The word ecumenical has suffered great harm over the past
100 or so years. A movement that bore this name began well in the early 1900s but
it came to represent something that had less to do with the gospel of Christ
and much more to do with alliances for political and social change after World
War II. In opposition to these more liberal tendencies in the worldwide ecumenical
movement more conservative Christians raised up various groups to unite their
churches and constituencies around the gospel.

The most noted group for unit was the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), born in the 1940s. It has
now, at least to my mind, come to mean very little at this point. NAE
was once “a white male club,” back in the 1980s when I attended its meetings
actively. Now it has adopted an agenda that sounds much more like a politically
left-leaning evangelicalism, in opposition to the equally politicized Christian
Right movement.

Much more important to the mission of Christ has been the work
of the World Evangelical Fellowship (WEF), Wef
which has helped unite various
groups and causes for the spread of the gospel and for unified efforts by the
Church to reach people in dire poverty and difficult and life-threatening straits.
WEF has even produced some good theological work, something NAE never did seriously.

The word ecumenical actually comes from the Greek word oikoumenē, which means: “the inhabited
world.” The concept behind ecumenism is correct. The Church of Jesus Christ is
one. It covers the whole earth. That oneness must be pursued by Christians in
good faith. Ecumen23
Dialog is one step in this process and formal statements have been
another. At the most basic level ecumenism means that you and I seek out
Christians of all types in personal friendships and learn to listen to them as
our brothers and sisters. It also involves learning from the whole Christian
tradition. Learning, to be effective, must be mutual. Ecumenism is hard work.
It demands that you put your own agenda on hold and seek the good of others
above your own.

In recent years a “new ecumenism” has developed. This ecumenism
is rooted in what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” It rejoices in the common
core of faith that we all share through faith in Jesus Christ as our one Lord.
It respects the one baptism of Ephesians 4:5. Common to virtually all churches
engaged in any level of ecumenism is the recognition that baptism in the Triune
name of God, performed in a Christian Church that is really Christian (i.e.,
not a cult), is Christian and thus acceptable. All other Christian baptism is acceptable to the Roman Catholic
Church, for example. They do not require a “re-baptism” when a Protestant
converts to Rome.

The reverse is also
true in almost all but the baptistic churches, where this issue is more about the
mode and subject of baptism. 
Even the most conservative Reformed Churches, for example, will generally accept the
baptism of both Roman Catholics and the Orthodox as Christian baptism when people
join their congregations from these different backgrounds. Ecumen8
(This, in itself, is quite
interesting since these same churches often refuse to call Catholics “Christians”
but if Catholics become Reformed, or evangelical, Christians their previous baptism
is a non-issue in joining the local church!)

This baptism issue underscores something very important.
If we can accept the baptism of one another, and we do this at the church level,
then why can’t we at least accept the Christian faith of one another without
the rancor and severe hostility that often attends much of what we do with other churches than our own?

This “new ecumenism” is much less about politics and disputation than about
mission. How can we recognize one another in a manner that answers the prayer
of Jesus in John 17? How can we “love one another” as Jesus and the apostle
John so clearly taught us? How can we form informal alliances and friendships
that allow us to show the world that we love and care about each other? And how can
this help us to complete the task of evangelization?

This “new ecumenism” recognizes that our differences are still very
real and that we should not give up firm biblical beliefs in order to “just get
along.” It argues, with C. S. Lewis, that we live in a large home that has many
rooms. We can meet and share in the common great room, or the large central
hallway, of our common Christian home and still have our different rooms. (The hallway, or great room, is defined by the earliest creeds.) The day may
come when the different rooms will matter less and less. (I think that it likely
will come but this will likely be in a time very different from the present.)

The point is this—this “new ecumenism” does not center on
liberal theological agendas or conservative political affinity
, though this has
contributed to it in the areas of abortion and stem cell research, to name just two
current moral issues. This “new ecumenism” is primarily a response to John Paul
II’s call for a “new evangelization” and the respect that both John Paul II and
Benedict XVI have shown for the recognition of other churches that are seeking
to complete this same task of mission. It has also arisen in the hearts of a
multitude of evangelicals who, like me, believe that something has happened in our lifetime and fresh
wind is now blowing in our churches that will help us all complete the task of
evangelizing the world in the coming decades. We have come a long way since the
Protestant Reformation. I am not ready, in the least, to jettison the great
gains of that renewal of the Church. But I am prepared to seek unity in ways
that help us liberate the Church to do its work with greater faithfulness to
For this to happen we must pursue one another in love and respect. 

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  1. Nick Morgan May 16, 2008 at 9:45 pm

    AMEN!! Great Post John! I don’t see how any of us who claim to be disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ can get around our Lord’s desire and will in His “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17. Here’s just a short segment: “Consecrate them in the Truth. Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, so I send them into the world. And I consecrate Myself for them, so that they may be consecrated in truth. I pray not only for them, but for those WHO WILL BELIEVE IN ME THROUGH THEIR WORD, so that they MAY ALL BE ONE, as You, Father are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, that the world may KNOW that You sent Me.” John 17:17-21 NAB. As members of Christ’s ONE Body, His church, true sanctification must mean that our thoughts should conform to His thoughts, and our wills to His will; so it seems to me then that His prayer must become OUR PRAYER TOO. Some well known Evangelical pastors have said that Christians should read some of the
    “older” works. Of course, often they mean Puritan and Calvinist writings. Now these are good in their own right, I’m NOT knocking them, but these works reflect the time of a divided Church and a very distrustful and even separatist stance toward the kind of orthodox ecumenism you are writing about today. I believe the best works Christians could read who share this desire, next to the Scriptures, is the first 5 centuries of the Church; also known as the “early Church Fathers”. These Pastors, Bishops, Apologists and theologians hammered out the orthodoxy of true Christian doctrine that we, as believers in Christ and members of His Body, hold to today. Keep up the good work the Lord has given you to do my brother! God bless.

  2. Chris Criminger May 21, 2008 at 7:15 am

    Hi John,
    I just got from Eerdmans today Kenneth Bailey’s new book “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” which seems to couple together marvelously Older Testament texts with Newer Testament texts. And then going along with this wonderful thread of “the rise of the new ecumenism”, I came across Carl Braaten’s new book “That All May Believe.”
    He calls for an “ecumenical orthodoxy.”
    Braaten is a Lutheran who has been on the forefront of Evangelical-Catholic Dialogues and one of the senior editors for the “Pro Ecclesia” journal.
    Braaten says provocatively, arguing for a theology that is “Evangelical without being Protestant, Catholic without being Roman, and orthodox without being Eastern . . . I prefer the term ‘evangelical’ over ‘protestant’—principle and catholic substance of the Reformation will work toward and ecclesial synthesis in which Christians and churches will be reconciled around the Table of the Lord, eating and drinking together as they did in the early church. Those who belong to Peter, or those who belong to Luther, or Calvin, or Wesley—or whoever—will come to recognize at last that Christ has not been divided.”
    To all that, all I can say is “Amen!”

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