I am deeply persuaded that the Christian Church should be one. I am likewise convinced that disunity always damages the credibility of the church, especially in the modern West.As a realist I know that there is little or no consensus on how we should get from where we are to where we want to be, or where we believe God wants us to be. But I will press on trying because I believe this is what Jesus wants from me and the whole church.
The word ecumenical offends some and troubles others. But it excites those of us who understand it. The word is actually derived from the Greek οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which means "the whole inhabited world.” It was historically used with specific reference to the Roman Empire. A Christian ecumenical vision comprises both the search for the visible unity of the Church (Ephesians 4.3) and the commitment to gospel unity and mission throughout the “whole inhabited earth'”(Matthew 24.14). Both should be the concern of all Christians. If this definition is clearly kept before us then the word ecumenism will retain its proper meaning and have an extremely positive place in our conversation and progress.
The term ecumenism thus refers to Christian unity in its most primary sense. Interfaith dialogue, or interfaith pluralism, is something else altogether. It is aimed at unity and cooperation among diverse religions and has the particular goal of peace and justice in the modern world. I believe in interfaith dialogue but this is not the same thing as Christian ecumenism. To confuse them is a huge mistake. I believe in interfaith dialogue because I am called to be a peacemaker and to pursue the good of all people everywhere. This is also why I promote religious liberty, to give but one example. Religious liberty should be extended to all, indiscriminate of their beliefs and religious practices.
But should we still use the word ecumenical, given its ability to create misunderstanding? My answer depends on my context.
Last week I spoke to a very conservative Protestant gathering in Chicago where I avoided the word itself but then tried to express my passionate commitment to unity based upon John 17. In this context I saw again how deeply people will express themselves when they feel their beliefs are under attack in some way. I never mentioned Catholicism yet this became a “flash point” for some in the conversation. They understood ecumenism to only include fellow conservative evangelicals since we alone understand the “true gospel.”
Here is what I discovered once again as I listened and watched the dynamic of this conversation. Christians are largely correct in what they believe but very often wrong in what they think others believe. This means that a conversation between us is needed where there is twice as much listening as speaking. What is the purpose of such a conversation? Well, honestly love is the overriding purpose but unity in Christ’s mission is the goal. As I drove home from this meeting a pastor who serves on our ACT 3 board said to me, “John, it is hard for people to hear your message when you simply present it. There has to be room for real conversation for them to work out their misunderstands and reactions.” I am sure my brother is right but I am not always sure how to proceed with this wise counsel.
I am personally convinced that really good conversation can lead to the realization that we are not as far apart as we may have thought. I’ll take a stab at showing you what I mean tomorrow.