The way of ecumenism

The main goals

We have to admit that at the present time a divided Christianity is a “pluralistic reality in a formal sense”[1]. The metaphor of Hooker illustrates that the Church is like the sea, various parts of which bear their own names and churches within themselves. At the same time, we have to remember that behind the barriers and divisions there exists a common Christian faith. There is strong Biblical support for the concept of the unity of the Church (Eph. 4:4-6), and ecclesial division is clearly defined as a sin (Gal. 5:19-21). God’s aim is to bring all things to unity in Christ (Eph. 1:10). Unity is fundamental to the nature of the Church. As Ferguson properly indicates, “unity is already provided by God in the most important things”[2]. Those things that divide Christians are less important than that which was done by God in order to produce unity among Christ’s followers. Actual unity has already been given by God; the human task is to act according to this “created unity” and to maintain it. Therefore, I agree with Haight that the main goal of all ecumenical activity consists in reaching some form of “visible communion among the churches”[3]. As they work toward that goal, alienated churches can reach more attainable purposes such as growth in mutual understanding as well as deeper insights into how issues of Church division may be overcome.  An important part of the ecumenical movement is concern for a common Christian response to social, economic and moral issues as well as a common witness. The ultimate purpose of theological ecumenism is to help Christians “to glorify Christ together in witness and service”[4].

The ways

Roger Haight affirms correctly that institutional or “juridical” authority alone cannot provide real unity. I am in agreement with the evangelical position that stresses the importance of personal faith, the free nature of the Church and the priesthood of all believers and that expresses reluctance to define Christian unity in terms of common church structures or theological consensus[5].  A better way to forge spiritual unity and some form of communion consists in “positive constructive dialogue”[6]. We need to be aware of the particularity and historical limitations of all human thinking. There is more truth in all areas (including our knowledge of the Church) than that which can be attained from any particular perspective. The concept of koininia reflects the idea that communion consists not in uniformity but in pluralism and a diversity of expressions of Christian faith. We have to engage in dialogue with those who have other positions rather than seek ways to convert them to our point of view. Churches need to open up their “theological imagination beyond denominationalism to a positive recognition of other churches, a desire to learn from them, and in some cases enter into communion with them”[7]. It is important to develop “dynamics of interchange” based on the idea that one set of theological knowledge does not exhaust the mystery of the Church. Ferguson provides the important insight that Church unity requires solidarity and locality; in other words, the commitment to stay together in spite of differences as well as loyalty to the same principles and to one another[8].

 The dangers

It is often said that while it strives for ecumenical (not spiritual) unity, theological ecumenism downplays the importance of truth and doctrinal purity. Therefore the main danger of theological ecumenism is the possibility of its losing the uniqueness and integrity of the Christian Tradition, the erosion of its theological convictions, and the relativisation of its belief(s). For example, from the evangelical perspective, the problematic areas include the explanation of salvation in social and political, rather than personal, terms; an emphasis on “liberation theology”; openness to other religions; the tendency to replace obedience to Christ’s command to evangelize the world with the doing of social work, thereby downplaying the primary importance of announcing the good news. It is difficult to reach authentic Christian unity when unity in “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) does not exist.

At the same time, it is worthwhile to pay attention to the dangers facing the ecumenical movement. I agree with the concerns expressed by William Rusch. He reasonably raises questions about the future of the ecumenical movement in the light of its tendency to be comfortable with the present level of cooperation and thereby abandon the quest for doctrinal consensus. Another threat is the polarization between the struggle for communion in life and action and the struggle for communion in faith. Such a situation does not help to define what precisely the ultimate goal of ecumenism is at the present time.

 The opportunities

Dialogue is one of the most valuable tools aiding churches to move toward their ecumenical goal and visible unity[9]. Through dialogue, churches reach a better mutual understanding, soften historical disagreements and resolve controversial issues. Theological ecumenism provides a stimulus for theological reflection, promotes deeper study of the Bible and Church history, serves as an important impulse for practical cooperation in social work, and helps to expand missionary efforts. As indicated by Geoffrey Wainwright, an important condition for future ecumenical progress is a quest for a more adequate ecclesiology that will help to overcome the present state of division and will facilitate further reconciliation[10]. We have to learn to value the unity of the Church, to accept Christians from other traditions as brothers and sisters in Christ, and realize that there is more that unites us than what divides us. It is important to build up relationships without compromising our particular beliefs and practices. Christians have to remember that we have all contributed to the scandal of division and it is our common responsibility to repent and to work toward unity, which is the will of God.

[1] Haight, Roger. “Comparative Ecclesiology” in Mannion, G. and Mudge, L. (eds.). The Routledge Companion to the Christian Church. New York: Routledge, 2008, p. 389.

[2] Ferguson, Everett. “Unity” in The Church of Christ: a Biblical Ecclesiology for Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996, p. 403.

[3] Haight, Roger, op. cit. p. 395.

[4] Rusch, William G. “Ecumenism, Ecumenical Movement” in Fahlbusch e.a. (eds.) The Encyclopedia of Christianity, vol. 2. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, p. 49.

[5] Ibid., p. 47.

[6] Haight, Roger, op. cit., p. 388.

[7] Ibid., p. 390.

[8] Ferguson, Everett, op. cit., p. 407.

[9] Rusch, William G. op. cit., p. 56.

[10] Wainwright, Geoffrey. “Church” in Lossky, Nicholas e.a. (eds.) Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement (2nd ed.). Geneva: WCC Publications, 2002, p. 185.

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