“Theological hospitality”–the practice of welcoming other Christians whose understanding of scripture and theology may seem strange or challenging–is a way for the church to pursue unity among theological diversity. Instead of an “us versus them” mentality, the church should expand its “gene pool” of theology, culture, and ethnicity. While it is not a strategy of theological minimalism or compromise, practicing theological hospitality reflects God’s heart to care for one another and avoids a combative style of orthodoxy.
This article was adapted from an ongoing series. Originally published in Missional Journal 4, Nos. 1 and 2 (2010); used with permission.
Unity Among Diversity
Nearly two decades ago, John Frame, theology professor at Westminster Seminary in California, issued a strong call for orthodox Christian churches to work toward a post-denominational expression of the unity of the body of Christ. He termed his position “evangelical ecumenism.” Frame clearly distinguished his position from the largely failed twentieth century ecumenical movement which reorganized in 1948 as the World Council of Churches. He argued that the multiplicity of denominations is clearly contrary to Scripture and urged that evangelicals seek a path toward reunion, although he admitted that current realities made this proposal more ideal than real.1
I am convinced that the movement called “missional church”2 gives fresh impetus for a renewed search for evangelical unity centered in a robust, historic, Trinitarian orthodoxy. My friend John Armstrong gives voice to this very concern. He calls for a synergy of orthodox churches that can overcome historical, theological, and cultural obstacles to accomplish kingdom objectives. He terms this synergy “missional-ecumenism.”3
I like the term. The hyphenated word reminds us that the unity of the church is not for our benefit (primarily) but for the good of the world and the furtherance of God’s reconciling purposes. Unity is highly significant in the missional church agenda, and unity of the church for the sake of mission is my focus in this article.
The Biblical Mandate
I suppose no serious Christian would argue against the idea of unity, or question that God’s intent is that his people be one. Clearly Jesus came to establish one church, “my church” (Matt 16:18). He prayed that all his disciples might live in a unity that reflected the oneness of the Father and the Son (John 17:11, 21)–a unity of purpose, mutual honor, and love stronger than death.
The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) is a concrete illustration of the apostolic concern to incarnate the unity Jesus prayed for in the challenging circumstances of Jew-Gentile interaction in the early days of the church. The decision of the apostles and elders was a compromise that respected Jewish sensibilities, while at the same time welcoming Gentiles into the community, but not requiring them to behave like Jews.
At a later point, Paul admonishes the Roman Christians to “accept one another [weak and strong, Jew and Gentile], then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Rom 15:7). To the Ephesian believers, he explains that Jesus by his death has destroyed the barrier of hostility between Jew and Gentile with the purpose of creating “in himself one new man out of the two” (Eph 2:14-15). Therefore, they are to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). They are not to create the unity but recognize its existence in practical ways: “There is one body and one Spirit–just as you were called to one hope when you were called–one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:3-5).
Of course there are many other texts that exhort Christians to be like-minded, to forgive one another’s faults, to seek reconciliation, to love one another sincerely, and so forth. An obvious fact is that we have not done this very well, and the history of denominational proliferation is largely a testimony to our failure to keep the unity of the Spirit. This is troubling in itself.
But another problem compounds our failure: our disturbing tendency to minimize our factiousness. Unfortunately, it is often those claiming allegiance to Scripture who are the most defensive about our bad record of Christian unity.
But another problem compounds our failure: our disturbing tendency to minimize our factiousness. Unfortunately, it is often those claiming allegiance to Scripture who are the most defensive about our bad record of Christian unity. The argument goes something like this: “Yes, it is true that the Bible instructs us to pursue unity, but unity must be based on commitment to the truth. When truth is compromised there can be no unity. Is this not the point of Gal 1:6-9, where Paul pronounces a curse against those who would proclaim a different gospel?”
Not only in Paul’s day, but throughout the history of the church, there have been distortions of truth so egregious as to fall under the apostle’s category of “a different gospel.” However, the majority of situations in which appeal is made to Paul’s statement do not really deal with issues of that magnitude. As I noted in a previous issue of Missional Journal,4 there is a combative style of orthodoxy which destroys the peace of the church by magnifying theological differences out of all proportion to their importance–the mountains-out-of-molehills syndrome.
This is the disease of sectarianism. John Armstrong writes, “The word implies mutual exclusivity, and exclusivity thrives where people and groups believe that they have a superior claim to truth.” He warns that “when we follow this road for a long time, a knock on the door of our souls may well demonstrate that no one is home. Our lives will have become filled with arguments, and our souls will be profoundly emptied of Christ’s love.”5
Is this not an accurate diagnosis of the malaise afflicting many parts of the church in our day? We live in a society torn by culture wars, partisan politics, and an epidemic of litigation. This atmosphere is paralleled in the American church. Relationships among God’s people often feel like the feuding of the Hatfields and the McCoys.
The biblical exhortation to hospitality provides helpful imagery when thinking about the pursuit of unity. Christian hospitality is rooted in the character of God who welcomes us into his family through Christ. Various texts encourage believers to extend that same hospitality to one another and to the stranger in their midst (Rom 12:3; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9). This was a virtue already commended in the Old Testament.
Denver Seminary professor David Buschart uses this image as a guide for exploring eight different families or theological traditions within Protestantism.6 Theological hospitality is the practice of welcoming other Christians whose understanding of Scripture and theology may seem strange or challenging to us. This welcome is appropriate, says Buschart, in light of the ontological reality of the church’s present unity in Christ and the assurance of complete unity at the return of Christ. Thus his examination of each tradition (Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, etc.) is an exercise in careful listening and friendly, but fair, evaluation.
He makes it clear that the practice of theological hospitality is not a strategy of theological minimalism: “The pursuit of a fuller manifestation of Christian unity should not consist in the attempt to create a generic church (or, ironically, many generic churches). Christian unity consists not in a generic homogeneity, but in a unity that embraces incarnated particularities. The summons to ecclesio-theological hospitality does not consist in, for example, calling upon Dispensationalists to abandon their basic theological commitments and affirm ones that they do not see in Scripture in order to enter into some form of organizational identification with Pentecostals.”7
We should understand, therefore, that commitment to a particular theological position or tradition is not in itself a hindrance to the faithful practice of hospitality. A crucial determinant is attitude. Do we see our tradition as a fortress (to be defended against the enemy!) or as a home (in which to welcome friends)? The latter requires us to practice humility, and this “entails admitting that one’s theology is neither complete nor free of errors…. Such fallibility is often acknowledged, at least in principle, but theological hospitality requires acting upon this humility.”8
Missional-ecumenism is the call to begin playing a better game. Theological hospitality is the biblical response to the church’s diversity, but it is also essential to the church’s mission.
As in every area of the Christian life, it is easier to talk a good game than play a good game. Missional-ecumenism is the call to begin playing a better game. Theological hospitality is the biblical response to the church’s diversity, but it is also essential to the church’s mission. It is also necessary for expanding our theological gene pool, for the sake of our theological health.
The Founder Effect
The field of genetics supplies a helpful analogy supporting the pursuit of unity among believers. In the mid-twentieth century, scientists described the “founder effect” which is the loss of genetic variation that occurs when a small number of individuals from a larger population establish a new group. The founder effect increases the likelihood that the group will develop distinctive, often undesirable, genetic traits.
The Amish community in North America is a well-known example of the founder effect. Two members of the original eighteenth century Amish migration to Pennsylvania possessed the recessive gene for Ellis-van Creveld syndrome (EVC) (dwarfism). Because the Amish have been closed to outsiders for most of their history, the gene pool is highly inbred, and the community shows a much higher than normal incidence of EVC. Ongoing medical research among the Amish has surfaced other rare disorders linked to the same founder effect.
Let’s think about this in terms of the church. Estimates vary widely on the total number of distinct ecclesiastic bodies in North America. The 2008 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches falls on the conservative side and lists a mere 224 distinct church traditions in North America.8 Of course the tally grows significantly if we count the small splinters from larger or older theological traditions, or the many independent churches that sometimes function in relative isolation from other churches. The large number of traditions, the frequency with which they have been shaped by a single dominant leader or by a particular hermeneutical perspective, and their tendency toward insularity, ensure that many American churches have been touched in some way by the theological equivalent of the founder effect. In this environment, minor eccentricities can become central beliefs and practices, with a resulting suspicion toward those who do not share the same distinctives.
Thus, some believers are convinced that the only biblically responsible way to read Gen 1 is within the framework of a literal six-day creation. Some advocates of a pre-tribulation rapture suggest that other eschatological approaches are the slippery slope to theological liberalism. Low-church communions (sometimes) question the authenticity of high-church formality, and liturgically-minded believers easily return the favor by accusing non-liturgical groups of superficiality in worship. And so it goes: the more we divide, the more genetic aberrations appear, and the health of the body declines.
Is there an alternative beyond simply giving up our distinctive commitments and submerging ourselves in a bland soup of sentimentality? I think there is. Certainly no total solution is possible before Jesus returns, but that does not mean we do nothing. To follow our metaphor a little further, what we can do is expand the gene pool of our churches and congregations. In the science of genetics the opposite of inbreeding depression (the founder effect) is outbreeding enhancement. In the latter case, the introduction of new genetic material maximizes inherited strengths and minimizes weaknesses.
When churches consciously move outside self-imposed boundaries of “us” to embrace “them,” a climate is created that the Holy Spirit uses to strengthen God’s people for mission. What may strike us at first as dangerous or threatening is actually the road to vitality and health.
A significant component of growing to maturity is realistically assessing who we are: our personality type, our emotional intelligence, our intellectual abilities, our passions and predilections, and our strengths and weaknesses. Of course, left to ourselves we are unlikely to make a very accurate assessment. Much to our discomfort, we discover that others frequently have a different (and sometimes disturbing) perspective on our identity. Healthy self-awareness usually lies in some combination of our own insights and those of others, particularly from people who have earned our respect and trust.
At present many groups lack mature self-awareness because they are too in-grown. Too much time is spent in narcissistic self-contemplation. If the only people I really converse with–as opposed to “argue with”–are folks who think like me, I soon lose touch with reality: I may assume strength where there is weakness, spirituality where there is carnality, or wisdom where there is foolishness.
It seems to me that a parallel self-awareness is needed among the various congregations, denominations, and theological traditions in the body of Christ. At present many groups lack mature self-awareness because they are too in-grown. Too much time is spent in narcissistic self-contemplation. If the only people I really converse with–as opposed to “argue with”–are folks who think like me, I soon lose touch with reality: I may assume strength where there is weakness, spirituality where there is carnality, or wisdom where there is foolishness.
This brings us back to the importance of what John Armstrong calls missional-ecumenism.9 We need to recognize the essential value and importance of those who are not “us,” so that we learn to welcome “them.” Of course, as a result we will be changed. This can be frightening, especially if we believe in a rhetoric that tells us change is only dangerous.
Let me illustrate the point with a recent important work by Soong-Chan Rah of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. In his book, The Next Evangelicalism, professor Rah launches a firm and sometimes angry critique of what he calls “the White, western captivity” of the evangelical church in America. The nub of the problem he identifies is that, while the largest demographic expansion of evangelicalism today is within non-white, ethnic communities, the power brokers and spokespersons for evangelicals in North America remain almost exclusively white. He writes: “I grow weary of seeing Western, white expressions of the Christian faith being lifted up while failing to see nonwhite expressions of faith represented in meaningful ways in American evangelicalism.”10
I suspect that many of us in the white segment of the church will respond with something like, “What’s the problem?” For most of us, racial prejudice is not a part of our self-awareness, either as individuals or congregations. Certainly none of us wants to be racist, but being part of the majority culture easily deceives us into thinking that the way we appropriate and practice the gospel is the way of right-thinking, unbiased people.
Rah disagrees: “The best way to understand the full complexity of the gospel message is to learn from others who are seeing the story from a different angle…. It is the arrogance of Western, white captivity to assume that one’s own cultural point of view is the be all and end all of the gospel story. Every seat has its advantages and disadvantages, and it is imperative for the entire global community of believers to learn from one another in order to more fully understand the depth of the character of God.”11
Now the reason I cite professor Rah is not to argue that all of his perceptions are true–although I think many of them are. The point is rather that we need to broaden the theological-cultural-ethnic gene pool of our churches. Our self-perception needs to be balanced by the views of those who have heard the one gospel in a different context from ours and have identified and appropriated truths we have neglected.
The church in the West faces enormous challenges engaging effectively with the mission of God. The call is for all hands on deck. In the words of the Apostle Paul, “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many…. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’”(1 Cor 12:14, 21).
Under the structures of Christendom, many churches and denominations in the West functioned from positions of power, privilege, and wealth. Now Christendom is collapsing, and many of the assumptions about ministry that Christendom supported are also collapsing. As the church at large finds itself more on the margins, we have an opportunity to learn from other believers who have long been on the margins themselves–Christians who live in circumstances of oppression, poverty, or cultural dislocation.
Under the structures of Christendom, many churches and denominations in the West functioned from positions of power, privilege, and wealth. There were gains, but there were many losses. Now Christendom is collapsing, and many of the assumptions about ministry that Christendom supported are also collapsing. As the church at large finds itself more on the margins, we have an opportunity to learn from other believers who have long been on the margins themselves–Christians who live in circumstances of oppression, poverty, or cultural dislocation. In fact, says Paul, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:22, emphasis added).
I believe the resources needed for the task are present in the gospel as God’s people learn to value all parts of the body of Christ; however, this learning can only take place as we move into a deeper expression of the unity of the one body. Without that we will remain spiritually disabled–disconnected or deformed members of the body–incapable of fulfilling the high calling of the gospel and effectively representing the kingdom of God.
The vitality and credibility of the mission of the church in our time, not to mention the need for us to be spiritually and theologically healthy–not deformed and inbred–demands that we practice theological hospitality, embrace missional-ecumenism, and pursue the unity of the body of Christ. May the Lord grant his church grace and deliver us from further factiousness and spiritual sickness, but grow in unity and vitality in our mission.
1 John M. Frame, Evangelical Reunion: Denominations and the Body of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991).
2 See, for example, Darrell L. Guder, Ed. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), and Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church: What It is, Why It Matters, How to Become One (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009).
3 John H. Armstrong, Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 153.
5 Armstrong, Your Church is Too Small, 92, 97.
6 W. David Buschart, Exploring Protestant Traditions: An Invitation to Theological Hospitality (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006).
7 Buschart, 267.
8 Buschart, 273.
9 Eileen W. Lindner, Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), 58.
10 Armstrong, Your Church is Too Small, 153.
11 Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 16. Rah identifies three primary manifestations of the western captivity of the church: individualism, consumerism, and racism.
12 Rah, 136.