Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God 

” IN the present world situation it is natural that mankind should long for some sort of real community, for humanity cannot be human without it. It is especially natural that Christians should reach out after that part of Christian doctrine which speaks of the true, God-given community, the Church of Jesus Christ… It is natural that men should ask with a greater eagerness than ever before such questions as these:
  • Is there in truth a family of God on earth to which I can belong, a place where all humankind can truly be at home?
  • If so, where is it to be found, what are its marks, and how is it related to, and distinguished from, the known communities of family, nation, and culture?
  • What are its boundaries, its structure, its terms of membership?
  • And how comes it that those who claim to be the spokesmen of that one holy fellowship are themselves at war with one another as to the fundamentals of its nature, and unable to agree to live together in unity and concord?

I think there is no more urgent theological task than to try to give them plain and credible answers.” (Household of God, 1953)

Household of God (1953)






peoples.jpg Excerpts From Geoffrey Wainwright’s, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life (Oxford, 2000)

How might my generation’s fellow theologians benefit from attending to Lesslie Newbigin’s work? He has affected my theological life in many, surprising ways (an offhand comment inspired my formal study of Islam, which has transformed my appreciation of both it and Christianity!). Newbigin’s contributions are so many and so impressive that I could not do justice to more than a few here. Instead of even trying, I recount one basic contribution that drives my appreciation of the others. Before my exposure to Newbigin, I had a fairly typical attitude towards Christian denominationalism: First, that political differences between denominations are by and large adiaphora, no more relevant to Christian life than the differences between California’s and Nevada’s political structures are relevant to American citizenship. Second, that theological differences (defined of course in terms of “doctrine” rather than mere “polity”) between denominations necessitate a search for the One True Church and emigration to it (after all, God must have provided one for diligent seekers to find).

Many of my fellow evangelical Protestants at Fuller Seminary were engaged in similar quests for the ultimate denomination. Our role as enquirers was to study the traditions’ various polemics, in order to declare a winner of the ecclesiological debate. (The search was especially urgent for those on the ordination track. “Check out the Covenant Church,” I overheard one say to another. “They’ve got it all!”) Some found what they were searching for. One friend’s laborious search led him powerfully to the fundamentalistic Reformed tradition, then to a reformed Episcopalian splinter group, then finally into Eastern Orthodoxy, where he lives an entirely satisfied life in the priesthood. Others have never quite finished their quest, and remain unsatisfied with both their present location and their other denominational options. Still others have given up, concluding that there simply is no One True Church. For these the greatest temptations, both fatal to Christian theologians, are either to settle for ecclesiastical mediocrity or to give up on organized Christianity entirely. I myself switched allegiances many times in my heart. But unlike my Orthodox friend, I could never find a tradition with which I was entirely comfortable.

Newbigin’s ecclesiological vision, developed in The Household of God and elsewhere, saved me from my search for the One True Church, by offering me an alternative I had never considered. “The Holy Catholic Church has not ceased to exist, defaced and divided though it is by our sin,” he claims in The Reunion of the Church (113). However, like the Corinthian body, circumstances have divided the universal Church not into one true fellowship and many counterfeits, nor even one Church and other mere “ecclesial bodies” or “vestiges of the Church,” but into mutually compromised factions with continuing, legitimate ecclesiological claims on each other.

Schism does not annihilate God’s presence to the divided fellowships, for “God in His mercy has not allowed our sinful divisions to destroy the operations of His grace” (113). By deifying their divisions, the factions’ ecclesiological justifications even preserve their hard-won strengths. Yet schism does compromise God’s presence throughout the Church, for no denominational camp can live up to the full promise of the Church of Jesus Christ. So the factions’ ecclesiological justifications afflict their internal health and their external witness. Furthermore, as Newbigin brilliantly argues in The Household of God, they frustrate the very divisions they seek to justify, by revealing the Holy Spirit’s work in supposedly illegitimate rivals and pointing the factions beyond themselves and towards each other. My fellows and I were feeling the effects: Appreciation of the partly incompatible insights of more than one tradition, frustration at each tradition’s own inadequacy, and restlessness at the prospect of accepting the failings of any one of these as God’s will, when life together in Christ seems to promise so much more than the status quo.

My fellows and I had failed to understand that these flawed Christian fellowships were compromised not simply because of the positions they had taken, but in part because of the way they had taken up these positions against others. We took the parties for granted when they contended they were Johannine children of light and darkness, rather than childish Corinthians. We had bought into their common claim that one tradition could be entirely right, or even simply be fundamentally sound, apart from the resources of the others. This mistake led us either into the overrealized eschatology implicit in the various denominations’ claims to be the One True Church (even those of traditions that in other respects championed futurist eschatologies!), or to its abandonment for an utterly futurist eschatology where the current institutional fellowships of Christians would have only a weak relationship to the invisible Church of Christ (an easy move for those of us with strong premillennial heritages).

Newbigin’s diagnosis decisively refutes these false opposites. It resists the smug exclusivism of any one position — Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox), Magisterial Protestant, and “Pentecostal” (Free Church) — while simultaneously resisting both the facile inclusivism that simply adds all these traditions up into one pseudo-ecclesiological umbrella, and the convenient pluralism that considers each of them self-sufficient or essentially commensurate. After Newbigin, I have stopped searching for the One True Church, for he has helped me see that I already belong to it.

( to read more of Geoffrey Wainwright’s, Lesslie Newbigin: a Theological Life (Oxford, 2000), courtesy of post at TELFORD WORKS  site.

For an example of the kind of wisdom I search for, and sometimes find, see”THE TRUE CHURCH” by J.C.RYLE.  For a partial list of his many contributions to the mission of the true church, and why many of us respect him so highly, see LESSLIE NEWBIGIN.

Reasons often heard for neglecting God’s priority

     1) Christian unity is really not important and therefore optional in the christian life as well  as among the churches. My Answer: Unity is number one on the list in Ephesians, chapter four, when the Apostle begins to speak about how to live a life worthy of our calling in Christ.

     2) Christian unity is a wonderful ideal but not to be realized in this world. My Answer: The same thing can be said regarding holiness, or godliness, but that does not relieve us from agreeing with God that it His good pleasure for us and diligently praying for grace to live it out.

     3) Christian unity is just not practical in our pluralistic world today. My Answer: According to Christ, the Head of the Church, it is the essential model for this present age that the world in fact can observe and take notice and “know with some certainty” that we are, in fact, his disciples.

     4) Christian unity is a favorite theme of only the liberals. My Answer: In the history of christian missions, ecumenism was promoted by godly leaders to advance the cause of Christ and the glory of God in the world. In times of disasters or times of unusual revival, the unity of God’s people has often been a prominent feature among those personally involved.

     5) Christian unity will only be produced by special organized programs-such as the World Council of Churches. My Answer : The true union of God’s new race is first and foremost a spiritual union produced by His Holy Spirit and the Word of God as a direct result of the finished work of Christ himself. We are not called to produce it, but to practice it, and make every effort to keep it.

     6) Christian unity is about the local church only and does not apply beyond that fellowship of believers. My Answer : It certainly must begin there and in the home, but must extend both far and wide to reflect the universal and timeless nature of the One,Holy,Catholic,Church.

     7) Christian unity will require that all christians everywhere worship in the same way and all hold the same doctrinal interpretations. My Answer: It is not about conformity over against the diversities of gifts, cultural contexts, and other legitimate variations of the multi-faceted grace of God. It is about unity of essence and purpose in union with and under the  headship of Christ.

    8) Christian unity will eventually require compromise with the truth. My Answer : When our Lord prays in John’s gospel, chapter 17, His passion for the glory of His Father on earth does not play one essential of God’s will against the other. The elements of His Father’s truth and the petition for the saints’ unity in Him and his redemptive mission in this world simply cannot be separated- neither in this central passage nor in all of holy Scripture.

___________________________________________                                                  E4 UNITY INSTITUTE of CHURCH GROWTH   Berea,Kentucky

Consider a pledge to maintain the unity of the Spirit