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"The Church and the Churches" is the subject before us; it is obviously intended to suggest the question of the unity of the Church in view of the multiplicity of the churches. That question may be prompted by a variety of motives, which I need only indicate here.
We recall the fact that in hundreds of mission areas in Asia and Africa the Church is wrestling with the ancient religions, higher and lower, of the so-called heathen races. But where, who, and what is the Church? What a dissipation of the spiritual and material energies of the mission work arises from the fact that there is not one Church but many, and what a hindrance to the hearing of its message, what a bewilderment to its less attentive hearers, what a burden to the more serious, is the fact that these churches are in manifold conflict with each other.
We recall, moreover, that in its homelands, evangelized for a millennium and more, the Church is today confronted with this and that religion of recent or brand-new formation - religions which surpass the old paganisms in power and light only because they make their appearance as religion under a disguise; under the disguise of moral, aesthetic, sanitary, social and political schemes for betterment, beneath which their religious genii remain concealed, save when their less cautious or their weaker-minded adherents draw the veil aside. The Church, which on this front ought to be waging a well-planned and active campaign, is not in a position to make it clear, against these adversaries, what it is, what it purposes, or in what precise way it differs from them. It is split up, as in Germany we have cause enough in recent years to know, into a multiplicity, into a number of divided and opposing camps; nor is it in this respect in better case than are the profoundly divided "churches" of modern secularism. In such a shape as this the Church is wholly unable to make good its claim to possess a loftier message than theirs.
Further, none of us can fail to see that today as always it is the task of the Church to submit and subordinate itself on its human side, the side of its life, order, and teaching, to the standard which it derives from Christ, from God: its task is to exercise self-criticism, to purify itself from any element which is foreign to its origin and essence, and which, having such an essence and origin, it ought not to tolerate: it must look back to its origin and essence, set its compass by that bearing, suffer itself to be purged and reformed by that standard. But for such resolve the Church would need a unison of will and direction, without which every effort in these directions would only mean a continuance and intensification of the conflict between the several churches; and who can be sure that that conflict would really further the process of purging the reformation?
But let us lastly go on to consider what the Church is, what it ought to mean, for its own members, for those who are brought together within it through baptism, through the Word of God, through the Holy Communion; "the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). Can it and will it be, as such, continually imposing, credible, convincing to its members, if as a Church it has its being only in an array of various churches, each of which represents to the others a problem, a critic, a rival, possibly also a disturber and an enemy? Concerned as we are with the true faith, is not the possibility, or rather the inevitability, of a comparison of faith with faith a menace to faith itself? What is the Church, if it can only present itself as repeating the manifoldness and contradictions of the world of pagan religions? Certainly, in that great process, so clearly discernible in the last two centuries, by which so many members have found themselves alienated from the Church, this actual multiplicity of the churches has been one of the strongest factors.
Such, more or less, are the motives which lead us now to set before us the question of church unity.
Yet it must be made clear at the outset that all these motives are merely secondary when compared with another authoritative impulse which forces this question upon us, and alone has the right to compel our attention to it. I refer to that one and only imperative and obligatory task from which the Church derives its existence, a task which lies upon every man who, as a responsible being has accepted the cause of the Church as his own. This task emerges immediately from the fact that the one and only Word of God has once for all been uttered, for all men to heed, in the fact of the Incarnation: in the man Christ Jesus, in whom the sin of all men, their contradiction against God and their own inner self-contradiction is done to death, taken away, forgiven, and exists no more. The task from which the Church derives its being is to proclaim that this has really happened and to summon men to believe in its reality. It has therefore no life of its own, but lives as the body of which the crucified and risen Christ is the Head; that is to say, it lives in and with this commission. The same thing is true of each individual who is a member of this body. It is this task and commission which fundamentally impels and compels us to ask after the unity of the Church.
The task as thus committed contemplates no multiplicity of churches. The New Testament speaks of a variety of communities, of gifts, and of persons within the one Church. But this manifoldness has no independent significance. Its origin, its rights, and its limits are to be found in the unity, or rather in the One, in Jesus Christ as the one Son of God, the bestower of the one Holy Spirit. Its basis does not lie (even of the good in God's creation the same thing must be said) in any independent rights and claims of local, national, cultural, or personal individuality. Like the unity of the Church, it has its basis in God's grace, and in no second principle distinguishable from grace. It is indeed, in itself, nothing else than the living unity of grace, the one body of Christ in the actuality of its members and organs. In the New Testament, therefore, we find no relation of polarity or tension, or of mutual dependence, between the one Church and the many gifts, persons, and the like; we find only a one-sided relation of dependence and derivation in which the many are subordinate to the one. The many have no need of an independence which indeed they do not possess, and could only achieve by lapsing away from the unity. From 1 Corinthians we know how decisively St. Paul set himself to extirpate the germs of such a development, and in that case he was only dealing with separate parties; he was not even remotely thinking of separate churches. Thus it is inevitable that any persons who think they possess, or are the Church, must look away from the array of the many churches in a quest for the one Church.
But what is meant by the quest for the one Church? It cannot be concerned with the magical fascination of numerical unity or uniqueness, nor with the ethical and social ideals of uniformity, mental harmony, and agreement. It must rather be concerned with the imperative content of the acknowledgment that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God above all, for all, and in all (Eph. 4:5-6). Unity in itself will not suffice: nor will any or all of the ideas and ideals which we may link with that concept. Unity in itself, even church unity in itself, is, as surely as the independent multiplicities are, merely fallen and unreconciled human nature. The quest for the unity of the Church must not be a quest for church unity in itself; for as such it is idle and empty. On the road to such a "church unity in itself" we shall find that both the powers of sin and the powers of grace are against us, and against us irresistibly.
The quest for the unity of the Church must in fact be identical with the quest for Jesus Christ as the concrete Head and Lord of the Church. The blessing of unity cannot be separated from Him who blesses, for in Him it has its source and reality, through His Word and Spirit it is revealed to us, and only in faith in Him can it become a reality among us. I repeat: Jesus Christ as the one Mediator between God and man is the oneness of the Church, is that unity within which there may be a multiplicity of communities, of gifts, of persons within one Church, while through it a multiplicity of churches are excluded. When we confess and assert that it belongs to the Church's commission to be one Church, we must not have in mind the idea of unity, whatever its goodness and moral beauty may be - we must have Him in our mind; for in Him and in Him only do those multiplicities within the Church possess their life, their scope, their dignity, rightfulness, and promise, when they seek and possess these things in that relation of dependence, derivation, subordination of which I have spoken; just as man's nature, taken up by Him, united with Him and reconciled, can only find its salvation in a similar dependentness of being, scope, and significance. And in Him, in Him only, can those other multiplicities of the Church whether recent or of long standing, which claim an independence of their own, lose their life. "Homesickness for the una sancta" is genuine and legitimate only insofar as it is a disquietude at the fact that we have lost and forgotten Christ, and with Him have lost the unity of the Church.
Thus we must be on our guard, all along the line, lest the motives which stir us today lead us to a quest which looks past Him. Indeed, however rightful and urgent those motives are, we could well leave them out of our reckoning. We shall do well to realize that in themselves they are well-meaning but merely human desires, and that we can have no final certainty that they are rightful, no unanswerable claim for their fulfillment. Unless we regard them with a measure of holy indifference we are ill-placed for a quest after the unity of the Church. But we cannot leave out of our reckoning the claim urged by Jesus Christ upon us. If we listen to the voice of the Good Shepherd, then the question of the unity of the Church will most surely become for us a burning question. Then, it may be, His voice will endorse those motives of which we have spoken, with weight, necessity, and imperative force; it will then be right and requisite that they should kindle us to a flame, and any indifference to them will be far from holy. From that Voice which alone can question us in tones which make "our hearts burn within us" must we expect and await the ultimate answer.
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We have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches as a necessary mark of the visible and empirical as contrasted with the ideal, invisible, and essential Church; no right, because this entire distinction is foreign to the New Testament, and because, according to the New Testament, even in this respect the Church of Jesus Christ is but one; invisible in respect of the grace of the Word of God and of the Holy Spirit, whereby the Church and its members as such are grounded, up-borne, guided, and preserved, but visible by tokens in the multitude of its confessed adherents, visible as a congregation with its office-bearers, visible as a ministry of Word and Sacrament. It is indeed an act of faith that where these things are found, there the Church is; but on the other hand it is only in virtue of the tokens which thus manifest it as existent and active that we can make that act of faith.
There is no way of escape from the visible to the invisible Church. Our questioning, therefore, as to the unity of the Church cannot be silenced by pointing away to the invisible or essential Church. If there is a problem here which asks for solution - and indeed there is - it is one which concerns the invisible as directly as it concerns the visible Church; if we hearken to Christ, we shall be sure of that, and only if we prefer to platonize shall we deny it.
But, further, we have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches as an unfolding of the wealth of that grace which is given to mankind in Jesus Christ, divinely purposed and therefore normal. How can we know that the case stands thus? What is our standing ground if we take the familiar line of ascribing to the Roman, the Greek, the Lutheran, the Reformed, the Anglican, and other churches their special attributes and functions within an imagined organic totality? However well this may sound, it is not theology, it is mere sociology or philosophy of history; it means that in order to evade the question of church unity we are spinning the thread of our own notions instead of facing the question with which Christ confronts us, and listening for His own answer. But if we did face it, we should be quite sure that it is utterly and forever impossible to take the Virgin of Einsiedeln and Luther's Wittenberg or Calvin's Geneva, the Roman Mass and the Evangelical Communion, the Orthodox inconostasis and the evangelical pulpit, the polytheism of the "Deutsche Christen" (including those who in fact though not in name belong to them) and the evangelical interpretation of the first commandment, as branches of the one and the self-same tree, comparing and estimating them as belonging to one category. At these points as at others the multiplicity of the churches is manifest, and - if we listen to Christ - it demands from us a definite decision and choice, this way or that. If we listen to Christ, we cannot believe in one of the alternatives and hold the other also to be Christian; our life is lived within the differences which divide the churches, and not in a region which transcends them. Such a region has for its inhabitants only those who, in contemplation of God and their own selves, come at the last to prefer their own voices to any other.
In fact, we have no right to explain the multiplicity of the churches at all. We have to deal with it as we deal with sin, our own and others', to recognize it as a fact, to understand it as the impossible thing which has intruded itself, as guilt which we must take upon ourselves, without the power to liberate ourselves from it. We must not allow ourselves to acquiesce in its reality; rather we must pray that it be forgiven and removed, and be ready to do whatever God's will and command may enjoin in respect of it. A great part, the decisive part perhaps, of all that men can do for the unity of the Church would be already done, if on all sides we were able and willing to handle the multiplicity of the churches in this way: no longer as a speculative problem or a matter of the philosophy of history, but, to put it in the simplest terms, with a sober mind, as men profoundly shocked but yet believing, and therefore hopeful, and, by reason of hope, ready to obey.
Or is there perhaps some other possible way than that of dealing with the multiplicity of the churches as we deal with sin, our own and others'? If Christ is indeed, as we saw, the unity of the Church, then the only multiplicity which can be normal is that within the Church, namely that of the local communities, of the gifts of the Spirit, of the believers of each sex, language, and race, and there can be no multiplicity of churches. It is then unthinkable that to those multiplicities which are rooted in unity we should have to add that which tears it in pieces; unthinkable that great entire groups of communities should stand over against each other in such a way that their doctrines and confessions of faith are mutually contradictory; that what is called revelation in one place should be called error elsewhere, that what is here revered as dogma should there be regarded as heresy; that the ordinances of one group should be stigmatized by another as alien, unacceptable, or even intolerable: that the adherents of the one should be at one with those of another in every conceivable point except that they are unable to pray together, to preach and hear God's word together, and to join together in Holy Communion.
Excerpted from The Church and the Churches by Karl Barth Copyright © 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
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|I||The unity of the church||3|
|II||The multiplicity of the churches||17|
|III||The union of the churches - a task||31|
|IV||The church in the churches||47|