Ecumenism is a word that has great value but has lost much of its meaning due to the frequent misuse of the term over the course of the past eighty years or so. In the late 19th and early 20th century
the term arose in a missionary context, where Christians shared a common concern not to promote denominational distinctions so much as the gospel of Christ. As the liberal social agenda was joined to this movement the word began to loose its original meaning. Thus left-leaning pietism joined with a left-learning political and social agenda came to define liberalism by the 1960s. This kind of emphasis is what most conservative Christians think of when they hear the term “ecumenism” today. I find this response very sad since this is neither the true history of the ecumenical movement nor the meaning of the term itself. The movement owes much to Puritans like Richard Baxter than to more radical modern liberals.
Thus I am quite willing to suffer misunderstanding and openly admit that I am an ecumenist, in the older sense, so that the truth of this movement can be regained in a time when the enemies of the Christian faith are not fellow confessional and orthodox Christian believers and churches. This means I am willing to advance the ideas of a person like C. S. Lewis on this same point when he spoke of “mere Christianity.”
At the end of the day I am an ecumenist in a new sense. I believe in seeking to bring about a coalescing of all Christians in all churches, East and West, who stand openly for doctrinal, moral and devotional orthodoxy.
It is our shared commitment to the kerygma, to Jesus Christ and him crucified, and to truths like the Trinity and the authority of Scripture that should unite us. And it is through honest doctrinal debate that we reach greater maturity. By such maturity, in the context of a moral and devotional Christianity that is rooted in the classical Christian tradition, we actually find our core of confessed and lived Christian faith.
It is this that I promote by the mission purpose and the acronym: ACT 3, i.e., Advancing the Christian Tradition in the Third Millennium. This is also why I refer to myself as a “catholic” Christian; i.e., a Christian who believes in the whole Church throughout the whole earth. Ecumenism recognizes this reality and seeks to express it in practical and godly ways.
Should we labor for one visible united institutional organization called the Church? Yes and no. No serious ecumenist I know really believes this is on the horizon, though some conservatives fear this is the goal, seeing the very mention of this as being connected to
the coming anti-Christ in the final stage of history. On one level I am open to what God does to draw us together more and more in visible union but on another I do not see this as necessary or even desirable, at least not presently. What we should be doing right now is praying and practicing John 17:20-24. We should be making every effort to promote unity among all Christians and thus learning how we can grow in love one for another. I think we have no choice in this matter if we are to remain faithful to Christ himself. This is the heart and soul of my ecumenism. If this is offensive to some then I will gladly bear the offense believing that what I pursue, albeit imperfectly and too timidly, is the unity of the Church in the faith once for all given to those who are in Christ Jesus.
I see two major affirmations here: (1) We must confess the historic Christian faith, all of it. This means that we do not pit truth in one area against truth in another area. (2) That faith we confess leads us to pursue unity since historic and ancient faith requires us to confess our faith in the Holy Spirit and his ministry in bringing about “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.”
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What I see is that we first need to act generously toward one another, assuming the best of other Chrisitans and limiting our comments that are negative to truly important issues. The problem is that many think that almost everything is truly important. But acting like we are part of the same church, even if we are not part of the same denomination should be a place to start.
Thanks, John. Keep writing and speaking on this issue. The older I get the more I regret the way I used to fight over things that are less than doctrinal imperatives. I fear I caused damage to the body of Christ and I pray God will give me time to bring some healing by helping to make the body one, even as Christ and the Father are one.
I thoroughly enjoyed your blog entry on ecumenism. I agreed with every word as I also call myself a “catholic” Christian and also take to heart Jesus’ prayer in John 17. Thanks for your article.
I’m a homeschooling mother of four who attends both an EV Free church and a conservative Anglican parish (Anglican Province of America). I also “hang out” with lots of Catholics in online homeschooling forums and loops and for nine years have participated in a women’s forum on the arts that is frequented by Christians of nearly every tradition: RCC, EO, conservative and liberal Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, non-denominational, and Nazarene, as well as some former Christians. Although we sometimes hash out theology, we’ve all come to appreciate our similarities and de-emphasize our differences, deciding to both “major on the majors” and think the best of each other. I’ve learned a great deal from these women, and look forward to many more years of learning from them as I mature in my faith.
Thanks so much for your comments — they are indeed near and dear to my heart.
You wrote: “We must confess the historic Christian faith, all of it.” Sounds great! As long as that includes the doctrine by which the church stands or falls, justification by faith alone, count me in!
Ron, why do you have to use your words? The fact that you have to use your words is part of the problem. Christianity Today interviewed Obama and asked him if he was “Born Again”. He used different words (and much more theologically competent ones) and last I looked there were over 350 comments. Many of the comments said something to the effect, “see I told you he wasn’t a Christian, he didn’t say he was “born again”. We have a significant communication problem. Yes there are theological issues between different denominations, and yes many of them are significant. But when we start forcing people to use our words to describe their faith, we have lost the battle for unity that Christ was praying for.
Ron, I believe you missed the point of John’s blog. While I have great respect and admiration for Luther, and his statement seemed to fit the historical context in which he was writing in, to make him the final authority on what comprises orthodox Christian doctrine is a serious error I believe. The doctrines which the Church has stood or “fallen” (though she hasn’t) are the articles contained in the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed, as well as the Athanasian creed and the Chalcedonian creed. These are the doctrines that the Church spent centuries to accurately define and have sought to defend and protect throughout her history. Therefore,the Church “stands or falls” with the doctrines of the Trinity; the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures or Christ; the divine person of the Holy Spirit; the virgin birth of Christ; the salvation of mankind by the Crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Christ; His return in glory; the final judgment and resurrection; etc. “Justification by faith alone” wasn’t even debated until the 16th century!! And then in response to abuses in the Church, not genuine doctrinal questions related to salvation. From the time of the Apostles and early Church Fathers, the Church has always believed we are “Justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone”. And that justifying faith has ALWAYS been a living obedient faith. Check James 2 or Matthew 25. Justification by faith is important, but the doctrine “by which the Church stands or falls” is this: Who is Jesus Christ? That’s what our Lord asked the disciples when He said “who do people say that I am?” St Peter answered correctly when he said, “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” To this Jesus replied, “Blessed are you Simon…you are Peter…upon This rock, I will build my Church.”
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