Following the outline established by the 2005 Jesus Still Lead On study guide, we are sharing different aspects of The Ground of the Unity, one of the worldwide Moravian Church’s key doctrinal statement, in each 2016 issue of The Moravian. This month, we’ll discuss Ecumenism, Opposition to Discrimination, The Church as a Community Service and Serving Our Neighbor. Thanks to Dr. Craig Atwood and the editors of Jesus Still Lead 0n for this material.
—Mike Riess, editor, The Moravian Magazine
Since we together with all Christendom are pilgrims on the way to meet our coming Lord, we welcome every step that brings us nearer the goal of unity in Him. He himself invites us to communion in His supper. Through it He leads the Church toward that union which He has promised. By means of His presence in the Holy Communion He makes our unity in Him evident and certain even today.
The theme of pilgrimage has a long history in Christianity and it continues to be a helpful way of viewing the Christian life. A pilgrim is someone who wanders through the world pursuing a spiritual goal. In the Moravian Church we emphasize that ordained ministers are pilgrims subject to being called to new areas of service. Moravians have also viewed the Church itself as a pilgrim community without a fixed home in this world. We are not to become too comfortable with our current understanding and practice because as individuals and as a church we are on a journey. We also acknowledge that other Christians are also on journeys, sometimes by different paths, but that we are all going to meet the Lord who is coming to us.
This idea that all Christians will be visibly united when Christ returns is the basis for our belief that all Christians are already spiritually united through our common faith in Christ. Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, is the symbol of this already-but-not-yet reality that all followers of Christ are one in Christ despite our different rituals and doctrines. Communion in the Moravian Church is not just a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ; it is also the marriage feast of the Lamb. In Communion we celebrate a foretaste of our union with God and our communion with all the saints, past, present and future. This is why in the Moravian Church we do not exclude members of other churches from full participation in Holy Communion or try to use Communion as a reward for right beliefs. Communion is the Lord’s Supper, not our supper, and it is for all who profess Christ as Lord.
- What does it mean to you to say that Christians are pilgrims in the world? What journey are you on?
- If we are willing to acknowledge that believers in other churches are Christians, even though they disagree with us doctrinally, should we apply tolerance to people within our church as well?
- What do you think it means to be united in Christ, particularly in light of the fact of conflict between Christians?
- How can Holy Communion be a symbol of unity in the Church when so many churches will not share in communion with other churches?
Opposition to Discrimination
The Church of Jesus Christ, despite all the distinctions between male and female, Jew and non-Jew, white and colored, poor and rich, is one in its Lord. The Unitas Fratrum recognizes no distinction between those who are one in the Lord Jesus Christ. We are called to testify that God in Jesus Christ brings His people out of “every race, kindred and tongue” into one body, pardons sinners beneath the cross and brings them together. We oppose any discrimination in our midst because of race or standing, and we regard it as a commandment of the Lord to bear public witness to this and to demonstrate by word and deed that we are brothers and sisters in Christ.
This statement in the Ground of the Unity was very controversial in America in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly in relationship to segregation within the Moravian Church. At the time there was a question of whether black children could attend the Moravian camp at Laurel Ridge and whether black Moravians could play in the Easter band on God’s Acre. In dealing with both questions, the church’s leaders, such as J. Kenneth Pfohl and George Higgins, used this statement in the Ground of the Unity to remind all Moravians that the followers of Christ are one in the Lord.
Any effort to divide Christians, especially over such inconsequential things as skin tone and national origin, is an offense to the God who made all people. It is an offense to the Lord who gave his life for all people. While the Church cannot always change the attitudes and opinions of society, it is a sacred task for the Church to become a model of the heavenly community where there are no differences in race, gender, or language.
This is particularly important in the Moravian Church because for over two hundred years we have heard the call to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the peoples of the world. We have tried to live by the principle that all Moravians, in fact all believers, are united in the one Body of Christ. If some in the Body of Christ are discriminated against, persecuted and harmed, then the entire body of Christ is harmed. If we hate, despise, or reject any of the people of God, then we are harming the Body of Christ, diminishing its mission and sinning against God. In dealing with this portion of the Ground of the Unity, it is important to keep in mind that this was written shortly after the Holocaust. Discrimination leads to violence. Violence may lead to genocide.
Notice also that this passage quotes from Galatians to remind us that discrimination against women is also wrong. The same synod that approved the Ground of the Unity approved the ordination of women. It is a point of doctrine in the Moravian Church that there is no spiritual distinction between men and women; therefore women may be called into the pastoral ministry. For most of our 500-year history, we stood against the tide of public opinion and educated women. As early as 1750 we ordained women, and now we are blessed by women bishops.
Notice that our concern for equality among Christians includes more than race and gender. Since the earliest beginnings of the Moravian Church in the 15th century, we have recognized that much of the evil in this world is caused by those with power and wealth abusing those with neither. In the earliest decades of the church (1457-1494), nobles were required to sell their estates before they could join the Moravian Church because of concerns over divisions of class within the community. In the Zinzendorf era, many Moravians lived in communities where the differences between social classes were minimized. Today there are rich Moravians, middle-class Moravians, and poor Moravians, but we do not sanctify inequalities in wealth. In the Christian community, rich and poor stand together as sinners saved by God’s grace. All Moravians are called to share their resources for the sake of those who are suffering.
- Why is it wrong for Christians to discriminate against people because of the “accidents” of their birth? Is this a political matter, or is it one of the central aspects of the Gospel?
- Are there any signs of racism or discrimination in the Moravian Church today? If so, what can you and your congregation do about this?
- Why is it that so many Moravians around the world are dark-skinned but most Moravians in both North American Provinces are light-skinned?
- What do you think about the role of women in the Moravian Church?
- What is your image of the perfect Christian community?
- In what ways does Christianity challenge the assumptions of the modern economy?
The Church as a Community of Service
Jesus Christ came not to be served but to serve. From this, His Church receives its mission and its power for its service, to which each of its members is called. We believe that the Lord has called us particularly to mission service among the peoples of the world. In this, and in all other forms of service both at home and abroad, to which the Lord commits us, He expects us to confess Him and witness to His love in unselfish service.
In earlier days, Moravian doctrinal statements did not say much about service in the world. This was probably because there was no need to do so in the days when the church was a small community living by a strictly-enforced discipline. There was also a strong sense of alienation from the world. By the 20th century, though, the Moravian Church and the world had changed; the Ground of the Unity reminds us of our centuries-old understanding that service is the true mark of the Christian. All members of the Moravian Church are servants of Christ, but that does not mean that we have to do all forms of service individually. Some of our service is performed through others, but we are all expected to demonstrate Christ-like humility in serving others.
The Moravian Church has traditionally seen its particular area of service to be proclaiming the gospel to the different people of the world and entering into loving relationship with them. For Moravians, there is no dichotomy between missions as preaching and missions as providing for personal and social needs. We proclaim the gospel when we establish schools in villages where there are no schools. We proclaim the gospel when we provide medical care in the remotest regions of the inhabited globe. We serve people’s deepest spiritual and personal needs when we share with them the message of divine forgiveness and invite them into relationship with their Creator and Savior. We serve people at home and around the globe when we help them see that death is not the final answer and that love is real.
The precise nature of our mission service is ultimately less important than our motivation and attitude in going out to demonstrate that no people are God-forsaken. We go as servants, not masters. We go out of genuine love for those whom we serve and seek to protect them from all harm. We seek the good of others and treat them with great respect because we represent the love of Christ.
- Why do you think it is helpful to include a statement on service in the world in a doctrinal statement?
- What makes Christian service in the world distinct from other types of volunteer activity?
- What is the danger in doing missions with an attitude of arrogance and self-centeredness?
- What do you think it means to proclaim the Gospel in the world? Do you think this is a central task for the Moravian Church?
- Do you feel adequately prepared to do this? If not, how can your church help prepare you?
- Has the mission of proclaiming the Gospel changed now that America is welcoming immigrants from all areas of the world?
Serving Our Neighbor
Our Lord Jesus entered into this world’s misery to bear it and to overcome it. We seek to follow Him in serving His brothers and sisters. Like the love of Jesus, this service knows no bounds. Therefore we pray the Lord ever anew to point out to us the way to reach our neighbors, opening our heart and hand to them in their need.
This passage of the Ground of the Unity contains one of the most eloquent and profound summaries of Moravian doctrine ever written. “Our Lord Jesus entered into this world’s misery to bear it and to overcome it.” This is the heart of the Gospel message, and it does not require great philosophical or scientific knowledge to understand it. God saw us in our isolation, our self-righteousness and our misery, and in the person of Jesus, experienced our misery in order to lift us up. We serve the world because God entered the world himself. We follow Christ best when we are willing to share another person’s pain, troubles and heartache.
We sing about the boundless love of Christ, but it is even more important that we become agents of that love in the world. Our individual love is limited, but through Christ we can have the strength and courage to break down the walls that divide us. It is very significant that the Ground of the Unity calls us to prayer in this regard. In the Moravian tradition, prayer is less a matter of seeking help for our personal needs (although that is important) than asking God for eyes to see where our neighbors are in need. We pray for open hearts and open hands because we are God’s agents in the world.
This section of the Ground of the Unity puts into simple form the parable of the Good Samaritan. Too often our religious practices serve to confirm us in our selfishness and self-righteousness, blinding us to the pain of others. Therefore, we Moravians pray that we will be able to see the suffering of our neighbors and that we will be able to help because it is in serving that we are brought closest to our Lord and Savior.
- Reflect quietly for a moment on the ways in which God has helped you in the midst of your misery. What was that like? Did he use other people as his agents of mercy for you?
- Is there anything wrong with being self-reliant and encouraging others to do likewise?
- How can engaging in visible acts of service bring us closer to Christ and help us grow in our faith?
- What types of service in the world do you engage in?
- How does your congregation serve the community around you?
- How does the Moravian Church as a whole seek out those in misery?
We will continue our study of the Ground of the Unity in our next issue.