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.