A Quick Guide to Some Ecumenical Concepts: Consensus

Posted on Posted in Theology

Once churches have begun to recognize each other by converging on certain topics, it is time for them to discuss in more detail what they have in common and what separates them. Consensus, the “second stage” of ecumenism, means coming to a new understanding about previous disagreements. Consensus is most often the result of bilateral dialogues between two churches only.

As a church moves through history, it weighs and tests opinions. Some are judged good and faithful. Other are judged false and dangerous. In a situation of division, one church often doesn’t know what kind of judgments another church has made. Perhaps my church has come to reject something that your church rejected long ago. Perhaps your church has come to accept something that you used to think was intolerable. Discovering these developments can open up the possibility of a new consensus between previously divided churches.

The goal is to create a state of what is called more technically called “differentiated consensus” or “unity in reconciled diversity.” The aim is not to iron out everyone’s confessional theology into one single mega-theology for the whole church, suppressing the differences of emphasis or concern. Such an attempt would impoverish the church, not to mention meeting with virulent resistance. The task instead is to establish the boundaries within which all Christians can coexist.

For example, all Christians are characterized by belief in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Certain misinterpretations of this doctrine are inadmissible, like the ancient heresies of subordinationism, tritheism, or modalism. But within the right trinitarian doctrine established by the church councils, there are different emphases unique to various churches. They are not rejected, but they are not mandatory for all the other churches, either. In a differentiated consensus, the churches lay out the common ground they share and require of one another, but they also have the opportunity to specify the particular emphases that are important to their own tradition. The other church recognizes these items as legitimate and acceptable. Such differences do not destroy what Christians share in common and therefore are not church-dividing.

2 thoughts on “A Quick Guide to Some Ecumenical Concepts: Consensus

  1. Is it the shared boundaries that give us true unity of faith or the shared center: the person and work of the Lord, Jesus, on our behalf? Boundaries are important but it seems the common center is priority. Thanks for taking the time to stimulate this discussion…

  2. Bilateral documents like the Augsburg Joint Declaration of 11 years ago may be fine. My observation within my Württemberg church body among many clergy and laity, however, is, that most of them are happy with the bilateral document paving the way towards more ecumenism on the one hand, but the same people are much less interested in reading and digesting the document, beware of heeding its advice. The same with the Leuenberg agreement – it is a hallowed token but nobody wants to read the fine print.
    Are these documents sorts of indulgencies? By getting the document you can absolve yourself from the burden of theological painstaking.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *