Saturday, February 19, 2011

Reflecting on Koinonia and the Need for Unity in Faith and Practice

Flipping through my copy of The Orthodox Study Bible, I came across some notes I made a while back on the opening three verses of the first letter of John. Here are those verses:

1That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life - 2the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us - 3that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.

In my notes, I observed that verses 1-2 insist that special revelation comes via material means, i.e., things accessible to human sensory perception (what we hear, see, and touch). Contra the Gnostic myth that the material world isn't important, John stresses that we don't come to know God apart from matter.

In verse 3, the word translated as "fellowship" is koinonia. According to The Orthodox Study Bible:

Koinonia (Gr.) is far more than "fellowship." It is our personal participation with other believers in the life of Christ. Fellowship with us means communion - especially Eucharistic communion - within the apostolic Church.

Koinonia comes through the flesh of Jesus Christ (his Body and Blood). And so koinonia comes through that extension of the Incarnation called the Church (the Body of Christ). Contra the Gnostic myth that institutional religion is bad (and, therefore, that belonging to the Church is at best optional and at worst destructive of "real" spirituality), there is no unmediated or purely spiritual, disembodied communion with God or with other Christian believers. And so koinonia is not an abstract idea or theory. It is embodied in the life of actual, historically concrete institutional structures and practices that can be heard, seen, touched, etc.

Thus embodied, koinonia is grounded in sacraments (particularly Baptism and Eucharist) and doctrine (with the focal point in the Christological affirmation that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh). And so John links Christology and Ecclesiology such that one cannot have koinonia with God in Christ without also having koinonia with other baptized Christians. A biblical warrant surfaces here for St. Cyprian of Carthage's statement: "He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his Mother."

John's grounding of koinonia in sacraments and doctrine such that Christology and Ecclesiology are linked has important implications. Among other implications, it underscores the imperative to proactively address impaired koinonia and schism by seeking to heal divisions among Christians. And so we do well to beware agendas that entail dismissing the call to unity.

These Johannine reflections also call into question claims that koinonia can be found in common prayer, Eucharistic sharing, or common mission alone. To be sure, each of those are critically important to what it means to be the Church, and especially for a tradition such as Anglicanism in which "practices of piety" have carried greater weight than the kinds of confessional statements we find in the Reformed tradition. But while not a confessional tradition, Anglicanism does uphold the normative status of the historic creeds. And so Anglicanism does not pit faithful worship against faithful confession of belief, but rather understands faithful worship as a faithful expression of belief. And so, at its best, Anglicanism embraces the Johannine insight that koinonia requires that we who pray and share Eucharist and engage in common mission with each other must also share common doctrine about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Reflecting on koinonia in light of these verses from 1 John provides a biblical warrant for Leander S. Harding and Christopher Wells' recent call for the Episcopal Church to focus more proactively on teaching Jesus. In their initial article on this matter for The Living Church entitled "Teaching Jesus and the Unity of the Church," they write:

The Episcopal Church needs a movement among a critical mass of leaders, especially priests and bishops of the church, to place the teaching and preaching of basic Christian doctrines about the person and work of Christ at the center of their ministry. This could take the form of line-by-line exposition of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. Perhaps the House of Bishops could undertake together a study of 'the scandal of particularity': that through the Incarnation, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of the Son of God, the Father has provided the point of unity and reconciliation — salvation — for the warring children of the world. As a result of this common study the bishops could direct a teaching to the church on Jesus Christ today, Lord of the Church and Lord of the world. ...

Such a movement would per force refocus the life of our church on that which is truly central, and help to frame a way forward in Christ with respect to our continued disagreements. The center of the Church is not the midpoint between extremes but the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, the Messiah of God. A renewed consensus about the person and work of the Lord might not immediately dispel our disagreements which are grave, wounding the body of the Church. It would, however, properly locate those disagreements, and mark the way to their resolution.

And in a follow-up essay entitled "The Lord Who Unites Us," Harding and Wells write:

We recognize that a focus on doctrine is to a degree counter-cultural to the Episcopal Church. We recognize with mixed feelings the extraordinary place the baptismal covenant has assumed in the working theology of our church. Yet at the heart of this liturgy is the confession of the Apostles’ Creed in question and answer form and the challenge to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as Lord and Savior. Surely to study together, and then teach together, the identity and work of the Lord is a contribution to taking this covenant with due seriousness.

We do think that some new initiative is needed to move beyond mutual suspicion and acrimony. Reassurances that we have more in common than what divides us without specifying that which is in common are unlikely to be adequate. Calls to engage in common mission as though the meaning of mission and its relation to the person of the Lord goes without saying is inadequate to the crisis of unity facing our church. We continue to believe that the ultimate hope for peace both in our church and in the world is the Church’s one foundation, Jesus Christ the Lord. We believe that our proposal is a concrete and practical means for seeking him who is God’s peace and for sharing that peace with each other.

Koinonia entails not only unity in practice but also unity in the essentials of the Christian faith. In a time when there seems to be lack of clarity about what exactly constitutes the essentials of the Christian faith, Harding and Wells' counter-cultural call for Episcopalians to focus on doctrine is a welcome invitation. In addition to helping us "refocus the life of our church on that which is truly central," it would also have the added benefit of refocusing our attention on all of the Baptismal Covenant. And that refocusing could go a long way towards cultivating the kind of unity in both faith and practice that koinonia requires.


The Underground Pewster said...

The call for a focus on doctrine includes a word that many dispute from the get go. That word of course is "doctrine." I suspect the usual game of disassembling words and their meanings would take over and cause any such attempt to lose focus.

We had the Articles of Religion, but these have been assigned to the "Historical Documents" section for the past 32 years. Taking these as a starting point would seem advisable for any focus on Anglican doctrine.

I have heard too many times over the past 32 years from priestly friends that we should not be focused on doctrine but instead on the great commission or the Baptismal covenant (1979 version).

Look and see where that kind of thinking has got us.

Bryan Owen said...

You might be right, Underground Pewster, that the very word "doctrine" would itself be a point of dispute. I suspect that may be one of the reason why Harding and Wells note that "a focus on doctrine is to a degree counter-cultural to the Episcopal Church."

I always find it curious when folks try to avoid doctrine by appeals to the Great Commission or to the Baptismal Covenant. In the Great Commission, for instance, Jesus commands his disciples to make more disciples by baptizing them and by "teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Mt 28:20). Baptizing and teaching: they go together. And whenever we enter the realm of teaching we are implicitly dealing with doctrine (the very word "doctrine" means "something that is taught").

Then there is, of course, the Baptismal Covenant, the first full half (or more) of which is the Apostles' Creed. That Creed lays out in succinct fashion the core doctrine of the Christian faith. And the first Baptismal Covenant vow includes the promise to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship." It is impossible to keep that promise if we don't know or engage apostolic teaching (doctrine).

As I've noted in a previous blog posting entitled "All of the Baptismal Covenant":

Before we say what we promise to do as Christians, we first say what we believe as Christians. The doing follows from the believing. And it's no accident that the very first thing we promise to do is to "continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship," and there's no better summary of the apostles' teaching than the Apostles' Creed. So while the doing of our faith may take "progressive" forms, we only get to that by first giving ourselves in faith and trust to the orthodox faith of the Church.

Trying to avoid doctrine by appealing to the Great Commission and/or the Baptismal Covenant is like trying to avoid humidity and mosquitoes by moving to the Mississippi Delta in August. I guess someone who did that could pretend they weren't sweating bullets and getting eaten alive by little blood suckers. But everybody around them would think they were, at best, out of touch with reality!

Fr. J said...

Good points all, and the exegesis is much appreciated.

Doctrine is a dirty word in the Episcopal Church precisely because it's become a dirty word in the culture. We need to re-learn what that word means.

At a forum with the presiding bishop a couple of years ago, I asked her what place doctrine held in the ongoing work of the Episcopal Church today. She said that it was the foundation from which that work sprung, which is of course the right answer, but then she proceeded to defy every effort at locating what that doctrine is from which we spring.

A church without doctrine is like a person without blood.

Bryan Owen said...

Interesting experience with the PB you describe, Fr. J. Perhaps that kind of slipperiness when it comes to doctrine suggests part of the reason why the term has become a "dirty word" - in part, because if we get too specific, we lose wiggle room and we find ourselves intellectually committed in ways that compromise our ability to determine for ourselves what the Christian faith means and thus what its practical significance is for our lives.

I'm reminded of a couple of claims (among others) made by some Episcopalians I responded a while back in a posting called "How Much is 2 Plus 2?" For instance:

"To claim that there is such a thing as 'the faith of the Church' and that the Bible, the creeds, and the liturgies of the Prayer Book embody that faith is merely a way of trying to impose one's own views on other people. The Episcopal Church doesn't have teaching that's binding on anyone. To say otherwise is to endorse indoctrination, not inclusiveness."

Or this:

"We all recite the same words of the Nicene Creed on Sundays, but many of us disagree on what almost every word of that Creed means."

And again:

"Teaching a class about 'the faith of the Church' is all about trying to tell every Episcopalian what they do or should believe, which amounts to indoctrination and a guilt trip."

If such views are widespread within the Episcopal Church, Harding and Wells' proposal faces quite a challenge!