I was asked to write a newsletter article on ecumenism for an online newsletter called The Centrist. As usual, I wrote a longer article than was requested. Here, so as not to feel that I wasted anything, is the longer article.
Kind of Ecumenical
On her way out of church, Ginger introduced me to a guest. Her guest was a younger lady—probably in her 40’s. Ginger is 82. Her friend was of a different ethnic background. “This is my friend,” she said, “She’s visiting with us today and next week I’ll be going to her church. Just to see how each other worship, you know. That’s kind of ecumenical, isn’t it?” The brief conversation took place in that hectic, right after worship shake people out the door time. I didn’t have time to respond. Yet these two women sharing in each other’s worship services—across generational, religious and cultural lines—epitomize the vision of ecumenism.
The words “ecumenism” and “ecumenical” derive from a Greek word oikoumenē which gets translated in the New Testament usually as “world” but has more the sense of all the people of the world (Arndt et al.). It also relates to a cluster of words connected to the management of a household. Ecumenism focuses our attention on the whole church’s stewardship of the whole human household.
To speak of the ecumenical movement is somewhat of a misnomer as we have inherited several ecumenical efforts. I define the ecumenical movement as the collective efforts of Christians to make visible in the world the unity Christians have in Christ. This definition has several parts. First, ecumenism is a Christian movement. Interfaith dialogue between Christians and non-Christians is vitally important (now more so than ever) but, the theological vocabulary and motivations of Christian ecumenism begin and end with Christ—his prayer that we be united (John 17) and the vision of unity inspired by the gospel. Second, ecumenism calls us to unity. Unity does not necessarily mean organizational merger. At its most basic level unity calls us to mutual recognition and respect. We may think that we are long past the days when Christians condemned one another to hell; however, religious animosity and distrust persist between believing groups. Today, this seems to break down more between religiously and politically conservatives and liberals than between certain denominations, but divisiveness is divisiveness no matter which way it slices you. Hopefully, unity progresses to more concrete forms of shared ministry. Finally, ecumenical unity is a unity achieved by Christ and is not a human work. In Christ, we have been made one (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11-22). That is Christ’s achievement. His achievement calls us to visibly manifest this unity as authentically as we can.
At every stage of Christian history, divisions have emerged. With each division, certain Christians have worked against disharmony and worked toward reconciliation and unity. Patrick of Ireland, though he lived before the days of real denominational divisions, did much to connect the apparent barbarians of the north with the larger church in continental Europe. During the Magisterial Reformation, Martin Bucer, former Dominican turned reformer, sought to bridge the divides between Luther and Zwingli, Protestants and Catholics and even influenced Cranmer in the production of The Book of Common Prayer. During the second Awakening of the 19th century, revivalists like Barton Stone brought together Christians from Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist and restorationist Christian heritages. Peacemakers like Patrick, Bucer and Stone have much to teach us as we look to the present experience of ecumenical work.
Contemporary ecumenism is largely the product of early 20th Century efforts. Building on the foundation of 19th Century cooperative efforts, a significant step toward Christian unity emerged in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910. There, under the leadership of John R. Mott (Nobel Peace Prize Laureate), the World Missionary Conference was held. The main goal of the conference was to address concerns regarding missionary work. Competition and divisiveness between Christians created distrust among non-Christians about the validity of the Gospel. So, western Christian missionaries needed to find ways to cooperate in order to fulfill their mission. Ultimately, the World Missionary Conference and other international ecumenical efforts came together in the form of the World Council of Churches in 1948. Similarly, the Federal Council of Churches formed in 1908 and became the National Council of Churches of Christ in 1950. These along with several other ecumenical manifestations continue the work of unifying the body of Christ.
Contemporary evangelicalism receives its heritage through various streams of influence (the Reformation, Pietism, Puritan movements, Restoration movements). However, the primary division between Evangelical and Mainline or Liberal denominations in America emerged in the early part of the 20th Century and largely over issues of biblical authority. Robert Webber describes the early fundamentalism–which gave birth to evangelicalism–as anti-ecumenical. Indeed, Billy Graham was heavily criticized on the right by religious leaders who opposed his cooperation with other religious groups. However, by mid-century, signs of an emerging evangelical ecumenism appeared in the formation of the National Evangelical Association, the publication of Christianity Today and the opening of Fuller Seminary (Webber).
Today at least two ecumenical streams flow through America. One stream takes in the older ecumenism represented in the National Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ and other smaller communities and manifestations that are organized on the broadest terms possible. The other stream involves those more explicitly evangelical churches and denominations represented in things like the conservative political activism, the men’s movement Promise Keepers, the publication of “The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration,” (produced by the Committee on Evangelical Unity) and a host of parachurch organizations. While each of these streams continues to foster cooperation, articulate shared faith affirmations and cooperate in mission and service, the world waits to see if these two streams will ever flow together.
The mythical façade of a culture war, which ostensibly separates a moderate to progressive broad ecumenism from the political conservative evangelical ecumenism, represents nothing more than the inconsistencies between message and practice that created yesterday’s divisions. A friend of mine laments the fact that some liberal Christians rush toward the opportunity to converse with people of other faiths but cannot stand to speak to more conservative members of their own faith. Similarly, conservative Christians have often preferred to work with secular political conservatives than to engage in conversation with their more liberal sisters and brothers in Christ. In short, with regard to contemporary divisions in the church, each of us has unclean lips and lives among people of unclean lips. Since we at least have that in common, perhaps we could confess our sin and revive our commitment to the whole gospel.
Ecumenical efforts tend to serve four purposes. These purposes often overlap and ought not be considered mutually exclusive. First, ecumenical manifestations (organizations, events, relationships) form in order to discuss and forge theological expressions of shared affirmations. Often these efforts seek to remove barriers that prevent full communion and cooperation. For example, a working agreement between nine denominations called Churches Uniting in Christ (the successor to COCU) seeks to aims at the mutual recognition of membership and ministry, removing some barriers that have been in place for centuries.
Similarly, some ecumenical manifestations gather to examine a shared history and to seek to reconcile branches of a movement history has divided. Both Methodists and Presbyterians reunited after divisions caused by the Civil War. Among Restorationists (churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ and Independent Christian) signs of cooperation and dialogue have also emerged.
Third, churches of different denominations often cooperate in order to fulfill a shared purpose or mission. We see this in local ecumenical organizations that create assistance programs for the poor, fund community hospital chaplaincies, organize community-wide worship services and other public religious events. Revival efforts and evangelistic crusades often work within cities through an ecumenical collection of churches. National and International ecumenical organizations have always sought to work in shared mission along with engaging in theological discussion. The World Council of Churches’ latest initiative “Decade to Overcome Violence” gathers the ecumenical resources of an historic organization to move toward the global effort at peace keeping. Similarly, Church World Service which seeks to alleviate poverty and hunger world-wide emerged out of the National Council of Churches (? World Council of Churches?).
Finally, and perhaps most controversially, ecumenical efforts often form around particular political issues. Political activism among religious leaders often exacerbates divisions. Martin Marty explains, “Evangelical leaders protested all through the sixities against mainline and liberal denominations, the National Council of Church, and the World Council of Churches, for ‘meddling’ in politics, particularly on subjects of racial change and protest against the Vietnam War. Religion was to be a private affair, a matter of soul-saving and not world-changing” (Marty, pp. 472-473). The Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. was perhaps the most significant and effective ecumenical and interfaith effort in the 20th Century. More recently evangelical ecumenism has developed around abortion, prayer in school, protesting gay marriage and other issues popularly categorized as “family values.”
From my perspective, how we manage religiously motivated political differences is the thorniest challenge facing contemporary ecumenism. Religiously motivated progressive deeply believe that the Kingdom of God is a kingdom of equality, justice and peace. Racism, sexism, bigotry based on sexual preference, poverty, war and environmental neglect all stand in the way of God’s vision for the oikoumenē. Religiously motivated conservatives deeply believe that God calls us to a life of purity, integrity and commitment to biblical principles. The elimination of publicly displayed religious symbols and expressions, abortion and the legalization of licentiousness all detract from this mission. My prayer is that “all would be convinced in their own mind” but not allow political differences to deny the presence of Christ in each other. People of radically opposed political viewpoints shared in the first commemoration of Christ’s death in bread and cup. Imagine a zealot and tax collector and ten others standing somewhere in the continuum between the two receiving the meal Christ first gave and gives to us. Who but Christ could unite such diversity? I say only Christ. And Christ is who we have, who we proclaim and who we follow and who calls us to be one.
What specifically needs to change? First, I think we need to learn the principles of ethical argumentation and debate. This requires that we learn to summarize the positions we disagree with in terms that their adherents find acceptable. All too often, we caricature those we disagree with setting up straw figures and knocking them down. We gain much by learning to express the positions we find problematic at their most intelligent and then delineating our disagreements with those positions.
Second, we must humanize our political disagreements. The culture war metaphor deceives us into treating those who hold differences of opinion as “enemies.” And everyone knows you don’t fraternize with the enemy. Yet, in Christ we are different members of the same body and members of a common family. Disagreements seen through these lenses are handled quite differently. They are addressed over dinner, in face to face dialogue, instead of through newspaper columns, talk radio shows, and demonstration lines.
Finally, we must keep before us the vision that ultimately we are working toward that which unites us. When I have said that to some particularly entrenched culture war veterans they have often responded by saying, “Yes, but we must unite around the truth.” By that they have implied that we unite through agreement on a set of propositions. However, biblically speaking truth is not a set of propositions it is a person—Jesus Christ. When we acknowledge the Christ that resides in each one who confesses him as Lord and Savior of the World, we create the right context for discussions of other differences.
When I asked my friend Ginger if I could use her in this article, she reminded me of her friend’s name—Hope. Hope is a vision of tomorrow’s story that involves a greater manifestation of God’s grace than we see today. It is my hope that the ecumenical momentum we gained in the 20th century will continue through the 21st century. And it is my prayer that we will learn to prioritize our political differences in relation to our unity in Christ.
Arndt, William, et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature; a Translation and Adaptation of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wèorterbuch Zu Den Schriften Des Neuen Testaments Und Der Èubringen Urchristlichen Literatur, 4th Rev. And Augm. Ed., 1952. Chicago,: University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Marty, Martin E. Pilgrims in Their Own Land : 500 Years of Religion in America. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985.
Webber, Robert. The Younger Evangelicals : Facing the Challenges of the New World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2002.