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Rev. VanBaren is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Loveland, Colorado.

A Matter of Semantics?

An increasing number of articles have been appearing both in the secular and the religious press which comment on growing trends toward unity of the major church bodies. Is that not a further indication that just as the world at large is growing increasingly to be a “one world” and global society, even so the churches have increasingly been drawn together—if not in organic unity, nevertheless into unity of purpose and intent? It is strange indeed how the leaders of denominations can gloss over differences and minimize the importance of doctrinal issues.

The Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1999, reports one such event in an article titled “2 faiths find common ground” (sub-heading: “Catholics meet with Lutherans”).

Leaders in the Catholic and Lutheran religions were hosts to a prayer service in Park Ridge Sunday to highlight an emerging consensus between the two faiths over a nearly 500-year-old argument.

The split centered on the question of whether the route to heaven is through “good works” or faith in God.

“The Lutheran criticism of Catholics was: ‘You were always working your way into heaven,’ ” said Hugh George Anderson, presiding bishop of the 5.2 million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “The Catholics say [of Lutherans], you’re not doing a thing—you’re just sitting there.”

Cardinal Francis George, leader of Chicago’s 2.3 million Catholics, joined Anderson for the service at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.

After 10 years of meetings between Lutheran ministers and Catholic priests, the two sides have chosen carefully parsed language both can agree on, which is expected to be signed by top leaders of both faiths later this year:

“Together we confess: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.” 

What exactly does that mean? Some people who attended Sunday morning’s prayer service and dialogue, including one Catholic priest, said they did not understand but they were encouraged the two sides were talking.

Does the Catholic Church still think good works have an effect on one’s chances of salvation? “It depends what you mean by ‘effect,’ ” George responded with a smile.

Catholics might believe the good works have an effect on their relationship with God while Lutherans might believe that their relationship with God leads them to do good works, George said.

The document, called the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” has been approved by the Church of Sweden, the largest Lutheran denomination in the world, and was set to be approved by the No. 2, the ELCA, and the Catholic Church last summer—until the Vatican expressed some last-minute concerns.

George took the unusual step Sunday of apologizing for the delay. 

“The Holy See’s timing was a source of embarrassment to the ELCA, and I regret that deeply,” George said.

Anderson threw George a hot-potato question at one point, inquiring why Pope John Paul II appeared to be resurrecting the practice of granting “indulgences,” an old practice of granting people time off of purgatory in exchange for doing good deeds on Earth….

…George said a 3- or 4-year-old girl playing in the mud is told to wash up before coming in to greet her grandmother—even though her grandmother would welcome her dirty or clean, George said. In the same way, even though a sin may be forgiven, the effects of sin must be cleansed before one enters heaven, George said….

… “We are reading from the same map and we will, one day, in God’s providence, walk together,” Anderson said.

Members of the congregation gave Anderson and George a standing ovation after the dialogue.

As they were sitting down, Phyllis Bertram, a Lutheran, turned to her friend, Gerri Posphala, a Catholic, and whispered, “semantics.” “Um-hm,” Posphala responded….

So the Reformation was only a matter of semantics? One wonders if this is simply not a “page” taken from the political arena of today. (“It depends how one defines ‘sex,'” or “It depends on how one defines ‘is.’ “)

This drive towards unity is evident also on other fronts. The Religious News Service, as quoted in Christian News, February 1, 1999, states,

Leaders of nine of the nation’s prominent mainline Protestant religious bodies have forged a proposal aimed at establishing greater church unity beginning by the year 2002.

For almost four decades, the groups have struggled to find ways to work together — first holding out the hope of organic merger but, in recent years, reaching agreement on a way presenting a unified Christian voice on issues on which they agree.

At the conclusion of a five-day plenary meeting Sunday (January 24), the Consultation on Church Union decided on a new name—Churches Uniting in Christ—and proposed their member churches work especially hard on combatting racism.

“From the moment of inauguration, the life of these churches is visibly intertwined as never before,” says the final text of the adopted plan. “Their relationship, with God’s help, will not be one of friendly coexistence and consultation but of binding community that actively embodies the love of Christ which ties them to one another.”

The 16-page report expresses the hope all nine bodies can take part in a liturgical celebration and public declaration in 2002 of their new relationship during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which occurs in January.

“This is really substantive commitment to say that starting in January 2002 our life together will not be the same,” said the Rev. Michael Kinnamon, chairman of the committee that drafted the plenary’s report, and a professor at the Lexington Theological Seminary in Lexington, Ky. “These nine remain distinguishable churches but from January of 2002, they cannot consider who they are apart from the others….”

The same paper quotes another Religion News Service article:

Delegates from nine mainline Protestant denominations will meet in St. Louis January 20-24 to continue discussions about Christian unity as part of the Consultation on Church Union. This discussion, which began formally in 1962, is just one of many interdenominational dialogues that are continuing across the country and beyond. Here are some examples of other relations between denominations participating in COCU.

—The African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Methodist Church are part of a joint study commission looking at ways to build relations between the four bodies.

—The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ are in “full communion,” which means they recognize each other’s ministries and sacraments.

—The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) also has an ongoing international dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.

—The Episcopal Church is seeking full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is participating in an ongoing Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue.

—Some ministers of the International Council of Community Churches are also affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

—The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is involved in dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church and with Orthodox churches. It also is in full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ.

—The United Methodist Church has a formal dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.

—All nine denominations that are member groups of COCU are also affiliated with the National Council of Churches, a national ecumenical group with 35-member denominations.

It behooves one to read again the passage of Revelation 13—especially verses 11-18 which speak of the beast which arises out of the earth. Are we not seeing that beast arise even today?

Mission to the Heathen

The churches have the urgent call of Christ to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. There are many who have never heard the gospel. Many have worshiped idols all of their lives. So the call comes to preach the gospel and teach—baptizing those that believe.

But sometimes we think that the heathen are far removed from us. There are still some who call our country a “Christian” country. Nothing can be farther from the truth. In an interesting report appearing in a Denver newspaper, the reporter stated this about a local church in the city—and speaks of the spiritual condition there:

…Recently, the pastors dropped the church’s old name, Denver Fellowship, in favor of the Peak, to better suggest the seeking of spiritual heights. It also better reflects Denver, which is notorious for being the sixth-most unchurched city in America. (Portland and Seattle rank No. 1.)

“Less than 10 percent of people in Denver attend church,” says Wilkerson. “In New York, money was the idol that kept people away. Here, it’s the spirit of adventurism. The real competition isn’t other churches but 300 days of sunshine. But we say God’s the greatest adventure of them all.”

Apart from the fact that churches, including that one mentioned in the article, seek to use all kinds of devices and gimmicks to “attract” that 90% of unbelievers, it is nevertheless striking, if the report is accurate, that in this U.S. city only 10% attend church. How many “heathen” countries, far afield, have less than that who claim to serve God?