Gifts of the Churches

When one starts looking at the various Christian traditions, one sees specific characteristics that unique to each tradition. In particular, there are characteristics that form a part of the self-identity of these traditions. It could be a doctrinal characteristic, such as the classic Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone. The primacy of Peter in the Roman Catholic Church would be another example. Or it could be a practice that gives a distinctive identity to a church, such as the United Church of Canada’s commitment to social justice, or the practice of the charismatic gifts of the Spirit in the Pentecostal churches. And in my own Mennonite-Anabaptist tradition, pacifism and nonviolence has become an integral part of our self-identity.

In ecumenical dialogue, doctrinal and practical distinctives are often seen as “gifts of the churches to the Church.” Each tradition can bring something to the broader Christian tradition that is needed to make the whole tradition… well, whole. This is a recognition that no one tradition is the only Church. Unity does not mean homogeneity. Sometimes unity is found through diversity. I can’t speak for the others, but for Mennonites this is a fairly big step, admitting that members of other traditions might also be members of the Church. Even in my childhood (and I’m not that old) I can remember some Mennonite churches questioning whether other Mennonite churches could legitimately be called “churches.” The question of other traditions being legitimate churches wasn’t even considered – the answer was obviously not.

Now when one accepts that other traditions are in fact “churches” and understands the distinctive doctrines and practices of other traditions as gifts to be shared with the whole Church, the next step involves how to both give and receive these gifts. If there is a theme that will come out in my posts from time to time, it will likely be along this general topic. How do we, as members of our own unique distinctive tradition, accept the gifts of doctrine and practice from other traditions without losing our own distinctiveness? And how to we offer the gifts of our own tradition without demanding that members of other traditions reject their own to become a part of ours?

Our answers to these questions will reveal whether the step of accepting the legitimacy of other churches has in fact been taken. If we truly believe that the church of Christ is greater and broader than our own tradition, then we must be willing to offer our distinctives to others without requiring them to leave their own tradition. In a sense, this is an act of faith, as we give up control over how the gift will be used. Will it be rejected completely? In a way, this is the easiest response to deal with. Rejection reinforces the barrier between traditions. It allows us to feel smug about our own righteousness and look down on the other as inferior. Yet we must resist this response. We cannot allow the rejection of our gift to reinforce the division we are seeking to overcome.

Perhaps more difficult is when the other tradition accepts our gifts and incorporates them into their own tradition. In doing so, we have lost control over how those distinctive doctrines and practices are expressed and carried out. We can determine this within our own tradition, but not within the other. And so it is an act of faith and trust that the same Spirit that has led and guided our tradition will lead and guide all churches.

Perhaps most difficult is receiving gifts from others. No one likes to be wrong. No one likes to be corrected. No one likes to be told that they could be doing better. Unfortunately, that is too often our attitude when we encounter another tradition. Rather than seeing the distinctives of another as potential gifts, we see them as threats. Changing this mindset is not an easy task, whether in each of us personally or within a whole tradition. It takes time and practice. It too is an act of faith and trust – to give up control and trust in the guidance of the Spirit. If we truly desire to be the church of Christ, we must allow the Spirit of Christ to lead.

I will be exploring these questions of giving and receiving gifts within the churches in future posts. One particular metaphor that I feel has promise is that of the scattering of humanity at the Tower of Babel. But that is for another post. I hope to receive comments and feedback on my thoughts (otherwise I would have kept them in my head), so I look forward to hearing from you.



6 thoughts on “Gifts of the Churches

  1. I must say I have had a very hard time accepting other traditions. What is interesting is that although I think we in the church who have had some formal theological training are becoming more accepting of other traditions in our mind, has that really penetrated our hearts? How far would we really go in participating with other traditions? if we help the poor together and take communion is that deep ecumenism? would I try a catholic thing or a pentecostal thing even if I fet uncomfortable, but trust that this is a way my brothers and sisters are experiencing God and it is a way I can experience God too? So I feel that a bit part of generating unity between traditions will start with the individuals jumping in wholeheartedly into unchartered waters and realizing God is there too. If He isnt what do we have to lose??

    • Accepting other traditions is so difficult because it challenges our own self-understanding. And when we define ourselves against the Other, then changing our opinion of the Other challenges our own identity at its very core.

      I’m not so much talking about trying a Catholic or Pentecostal thing, as what accepting Roman Catholics or Pentecostals as legitimate (or even necessary) expressions of the church does for our own way of being the church. Let me give an example. When I was younger, some members of my family left the Mennonite church to join a Pentecostal church. They understood the charismatic gifts such as tongues and prophesy to be signs of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But what did that mean for those of us who remained in the Mennonite church, where tongues and prophesy were not manifested? It seemed like the only choice was to acknowledge that tongues and prophesy were indeed signs of the presence of the Spirit, or to claim that they were false manifestations.

      Yet if we took the first approach, we would need to acknowledge that the Spirit was present in the Pentecostal church in a way that the Spirit was not present in the Mennonite church. Perhaps even to the point of wondering if the Spirit was present at all in the Mennonite church. Rather than allowing for the possibility of the Spirit manifesting the Spirit’s presence in a different way among different churches and thinking more deeply about how the Spirit was manifested in the Mennonite church, Mennonites tended to the second approach – claiming that tongues and prophesy were not from the Spirit.

      In cases like this, unity does not so much consist in Mennonites speaking in tongues, but allowing that the presence of the Spirit might look different in different places and celebrating that presence. At the same time, accept the challenge posed to find where and how the Spirit is manifested in the Mennonite tradition. It could result in a deeper understanding of the way the Spirit is working in both churches, or it could result in a realization that greater submission to the work of the Spirit is necessary.

  2. Giving up control is very, very hard. If there’s one thing we in America love more than money, it’s power and control. How wonderfully freeing it is, though, to give up something and no longer have any control over it.

    • Hi Ken. Welcome. Thanks for coming by. You’re absolutely right – almost everything we do is in some way an attempt to control. The irony is that giving up control is the only way to find safety and salvation.

  3. This post and the discussion that has followed has been helpful. Funny that you mention the Mennonite-Pentecostal dynamic as even within our own congregation we have been experiencing tension over exactly the question of the Spirit’s manifestation. Our church is rooted in the Evangelical Mennonite Conference and, for many of us, the charismatic approach seems dangerous. Yet, as we have wrestled through it together, we have been willing to accept that some of us may see things differently on this matter and that that is OK. This has been difficult, as it has meant that some of our members have begun to seek a community elsewhere that emphasizes a particular manifestation of “spirit-filled” faith. The challenge now has been in learning how to bless and empower these individuals to do this, recognizing that, seeking a different part of the body, they are still as much our brothers and sisters as they were before when they worshiped side by side with us. Difficulty aside, I feel this is a much more faithful approach than demonizing one tradition over the other.

    A further dimension that this has drawn out for me is the extent to which any and every tradition has its particular temptations that it faces. While, as a Mennonite, I feel that the Pentecostal emphasis faces the temptation of letting unbridled emotion dictate the form of worship, biblical interpretation, and discipleship, I also recognize that as Mennonites we often face the temptation of limiting God’s activity to a particular set of culturally acceptable forms, the borders of which are not to be crossed. But as you helpfully point out, this is dangerous to the health of both the Mennonite body and the Pentecostal body. We need each other.

    • “We need each other.” Exactly. Recognizing that the unity of the body of Christ is in some way actually found in diversity emphasizes that we need each other in order for the whole body of Christ to be complete. While I do affirm strongly that each concrete local church does in itself possess the fullness of the body of Christ, no one local church or ecclesial tradition completely expresses or encompasses the whole body of Christ. The concrete world-wide church must include (and indeed, requires) the diversity of the whole ecclesial tradition.

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