Is Ecumenical A Bad Word? (Sept 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Gary Holloway

For many evangelical Bible-believing Christians, “ecumenical” had become a bad word. They think the ecumenical movement is only for liberal Christians. They think ecumenical means compromising essential beliefs for the sake of a tenuous unity. They think that ecumenical organizations support radical violent causes throughout the world.

A Misunderstood Word
These are all serious misunderstandings of the ecumenical movement.

While churches and Christians who describe themselves as “liberal” have been and are part of the ecumenical movement, those who describe themselves as evangelical are also a part. I attended the Global Christian Forum in 2011 where Christians from 65 different countries gathered to pray, study the Bible, and promote Christian unity. In this ecumenical gathering were many evangelical, Pentecostal, and “Bible” Christians, including representatives of the World Evangelical Alliance. The ecumenical movement is not a “liberal” project but includes Christians from a variety of theological positions.

Discussions at ecumenical meetings never involve compromising beliefs. Instead ecumenical dialogue is honest and respectful. Following the golden rule, participants in those dialogues wish to be both understood and to understand. Interestingly, by the grace of God, when Christians who disagree with each other doctrinally truly try to understand each other, they often find that they have much more in common doctrinally than they first thought. From these honest but respectful dialogues comes growth in understanding and surprising consensus in doctrine. At that the same time, these dialogues are candid about their continuing disagreements. However, often there is the wonderful admission that those disagreements need not divide us as Christians.

Over fifty years ago, there was some controversy over the causes that some ecumenical organizations supported. But today you would find the causes supported by the World Council of Churches, the World Evangelical Alliance, and other ecumenical groups are causes that churches of all kinds gladly support such as feeding the hungry, fighting disease, stopping human trafficking, disaster relief, and many others. In all these ways, churches and ecumenical organizations are striving to proclaim the good news of Jesus to a hurting world.

Why Use “Ecumenical?”
But if “ecumenical” is a misunderstood and controversial word, why use it? Would we not be better off simply talking about Christian unity?

Of course, Christian unity is what the ecumenical movement is all about, but there are good reasons to keep the word:

First, it is biblical. “Ecumenical” is from the Greek word oikoumena, which is used 15 times in the New Testament for “the entire inhabited world.” The most interesting passage that relates to the modern meaning is Matthew 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

Ecumenical then refers to more than Christian unity. As Jesus himself prayed. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). Christian unity is never an end in itself, but is so that the world may believe.

Thus, a second reason to keep the word ecumenical is that it encompasses unity and mission to the whole world. This is why some in the last century who worked for Christian unity chose the term “ecumenical.” They wanted a word that included unity and evangelism. That is why the World Council of Churches in 1951 defined ecumenical in the light of the original Greek, “to describe everything that relates to the whole task of the whole church to bring the Gospel to the whole world. It therefore covers … both unity and mission in the context of the whole world.”

Recently I had a conversation with the minister of a healthy, growing Christian Church. When the conversation moved to ecumenism and Christian unity, he said, “Christian unity is fine, but our priority in this church is evangelism.” What he failed to see is that Jesus thought that one was necessary for the other. That’s why he prayed for unity so the world would know God’s love, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:22-23). “Ecumenical” keeps unity and evangelism together.

A third reason to keep the word “ecumenical” is that it has stood the test of time. While no one would want to defend everything done in the name of the “ecumenical movement” (or done under the name “Christian,” for that matter), we would be ungrateful if we denied the work the God has done under that term in the last century.

Should We Join?
So if the ecumenical movement is a good thing, should Churches of Christ join in?

Yes!

Why?

Because Jesus wants it. On the night he was betrayed, facing the cross for us, his fervent prayer was that all who believe might be one.

Because it is all about evangelism and mission. Jesus wants us to spread the good news to the whole inhabited word, the oikoumena.

Because this is our heritage in Churches of Christ. Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, and countless others in our churches gave their lives in service to the cause of Christian unity so the world might believe. This is the reason for the existence of our movement and churches.

Because we have much to give to other Christians. We need to share the gifts God has given to Churches of Christ, such as our emphasis on baptism, our weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper, and our focus on the Bible.

Because we have much to learn from other Christians. We must not let pride convince us that we are the only or even the best Christians. Others can show us new paths of understanding, service, and mission.

How Do We Join?
While particular ecumenical organizations may have membership lists, there is no official list of churches involved in the one ecumenical movement. Thus our churches can “join” in various ways. Local churches can reach out to neighboring Christians to study, worship, and serve together. Regional and national para-church organizations can cooperate in mission.<br><br>But wouldn’t it be great if there was some way Churches of Christ could be involved on a more global scale? Wouldn’t it be good if there was a ministry that gave us a seat at the table with other Christian groups?

There is such a ministry, the World Convention of Churches of Christ (see worldconvention.org). For over eighty years, God has worked through the World Convention to connect Christian Churches, Disciples, and Churches of Christ globally every day. The Preamble to the World Convention Constitution gives the mission of the organization:

The World Convention of Churches of Christ exists in order more fully to show the essential oneness of the churches in the Lord Jesus Christ; to build up fellowship, understanding, and common purpose within the Christian-Churches of Christ-Disciples of Christ global family (including United Churches which members of the family have joined); to encourage and inspire these churches in their serving, prophetic and reconciling ministries; to provide a means of relating the global family to the whole Church of Jesus Christ; and to cooperate with Christians everywhere toward the unity of the Church upon the basis of the New Testament Scriptures.

What excites me most about this organization is not only is it the only entity working to connect all streams of the Stone-Campbell movement worldwide, but it also gives our movement a seat at the table with other communions globally. It is one way our churches can participate in the one ecumenical movement to take the gospel to the entire world.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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