The World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission issued an ecumenical milestone in 1982 with the publication of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, (Faith and Order Paper #111. Geneva: WCC, 1982). It sent that document to the churches which are members of the World Council and other churches who participate in the work of the Faith and Order Commission along with the members, e.g. the Roman Catholic Church. Six volumes were subsequently published of the responses of all of these churches as well as groups and individuals who sent similar replies to the questions raised by the WCC/FOC.
Among the questions were: Does the convergence document represent the apostolic tradition as it is understood in your church? What other questions do you believe need to be answered to promote and achieve the unity of the church which Christ founded? The discussion of the Faith and Order dialogue focused on baptism, eucharist and ministry because they are crucial to the unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church which Christ founded.
Ecclesiology was described as a fourth issue or topic needing resolution for progress in the unity of the church to fulfill the will of God and the prayer of Jesus that all may be one so that the world may believe (John 20:21ff), hence the decades of dialogue within the World Council and members of the Faith and Order Commission in the years since the publication of BEM and responses.
What is the nature, purpose and common vision of Christians for the church today? The document published by the World Council of Churches in 2012 (WWC/FOC #214) answers this question and is the subject of this article. Though The Church is not new, we believe it is currently being discussed as a document that, like BEM, will draw many responses and have a long and lasting effect on the clarification and reception of the convergence document on the church. This is the view of the leadership of the World Council and of many ecumenists today.
The Church has four chapters and a historical note of the process which has led to its publication.:
- The Mission of God and the Unity of the Church
The first chapter develops the idea that God had a mission or purpose in creation in both eternity and history. God is free to create or not. Yet the very nature of God is love and magnanimity. God is good and loves all creation, he freely shares his life and goodness with creation. There is a divine purpose for his creating and it is “that we may enjoy God’s love and God’s eternal life.” In that divine purpose, the church plays a vital role in his plan which glorifies God by its very existence, and all that that follows the act of creation in history.
- The Church and the Triune God
The second chapter continues this line of thought by asking what is the purpose (or nature) of the church. God is the triune God, communion (koinonia) exists in God himself, and his plan for the church and all human beings is that they live, not in selfish individualism, but in love and communion, described in scripture by the word koinonia/communion The church is the sign and servant of God’s design for the world This communion of the church is unity in diversity and include the local church where God’s involvement is especially visible.
- The Church Growing in Communion
Chapter three begins by a discussion of the “already and not yet” existence of the church. It is the kingdom of God already begun by creation and the history of human beings, and it is destined to be the kingdom of God in its final realization as the new Jerusalem and the everlasting and glorious kingdom of God when time yields to eternity. In this context, essential elements to the formation and living of eternal life in the kingdom of God includes faith, sacraments and the ministry of the church.
- The Church in and for the World
Chapter four further elaborates the topic of God’s plan for creation — the kingdom of God, the moral challenge of the gospel, and the church in society. This chapter resembles Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes –The Church in the Modern World.
Summary and Evaluation
Among the highlights of the document, the following points are noteworthy:
- Missio Dei—God’s plan for the world and the church’s role in that plan
- Communion in the triune God
- The theology of the church as communion (koinonia)
- The importance of prayer and work for unity
- The church as sign and servant of unity
- Essential elements of communion/koinonia
- The church in the world and society – the kingdom of God
One of the great obstacles to christian unity is the theology of the church (ecclesiology). The reformers of the sixteenth century especially Martin Luther did not want to establish new churches. They wanted to reform the church catholic. They were motivated toward this effort by the scriptures which they studied in the original languages and saw not as law and order, but as a moral challenge for followers of Jesus Christ. The scandals of the sixteenth century and the stark contrast between the church of the apostolic era and the Middle Ages led them to seek new light and ways to live the christian life. The moral challenge and the vision of God’s kingdom provided the insight of God’s plan for his church and his mission to the world. The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church shares a similar vision and insight So in this document on the church, christians articulated and prayed for a church that will make more visible its unity and moral strength to address a world that longs for God’s help and God’s kingdom understood as already and not yet.