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Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Challenge to the Ecumenical Movement

This article is excerpted from Jordan Ballor's new book Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) was a theologian and pastor intimately involved in the German church struggle (Kirchenkampf)— the attempt by the Third Reich to consolidate control under a central Reich bishop and promote pro-Nazi sentiment in the German church. Bonhoeffer issues his critique of the ecumenical movement in the form of an essay, "The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement." The challenging question articulated in 1935, "Is the ecumenical movement, in its visible representation, a church?" echoes throughout the history of the movement. This is, he realizes, "the question of the authority with which the ecumenical movement speaks and acts."

If the ecumenical movement is a church, then its existence is not ultimately founded on human work but instead is based upon the work of the Spirit of God. In this way, "If the ecumenical movement claims to be the church of Christ, it is as imperishable as the church of Christ itself; in that case, its work has ultimate importance and ultimate authority." An affirmative answer to the question of the ecumenical movement's status as church articulates the highest possible view of the importance of the movement and its place in the Christian church and the larger world.

Nevertheless, notes Bonhoeffer, "There is evidently the possibility of not understanding the ecumenical movement in its present visible form as a church." This alternative would be what, in the Reformed view, is distinguished from the church as institution, that is, the church as organism. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the ecumenical movement "could indeed be an association of Christian men, of whom each was rooted in his own church and who now assemble either for common tactical and practical action or for unauthoritative theological conversation with one another." In this case, however, the ecumenical movement would lose any special claims to theological or moral authority.

It would instead become a worldly institution like any other, one that happens to be made up of professing Christians that would rely on worldly criteria for expertise, judgment, and authority. Any action by such a group "might have only a neutral character, not involving any confession, and this conversation might only have the informative character of a discussion, without including a judgement or even a decision on this or that doctrine, or even church." It would be a place for discussion but not decision, dialogue but not determination.

For Bonhoeffer, the confession is a key characteristic of the ecumenical movement as church rather than as association. Bonhoeffer calls "the living confession" the "only weapon" of the church, a weapon that "does not shatter." It is within the context of this call to confession that Bonhoeffer emphasizes the importance of truth claims, for "where one church by itself seeks unity with another church, leaving aside any claim to truth, the truth is denied and the church has surrendered itself." In order for the ecumenical movement to truly be a church, it must confess itself to be sinful and broken, completely dependent on Christ, committed to him and opposed to his enemies.

What this confession requires concretely will differ in each particular context. In our contemporary setting, the contrast is between a church that relies on its confession and an activist group that relies on its expertise or simply provides a forum for open-ended dialogue. For Bonhoeffer, the choice is clear. Either the ecumenical movement is an institutional form of the Christian church, or it abandons any special claims to authority, and, in so doing, undermines its own validity.