This is my belated follow-up on Louis Markos’ “The Threefold Witness of the Church” (read my summary here).
First, let me thank Mr. Markos for even putting forth the effort of writing this essay. There is much to commend this model for how ecumenical relationships between the three major branches of the Christian world can come to appreciate each other more.
As I suggested in my summary, he has written a meditation or reflection on certain biblical characters and found some interesting parallels between individuals long ago and institutions that exist today. He is indisputably correct that Peter holds a preeminent place in the Catholic psyche, as does Paul for Protestants. I’ll let those with more familiarity with Orthodoxy weigh in on the connection with the Apostle John, but from my limited knowledge that seems fair as well. I appreciate Markos’ creativity in showing how churches today reflect (intentionally or not) both the strengths and weaknesses of their heroes. I’m sure there are deeper lessons in there for all of us.
For the most part, Markos’ readings of Peter, John, and Paul are uncontroversial. The only real exception is that many scholars, even some conservative ones, would dispute that John son of Zebedee is in fact the Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel, but this is a traditional interpretation and Markos has every reason to use it for his purposes. He also conflates Mary Magdalene with the “sinful woman” of Luke 7, which is speculative at best but also comes with a long pedigree of traditional exegesis. Conversely, I appreciate that he has not conflated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany: an inexcusable error in my book!
What Doesn’t (Seem to) Work
Limited Appeal. I do have some reservations, however. First, I am compelled to ask who is likely to buy into this model? As far as I can see, it is only the Protestants, with their loose-leaf denominational church culture. Most Protestants are quite comfortable with the idea that there are other legitimate churches out there and that true unity in Christ does not ultimately depend on membership in one particular institutional expression of the body of Christ.
I’m not sure either Catholicism or Orthodoxy can make room in its ecclesiology for an admission that they do not represent the fullness of God’s plan for the church on earth. As I understand it, neither group would necessarily doubt my devotion to Christ, although they would insist that the church to which I belong is in some sense (or many senses) spiritually inadequate if not illegitimate. I would love to be proven wrong on this point, but I’m not sure I can envision Catholics and Orthodox accepting that Protestantism as such is a valid expression of the church founded by Jesus Christ in the same sense that they make that claim for their own communion.
For that matter, not all Protestants would extend such charity to other groups, either! The folks who make and distribute Chick Tracts will have nothing to do with this model. The Landmarkist Baptist church in which I grew up would have struggled with accepting the legitimacy of even other Protestant groups as “real” churches. (The early Landmarkists referred to Presbyterian, Lutheran, and other such churches as religious “societies.”) If your group is the only one that ever got it right, it is going to be very easy to blast Markos’ proposal as some kind of capitulation to Rome (or the Methodists, or whomever).
Of course, Markos can’t be held responsible for how his idea is received. It is, overall, a good road map for greater appreciation of more distant members of our Christian family. At some point, however, pragmatic considerations need to come into play. A nice follow-up piece exploring how this model might be used in reaching out to those who harbor reservations about other varieties of Christian faith would be a step in the right direction.
Charismatic Confusion. Does the Charismatic movement really need to be its own “fourth” branch? The last time I checked, traditional Pentecostals (Assemblies of God, Foursquare, etc.) were firmly rooted in Protestant theology, despite the sometimes fractured relationships between them and non-charismatic Protestants. I’m not really sure the divisions between charismatic and non-charismatic Protestants are any more contentious than those between, say, conservative Baptists and liberal Baptists, or between Mennonites and Lutherans.
At the same time, charismatic Catholics are still, as best I can tell, no less faithful to Rome than other Catholics. So, is this a “branch” of its own, or might it better be understood as a kind of cross-current that touches on certain segments of the main branches?
Furthermore, I wonder if adding the charismatics as a “fourth branch” in an essay titled “The Threefold Witness of the Church” is not subtly suggesting that the charismatics don’t quite fit the model. Are we to think of them as a substandard or one-off expression of the church? Markos’ point about the Pentecostal/charismatic movement often being at odds with established church structures is well taken, but the way he shoehorns it into his model is rather jarring, at least to me.
If there were to be a fourth branch, I would suggest the African Independent Churches would fit the bill more obviously than the charismatics. Many of these churches were intentionally formed to sever ties between indigenous African Christians and the European and North American missionary agencies who first preached Christ to them. Like the charismatics, they have struggles with maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy, and can be accused of many of the other excesses sometimes laid at the feet of charismatics. Perhaps the same apostolic archetypes would apply better here?
Breaking the Rule of Three. Markos’ article is obviously meant to address issues of ecumenical relations at the highest level of abstraction, in which we think in terms of “three main branches” of Christianity. It is not necessarily wrong to think in those terms. At a certain level, there are three main, easily recognizable subgroups of the Christian family. I think Markos takes a wrong step by opening the door for a fourth branch, whatever it may be.
Suggesting a fourth branch before even getting to the end of the essay invites even further elaboration of the model, which I believe would dilute its rhetorical power. (And this essay’s strength is definitely in its rhetoric, not its theology or exegesis!) I’ve already put in a plug for including the African Independent Churches, but there are other groups—like the AIC’s and the charismatics—who may not fit comfortably in Markos’ threefold paradigm.
For example, many observers of contemporary Christianity are saying that the active fault lines are not across denominational boundaries but across the conservative-liberal divide. More traditional Evangelical Lutherans and United Methodists seem to have more in common with each other than each has with the liberal/progressive leadership at the top of their respective hierarchies. Can we assign an apostolic archetype to the liberal or progressive wing of the church? (And if we did, would the “main” branches resist including them in the model?)
What about the “Independent Catholic” churches, which run the gamut from ultra-conservative to ultra-liberal and draw variously from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant (including Charismatic) traditions. For that matter, where are we to put the Anglicans (or at least the ones you aren’t mad at?) Do we classify them with the Catholics or the Protestants—or are they somehow both?
All of these further “branches” seem to cross over the big three in one sense or another, as does the charismatic branch in Markos’ essay. If we set them apart as a distinctive branch, on what basis do we not extend the same courtesy to these others? The result, of course, would be an undecipherable mishmash of layers upon layers of ecclesiological and doctrinal nuance. This is where Markos seems to lead us by finding a “fourth branch” that doesn’t easily fit his “Threefold Witness” model.
Don’t let my criticisms detract from my appreciation for this article. It is charitable, generous, and yet willing to offer constructive criticism where needed. I’ve printed it out for future reference because I found it helpful and largely on-target in its descriptions of what I need to learn from other Christian communions, and what I can perhaps offer them in return.