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
Much more important to the mission of Christ has been the work
of the World Evangelical Fellowship (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
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.
(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
Jesus. For this to happen we must pursue one another in love and respect.