On this day, the faithful who live in Christ dwell near the Chebar river.
They live among the exiles, because they themselves suffer in the same way.
Yet, like the prophet Ezekiel, the presence of God is revealed among them;
He strengthens them and guides them during their moment of distress.
The biblical description of Israel’s captivity in Babylon not only provides a historical account of the calamity experienced by God’s chosen nation, but it also contributes an apt metaphor regarding the current state of (what I believe to be) the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.
In antiquity, the Israelites who survived the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Chaldeans (as depicted in 2 Kings and elsewhere) were scattered to the winds; they were taken into exile in Babylon and no longer enjoyed the fullness once experienced within the confines of Holy Jerusalem. Similarly, in modernity, the Church endures permanent disunity; the three main Christian branches of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy were disconnected and dispersed by the East-West Schism of 1054, the Reformation, and other ecclesiastical rifts that occurred throughout history . Because of Christian division and discord, believers are fighting each other even as they fight a much older battle, the timeless war against sin, worldliness, and the forces of darkness.
Do we dare to hope that the Church will become one?
Regarding the exilic nature of contemporary Christianity, the controversial Lutheran mystic and theologian Jacob Boehme once expressed his desire for a return; he states: “Now I earnestly wish to see how all these sects can be united into one, which would be called the Christian Church, for all now are despisers and each group denounces the other and decries it as false”[i]
In this statement hides a matter of weight. Assuming a reunited Church is worthwhile and God-honoring, how on earth could that hope become a reality? A definitive response to Boehme’s investigation is beyond the scope of this editorial, but here are some preliminary thoughts: On the one hand, I deeply believe that this is indeed a just cause, but I believe that if unity must come, it must therefore do so in difference; the unique theological beliefs of Orthodox Christian traditions must be preserved as believers of different doctrines come closer together.
Also, I consider basic movements essential to this business. Local Christian communities should also work to achieve church unity, not just national and international organizations (although these are also important). The remainder of this article focuses on this effort, the local church’s call to interdenominational Christian fellowship. (Be on the lookout for the following entries, where I continue to expand my thoughts on conservative ecumenism, fleshing out the captive Israel analogy in more detail.)
The Church in dialogue
The intention behind this introductory post is to embark on a series of reflections regarding a project that began in the tumultuous year of 2020 at Cedar Grove Baptist Church in Shepherdsville, Kentucky. This series of events, aptly titled “The Church in Dialogue”, (TCID) seeks to do what its name suggests, to bring Orthodox Christian denominations together to discuss thoughtfully theological issues of common conviction and of brotherly disagreement.
It is an ecumenical effort, but one that strives to facilitate Christian unity without doctrinal compromise. For this reason, each dialogue capitalizes on certain questions that affirm the similarity of traditions, but also those that note different beliefs; difficult topics are not glossed over, but instead are scrutinized to promote understanding among Christians and perhaps even to unearth hidden similarities buried beneath the dense surface of theology.
The official event includes the following: an opening address, a panel discussion, a theological book and the singing of popular hymns across denominations. The TCID is not just about the unity of the Church, as it requires unity in action as all participants sing spiritual songs together as one body united in Jesus Christ. To further explain the aims and purposes for which this series of events was founded (which now eagerly awaits its fifth episode), and as a means of concluding my first entry on the subject, I now direct the reader to a transcript of the keynote address that was delivered at the inaugural Church in Dialogue event in September 2020:
What does this project seek to accomplish?
To briefly answer such a question, I would say that the objectives of tonight’s debates are multiple. First, I hope that “The Church in Dialogue” will contribute to the individual and collective theological literacy of all those present. I firmly believe that by lifting the veil of theological complexities – especially those less often exposed behind the pulpit – and discussing them, we effectively enhance our understanding and adoration for this very denominational tradition in which we claim to be a part of.
In addition, because this is an event that includes the participation of several Christian denominations, we, participants and observers, are additionally working towards a better awareness of the beliefs of those who are close to us, either geographically, either in a friendly or family way. “Why do I attend a Baptist church when some of my dearest friends may attend Catholic, Methodist, or Lutheran churches?” By the end of the night, hopefully we can begin to meet such demand. Truly, I believe that if we make an effort to familiarize ourselves with each other’s thoughts, beliefs, and practices, we will find common ground and grow in compassion for one another.
Second, I pray that this event capitalizes on the aforementioned learned commonalities so that we can, if only for a moment, come together as one unified body. may we be a; as the Father is in Christ and Christ in us, that we may also be in the triune God, that the world believe that the Father sent Christ into the world to save us from sin and death.[ii]
Tonight, we will indeed discover our differences, but also those aspects of faith that unite us. I ask that tonight we focus on unifying principles, simple orthodox Christianity which is the pillar and cornerstone from which the various branches grow and bear fruit. Basically, “a Christian…has no sect”, because “he has only one knowledge and it is Christ in him…He puts all his knowledge and his will into the life of Christ”[iii] and prays to the Almighty that God will help him to delight more in what he receives from Christ.
It must be said, however, that I am not insisting that the depths of Christian wisdom and theological content are without profound necessity. Far from it, what I am arguing is that we would not hoist these less than crucial philosophical and theological complexities onto the blood of Christ, idolizing them and placing them before the heart of the gospel. Can we decide to know nothing between us but Jesus Christ and Jesus crucified?[iv]
Additionally, I would like to make yet another disclaimer. The intention behind this event is not to proclaim that all biblical beliefs and conclusions regarding the nature of man, God and creation are all correct or are on equal footing with each other. Instead, I would like to affirm that there is only one ultimate truth and although we may see reality in different ways, we Orthodox Christians nevertheless seek this ultimate truth and we should recognize this pursuit among our Christian brothers.
Finally, I would like to highlight the ultimate reason for our gathering here this evening: to adore and glorify the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit of our whole and absolute being, for there is no comfort in anything else than to enjoy Him. He is the author and finisher of our faith and all the work of redemption is his alone.
To learn more about The Church in Dialogue, including the content of each of its episodes, please continue to follow this series of reflections.
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[i] Jacob Boehme, The way to Christ (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1978), 164
[ii] John 17:21
[iii] Boehme, The way to Christ, 164
[iv] 1 Cor. 2:2