Economics, Ecumenism, and the Church: An Interview with Jordan Ballor

Jordan Ballor, author, Ecumenical Babel, Acton InstituteI recently reviewed Jordan Ballor’s new book, Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church’s Social Witness, in which Ballor aims to promote (and initiate) a “critical engagement” of the modern-day ecumenical movement.

Ballor’s argument is careful and thorough while also being engaging and precise, and although the book’s primary focus is on the way we approach ecumenism, it also stirs broader questions about the role of economic ideology in the church at large:

  • What is the proper role of ideology in the church’s social witness?
  • Do ecumenical organizations “count” as churches, and if so, how should we understand their place in the broader “playing field”?
  • How do we as Christian individuals — or even as private Christian enterprises — differ from the church in our responsibilities regarding socio-economic ideology and God’s social purposes?

To expand on these questions (and plenty more), Ballor was kind enough to engage in an interview with Remnant Culture. As in his book, Ballor offers a healthy dose of criticism while providing some clear-cut ways to promote a healthier ecumenism going forward.

Q. As you mention in the book, there is not much “transdenominational authority” in Protestant Christianity. How influential has the ecumenical movement been in establishing such authority?

Not nearly as influential as it might have been, especially over the last three decades or so. There’s an instinct in Protestantism to look outside of institutional groups for leadership and authority, and when such groups squander their standing by spending their time talking about prudential issues in imprudent ways, they do a great deal of damage to their own credibility. The lack of influence that ecumenical groups have these days is largely due to these dynamics. This is more the case for the “mainline” ecumenical bodies, such as the World Council of Churches, than it is for some of the “evangelical” ecumenical efforts, such as the Lausanne Movement. But there’s generally a suspicion of such “transdenominational” authority, and in many cases for good reason.

Part of why I wrote Ecumenical Babel was to try to articulate why recovering such ecumenical work is important from an ecclesiological perspective, indeed even an imperative. Consider the recent furor over Rob Bell and universalism as an example: there is no authority within evangelicalism as such, or Protestantism in general, to determine the question of orthodoxy. This hasn’t always been the case historically, but it is largely the case today. This problem becomes even more acute as you move outside of traditional denominational structures.  

Q. Much of your critique refers to concerns expressed by Dietrich Bohoeffer back in the 1930s. What were Bonhoeffer’s general views about the ecumenical movement’s legitimacy and proper functionality as an authoritative church body?

My work with Bonhoeffer in the book is essentially to try to bring his concerns about the ecumenical movement to contemporary discussions. Bonhoeffer was concerned about the ecclesiological status of such organizations, and so his basic question to the ecumenical movement is: “Are you the church or aren’t you?” Everything else in terms of legitimacy and authority hinges on the answer to this question. If the ecumenical movement is a form of the church in some structural and institutional way, then it has certain rights and responsibilities and must behave in particular ways. If the ecumenical movement is not the church in this sense, then it is merely an occasional and voluntary association of Christians that gets together to speak in ways that are not normative, authoritative, or even particularly noteworthy for the broader church. I think Bonhoeffer saw both the great promise and the great peril of such groups for the Protestant churches in particular, and the global church in general. Bonhoeffer’s essentially ecclesiological question to the ecumenical movement is the foundation for my engagement in Ecumenical Babel.

Q. The subtitle of your book is “Confusing Economic Ideology with the Church’s Social Witness.” Isn’t some degree of economic ideology necessary for implementing the church’s social witness? Where does the confusion lie?

I do think that there is in some sense an economic framework or lens that we must bring to bear when attempting to apply the Bible’s instructions about the Christian life to economic activity. The problem manifests when this lens becomes confused and conflated with the Biblical instruction itself. What is ultimately normative and authoritative is the Word of God in Scripture and not the interpretive framework, which can represent and transmit Scripture’s witness in a more or less authentic way. At the core the problem is a hermeneutical one, and I don’t propose to have an ultimate answer for that difficult theological problem. But what I do affirm is that our interpretive frameworks, which are in large part formed by our extra-biblical and culture-specific experiences, must be kept conceptually separate from biblical authority itself. Scripture is the “norming norm” (norm normans) for our social witness.

Ecumenical Babel is in part an attempt to show that the economic worldview or ideology of the ecumenical movement has taken a controlling interpretive position relative to the biblical norm. It is in this sense that I claim there is a “confusion” of economic worldview with authentic social witness. A Christian social witness that is properly “normed” by Scripture, and therefore properly circumscribed, has been replaced by a social witness that takes a particular economic ideology, in this case a kind of neo-Marxist/liberation theology, as normative.

Q. You say, “In the ecumenical world, economic narrative has become identical to ethical imperative.” What does this mean for those who diverge from the predominant narrative as it stands today?

One of the implications of this reality is precisely what we see at work with a document like the Accra Confession. These new “confessional” documents are more focused on right behavior and practice (orthopraxis) than right belief and teaching (orthodoxy). And because they are so wedded to a particular economic narrative, dissenters are by definition outside the confessional boundary lines for ethical behavior.

In the case of the Accra Confession, what it means to be Reformed is closely identified with a wholesale rejection of economic globalization, and so as a Reformed theologian who diverges from this rejection, I find myself outside of the boundaries created by these new confessional standards. If these kinds of documents ever rise to the level of having real ecclesiastical and confessional status in churches then you will see churches split over essentially ideological lines. My basic concern on this score is that these are issues of prudential judgments that cannot be turned into clear ethical mandates from the churches. A particular evaluation of globalization should not be a confessional issue in the sense that it divides faithful followers of Christ from unfaithful hypocrites.

Q. To reveal the predominant ideological narrative within the ecumenical world, your book examines statements from three major ecumenical organizations: the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), and the World Council of Churches (WCC). Which of these organizations, if any, do you believe wields the greatest influence in the movement, and how has such influence been seen to manifest?

In terms of its stature, age, and influence, certainly the World Council of Churches (WCC) has the leading position in the ecumenical world. When I started researching the book I was expecting there to be some significant diversity and difference between the three major ecumenical groups on these economic questions, and I was frankly quite surprised to see that there is so little variation on the basic themes. Part of this is because there is explicit formal cooperation between the various groups to advance a shared agenda. I can only speculate as to the power-relationships between the various groups. But one bit of evidence that there is a kind of ideological bias or litmus test uniting what I have called the “ecumenical-industrial complex” is that there is so little that is distinctive in the social statements of these various groups. It is not too great of a generalization to say that oftentimes what is distinctive about the LWF is that they are likely to quote Luther, and the WCRC to quote Calvin, and this amounts to essentially ornamental decoration on a cohesive and shared social witness across the various groups.

Q. You argue that economic ideology should stay out of mainstream ecumenical output, yet you also examine the errors of neo-Marxist thinking and explain its incompatibility with Christian views of providence and free will. Many Christians would argue that you are simply replacing the current neo-Marxist narrative with a “pro-market” ideology. Are you?

This has been one of the most recurring complaints against my project, both informally as well as on the pages of various reviews. The goal of my book is most assuredly not to argue that what we need to do is to implement a confessional and social witness agenda that is diametrically opposed to the one currently in place. This would merely confuse one economic ideology for another and get us no closer to authentic Christian social witness.

What I want to do is to set these discussions and disagreements about economic matters in their proper secondary and prudential place. We ought to be able to find unity in Christ in spite of disagreements over economic globalization rather than on the basis of our agreement on the issues, whether one way or another. I do draw some illustrations that in a very provisional way attempt to show that the economic ideology of the ecumenical movement is not only illicit in this sense but that it is also in many cases quite incorrect and indeed simplistic. But in no way is this little book a comprehensive or even preliminary attempt to defend the positive claim that globalization is somehow free from problems or above criticism. That is a much different and far more ambitious task than the one I undertake in Ecumenical Babel. I simply want to create space for those who disagree with the conclusions of these ecumenical groups. I do not want not raise any particular economic ideology to a confessional level. To the extent that this remains unclear it is no doubt my own fault and is my greatest disappointment with the book to date.

Q. Promoting economic ideology at an ecumenical level is one thing, but what do you think about pursuing and promoting such ideological orientations on an individual or independent church level? Is there a place for economic ideology within the church, albeit outside the ecumenical movement?

I don’t think the kind of ideological witness manifested in the ecumenical movement is any more acceptable at the denominational or congregational level of the church either. One of the basic distinctions that I think is critical here is between the church as an “institution” and the church “organic.” Ecumenical groups, denominations, and independent congregations are all in one sense institutional forms of the church, and should be very wary about proclaiming particular policies or positions as normatively the Christian position. This does disservice to the institutional mission of the church, which in this regard is to inform laypersons of their moral duties and provide the basic principles that apply. They must leave the rest, the hard work of actual decision-making, to the responsibility of the congregation in their various callings and levels of responsibility.

It’s perfectly appropriate for these Christians to go out and form movements, organizations, and political campaigns on their own, but these are functions of the church behaving organically rather than officially and in any institutional way. It’s in this sense that the work of a group like Sojourners, which does not claim to be the church in any institutional way, is far preferable to the advocacy and lobbying of so many denominational offices and ecumenical officials.

Ecumenical Babel by Jordan Ballor, Acton Institute, Christian's Library PressQ. The book’s final chapter, “Avenues for Reform,” provides some detailed steps for improvement in the ecumenical world. What are some of the key ways the movement can tidy up its social witness?

As you note I outline these in more detail in the book, but my one basic message to ecumenical leaders would be to simply say less. There is a perception it seems among these officials that in order for them to stay relevant and important they have to be able to comment on almost everything that happens. For every major news story you can likely find some ecumenical voice speaking out, and always with the implicit endorsement of all those millions of Christians they purport to represent. The other side of this message is that when these leaders do speak, they should do so not with the presumption of speaking for the churches to the world, but rather and increasingly to the individual and member churches for the broader ecumenical body of Christ. This is a real service that the ecumenical movement can do for the church, and one that it has all too often neglected in favor of worldly relevance and influence.


Jordan J. Ballor is a research fellow at the Acton Institute and serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality and a founding contributor to the PowerBlog. He is currently a doctoral candidate in Reformation history at the University of Zurich and in historical and moral theology at Calvin Theological Seminary.

To purchase a copy of Ecumenical Babel, click here.

To read my review of Ecumenical Babel, click here.

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