I am certainly concerned with ecumenism, that is, the collaborative efforts to bring about international church unity.  But until reading a couple of Barth’s lectures published in The Church and the Churches [1], I lacked a proper sense of urgency.

For Barth, there is only one Church.  There may be a multiplicity of localized faith communities, but there is only one Church.  To console ourselves with the notion that the multiplicity of churches is ultimately just a necessary expression of the “ideal, invisible, and essential Church” simply will not do: “this entire distinction [between the Church invisible and the multiplicity of visible churches] is foreign to the New Testament” (p. 19).  The fractured state of the Church cannot be overlooked by believing in an invisible, overarching entity that encompasses all divisions.  “However well this may sound, it is not theology, it is mere sociology or philosophy of history” (p. 21).

I tend to view the divisions within the worldwide Church to be a practicality that is, however less than ideal, necessary and to be tolerated.  Barth would chasten my casual pragmatism:

“We have to deal with [the multiplicity of the churches] as we deal with sin, our own and others’….  We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God’s will and command may enjoin in respect of it” (pp. 22-23).

I am slightly turned off by idealistic chatter about unity, whether it be applied to politics, a sports team, or the worldwide Body of Christ.  So I am deeply grateful that Barth’s vision of unity ascends such rosy, politically correct sentimentality:

“Unity in itself will not suffice: nor will any or all of the ideas and ideals which we may link with that concept.  Unity in itself, even church unity in itself, is, as surely as the independent multiplicities are, merely fallen and unreconciled human nature” (p. 13).

I am also grateful to find that Barth’s vision of unity has nothing to do, per se, with everyone just being nice to one another and getting along in blind disregard of concrete differences.  His understanding of the oneness of the Church is bound to the identity of Jesus as the Church’s One Lord.  The oneness of Jesus alone establishes the oneness of the Church.  And Barth is also helpful in pointing us to the fact that only the One Christ can secure the unity of the One Church.

How do we participate in Christ’s ongoing labors to that end?  I’ve got two more lectures to go, so remain on your seat’s edge….

 

[1] Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005).  The use of “unthinkable” in the blog post’s title comes from p. 24.

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