I have the distinct honor of writing about ecumenical for this week’s edition of Word Nerd Wednesday.
My red hard copy of the Webster II dictionary published in 1984 defines ecumenical this way:
1) Worldwide in range or applicability: Universal.
2) Of or relating to the worldwide Christian Church, esp. in regard to unity.
But too often we confuse this with ecumenism, which Webster’s II defines as a movement seeking worldwide unity among religions through greater cooperation and improved understanding. In this sense, “religions” is not limited to those who claim Christianity. This is a call for unity between Christians with all other faith groups – Jews, Mormons, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. For more of my thoughts on Christians and ecumenism download this file.
Do you see the difference? We should not take the distinction between unity among Christians and unity between Christianity and other religions lightly.
Maintain unity among professing Christians but be separated from the world.
The word ecumenical comes from the Greek word “oikoumene” which is Strong’s Concordance number 3625 and meant the inhabited world, at that particular time it referred to the Roman empire specifically. The word ecumenical, as we define it today, does not actually appear in Scripture (in part because denominations as we know them didn’t exist then), but the idea of Christian unity indeed does.
In 1 Corinthians 1:10 Paul says, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
Unity in the Essentials
In order to maintain the integrity of our Christian unity, we must adhere to common tenants of Christianity. The necessary things, if you will. A phrase originally attributed to Marcus Antonio de Dominos, a twice declared Catholic heretic, in 1624 was repeated in 1626, by Peter Meiderlin, a German Lutheran theologian. They said, “If we might keep in necessary things unity, in unnecessary things freedom, and in both charity, our affairs would certainly be in the best condition.”
So what are the essentials of the Christian faith?
- Deity of Christ – John 10:30
- Salvation by Grace – Ephesians 2:8-9
- Salvation through Jesus Christ Alone – Acts 4:12
- Resurrection of Christ – 1 Corinthians 15:14
- The Gospel – 1 Corinthians 15:1-4
- Monotheism – Exodus 20:3, 1 Corinthians 8:5-6
- The Holy Trinity – from 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (same Spirit, same Lord, same God)
In all else, there is liberty and Paul exhorts us in Romans 14 not to allow our liberties to divide our Christian unity.
If we cannot cooperate with other Christians, how can we share our faith with others?
An Ecumenical Service at Pentecost
Perhaps on earth we may never again experience anything so ecumenical as Pentecost. God saved three thousand souls that day as Peter preached in the power of the Holy Spirit. His message, as recorded in Acts 2, was fairly brief and all present heard it in their own native language. I find this particularly interesting because God was the one who confounded language in the first place in Genesis 11 when man pursued making a name for himself in the building of a tower that reached up to the heavens. Because man’s inclination will always be to make a name for himself, not for God, He confused their language to limit cooperation in their idolatry. And so it was until the day of Pentecost, when for a few brief moments the power of the Holy Spirit made plain the words that glorified Christ.
Since then our attempts to interpret scripture have only led to divisions among Christians. We sinful humans bring our own opinions and experiences to our interpretations of Scripture, no matter how altruistic we intend our efforts. And without a full and complete knowledge of, not just the translations of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but also the nuances of those dialects and cultures we cannot, on our own, come to a full and complete understanding of the Bible.
Denominational divisions began because certain men thought they knew better than the system in place. They thought their interpretation of Scripture was truer and other people followed them. God saved me by His grace through His gift of faith in Jesus Christ’s crucifixion to atone for my sins, not because I’m a Lutheran. No matter how fabulous you believe its doctrine to be, you aren’t saved by your denomination either.
Certainly there are true and false Christians in every denomination, but that is not for us to judge. That is between them and God. Since we practice a personal faith communally, we’ve begun to associate Christians by their denomination instead of by Christ. When you’re asked about church or your beliefs, what do you say? I’m a Christian or I’m a Baptist or Methodist or an Episcopalian or even a Non-Denom? What does what you call yourself say about who you follow?
Why does there have to be a Lutheran soup kitchen, an Apostolic food pantry, a Church of Christ homeless shelter, and an Disciples of Christ Recovery Center? Can’t we pool resources and work together to glorify the One True God? Does the idea of joining fellow Christians in God’s work threaten us? Does ecumenical cooperation compromise Christ or threaten our denominational distinctions? To which one ought we give highest priority?
We weaken our witness when we fail to present a united message to the lost and hide in our “holy huddles,” as my friend calls them. Those who have never heard the gospel need to hear less about denominational distinctions and more about Christ. The problem is that when we allow our denominational differences to divide us we confuse the unsaved when they see us unable to work together under our professed common belief in Jesus despite differences. For the sake of the gospel, we ought to agree on matters pertinent to salvation and agree to disagree on those open to interpretation. Or, as Paul says in Romans 14, let us not destroy the work of God for the sake of food or drink or anything else that might make a brother stumble. Do we spend more time affirming our common faith or faltering over denominational distinctions?
Only as we each become more like Christ can we truly comprehend the truth and enjoy unity. Christ will finally achieve true Christian unity when He judges the faith of each individual and those He approves enter into His eternal Kingdom to worship Him (Revelation 7:5-12). There won’t be separate heavens for Messianic Jews, Catholics, and Protestants. There is one heaven and one Lord.
When He returns, I believe Christ will bring unity to all our fractures and create a beautiful mosaic of people from all Christian denominations portraying a full picture of His love for the world. Can’t we bring a little bit of that heaven to earth now? It is my sincere hope that through ecumenical endeavors we will become less concerned about filling seats in our individual sanctuaries and more enthusiastic about sending saints to heaven.
Let us unite with those who believe, preach, proclaim, and glorify Christ by their words and works. Jesus, who binds us, is greater than anything that divides us. In Christian unity we can do more God-glorifying good together.
Let’s stop allowing denominational divisions to destroy our christian witness and pursue ecumenical endeavors to expand the kingdom of God.
Women from many different denominations have challenged, sharpened, encouraged, and strengthened me as we have studied, written, lived, and served together! I cannot imagine my life without them in it! Do you participate in anything ecumenical? What is one way you can express Christian unity this week?
For more encouragement please join the discussions on these fabulous blog link ups – Suzanne Eller, Thought Provoking Thursday, Susan B. Mead, Faith Filled Friday, Grace and Truth, Faith and Fellowship Friday, Grace and Truth Friday, Good Morning Monday, Soul Survival, Monday Musings, Rah Rah Link Up, Tell His Story, Woman to Woman Wednesday, Women With Intention Wednesday, Sitting Among Friends, Testimony Tuesday, Planting Roots, and Fresh Market Friday.