Christians and their institutions that pursue the currently popular “unity in diversity” have it wrong, renowned missiologist and ecumenist Philip Wickeri said in a lecture sponsored by San Francisco Theological Seminary here.
“The problem is not with diversity,” said Wickeri ― a former China missionary and SFTS professor of evangelism and mission ― on April 19 in the first of his two T.V. Moore lectures. “It is that all diversity in world Christianity should be reconciled. The Gospel involves conflict around different interpretations of truth, not just an embrace of diversity.
“There are differences [among Christians] that cannot and should not go away,” he said.
Unity in diversity ― what Wickeri called “reconciled diversity” ― usually becomes an “anything goes” approach to Christian faith and practice, he said. As such, “it’s a gospel without a cutting edge … an ecumenism without passion. It looks good in the abstract but doesn’t reflect reality in the search for unity.”
Wickeri cited to examples of the futility of pursuing “reconciled diversity” ― the dramatic growth of a very diffuse church in China and the struggle over human sexuality issues in North American denominations.
Since the Cultural Revolution in China in the late 1970s, Christian churches have been opening at the rate of hundreds a day, Wickeri said, and not only are there two competing Protestant institutions ― the Three-Self Patriotic Movement and the China Christian Council ― there are three distinct movements of Christians: those who cooperate in the Chinese government’s registration of churches, those who reject such cooperation altogether, and those who move freely back and forth.
“There is tremendous disharmony in Chinese Christianity, but they seem to be willing to live with it,” Wickeri said. And though he supports the institutional churches in China because they are more stable and are able to engage world ecumenism more effectively, “the future of Christianity is diffuse, with weakened institutional forms of the church and more cohesion in local settings.”
The weakening of institutional churches in the United States is fueling the “unity in diversity” drive in this country, Wickeri continued.
For instance, he pondered, “Was Presbyterian reunion [in 1983] really the will of God or a human response to declining market share and diminished influence?” Ecumenically, he added, “The same question can be asked about the merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the World Ecumenical Council in 2010 to form the World Communion of Reformed Churches.”
The futility of seeking “reconciled diversity” can easily be seen in the battles raging in several mainline denominations over the ordination of gays and lesbians and same-sex marriage, continued Wickeri, who currently serves as advisor to the Anglican archbishop of Hong Kong and as a professor at the church’s Ming Hua Theological College there.
Splits have occurred in the Episcopal and Lutheran churches, and a new breakaway denomination of Presbyterian ― the Evangelical Covenant Order ― is now getting off the ground.
“Clearly, the movement is not toward greater unity, but toward greater diffusion and weakening of institutional churches,” Wickeri noted. “We’ll have smaller and more coherent churches in the future. This is not necessarily welcome but it comes with diversity that cannot be reconciled.”
Diversity must be “deconstructed and rethought,” Wickeri said, “because it has been suppressed in this era of conflict. Some things are worth standing up for and fighting for, even if they lead to disunity. We cannot sacrifice conscience and theological integrity to unity.”
Christians are obligated to try for reconciliation, Wickeri said, “but there’s good religion and bad religion out there and we have to be able and willing to talk about it.” Ironically, he said, “Conservative Christians seem more willing to talk about conflicts even though they are usually on the wrong side of them.”
Wickeri is one of two T.V. Moore lecturers. He is joined this week by the Rev. James Noel, professor of American Religion and African American Christianity at SFTS. Each is delivering two lectures during the two-day event.