Thursday, January 20, 2011

Faith Works 1-22-11
Jeff Gill

Dialogue, By Any Other Name, Would Sound As Sweet

Back in seminary, studying for my preparation for ministry, one of my mentors and professors then is now “general secretary” of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (, aka the National Council of Churches, or plain old NCC.

Then and now Michael was interested in ecumenism, the field of building bridges and connections between various Christian denominations – a subject related to, but different from interfaith discussions, which would be between Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc.

In constructing ecumenical dialogues, Michael taught and preached over and over something that has always stuck with me (and hope it’s what he wanted to stick with us): when you are truly trying to maintain dialogue, you engage with the best of the tradition you are addressing. If you are focusing on weak spots, as you perceive them; if your discussions tend to always gravitate quickly to the areas where you find their doctrine or structures or practices to be deficient, you’re not having a dialogue, you’re trying to win a debate. And the response, on both sides, will be to retreat into the mutual fortresses of apologetics.

This is not the same as saying you never talk about the tough stuff, or that you can’t disagree with a dialogue partner; what happens, though, when you look for the strengths of the other side’s position, and open by discussing what you value and why of their own way, it does two things.

First, it creates no little pressure for the responding party (even if they were ready to rip into your flaws) to do the same, and secondly the most worthwhile part of the discussion comes from your own (on each side) reflection on the often unique way the dialogue partner has honored who you are. Very often, in these sorts of discussion, the reaction is “we never thought about our own approach in that way: wow!” (Or a more distinguished phrasing of “wow!”)

I had the chance recently to preach for a congregation whose denominational practice is infant baptism, and I spoke about what is valuable, from my viewpoint, about the primacy of God’s role and proper subordination of the role of our “choice” in baptism as a means of grace, both in remembering your own baptismal status, and how that informs your witnessing of baptisms in worship again and again through your life – and I made it clear I come from and still affirm what’s called a “believer’s baptism” practice of my own Christian tradition, where a decision for Christ, confession of faith, and full immersion are the norm.

It was fascinating to hear from folks, after the sermon, who said they had not considered the significance of their own baptism as God’s gracious act more than something our choice, or our parents’ choice, did for us in our lives. They had heard those words, but knowing that they were hearing this appreciation from someone who, as a pastor, could ruefully note that “believer’s baptism” can turn into works-righteousness if we’re not careful: that made aspects of their baptismal practices jump out into sharper and clearer contrast.

Mind you, I still don’t choose to do infant baptisms (traditions like mine do baby dedications, and then what many churches call confirmation becomes a baptismal preparation or “pastor’s class”); in the same manner, I prefer weekly communion, while respecting how some churches make a very special worship experience out of less frequent reception of the bread and wine; likewise, I’m not ready to see myself under the authority of the Bishop of Rome, Archbishop of Canterbury, or any other local person with a funny hat, yet I am all too aware of how chaotic and counterproductive a purely congregational approach to ministry & evangelism can be. And so one.

There’s something about Dr. Kinnamon’s call to engage with the best of a tradition that you are standing against that is very effective, and not just for a rhetorical version of “cheap grace” and easy, inoffensive agreement. I could throw out cheap shots about baptizing anyone and everyone including the village cat, misbehaving cardinals from the Inquisition to the internet, or run down denominational structures both hither AND yon.

Which just begs those parties to snarl and start dissecting my own numerous sins and trespasses.

Will we find a new culture of civility? Standing before the Great White Throne, alongside the glassy sea, near the river shaded by trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations – we’ll find it there, I’m sure. Short of the Kingdom of God, I’m not so certain. If we do find some islands of civil discourse, I think they’ll start with an approach very like a healthy ecumenical discussion, where we begin not with where our distinguished colleague is an idiot or a Nazi or a (insert party label here), but with an opening consideration of the areas where we think our good friend and dialogue partner, who is sadly if mildly mistaken on a number of subjects, has made some excellent points.

Come, let us reason together.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s won a few debates that he might have done well to lose. Make your points to him at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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