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Michael Kinnamon: Denominations are wonderful adjectives, but idolatrous nouns

Denominations are distinctive traditions within one Body of Christ, and terms like “Methodist” and “Presbyterian” are adjectives that qualify the word “Christian,” says the general secretary of the National Council of Churches.

May 25, 2010

Editor’s note: As the Christian landscape changes, leaders must ask and answer a new question: What’s the future of denominations? This interview is part of an occasional series that offers insight on this vital issue. To see the entire series, click here.

A Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister and leader in the ecumenical church movement, the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon says the Bible does not begin with diversity. Rather, it begins with unity and celebrates the diversity within it.

His vision of the future of denominations includes councils of churches in full communion relationships with one another. Kinnamon says that the unity of Christian denominations is not something to be achieved, but a foundational gift to be recognized and received.

Before being elected general secretary of the National Council of Churches in 2008, Kinnamon served the NCC as chair of the Council's Justice and Advocacy Commission and as general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, which became Churches Uniting in Christ. He was the Allen and Dottie Miller Professor of Mission, Peace and Ecumenical Studies at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. He also taught at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky, where he was dean for 10 years. Kinnamon received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School and his A.B. from Brown University.

Recently, Kinnamon spoke with Faith & Leadership about the relationship between the ecumenical movement and the future of denominations. The video clip is an excerpt from the following edited transcript.

Q: From your perspective as general secretary of the NCC, what does the future look like for denominations?

The question of the future of denominations is often asked in terms of mainline Protestants. We look at Lutherans or Presbyterians or Methodists and talk about their future. From the perspective of the National Council of Churches, it doesn’t look that way because that’s one group of churches but by no means the whole. That’s a small minority of the total number of churches. At the NCC we include Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, the historic peace churches, the African American churches and some of the recent immigrant churches. The picture there looks quite different. For many of these, it is not a matter of decline but of rapid growth.

For instance, one of our most recent new members is the Mar Thoma Church, which has its roots in India and in the Orthodox tradition that was then evangelized by Anglicans in the 19th century. It is relatively new to the United States and has a first generation of immigrants with their center of gravity in India and then a younger generation, which is very much American. They’re growing by leaps and bounds because of new people coming from India and because of growth in this country as they reach out to a population that hasn’t been served before.

Another thing to say is that often when we talk about the denominational trajectories, we use linear images that I’m not sure are always appropriate to the Holy Spirit. It is only decline if you think that what the church was in the past is the church God calls us to be. It may well be that God is calling us to new forms of faithfulness that our past institutional self-sufficiency masked. And so it is possible that we could now begin to see the new moment in which old ways of being church seem to be running their course as new opportunities for following the Spirit.

So, in any case, I don’t like images of decline or growth. They’re too static. They’re too linear. It seems to me the Spirit may well transform us. Talk to the Pentecostal churches. That’s the way they interpret history. Or recover a tradition. That’s the way the Orthodox would read history. But we often read it because we’ve had institutional self-sufficiency. We’ve had resources and so we think of things in terms of growth out of the past or decline from what was. I am not at all sure that’s the way that we ought to be thinking about these matters as we look at the state of denominations in this country.

Another thing to say is that denominations are at best a kind of mixed blessing. There is a way in this culture in which the denominations have borne witness to religious freedom in ways that we want to celebrate, and recognize there’s a certain vitality which has come from the denominational life of the United States. And I do celebrate that. Please hear me correctly. But these are, in a sense, renewal movements within the church. The denominations “denominated” certain reforms, which when they were received into the bloodstream of the whole church presumably those denominations would disappear in a larger ecumenical whole.

I give thanks to God for the Lutheran witness to the justification-by-faith principle at the heart of the gospel. I give thanks to God for the way in which the Wesleyan traditions sing their faith. I give thanks for the way the Church of the Brethren or the Quakers or the Mennonites have borne witness to the radical, non-violent peacemaking that is the heart of God. But none of that is foreign territory to the rest of us now.

Well what happens once the rest of the church begins to say yes to those kinds of denominated distinctive claims? Shouldn’t now the churches that bore witness to those things begin to find their way into the whole Body of Christ? So, in some sense -- I say this a bit tongue in cheek -- I don’t worry about the denominations dying. I’m just not sure you can beat them to death with a stick because there comes a point at which you’ve got to say, “Enough! We have heard the witness.” But there is one Body of Christ and insofar as you bear witness to other names, you obscure the wholeness which is God’s will and God’s gift.

Methodist is a wonderful adjective but it’s an idolatrous noun. One should not be a Methodist. You are Methodist Christians. One is not a Presbyterian. You are Presbyterian Christians and so insofar as denominations bear witness to the adjective, they are counterproductive to the witness of the gospel. Insofar as they are vital aspects of renewal absorbed into the whole of the church, they are glorious parts of the tradition and I celebrate them.

Q: Once these various reform ideas from denominations are absorbed into the larger church, what role if any do denominations have?

My vision of the future of the church would be a church that may have a number of distinctive centers. It may have various ways, like the orders within the Catholic Church. You could speak about how Jesuits have a particular charism or a particular kind of calling and gift, but you don’t talk about them as somehow separate from the other Catholics.

We have lived in separate enclaves. We have borne in that sense false witness. Denominations need not be that. It is possible to take the separation out, as I mentioned, and become an adjective and not a noun. But once we build up institutional strength and financial strength and we get into pension funds and other such things, it becomes hard to talk in those kinds of ecumenical terms.

Part of my role in the National Council is to remind the churches that indeed they are one, thanks to what God has done in Jesus Christ. This is not something they have to agree on. That would make unity a matter of works righteousness, as if our agreement on something constituted the unity of the body. No. God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self. There is one body, one faith, one baptism. Paul doesn’t say that if the hand and the eye agree with one another they’re part of one body. These are gifts to be received.

If denominations become ways in which we receive those gifts, then I celebrate them. If denominations become ways of competing with the gifts that others have received, then indeed they are bearing false witness.

Q: Given that, what are denominations to do?

The first step is for the denominations to live together within councils of churches and other full communion relationships. The World Methodist Council has identified itself with the agreement on justification that’s between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics, which is a step toward a closer relationship. It’s also a matter of breaking bread together with the AME church down the street and with the International Council of Community Churches and with the Episcopal Church and so on.

Living in those kinds of relationships is an important first step ecumenically. I tell the churches that the National Council is not an organization you have joined. It is a covenant you have made with 35 other denominations or communions to live out your unity in Christ. We work at building up that sense of covenantal relationship. Insofar as we do that, I think we make the boundaries between the churches more porous and we make denominational identity more open to other gifts that the other churches have received.

Q: In an address to the NCC General Assembly, you said “the Church of Jesus Christ is already one.” Could you elaborate on that?

The author of Ephesians argues that we need to “maintain the unity of the Spirit and bond of peace for there is one body, one faith, one baptism.” That’s the fundamental claim. Everyone who has communion with Christ has communion with everyone who has communion with Christ. Isn’t that the good news?

This is what gives the ecumenical movement both its power and its difficulty. American Christians and Cuban Christians are related to one another by blood at a level deeper than nationality. Talk about the radical character of the ecumenical movement. It is not a political movement. It is a theological movement. African-American and Euro-American Christians are related at a level deeper than race. This is where much of our solidarity comes.

At the World Council of Churches’ meeting in Canberra, Australia, in 1991, when we were bombing Iraq in the first Gulf War, I was seated near the Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Baghdad. He said, “These bombs are falling on you.” If there is one body, we don’t get to say nationality trumps it; our fundamental identity in Christ is the deepest identity, and it links us with sisters and brothers we may never meet and with whom we may not agree theologically because finally it is not our agreement that is determinative, but God’s choice of us.

Q: You’ve written that the ecumenical movement has been impoverished by its friends. How so?

I don’t worry about enemies nearly as much as I worry about misconceptions by those who identify themselves as friends of the ecumenical movement. There are a number of misconceptions. One of them is the misconception that I already mentioned: that unity is an achievement rather than a gift.

If unity is synonymous with agreement then disagreement means disunity, so when the churches disagree they either sweep it under the rug or they take their marbles and leave. Both betray the real nature of the church, which ought to be a place where we fight like cats and dogs because we know that we live in a body where all are welcomed by what God has done, not our choice about it. It makes all the difference in the world to our own denominational assemblies if we get that distinction right, and I think the ecumenical movement can help to teach it.

Another misconception is that ecumenism is synonymous with cooperation. Cooperation can actually be anti-ecumenical if it is seen as an end in itself because cooperation freezes the status quo in place. It is a way of saying, “You’re okay, we’re okay, so we’ll get along.” That’s not what the bible says. It says, “You’re not okay, and we’re not okay apart from one another.” Apart from the other we’re fundamentally impoverished. Churches can cooperate without being changed, but the ecumenical mandate of the church is to be changed in the direction of deeper faithfulness and unity.

Another misconception is that we often think that the church’s unity is a matter of uniting diversities. But that is the logic of democratic government -- different groups come together and stay together as long as their interests are perceived to coincide. But that’s not at all what the bible says.

There is one creation, which is wondrously diverse. There is one body, which is made up of wondrously different members. In the bible, you always start with a given unity and celebrate the diversity of it. You don’t start with diversities and talk about how you unite them. It makes all the difference in the world, and I think that’s another of those impoverishments that we often are prone to in the life of the church. Perhaps even denominational identity is often seen as one of those diversities that has to get together. If we saw one body, which manifests itself in different traditions that themselves are somehow complementary and interrelated, then we would be further toward living out the fullness of the church.