that would transcend the polarizations and win broad-based support.

We speak of empire, because we discern a coming together of economic, cultural, political, and military power in the world today. This is constituted by a reality and a spirit of lordless domination, created by humankind. An all-encompassing global reality serving, protecting and defending the interests of powerful corporations, nations, elites, and privileged peoples, while exploiting creation, imperiously excludes, enslaves, and even sacrifices humanity. It is a pervasive spirit of destructive selfinterest, even greed–the worship of money, goods, and possessions; the gospel of consumerism, proclaimed through powerful propaganda and religiously justified, believed, and followed. It is the colonization of consciousness, values, and notions of human life by the imperial logic; a spirit lacking compassionate justice and showing contemptuous disregard for the gifts of creation and the household of life.

The key feature that distinguishes this definition of “empire” from the original is the explicit use of theological categories. To characterize this reality as a “spirit of lordless domination” is clearly a shift of terms into a theological register. The expression draws its inspiration from Karl Barth, who gave to the second subsection of the last chapter of his Church Dogmatics the title “Lordless Powers” (CD IV, 4 § 78 2). In their alienation from God, the highest human activities–organizing societies, creating institutions of economic exchange, developing science and technology–escape human control and tend to turn against humankind. They become, according to Barth, “spirits with a life and activity of their own.” This does not absolve humankind from responsibility and guilt; indeed, the lordless powers are of its own making. Nevertheless, the New Testament, in Barth’s reading, sees men and women “pushed as well as pushing, moved as well as moving…Behind and before [them] are…effective potencies, factors, and agents, those imaginary gods and lords that are so active in their imaginary character.”

If such a theological insight informed their deliberations, then one can understand why the delegates to Accra decided that “empire” is descriptive of the economic and ecological injustice they discerned. Additionally, it becomes clear why such “empire” is more than a normal “political” problem about which responsible Christians should be concerned. But insofar as Ballor dismisses their confession out of hand as a product of “neo-Marxist ideology,” he excludes himself from a discussion which can properly evaluate the claim that the use of “empire” does in fact rest on a theological basis. Indeed one can make a strong case that the prophetic critique reflected in the confession derives from the Bible and the church’s traditions, including the theocratic Protestantism handed down by the Reformed tradition in which no less a theologian than Karl Barth stands. If readers would want further convincing, they need only consult that remarkable commentary on the confession, Dreaming a Different World: Globalization and Justice for Humanity and the Earth, The Challenge of the Accra Confession for the Churches (2010). In this publication, a collaborative effort of the ERK and URCSA on the “globalization project,” citations from the writings of John Calvin to the Barmen Declaration of 1934 abound. This publication alone furnishes enough evidence to suggest that Ballor contradicts the self-understanding of the ecumenical movement when he insists that its pronouncements on economic policies and practices derive from neo-Marxist interpretations of history and market economies.

Discrediting the contemporary ecumenical movement by denouncing its leaders as “revolutionary elites” or “Marxists” accomplishes nothing. At a time when some would say the integrity of the witness of Christ’s church is at stake, serious theological reflection is demanded, not shibboleths which only short circuit the process. Those engaged in the church’s theological reflection should attempt to enter charitably, reading and understanding the pronouncements of the ecumenical movement as they are intended. Of course, there is always room for honest disagreement and divergence. Others, such as Ballor, refuse this more charitable manner, choosing instead to regard the ecumenical movement a means used by ideologues to surreptitiously promote an entirely different agenda than that of Christ’s church. But there is, I believe, no compelling reason to agree with them.

Christopher Dorn recently completed his term as a member of the Commission of Christian Unity for the Reformed Church in America. This fall, he will begin serving with the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Geneva, Switzerland.