During the 1970s nine Protestant churches at the center of American life were developing a plan that would have blended them into a new church adapted to the post-Vietnam, post-Civil Rights Movement era that was emerging. One step in the process was for each of these churches to declare that it recognized the baptisms performed in the other churches as valid baptism and membership in any of their churches as membership in the one, true Church of Christ.
In order to explore what this declaration meant in practical terms, a consultation was scheduled in which theologians and historians from the churches could talk things over. In preparation for the meeting, the General Secretary of the unity organization, Gerald F. Moede, PhD, prepared an extended document entitled “Ecumenical Pressure and the Mutual Recognition of Baptism/Membership.”
He states his purposes clearly: “to study the findings [on mutual recognition of baptism and membership] thus far revealed, and to ask what these findings imply for the future.”
Moede’s own scholarly work in classic writings on ecclesiology, his studies of the emergence of the Methodist Church, and current writings by Roman Catholic scholars Joseph Eagan and Avery Dulles were woven together in this analysis of the ecclesiology of American churches.
He wrote that two classic types had come together in the North American context. The church type had historically meant (quoting Ronald E. Osbon) “one official religious institution in alliance with the state. In the same way that one was born a subject of the realm, one was born a member of the Christian community.” Moede comments that in this system, “marginal and ‘active’ members differ in their fervor or commitment, but are, in the dogmatic sense, equally members.”
In the sect type, the church is understood as a voluntary association. “The very life of the sect depends on actual personal service and cooperation.” Moede quotes H. Richard Niebuhr who pointed out that “voluntaristic theories, both of government and theology, filtered into the American mind in a way that produced as many new churches as movements; there developed the tendency for parties which state churches in Europe had held together to organize now as separate denominations.”
What has emerged, especially in America where freedom of religion is a basic principle, is the denomination with characteristics that are drawn from both church and sect models and with others that are “different from either Church or sect. In some respects it has combined the weakness of each of its predecessors.
The established churches of Europe tended to become sectarian on American soil, while the sects became full-fledged churches.” The result is that all of the churches have to win “adherents by persuasion, revival, and nurture” and necessarily depend upon “the loyalty and activity of its members for ministerial support, institutional growth, and mission outreach, thus usually setting rather sharp lines between those who were in and who were not.”
In all of the churches in his unity organization, Moede concludes, vestiges of church-type and sect-type remain, and these “must be identified and questioned in a uniting church.”
He points to the hardening of juridical structures. Initially, Christian “fellowship is perceived more in a mystical-organic fashion, with fluid, relatively unstructured relationships pervading the group. . . . But with an apparent inexorability, fellowship needs and builds structure, governance is necessary, a juridical organization grows out of the original organism becoming in the process, more ecclesiocentric than christocentric.”
Moede comments that it is highly ironic that after the churches represented at the consultation had reached agreement on theological issues, matters of organization were keeping them separated. His question bears far more urgency that the simple words can convey: “How are we to move beyond this impasse?
In answering his own question, Moede draws upon the language of Catholic theologian Avery Dulles. “The Church is a manifold entity; it contains both mystical and societal elements; koinonia always exists in the form of a politeia.”
What the recognition of baptism/members intends to do is open up what have become exclusive polities by agreeing that we are truly members one of another, based upon our baptism.” Our challenge is to find a way to be faithful to our communion in the one body of Christ that exists always and everywhere, the body into which we were incorporated by our baptism, without having to deny the variant of Christ’s body in which we live.
“To find a way of ‘double belonging’! This is the need that mutual recognition of baptism/membership addresses.” Later in his paper, Moede offers suggestions that could express this double belonging: joint confirmation services, dual membership, ecumenical baptisms, transformed liturgical rites, simultaneous membership in several congregations, and intermingling of juridical and bureaucratic systems of the churches.
Moede concludes his paper by acknowledging that he was keeping the pressure on his colleagues in the unity movement. His closing words were a quotation from Karl Barth: “Better something doubtful or over-bold, and therefore in need of forgiveness, than nothing at all . . .”