A Defense of Ecumenicalism: Part 1

When I looked at my article a few days after it was posted, it had 69 shares on Facebook (and don’ t forget that 1 Google+ share!). I knew some people had responded positively to what I wrote, and others negatively. But I didn’ t think 70 people would share the thing!

Considering the way the article was received, I decided to further define, defend, and work through my stance on the need for church unity. This is not meant to be completely exhaustive, but just a further explanation. I did also respond to all the comments on the article, so check those to see if they answer any more questions.

Defining terms

First, a definition of the term Ecumenicalism and other terms is in order. When I speak of Ecumenicalism, or having an ecumenical spirit, what I mean is churches or assemblies talking with, associating more with, and helping other churches or assemblies.

The church (singular) is the universal church, and the churches (plural) are local churches of any denomination unless stated otherwise.

Denominations should be defined as a group of churches that hold to a defined (officially or unofficially) set of doctrines, practices, traditions, and values that are usually distinct from other denominations.

Biblical support of ecumenicalism

Why should we propose unity for the church universal? Is this a New Testament principle, or just a fad of the times? What Biblical passages support this idea?

I also want to look at church history for an important example of ecumenicalism, as well as the practical need for an ecumenical spirit. Finally, I also want to clear up some things from my previous article and add some small practical advice.

 Jesus’ prayer for unity

When it comes to Biblical support for unity, our Lord’s prayer for the unity of future believers ranks first. As part of the “High Priestly Prayer” (John 17), Jesus prays for the unity of future believers in strong Trinitarian language. (John 17:20-24)

What I find extremely important about this statement is the purpose of unity. Jesus states the purpose of unity twice (John 17: 22, 24): that the world may believe, know that God the Father sent His Son, and that God loves His church. Our witness is not only learning some evangelistic points or having outreaches, but it also includes having strong church unity.

Here, Jesus is not praying for unity of local churches, but every future saint that will come to faith. Today, the church is nowhere close to the unity that Jesus prayed for, so should we be surprised that world does not believe that Jesus is from the Father?

I would also point out that the basis for our unity is that we are in Christ. Being in Christ means many things, one of which is our salvation. We are unified in our salvation. This points us to who we should be unified with – other believers.

Paul on division

In the beginning of his first epistle to the church at Corinth, Paul writes,

“Now I urge you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree in what you say, that there be no divisions among you, and that you be united with the same understanding and the same conviction. For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by members of Chloe’s household, that there is rivalry among you. What I am saying is this: Each of you says, ‘I’m with Paul,’ or ‘I’m with Apollos,’ or ‘I’m with Cephas,’ or ‘I’m with Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was it Paul who was crucified for you? Or were you baptized in Paul’s name? (1 Corinthians 1:10-13)

Paul urges the believers at Corinth not to have any divisions among them. Some had taken an allegiance of sorts to other Christian teachings instead of remaining unified together.

The word Paul uses for “rivalry” is only used in the NT by Paul. It usually appears in lists of things that Paul commands his readers not to do or what characterizes sinners. For example read Romans 1:29. (See also Romans 13:13; 1 Corinthians 3:3; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20; Philippians 1:15; 1 Timothy 6:4; Titus 3:9)

Clearly, Paul takes the threat of “rivalry” seriously. In the case of Paul writing to the Corinthians, he was dealing with one local body. But that does not mean that this warning is only for the local church. It would be foolish to reject the idea that “rivalry” and “quarreling” has not led to the divisions and denominational lines that we have today.

Donation to Jerusalem

Paul organized a donation for the saints that were poor in Jerusalem.(1 Corinthians 16:1-3,25; Romans 15:25-28)  In order to collect this donation, Paul urged the churches that he planted or knew to give money to help their brothers-and-sisters-in-Christ. From what Paul wrote, it seemed to be successful.

I draw attention to this because we see multiple churches working together for one shared goal. We can do the same as well today. Not to mention there are far more churches now than in Paul’ s day.

Ecumenicalism is not just about doctrinal differences. So what if you and your Baptists friends down the street do not agree on the millennium, the age of the earth, or whatever it may be? If they have a member of their church that is sick, then cook them a meal. If they are planning an outreach, then lend some funds or people to help.

We all work for the same shared goal: the gospel. And we should be able to help each other out in spite of our differences.

Jerusalem Council

One reason that is it hard to speak on denominations and the lines they have drawn is that the NT does not address that issue as we have it today. In the time of the Apostles and the early church, there were not denominational lines like we have them.

There was one ‘ denomination’ , one church, one “holy catholic Apostolic” church. But that did not mean there was no disagreements within the church. (the purest meaning of catholic is “universal”)

One of the big issues that Paul and the Apostles faced in the NT was the Judaizers, those that wanted to enforce the OT law for NT Gentile believers. In order to settle this dispute, the Apostles and others gathered in Jerusalem for what we now call the Jerusalem Council.

The account is given in Acts 15. The Apostles come together to discuss and even debate the issue at hand. In the account of the council, we see the Apostles defend the Gospel before those that oppose them in the council; and the council comes to a clear decision and instruction for the church at the end.

I know some people have a negative idea of debate, feeling that debate only divides. Debates can harm the church when handled incorrectly. But this story clearly shows that discussion and debate do have a place in church life. It is important for believers to gather, when needed, to defend and define the Gospel which we all believe in.

It should be noted that some issues and debates are more important than others, and not every issue has to have the same value or importance as the rest.

To be continued.

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