|“Is Christ divided?
The Witness of an Ecumenical Table, Not an Ecumenical Babel?”
A Brief Review of
Reviewed by Jess O. Hale, Jr.
To many Christians today the lack of unity among Christ’s followers scandalizes the church, but for many disciples of Jesus the depth of poverty across the globe and around the corner is equally scandalous. It is quite natural that both realities give offense to Jesus’s followers as Paul’s lament in 1 Corinthians (“Is Christ divided?”) is later matched by his collection for the poor and his horror at people going hungry at the Lord’s Table while others feasted. In Ecumenical Babel, a young Reformed scholar who edits the Journal of Markets and Morality for the free-market oriented Acton Institute, Jordan Ballor, looks at the ecumenical movement and shares the scandal of the division in the body of Christ, but disappointingly he seems as caught up in economic ideology as those he blasts with criticism. While today’s ecumenical movement is undoubtedly sickly and I had guarded hopes when Ballor took Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s passionate confessional ecumenism as a point of departure, unfortunately Ballor cannot rise above a screed against his assessment of “neo-Marxism” and liberation theology with his equally ideological and baldly asserted free-market neo-liberalism (xvi, 4, 105).
Seeking reform, Ballor merits praise for asserting the value of the ecumenical movement and the unity of the Church in a time where that message is seldom heard. He also provides a basic description of the ecumenical movement in the form of the World Council of Churches and the global Lutheran and Reformed ecumenical bodies over the past century that is worthwhile. On this description he builds a blistering critique of those ecumenical entities on the foundation of his appropriation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church-based ecumenism, Paul Ramsey’s analysis of the ecumenical industrial complex and Ernest Lefever’s vendetta against liberation theology.
The ecumenical movement richly deserves a spirited critique for a lack of theologically ground rigor, but Ballor’s critique of liberation theology’s influence is more ideologically western and free-market oriented than grounded in the gospel—in contrast to Bonhoeffer’s ecumenism. When Ballor raised the Lord’s Supper as a witness to service (EB 109-110) my heart warmed at the prospect of advocating a theology of Christian unity grounded in the Lord’s Table which joins commitment to the poor and justice to both Jesus’ lordship and Christian practice (see 1 Corinthians). However, Ballor’s allergy to liberation theology does not permit him to follow through on this promise.
While Ballor’s commitment to Bonhoeffer’s ecumenical witness is one of the strong points of Ecumenical Babel, it rests in large part on a significant misappropriation of Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s confessional commitment to the gospel expressed itself in controversial commitment to practices of the gospel as his involvement in the confessing church and the conspiracy against Hitler attest. Bonhoeffer’s commitments did not allow avoiding specific commitments in order to permit differences on practices to be deferred on prudential grounds when gospel commitments were implicated. Even in the essay on which Ballor relies, “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement,” Bonhoeffer’s commitment to truth calls the ecumenical movement as church to “speak a word of judgement about war, race hatred and social exploitation” [No Rusty Swords, Collins World, 338] as an expression of obedience to the gospel.
For Ballor’s heartfelt call to a reformed ecumenical witness, we can all be appreciative. However, from his desire to immunize critique of economic practices behind a truth that separates free-market practices from judgment on “prudential” grounds at least I must dissent. The contemporary ecumenical movement needs to hear again God’s Word—even in judgment against itself. However, in the end, a needed passion for unity expressing the witness to the gospel grounded in the Lord’s Table cannot ignore the plight of the poor on the basis of its own economic ideology.