A Fellowship of Reconciliation: T.F. Torrance on Ecumenism as Mission (Reformission Monday)

For many evangelicals, “ecumenism” is a dirty word. I am sympathetic toward those who do, especially with the ways in which the term has been (mis)used and diluted into an amorphous soup of confessional relativism. At its heart, however, I think that “ecumenism” — not unlike the label “evangelical” as well! — has a richer significance than is often perceived or allowed. What I have in mind is what could be called “ecumenism as mission”. In many ways, this is simply another way of saying “reformation as mission”, in the sense that it is the form which Christian mission assumes in ecclesial contexts where conflicts have arisen and divisions have occurred. It is simply another facet of what Paul identified as the “ministry of reconciliation” in 2 Corinthians 5:18). Thus understood, ecumenism would mean the opposite of how it is frequently defined: not a sacrifice of truth for the pursuit of unity, but rather the pursuit of unity through mutual witness (with repentance and correction) to the truth.

Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance has greatly stimulated my thinking in this area. Torrance was a life-long advocate for and participant in ecumenical work. Torrance was also, at the same time, zealously committed to biblical fidelity and theological precision, which he believed was best encapsulated in the Reformed tradition. While many evangelicals would consider these two things to be fundamentally incompatible, Torrance did not. The reason for this, I think, is because of his underlying missionary drive that fueled every aspect of his life’s work. In other words, mission is, for Torrance, the point of reconciliation between growing stronger in doctrinal depth while expanding in ecumenical breadth. He writes:

That is what the Church is meant to be as the Body of Christ, a community of reconciliation ready to bring to men the healing of the Cross, and to live out in their midst the reconciled life, drawing them into its own fellowship of peace with God and with all men.

The tragedy is that the Church has allowed the same sin that divides and destroys God’s creation to invade its own fellowship and to disrupt it, creating division where there should be unity, discord where God gave healing and concord. In this way, as Professor Skydsgaard has recently pointed out, the Church has come to live in disagreement with its own innermost nature and purpose. Where it is sent to proclaim reconciliation and to live that reconciliation out in a communion of love 1978_-_torranceand faith in the One Lord, it presents to the world a divided Church, and thus resists and misrepresents the very Gospel which it is sent to proclaim and which it is called to live out in the world.

Were it not that God in His great mercy refuses to be baffled and dismayed, but still makes use of His Church, in spite of the fact that it has so tragically sabotaged itself as an instrument for peace and love in His hands, the world would surely tumble to pieces in self-destruction. God who made even the Cross to serve His redeeming purpose of love, by that same Cross is able to make the wrath of man to praise Him. Because His mercy is greater than our unfaithfulness, His grace reigns and abounds over our sinful divisions, so that He continues to call men and women to Himself and give them the shelter of His wings and the confidence of His love — but that is no reason why the Church should continue in sin, the sin of division, that grace may abound.

The Church that partakes of Holy Communion seeks to be renewed in it as a fellowship of reconciliation, but for that very reason it must be prepared to act out that which it receives at the Holy Table, and to live the reconciled life refusing to allow the sinful divisions of the world to have any place in its own life. The Church that nourishes its life by feeding upon the Body and Blood of Christ must live out in its own bodily existence the union and communion in which it participates in Christ. Holy Communion by its own innermost nature and by its whole intention and purpose requires of the Church to work hard to eliminate its division, to resolve to seek reconciliation with all from whom it is estranged.

It is just because unity is God-given that the Church cannot throw it down in the dust or allow it to be trampled upon but must cultivate it as a holy gift and as of the very essence of its salvation in Christ. The Church that allows itself to be divided thereby allows also its relation with Christ to be menaced and called into question. The divisions in the Church thus attack the Church’s participation in reconciliation and threaten to snap the life-line between it and God Himself. How can the Church be the Church and not be the Church? How can it be the Body of Christ and be divided, because Christ is not divided? These are serious questions that the Holy Spirit is putting to the churches in our day, and we have to give Him an account not in words simply but in active reconciliation.

It belongs to the function of the Church, then, to enter into history in the service of reconciliation, to live out its divine life in the midst of the world’s dividedness, and by living as well as witnessing, to bring men into the fellowship of healing and peace with God. In that service, resolutely and deeply performed, the Church will suffer. It is sent to suffer, because it is sent to take up the Cross and follow in the steps of the Suffering Servant, not in order to be a co-redeemer with Christ (how could it do that?), but to identify itself with the world in its guilt and to bear it up in prayer and intercession before God, and in sympathy and compassion, born of the overflowing love of God in Christ, to spend itself in the service of the Gospel until all men are confronted with the Saviour, and all nations and peoples are brought within the active reign of Christ clothed with His Gospel of reconciling grace.

And this Church will have at last to give an account at the judgement seat of Christ of how it has employed its gifts and undertaken its mission. That is why those seven letters to the seven Churches are recorded in the Apocalypse, that the Church may take heed, put its house in order, and be obedient to its Lord who already knocks at the door and waits to lift the latch and celebrate the final repast of communion with those who are His own…. The Last Judgement will force the churches to be what hitherto they have been, fellowships of reconciliation and communions of love, or sources of division and estrangement and bitterness.[1]

It seems to me that Torrance’s argument can helpfully summarized by what John wrote in his first epistle (1:7): “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” This statement can also be reversed: if we do not have fellowship with one another, then we are not walking in the light and he is in the light, and we are still in our sin! That is to say, a failure of the church to walk in unity is symptomatic of a failure to walk in the light of God’s word. A lack of fellowship in the church casts doubt on the existence of that 37cc3b668251bbb881480ae66044fd7cchurch’s fellowship with Christ! If Christ is the reconciliation of God and humanity, then the church as his body can be nothing less than a fellowship of reconciliation. So if it actually causes the opposite of reconciliation, what does that say about its standing as Christ’s body?

In such circumstances, the solution is not the kind of ecumenism that merely sweeps differences under the ecclesial rugs in order to feign a superficial form of unity. Torrance would never commend such an approach. Rather, the ecumenism of which he speaks — what I am calling “ecumenism as mission” — is that which occurs when the existence of division in the church leads it to press ever deeper into the biblical witness in order to articulate more faithfully and precisely the faith delivered once and for all to the saints. It is by engaging in interconfessional dialogue, rather than avoiding it, that churches find new opportunities for serving as witnesses of Jesus Christ. It must be, of course, respectful witness (quick to listen, slow to speak), repentant witness (the humility to not only give but accept correction from others), and reformative witness (intended for the other’s edification rather than proving one’s own confessional superiority). Yet witness it is, and witness it must be.

As I have often said in conversations with Catholics in Italy, the worst thing that we can do is not talk to each other. As long as we all see but in a mirror dimly, none of us can claim to know “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. For that reason, we will always have something to learn, and we will always have something to teach. We may have to contend with the sad reality that the other side is unwilling to engage with us, but that does not exonerate us from the responsibility of living as a fellowship of reconciliation ourselves. And as a fellowship of reconciliation, we are constrained to work for unity in the church which can only result from a common walk in the light of truth. Thus, it is precisely through, rather than against, a properly-defined ecumenism (as in 1 John 1:7) that we — evangelicals churches in particular! — are given unique opportunities to witness to that light. It does not matter that we may achieve the goals we seek, for we are simply called to faithful. It is God alone who makes us fruitful.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, Vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 118-122.

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