Theologically, I am a universalist. I believe in an overabundance of God's love for humanity. Where once it may have been easy or expedient to say - "our church/denomination/religion has the only truth" - the progress of science and globalization has made such parochialism largely anachronistic. Still, some people find it hard to hold onto their faith while being open to the expression of other faiths or those who practice no faith. Others find it most difficult to tolerate those of their own faith who believe and practice it so differently. A conservative Christian fundamentalist and a liberal Buddhist-Christian may not know where to even begin in dialogue. Indeed, it is difficult to know how to be truly ecumenical.
Luckily, our religion has its roots in another very globalized time and place. Jesus' own ministry took place at a crossroads between the Greco-Roman, Jewish, and Near Eastern worlds. Thus the ministry of Jesus himself is one of the best ways to uncover the principles of ecumenism and religious tolerance.
In my studies, I have noticed that there are a few primary ways that Jesus handles conflicting religious narratives:
To me, this is the best way to be in Christian brotherhood and sisterhood with the entire body of Christ and with the world. First and foremost, we must have an understanding of who we are and our own religious and cultural identity. With over 41,000 estimated Christian denominations, that discernment process can be tricky. But understanding your own context helps you to know where your boundaries lie. Whose theology do we have a right to critique? Jesus showed hospitality to the stranger, but did not mince words with his fellow rabbis. There is an important lesson in that, which a thoughtful ecumenism should be able to embrace.
Underneath our cultural and religious identity though is always a shared human identity. That is what binds us all together as children of God. When religious or cultural practices infract fundamental human rights, then we as fellow humans should feel comfortable speaking out for justice and peace - no matter what the cultural differences are. But in all things that give shape to our humanity - and do not limit it - we must have respect and freedom.
I was first introduced to the gospel at a United Church of Christ church-plant in Boston, Massachusetts. Years later, I would find my way back to the United Church of Christ to begin my journey as a Christian and answer a call to ministry at another UCC church plant in Atlanta, Georgia. I am incredibly grateful for the work and ministry of the entire United Church of Christ - and personally for its welcoming me in Christian fellowship and covenant. My identity as a Christian is deeply connected to the identity of the United Church of Christ.
As a member of Kirkwood United Church of Christ in Atlanta, I have had the privilege of serving the community in the following capacities:
I find that working with fellow church members and the broader community is a way to cultivate and practice hospitality and fellowship. I have made plenty of mistakes and run into conflict with fellow members, but it is through these real experiences that I have grown in humility and understanding. Shared work brings people closer together in real and authentic ways. The church in this way is a beautiful - and beautifully imperfect - vessel for our own spiritual growth and social betterment.
At the core of why and how our UCC church life together inspires such personal growth is our covenantal commitments to one another. Whereas in other areas of life we can eliminate our connections to people on a whim - shedding friends literally with the click of a button - in covenantal community we are bound to honor and respect one another in Christian love. Bound in covenant, you cannot run away from your mistakes but must learn to mend fences when issues arise.
With Christ as head of the church, we are bound in covenant with his teachings and example in ways that require the best of us. Ideally, the way we practice being in holy community in church sets a pattern within us that positively affects the ways we are in community with all our neighbors. We practice being our best selves through covenantal relationships that hold us to higher standards, and those relationships teach us how to act as Christians with everyone.
I am currently enrolled in the UCC History & Polity class offered through the Center for Progressive Renewal. My studies in this class are enriching my knowledge of the United Church of Christ and its denominational ancestors on a daily basis.
I feel inspired and emboldened by the polity, programs, and history of the United Church of Christ. I believe our faith, witness, and structure will uniquely allow us to grow into where God is leading the church of the future. The following is an excerpt from a reflection paper I recently wrote about the history of the UCC and the ways it call us to live out our faith today.
On June 25, 1957 the United Church of Christ was born. A product of 20th century ecumenism, the United Church of Christ brought together two denominations that were themselves ecumenical mergers of four distinct Protestant Christian churches of very different traditions.
The largest of the UCC’s founding denominations was the Congregationalist Churches, a denomination made up of the descendent congregations of both the English Pilgrims and Puritans. These churches began in the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies and were characterized by strict theocratic rule, an extreme commitment to the Bible as sufficient for Christian belief, and an intolerance of theological or political dissention. These views softened over time, but the belief in Jesus Christ as the sole head of the church and thus the congregations’ autonomous polity would remain strong in Congregationalist polity and theology. This is perhaps why the Congregationalist denomination was never called the “Congregationalist Church” but rather the “Congregationalist Churches,” a nomenclature that would carry over into their merger with the Christian church.
The Congregationalist Churches were joined by the Christian Church, a frontier denomination that had its roots in the stirrings of the Second Great Awakening and leaders who were pushing back against Methodist, Baptists, and even Presbyterian traditions in search of a simpler and more liberative expression of Christianity. These churches and their charismatic leaders began publishing a newspaper called the Herald of Gospel Liberty in 1808 as a way to connect these freedom-focused churches. Later in 1820, a meeting of the United General Conference of Christians would convene in order to draw up six principles that defined the Christian Church movement. These principles stressed the simplicity of Christian faith and polity: Christ alone as head of the church, the Bible the only guide, Christian character the only test of membership, liberty of personal conscience, simplicity of name, and finally the unity of all Christians. These principles can still be seen today in aspects of the UCC’s Statement of Faith.
The Congregationalist Church and Christian Church merged in 1931 to become the Congregational Christian Churches.
The Reformed Church was the older of the two German denominations in the UCC and was established during the colonial period in America as German immigrants and refugees from the 30-years war (1618-1648) poured into the New World. These settlers arrived in Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic colonies and were looking to live in peace and prosperity alongside their Lutheran brethren. The world they left behind was tearing itself apart in one of the bloodiest periods of European history, and so these Christians arrived with very few resources. At first they had no pastors and worshiped in their homes. Over time, European funds and pastoral support helped these churches to sustain and organize themselves. Theologically they supported the Heidelberg Catechism and were resistant to revivalist theology. When the Second Great Awakening and frontier theology was roaring through the American landscape in the 19th century, the Reformed Church answered with the Mercersburg Movement that stressed creeds, catechism, liturgy, and a unification of the church to combat sectarianism. This conservatism held the church together in unity.
The Evangelical Synod of North America is the youngest of the four denominations that made up the United Church of Christ. This church was begun by 19th century German immigrants who came to the new world theologically influenced by the rationalism and Enlightenment thinking and expression in Europe. These groups were pastored by Evangelical missionaries from England who could speak German and understood the rationalism of these immigrants. Over time, education and parochial schools became a central feature of the German Evangelical church as it provided much-needed education to German immigrant children on the frontier. Later the church itself became evangelical and missional and sent missionaries overseas to India. They stressed “faithfulness, obedience, discipline, and the affirmation, ‘Christ alone! Faith alone! The Bible alone!’” in articulating their faith identity (Post, 47). Overall, there was a pragmatism to this denomination that believed that all institution and organization was ephemeral but that God’s work in the world persisted nonetheless.
The Evangelical and Reformed Church was formed in 1934 from the Evangelical Synod of North America and the Reformed Church in the United States.
These four denomination, the Congregationalist Churches, Christian Church, Reformed Church, and Evangelical Synod represent expressions of Christianity from both English and German Protestantism. They reflect influences of and resistances to Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Reformed theology, Methodism, Presbyterianism, and Baptist theology among others. It is a very diverse collection of Christian churches from which to weave together a single united and uniting denomination. Despite the breadth of the traditions, the UCC retains different aspects of the denominations. From the Congregationalists and Christian Churches we get our congregational polity. From the Christian Churches and Evangelical Synod we get our focus on the frontier – the way we look at how God is Still Speaking today and into the future. From the Reformed Church we get our attention to the orthodox teaching and rich Christian traditions, while from the Evangelical Synod we get our fearless quest to understand God in light of rationalism and secular knowledge.
I think the United Church of Christ is stronger for having to take into consideration all the rich traditions that each of the four denominations brought with them into the merger. However, our reading by Randi Jones Walker points to some of the disappointments and unfulfilled missions of the merger given the dramatic shifts that took place in the world and its religious landscape. Still, I hope that our willingness to follow our Still Speaking God in ways that move us above and beyond the confines of denominationalism will help us move together as a diverse body of Christ to be the church that God and the world call us to be now and in the future. It is because of our willingness to merge in the past that I have hope that we can be the church that will respond to whatever the Spirit calls us to next.