A Call to Christian Unity

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Message to the participants in the meeting of Georgian Evangelical leaders
Tbilisi, Georgia, 23 May 2004
Danut Manastireanu, World Vision International

Introduction

1. The story of VUSH. Albania has been declared officially as the first atheistic nation in the world. For thirteen years, before the fall of communism, no official religious activity was allowed. All churches and mosques were closed and their ministers were imprisoned, many of them dying there.

In 1990 Albania became a free country and religion was allowed again to play a role in the life of Albanians. Soon after that, many missionaries came to Albania from Kosovo, a region of former Yugoslavia where a majority of people were Albanians. While they were in Kosovo, the have done what missionaries tend to do sometimes on the mission field – i.e. compete with each other, building their own little kingdoms, rather than contributing together to the Kingdom of God. Moving the Albania, they have learned the lesson and, also under the pressure of the government, have formed a missionary consortium called Albania Encouragement Project (AEP).

As a result of their missionary activities, a number of new Evangelical churches were formed. Because of the model of missionary unity, most of these new churches have agreed to form together the Evangelical Alliance of Albania (VUSH). Searching for the roots of the Protestant faith in Albanian history they were surprised to find out that the first alliance of Evangelicals in Albania was formed at the end of the nineteenth century by Gjerasim Kiriazi, a famous scholar whose pedagogical works were present in all libraries in Albania.

At the time of the crisis in Kosovo in 1999, VUSH was one of the most active relief agencies working with refugees in Albania and a preferred partner of the UN, because of the commitment and integrity of its volunteers. In 2000 VUSH received a special award from the National Association of Evangelicals in the US, in recognition of their heroic social service. The Evangelical Alliance in Albania is a model worth replicating in our region.

2. Christ’s prayer for unity. In his high priestly prayer, Jesus Christ prayed to the Father ‘that all may be one’ (John 17:11). Christ’s deep desire in the wake of his supreme sacrifice was the spiritual unity of his followers. The present fragmentation of his Church is one of his greatest scandals of our time and the main stumbling block for the spreading of the Gospel ‘to the ends of the earth’.

3. The Trinity – model of our unity. The apostle Paul argues in Ephesians 4:1–6 that the unity between the persons of the Holy Trinity should be the basis and model for the unity in which Christians are called to live. Christian unity is not something that we create, but it is the work of the Spirit in which we are called to live. The same epistle teaches that the Church (and thus Christian unity) is not an end in itself, but God’s instrument of bringing the whole world (creation) to intimacy with God through Jesus Christ, our Saviour.

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A. Obstacles to Christian Unity

The fact that Christian unity is a given in which we are called to live does not necessarily imply that we have no role to play in it or that it will happen automatically. In fact, the unity of the church has its arch enemy in the devil. Also, because of our own sinfulness, we may build ourselves, intentionally or inadvertently, many obstacles in the way to unity. Let me present a few of them

1. Romania – the story of a failed attempt. Immediately after the fall of communism in my country, Evangelical leaders came together in a great rush in order to ‘seize the moment’ and form an alliance in order to be jointly represented before the authorities and to work together in a concerted effort for promoting the Gospel in Romania. Unfortunately, because of the hurry in which the alliance was put together, the way it was structured (with revolving leadership, each Evangelical denominational leader becoming in turn president of the alliance for four years) lead in reality to increased suspicion and fragmentation among Romania Evangelicals. This is, in my opinion, a failed project, the proof that good intentions are not sufficient for building a solid alliance.

2. The communist legacy. One of the reasons why the Romanian project was such a failure is the communist legacy that still dominates the mindset of our Christian leaders. There is no concept of democracy or consultations with the church members. Decisions are made by leaders and imposed to the members, many times with the use of overt manipulation means. The postcommunist mindset is characterized by traits like:

generalised suspicion – whenever a new initiative is formulated, the natural impulse of the postcommunist person, including the Christian, is to ask: ‘what is behind this?’; ‘who has an interest in this matter?’; etc.;

loss of community spirit – the many decades of communist propaganda have broken the natural solidarity of any community, including, unfortunately, the Christian community;

fragmentation of the evangelical community – this is the result of the deliberate ‘divide and conquer’ strategy of the communist secret police; Christian leaders who have cooperated with the communist regime (sometimes with the hope of saving the Christian community from extinction) are many times still in positions of influence, acting in virtue of their past habits; worse than that, some of the leaders who used to be persecuted by the old regime became now dictators and persecutors of those who do not agree with them.

It is precisely because of this communist legacy and our inability to work together that I have suggested the involvement of Interdev (a partnership building institution) in this process of building an Evangelical Alliance in Georgia.

3. An obsession with ‘catching the moment’ – the futility of premature partnerships. It is true that God has his kairos – the favourable time, for certain actions. Yet, it is very easy to take our own expectations or feverishness for God’s timing. Moreover, decisions made without adequate preparation and deliberation have all the chances to be wrong: the Romanian example given above if very relevant in this sense. As for God’s kairos, it should be discerned under the guidance of the Spirit, through fervent prayer and by community deliberation. Anything else would be less than honouring for God’s kingdom.

The best way of compromising a good idea is to press for it before people are prepared for it. Premature partnerships are like failed marriages because of the immaturity of the partners. This is why an Evangelical partnership has to be prepared seriously and with great patience.

As a conclusion to the statements above, we may say that there are certain dangers connected to creating new partnerships, particularly in our transitional post communist times. As the Proverbs were saying, ‘there is a lion in the streets’. Yet, this will stop only the cowards from acting in light of their conscience.

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B. The Promise of Christian Unity

1. Two very different stories. The first story I want to bring before you is that of French Evangelicals. They represent only a tiny 0.5% of the population in France. Yet, they are fragmented in more than one hundred denominations (mostly because of the diverging selfish interests of missionaries working in that country), most of them hardly cooperating with each others. This is the major obstacle in the way of Christian testimony in one of the most secularised nations in the world. When approached with the gospel people tell Evangelicals: ‘what right do you have to speak when you are not able to agree among yourselves?’ It is only recently that French Evangelicals have realised the utter damage that this lack of unity does to the progress of the gospel and they started working towards more visible unity.

The second story is a very different one. It has to do with the oldest existing Evangelical Alliance, the one in the United Kingdom, established in mid-nineteenth century. According to Operation World, 2000, Evangelicals (including charismatics and Pentecostals) represent about 14% of the population in this country. The same work mentions that ‘the [British] Evangelical Alliance has done much to encourage this and give credibility to Evangelicals in national life’. The Alliance is involved in the social and political life of the country, having a respected voice in policy making of Great Britain. In my opinion, there are two major strengths of the British model: 1) its democratic type of membership (including denominations, individual churches, various Christian organisations and individual Christians); and 2) the type of leadership (which does not use the principle of rotation, like in Romania, but the election of visionary leaders, on the basis of concrete projects. This is the reason why I suggested that the British Evangelical Alliance could be a sort of sponsor of the process going on now in Georgia. You have a lot to learn from our more experienced brothers and sisters.

2. The witnessing power of unity. Again in Christ’s high priestly prayer we find him ask the Father that ‘all of them may be one… so that the world may believe’ (John 17:22). This prayer has a direct bearing on the French example we have given above. We may very well say that in terms of the witness to the Gospel, ‘united we stand; divided we fall’, no matter how passionate we say we are about bringing the good news to every human being. If we are serious about our responsibility for Christian witness, Christian unity is not an option, but an inescapable prerequisite.

3. The power of a unified vision. Christ’s Great Commission in Matthew 28:18–20 calls us to be involved in ‘discipling the nations’. Yet, if we want to disciple our nations, we need a vision for that nation. Our probably legitimate but petty desire to grow our church or denominational membership will not do. If we want to see Georgia changed, we need to ask from God what his vision for this country is.

Moreover, in conditions like yours, when Evangelicalism has been an oppressed and persecuted minority, having a common voice in society is an advantage that should not be neglected. This does not mean in any way that this should be an anti-Orthodox alliance. If you chose this road, don’t count on our help, for it will certainly lead to disaster. I trust you know better than that. Your alliance should be for something, not against something or someone.

Do you have a common vision for Georgia? If you don’t, seek God’s face and get one. Then set on your way to put it to action, in the power of the Holy Spirit. And God will rejoice over the work of your hands.

When you do this, you may find out that your powers are limited and you will be convinced and motivated to join your efforts with those who can help you fulfil your vision. This is exactly why the European and the World Evangelical Alliances exist.

C. Risks on the Way to Christian Unity

1. The rush to unity – the need for patience. Starting a partnership before the participants are ready for it is like hatching a baby prematurely. The baby may survive, but with great difficulties, if not with unrecoverable damage.

If we want to build a solid alliance, we need to fulfil a number of conditions:

  1. solid motivation – this means primarily that we need to prepare the ground and to help people understand why we need an alliance;
  2. common beliefs – we need to draw the limits of the partnership, by clarifying the basic doctrinal ground of this alliance; we need to define clearly what is included and what is excluded; an alliance that does not exclude anybody, is an amorphous reality, a non-entity;
  3. guiding principles – in order to have a viable partnership, we need to clarify ‘ the dos and don’ts’, in other words, what are the things we will always do and what are those things we will never do;
  4. rights and obligations – for a social entity to function properly, its members need to define clearly what will be the benefits and the responsibilities of its members; if there are no benefits, nobody will be motivated to become a member; if there are no responsibilities, there will be no coherent alliance;

2. External interference – the need for freedom. This brings us to the very delicate matter of money and power. Alliances created in poor countries will be very tempted to expect and to depend on foreign funding. Certainly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with getting foreign help, especially when this help is coming from brothers and sisters in Christ. However, it is very risky (if not utterly wrong) to make plans depending of foreign funding. Rather, we should learn to create programs that are sustainable with our own resources. And if external resources come, we will value them even more. We also need to learn to discern when a certain help comes ‘with strings attached’.

Finally, we need to keep at any price or freedom and dignity. If we loose these, we may as well die. In order to avoid this, we need to be aware of the corruptive and manipulative power of money. Missionaries are well aware of this reality and so should be we, native Christian leaders.

Foreign missionaries can be great partners of national Christians (like it is happening in Albania). Yet, this is not always the case. That is why we need to the courage and the conviction that will make us pay the price of freedom, not matter how high that price is.

3. Benevolent dictatorship? – the need for democracy. This has to do with the way we make decisions, including the decision of creating a church partnership. The natural impulse of the communist times we have just left behind would be to think that we, as leaders know better what church leaders need. We may be tempted to think: ‘Isn’t that why they have chosen us as leaders?’ But have they really? And if they have done it, does this mean that we do not need to consult with them. The phrase ‘it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ that we find in Acts 15: 29 has been uttered by the apostles after they have consulted with the congregation. Should we dare to do otherwise?

In this respect, we may learn a few things from the Church of the councils. When the bishops came together in the ecumenical gatherings of the early centuries, there were not representing themselves as leaders, but the living faith of their congregations. Then, after certain decisions were made, the bishops were taking them back to their churches, and only those decisions were conformed by the consensus of the faithful were truly binding for the Church. Although somewhat idealistic, I believe we can learn a lot from this model, particularly as a protection what I have called above ‘benevolent dictatorship’, meaning the tendency of Christian leaders to make decisions in the name of their congregations without consulting the members. If fact, no alliance will resist if the members of our churches do not believe in it. Such an alliance will remain a festive abstraction, with no reality at the grass roots, much like what is happening in Romania. I really hope that Georgia will follow much better examples.

Conclusions

Let us summarise then in a few questions the main points of our presentation:

Do you really believe in the value of Christian unity?

If you do, work for it

Are you sure that your churches are prepared for a mature partnership?

If they are not, do not rush it, but rather engage in a process that will make possible at the right time, God’s kairos.

What do you think should be your strategy?

I suggest there are at least three possible options:

  1. the top-down approach – decisions made by supposedly enlightened leaders are imposed to the churches; this would be the dictatorial option;
  2. the bottom-up approach – leaders validate and implement the decisions made by the people; this would be the strict democratic option; Both these options have their plusses and minuses. This is why I would suggest an approach that combines the strength of both.
  3. the mixt approach – this could be outlined as follows: a) the leaders seek in prayer for God’s vision of Christian unity; b) the leaders present this vision to the people; c) (hopefully) people confirm and refine the vision; d) a grass roots movement is created, local churches moving towards closer cooperation; e) leaders officialise what already exists on the ground, creating the institutional partnership desired by the churches.

May the Lord give you all the wisdom you need on this difficult road to Christian unity!

As for us, we will be praying for you and will be ready to help if you ask for it, according to our abilities and convictions.

* * *

NOTE: The plans for the creation of a Georgian Evangelical Alliance was postponed. Evangelicals in Georgia were not yet ready for it.

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Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

7 thoughts on “A Call to Christian Unity”

  1. I am a Catholic priest from Ethiopia recently finished my Licence examination at the University of St. Thomas of Aquinas “section of ecumenism” here in Rome. Thank you so much for your wonderful explanation given on a call to Christian Unity. I hope to get more in the future.

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  2. I have profited also, especially from the four conditions that must be fulfilled for an alliance to succeed. I am dreaming about an Evangelical Photographers Alliance/Agency and this presentation was very helpful indeed.

    Like

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