Given the inseparability of mission and unity, and yet the inescapable tension between them, how do we hold a global conversation about their relationship? How does the competitive diversity within World Christianity live into Jesus’ desire that his followers be one?
Another era that faced demographic shifts parallel to our own was that of Late Antiquity. The 300s and 400s saw a huge cross-cultural expansion of Christianity, from its Mediterranean base southward to Ethiopia, eastward to Armenia, Persia, and India, and northward to Gothia. Rapid church growth followed the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire, so that by Constantine’s death in 337, it is estimated that nearly half its people were Christians. With expansion came dissension. Fights over theology and practices took place among Arians, Donatists, Montanists, Sabellians, Catholics and others. Individual spiritual leaders, including bishops and desert fathers, gathered cult-like followings. In that era of competition and expansion, the Second Ecumenical Council met in 381. While we usually remember the Council of Constantinople for adopting the doctrine of the Trinity, the missional context of the gathering was similar to our own. In the midst of conflict born of rapid growth, the gathered leaders affirmed the mission of the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets and founded the church. They affirmed their unity amid cultural diversity. At Constantinople the community of faith firmly declared itself “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”
While these four marks are often used doctrinally to validate the primacy of particular communions, our current organizational and cultural diversity suggests that we might adapt them as multi-dimensional signposts for conversations about the nature of World Christianity in the 21st century. I have noticed that growing churches today have an intuitive need to affirm one or more of the four marks—and often apply them selectively to the exclusion of other groups. Yet each of the four marks is needed to complete the other three. Thus we should reflect upon them together across ecclesial boundaries, as a way to frame the relationship between witness and unity in World Christianity today. The following discussion of how the four marks are functioning “on the ground” illumines both prospects and problems that need our attention.
Today one-third of the world is Christian. Divisions notwithstanding, the oneness of World Christianity becomes visible through common allegiance to our one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As the bishops affirmed in 381, “[W]ith the account of the faith agreed between us and with Christian love established among us, we shall cease to declare what was condemned by the apostles, ‘I belong to Paul, I to Apollo, I to Cephas’; but we shall all be seen to belong to Christ, who has not been divided up among us; and with God’s good favour, we shall keep the body of the church undivided, and shall come before the judgment-seat of the Lord with confidence.”
Christ is the cornerstone of our unity. Most Christians today accept the validity of common Scriptures in multiple vernaculars. The Second Vatican Council opened a new period of collaboration with affirmation of vernacular Scriptures, and shared projects in Bible translation. The existence of over 2500 vernacular Bible translations is a fascinating example of how increased diversity of witness is paradoxically a sign of greater unity.
Another aspect of oneness we see in World Christianity lies in current affirmations of a holistic Gospel. Historically the split in the Gospel between its spiritual and temporal aspects was a product of western modernity that sadly still persists. The widespread self-confidence to promote a holistic Gospel is a sign that young Christian leaders have moved beyond the identity issues provoked by the break from European colonialism half a century ago. For example, the affirmation that the Gospel is over all of life is reflected in the concept of integral mission (misión integral) defined by Latin American evangelicals. Integral mission erases the gap between spiritual evangelism and social justice by focusing on mission as crossing the gap between “faith and no faith.” While this understanding of witness was pioneered in ecumenical circles in the mid twentieth century, its support by Latin American evangelicals has mainstreamed it into the worldwide Lausanne movement. And let us not forget that Spanish is the most-used language by Christians in the world today.
Another movement toward Gospel holism can be seen among young African theologians. While 25 years ago there was hostility between so-called African cultural theology and African political theology, i.e. black theology, the overriding recent trend in the growth of African theology has been toward an evangelical holism. The research agenda of the southern region of the evangelical African Theological Fellowship, for example, includes issues like African views of human rights, HIV-AIDS, and the church’s role in holistic reconstruction or transformation of the public realm.
Oneness in World Christianity today is also expressed today in the growing recognition that the fate of God’s people is interconnected, bound to the one earth on which we live. Churches on every continent are integrating ecological consciousness into their collaboration across ecclesial lines. From the same root word for the whole inhabited earth (oikumene), ecology and ecumenism are fraternal twins. For decades the Pacific Conference of Churches has prioritized environmentalism in its witness, with opposition to nuclear testing and dumping of waste in the oceans, and now concern about the displacement of peoples due to global warming. Seventh Day Adventists in the South Pacific link care of creation to their respect for the Sabbath. In South Africa, the Network of Earthkeeping Christian Communities encourages churches with worship resources, successful stories of congregational green movements, and resolutions about climate change. In the United States, evangelicals list creation care as one of their top five priorities. With wars over water, oil, and minerals already raging in the 21st century, conservation of God’s creation as witness to peace is a hopeful sign of ecumenical unity among those who follow one Lord and Savior.
The challenge of oneness raises the divisive issue of whether high profile leaders are necessary as visible signs of the church’s unity. Among the characteristics of growth and globalization is a tendency toward strong focal points of leadership. Ironically, despite movements toward political democracy worldwide, today even Baptist, Pentecostal and indigenous church leaders are being declared bishops and archbishops. The mainline churches whose structures reflect hard-fought, historic struggles to make clerical leadership accountable to the laity, such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, and United Methodists, are losing market share. What is the relationship between the widespread commitment of Christians to political democracy, and the tendency for centralized leadership to symbolize church unity?
Discussions of the oneness of World Christianity of necessity impact the churches’ public witness in the world. Because World Christianity is at its core a theological conviction, commitment to oneness as a mark of the church implies concrete concern for the one world (oikumene) that we share, and an understanding that the fate of all of God’s peoples are intertwined. As the Rolle Declaration of 1951 helpfully defined ecumenism, it “relates to the whole task of the whole church to bring the Gospel to the whole world.”
In church doctrine, the body of Christ is sanctified – or made holy – through its conformity to and cooperation with the work of Christ Jesus, not simply by means of its own effort. Our own personal holiness becomes possible as we partake in the holiness of Christ (e.g., 1 John 3:2, “When he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.”)
The holiness of the church is a core issue we need to discuss in World Christianity. Both in the missionary situation of the late 300s, and in the present day, the holiness of the church is the visible proof of its integrity and the validity of its witness. Holiness movements historically accompany periods of missionary activism, growth and renewal in the life of the church, such as was experienced in the 20th century with the East African Revival (Balokole), the Pyongyang Revival of 1907, and the Shanghai revival of 1925, not to mention the long history of monastic renewal movements. When church leaders are perceived to have lost their holiness, as in the case of the child abuse scandals or warmongering by Christian leaders, people lose their respect for the Gospel.
Today the Roman Catholic Church makes up half of all Christians, and Pentecostal and indigenous churches that focus on holiness and purity are outpacing mainline Protestants. What do Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Pentecostalism have in common? Could it be that they have a deeper sense of the power of holiness than do more secularized western Protestants, whose rationalist mindset can blind them to the focus on purity and supernatural power that characterizes the growing churches of the world—including the spiritual power of African, Asian, and Latin American members of their own communions?
The church’s holiness is commonly expressed in its rituals, worship, and symbols. I recently read a superb dissertation about Muslim anti-Christian violence in Indonesia about a decade ago. As Laskar Jihad hunted down and decimated Christian congregations in that part of Indonesia, including fire bombing the church with the people inside, the Protestant clergy wore clerical robes 24/7 as a sign of spiritual power, and led people to safety. The robes of the clergy symbolized God’s protection of the people and they dared not remove them until the violence ended. Even though laity critique and question their religious leaders, at an intuitive level the pastor remains a symbol of the church’s sanctity before God.
Our shared longing for holiness leads into a number of urgent issues in World Christianity today. In African countries, for example, the relationship between spiritual purity and politics is a huge issue. Should churches function as the ritual specialists for governments, such as in Ghana when megachurch pastors have been called to pray for the nation in times of national disaster? In Zimbabwe, indigenous churches (AICs) in Masvingo Province are being pressured by the Mugabe regime in advance of the spring 2012 elections. For example, President Mugabe spoke at the headquarters of the Zion Christian Church at Easter this year, to at least 15,000 people. Then in July, when party officials infiltrated a mass gathering of the V’Apostori, an elderly bishop ejected them and the assembled thousands of people sang about exorcising the devil from their midst. Zimbabwean AICs are now playing public roles they could not have imagined when they were small groups persecuted by the government fifty years ago. In neighboring South Africa, President Zuma attended the Easter services of the Zion Christian Church in efforts to influence its nearly five million members. As indigenous and Pentecostal churches command the allegiance of millions, they are now facing the same internal conflicts about blessing the state that Catholics, Orthodox, and European Protestants have faced for centuries.
Another vexing issue linked to holiness is that of the relationship among lifestyles, faith, and worldly prosperity. A survey of global evangelical leaders at the 2010 Cape Town meeting showed that they saw materialism, consumerism, and secularism as the greatest threats to Christianity, and ninety percent also rejected the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” To what degree does the union of the believer with Christ translate into economic success? Obviously becoming a Christian has economic consequences: Christian lifestyles strengthen family relationships and encourage the use of resources to educate children. The “bootstraps” effect of early Methodism and pentecostalism, for example, was all about using spiritual holiness to foster self-improvement. But many Christians become uneasy with Latin American megachurches that promise “Prosperidade pelo Sangue de Jesus” (Prosperity through the Blood of Jesus). Similarly, many U.S. Christians are uneasy with presidential candidates who hold big prayer and repentance rallies in sports stadiums.
Another source of conflict in World Christianity today is disagreement over gender identity and sexual practices. When placed in the context of the church’s longing for purity and holiness before God, are these differences of opinion about the public implications of spiritual holiness, or about the private rights of individuals whom God loves? Holiness as a mark of the church raises challenging questions about the relationship among life practices of believers, sanctification by God, and external realities like political and economic behavior.
Catholicity refers to universality. Another way to define catholicity is “fullness.” Being full is the opposite of being partial. The word katholicos in the Greek means “throughout the whole.” Over the centuries, Christians have rejected partial or secretive gospels (e.g. Gnosticism) meant for a few special people: we celebrate the fullness of the whole Gospel for the whole world.
Catholicity is a key theological concept right now, given the need to rethink the doctrine of the church in an age of multi-cultural, migrant, globalized Christianity. What is the meaning of catholicity today? Among the church Fathers, Catholicity included the idea of the worldwide spread of the faith. Noted St. Cyril, Bishop of Jerusalem in the 300s, “The Church is called Catholic because it is spread throughout the world, from end to end of the earth.” The worldwide spread of the faith, its catholicity, marks it as the church of Jesus Christ. In this sense, despite its divisions, the church of the 21st century is more catholic than ever before!
But to affirm catholicity requires more than applauding the wide geographic spread of the faith, or naming global connectivity as a 21st century form of catholic discourse. It means taking seriously both the continued need for the “local” contextualization of theology and practices, and the “global” development of intercultural theologies. A robust definition of catholicity means sharing the pain of fellow believers who suffer injustice and persecution around the world. It also means wrestling with the meaning of universality in a competitive context in which multiple groups claim that they alone represent the fullness of the faith—the fullest gospel, the most faithful doctrine, the biggest missions, or the most members.
The selfish tendency to see catholicity fulfilled by one’s own group is a trend that must be challenged, if World Christianity is to attain any kind of united witness. I could give many examples of this tendency, starting with my own United Methodist Church. As the UMC is studying what it means to be a global church rather than a North American one, some United Methodist bishops have claimed the denomination is “catholic” because United Methodists are spread around the world. This individualistic claim of catholicity also occurs in new Pentecostal groups, which often signal their global ambitions with words like “universal” or “worldwide” in their titles. As competing denominations each claim that they are catholic to the exclusion of others, then collectively are we denying the meaning of the church universal? Can catholicity exist without oneness and holiness? Rather than an exclusive party term, catholicity ideally keeps our eyes fixed upon the reign of God, which has already broken into the world through the life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ
That catholicity requires the fullness of the faith makes ecumenical and collaborative theological education an urgent priority in the age of World Christianity. The rapid growth of Christianity in Africa, and Pentecostalism in Latin America, is being followed by the opening of church-led institutes, Bible schools, colleges, extension programs, and new Christian universities. Many of these new institutes are scrambling for overseas partners, beyond the familiar denominational and parachurch networks. Global networking makes all kinds of formal and informal relationships possible. Ideally such partnerships will lead to deeper understandings of the nature of the church. For example, in El Salvador the Elim Christian Mission, a Pentecostal megachurch of up to 200,000 members, long considered itself the first to preach the true Gospel there. In the 1990s a new pastor arrived whose theology had been shaped by listening to programming of the Reformed-led Back to God Hour and reading broadly from Latin American theology. Eventually this pastor approached a leader in the Latin American Theological Fellowship for help. The facilitator set up an educational process of small groups through the Center of Interdisciplinary Theological Studies (CETI, originated in Argentina), on the condition that the formation for the hundreds of Elim pastors not be confined exclusively to their church. One exemplary study group is composed of three Elim pastors, two Lutheran ministers, two Catholic priests and several lay people who, in addition to studying together, have begun to plan joint action to address the issues of their town. Although not uncontroversial, the example of Elim Christian mission shows that broadening Christian witness into the fullness of unity requires commitment to theological formation as “catholic”, especially where Christianity is highly competitive.
Another felt need in new churches today, especially in Africa, is the desire to use church resources to impart practical and professional life skills. The number of children worldwide who lack a place in school is estimated at 68 million. This ticking time bomb of generational crisis underscores that another important dimension of catholicity is bridging from sectarian religious education toward universal education conducive to people’s hopes for a better life. The path of beginning with church training and building toward the liberal arts, sciences, business, and so on, is precisely how higher education grew in the nineteenth-century United States, when North America was a huge mission field. As churches combat the poverty of their members, they prioritize education. The need for education grows stronger as new church movements stabilize themselves across the generations.
Apostolicity means continuity with the early Apostles in teaching, in testifying to Jesus Christ, and in witnessing to the ends of the earth. Claiming the apostolic mantle is a major theme in World Christianity today, especially among Pentecostals and indigenous churches, not to mention Roman Catholics and Orthodox. As a key concept that links unity and witness, the meaning of apostolicity today is an urgent theological issue for the Global Christian Forum.
From the ancient Armenian Apostolic Church, to 20th century Pentecostals like the Apostolic Faith Mission, to African Initiated Churches like the Apostles of Johane Maranke, to small local churches like the Faithful and True Witness Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the urge to claim apostolic authority is reflected in the explosion of names with Apostolic in the title. Is this trend toward apostolicity a declaration of the importance of missions in an age of church growth? Or is it a movement toward hierarchical authority and consolidation among competing churches? Or do these options coexist, depending on the context?
While Catholicism and Orthodoxy have long conceptualized themselves as apostolic faiths, for Protestants the language of apostolicity was not fully embraced until the globalization of Pentecostal theologies at the turn of the century. In Reformation traditions, for example, apostolicity was long seen to have ended with the deaths of the original Apostles. Reference by evangelical church growth theorists to apostolicity is a fairly recent development. Missionary success through the global expansion of spiritual gifts propelled the concept into common usage, especially among leaders needful of regulating authority in growing new churches.
One prominent example of the use of apostolicity for the purpose of maintaining authority is the New Apostolic Reformation movement. Taking its name from Ephesians 4:11-12, the fivefold ministry model has swept charismatic-type churches worldwide. “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the world of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” The New Apostolic Reformation movement supports decisions made through presumed direct communications from Jesus Christ via modern-day Apostles. Theological schools train prophets and apostles. It is also rumored that movement leadership claims that governing authority was given them by Christ over the entire world church.
I think the growing emphasis on the authoritative rather than missional dimension of apostolicity is an effort to bring order out of the chaos of rapidly expanding Pentecostal movements worldwide. But in today’s competitive context, confessional Protestants and traditional Evangelicals find themselves caught between the Scylla of the literal Catholic apostolic succession, and the Charybdis of pentecostal Apostolic movements, both of which challenge the apostolicity of Protestant denominational leadership while claiming it for themselves. What does it mean when the very people who claim to be 21st century Apostles reject previous generations of Christian witness, without which the Bible would never have been translated, the hymns sung, or the memory of the martyrs kept alive? Clearly apostolicity is being claimed as a mark of the church today. But in the era of World Christianity, it must be kept in tension with the other marks of oneness, holiness, and catholicity.