Ecumenism and Interfaith Harmony: What’s the Difference?

31WUBwzsmdL._UX250_We have just come out of the January 18-25 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and are heading into the February 1-7 Interfaith Harmony Week put in the calendar for annual observance in 2010 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. How are the two different?

The question is real in the minds of many. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity I led a five-day retreat at the Providence Spirituality Centre in Kingston, Ontario on the theme of “Together in Christ.” Although the primary focus was on the importance of an increasingly more visible unity among us as Christians, given the tensions in the world today between people of different religions, towards the end I devoted a few of our conference sessions to interreligious relations as well.

In doing so, the questions from participants indicated a fogginess concerning the difference between the goals of work for Christian unity and the goals of interreligious dialogue. Some referred to other denominations of Christian faith as “other religions”.

But Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Evangelicals are not “other religions.” They are simply traditions of faith in the religion called Christianity. Denominational names like Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Pentecostal are all adjectives. The noun is “Christian,” and grammatically the noun is called the substantive in the sentence because that’s where the most substance is. It’s not in the adjective or qualifier.

The substance of our Christian faith is expressed in the Nicene creed and that substance is embraced by every denomination of Christian faith. These different denominations represent the variety of traditions in that one faith, so it is not appropriate to think of them or refer to them as “other religions”. We are all members of the same world religion called Christianity.

But while our unity with one another through our common baptism into the one body of Christ is real, it is also incomplete. In 1991, the Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Canberra, Australia, described the marks of what it called “full communion.”

“The common confession of the apostolic faith; a common sacramental life entered by the one baptism and celebrated together in one eucharistic fellowship; a common life in which members and ministries are mutually recognized; and a common mission witnessing to the gospel of God’s grace to all people and serving the whole of creation.”

It further specified that full communion would be expressed on the local and universal levels of the church through councils and synods. In other words, we would also make important decisions together. These are the goals of the movement called “ecumenical”. The very word comes from the Greek word “oikumene” referring to the whole faith of the church as opposed to that which is partial.

How is this unity different from what we seek with those who genuinely do belong to other religions—Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists? We do seek unity and solidarity with them, but the bar is raised less high. The goals of interreligious or interfaith relations are mutual understanding and respect, with collaboration in meeting the challenges we commonly face in the society and world in which we live.

Analogically, a way of putting that would be that other Christians are members with us of the one body of Christ by virtue of our common baptism. And members of other religions are brothers and sisters in the human family, but not members of the particular body of which we are a member, the body of Christ.

To be sure, there is a level of intimacy and solidarity with all our brothers and sisters, but the intimacy and solidarity we have with other members of our own body is of a special nature and even deeper.

Think of it in terms of the difference between your relationship with your own arm or leg and your relationship with other members of your family. Both are special, no question, but the level of connection you have with the members of your own body is deeper, more personal and more intimate.

And the body that we are—the body of Christ—has been given a special mission in the midst of the human family: to witness to God’s love for all by responding as Jesus did to their concrete social needs by caring for the sick, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead.

Jesus has opened the gates of heaven to all, even to those who do not know him.  And the Holy Spirit is at work at large in the world to turn hearts to God. Those  who make up the body of Christ are called and sent to share the good news of God’s love for all.  To witness to what God has done for us all. And to share God’s call to us all to live as brothers and sisters, members of God’s one human family.

Ecumenism and interfaith harmony are certainly related, but they are distinctive movements, each with its own goals.

Author: Thomas Ryan, CSP, resides in Washington, D.C. and is a very dear friend of mine. We work together in the Gospel Call, a unique four-day mission with churches to spread the flame of missional-ecumenism. You can check out Gospel Call and prayerfully consider inviting us to serve in your city. He is the author of numerous books. His most recent book, Christian Unity: How You Can Make a Difference (Paulist, 2015) is an absolute must for pastors and leaders who want to work at ecumenism at the grassroots level in their communities.

9 Comments on “Ecumenism and Interfaith Harmony: What’s the Difference?”

  1. John, can you unpack in your opinion what Thomas means here when he says, ‘the gates of heaven have been opened to all, even those who do not know him.” What I find difficult in the correlation of these two movements is that the language of interfaith dialogue becomes slippery and from the Evangelical palate can ring of pluralism and a denial of the exclusivity of Christ. This has been a point of caution in my own work, but also something that have I seen personally preventing other Evangelicals from connecting to ecumenical works. The conflation of “collaboration in meeting the challenges we commonly face in the society and world in which we live,” and sharing in worship, which I can guarantee you is how many are interpreting the pope’s new video and other ecumenical movements, make this a challenge, even when an article like this attempts to show their distinctions. Is it that we are merely setting the bar a little lower in interfaith dialogue, or are we not as clear in the substantive differences between the two? I guess what I am trying to say is that in are attempt to witness to the world through temporal partnerships, are we risking our union in the eternal nature of salvation that is the foundation of those who are working towards ecumenism. There is a delicate balance in working towards peace as far as it is possible with all men and loving our neighbors/enemies, as well as knowing our ‘koinonia’ proceeds from a fellowship with the light with the one who came not to bring peace on earth, but a sword.

    1. Thank you for a thoughtful question Daniel. I know your heart is engaging with your mind deeply in this case. As for the pope’s video I wrote a blog on it about a week or so ago. Did you see that one? I actually answered most of your questions in that blog (January 11). Check that one out and see if it helps. I do not think we risk the gospel by working in inter-religious dialogue. I think this is the only real way to engage with the world where religions are all openly vying for people and respect. So long as non-Christian religion was “over there” we could avoid this but since 1900 the world has been changing and now has shifted in massive ways. To evangelize effectively we must dialogue and not dominate. We must respectfully show why Jesus is the way. We must answer real questions and converse in good faith with humility. Evangelicals are having a hard time with this because we are so used to controlling events and movements. We should not fear but dialogue in love and share the love of Jesus for ALL the world. Yes, “the gates of heaven are open” and God will finally decide who entered and who does not. Our task is to preach the “open gates” of divine love and invite All to flee to Jesus as Savior and Lord.

  2. This author is new to me, but I am going to request the book through our inter library loan at the public library in our rural town. This book is another look into Interfaith and Ecumenical group I joined to improve communication in my town with other Christians looking at modernistic views and how to engage in talk… atk

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