Ecumenism Is Not a Bad Word
by Clarence Pamphile | 27 June 2021 |
Contrary to popular belief among many in our denomination, ecumenism is not a bad word. Ecumenism encourages cooperation, better understanding and unity among Christians. It is essentially a Protestant initiative. From the World Missionary Conference (Edinburgh, 1910) through several Counsels and Conferences, to the World Council of Churches (1927), it aims to stem a tendency toward division already present in New Testament times (1 Cor. 3:3,4).
What it is not
Another misunderstanding is that ecumenism seeks to create one super-denomination.
The Christian Church has never been monolithic (François Vouga, A l’Aube du Christianisme). Believers have always held differing views; the differences between the Apostles James and Paul illustrate this. It will always be so, though Paul wished otherwise (1 Cor. 1:10).
Fairly early, the tendency toward division became entrenched. The early church experienced difficult times. Persecution by the Jews and by the Roman emperors engendered strife among believers. In the heat of persecution there arose doctrinal conflicts, with bishops being excommunicated and exiled. Constantine ended persecution in 313 CE, but strife within the Church continued. The words “heretic” and “arch-heretic” came to designate one who held unorthodox beliefs or was a teacher of unorthodox ideas.
The era of the Seven Ecumenical Councils was full of conflict. The Great Schism came in 1054 CE, when Christianity split into two bodies: Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic (Latin). The two sides excommunicated each other and refrained from communication for over 900 years, until the pontificate of Paul VI.
The arrival of Protestantism created a third block which immediately started dividing until the present multiplicity of denominations.
Ecumenism is not the result of the Vatican trying to get all denominations under Rome’s wings. For over 1,000 years Roman Catholicism advocated extra ecclesiam nulla salus: “outside of the church there is no salvation.”
Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (d. 258 CE), first expressed this during persecution, when bishops were abandoning the faith to escape fire and sword. Cyprian urged fortitude; one must stay in the Church to be saved, and not renounce the faith even in the face of death. Rome later applied this idea to the Roman Catholic Church alone. Religiously, Roman Catholicism remained very closed for very long. Catholics were forbidden to participate in non-Catholic religious functions, or to read non-Catholic literature on religion or morals. Catholics writers were required by Canon law to obtain from the church official approvals called nihil obstat, “nothing hinders,, the imprimi potest,”it can be printed,” or the imprimatur, “let it be printed,” in order to publish.
It required Vatican II for Catholicism to finally call other Christians “separated brethren.” Pope John XXIII urged humility, gentle service, and generosity towards other Christians. Vatican II intended “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” (“Sacrosantum concillium,” in Documents of Vatican II, William B. Eerdmans; Grand Rapids, Mi. 1975; p. 1).
Yet, Roman Catholics, along with many other denominations with roots in the 19th century, are not members of the World Council of Churches (WCC). Catholics and Adventists attend WCC meetings as observers.
Exclusivism is a scandal
Disunity within Christianity is a scandal, a stumbling block to non-Christians who would follow Christ. Believers have not only excommunicated one another; they have practiced mutual defamation, and persecution.
The Anabaptists were fervent Christians, yet they were virtually exterminated by other believers. Christians have killed over religious ideas: the religious wars of Europe show the gravity of disunity. Denominational particularities are highlighted and made all-important, as illustrated in the great number of creeds, attempting “to give articulate, intelligible expression to Christian faith.” (John H. Leith, Ed.; Creeds of the Churches; John Knox Press, Atlanta, 1973; p. 2.)
There are hundreds of creeds. Protestantism has been very prolific therein. Each defining statement indicates why a particular group chooses to be apart, different, and exclusive.
Denominations coming from the 19th-century American religious experience have been particularly strong in this. Practically all say something like this: “The Protestant Reformers didn’t go far enough. We have the truth for these last days. All other denominations are in error.”
Yet is it not true that salvation is not of a particular denomination but in, of, by, and from Christ? Hence, God’s locus for salvation is neither Rome nor Canterbury, Silver Spring nor Salt Lake City. It is in Jesus—available anywhere. The Samaritan woman understood this: “Woman, . . . ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem worship the Father . . . (John 4:21,24).
It is an inescapable biblical truth that God receives believers regardless of denominational affiliation.
In all of salvation history, God has never restricted Himself to simply one representative or one messenger. There was Abraham and Melchizedec. Aaron was High Priest, and Jethro was priest of Midian (Exodus 18:1,12). Neither was Elijah alone: the Lord had 7,000 faithful (1 Kings 19:15) whose identity we don’t know.
The disciples forbade a man from ministering: he was not a disciple. Jesus told them to leave him alone. “He that is not against us is on our part” (Mark 9:40). Those who preach Jesus and salvation in Him, whatever their group, are doing the Lord’s work. God will neither be restricted nor monopolized: “The wind bloweth where it listeth.” (John 3:8).
Those convinced that God has given them a special work ought to live their convictions and execute what they understand to be God’s will. Let them not, however, claim that theirs is the only action of God’s under the sun.
Exclusivism generates triumphalism. Jonathan Swift stumped exclusivists with this satire:
We are the Chosen Few,
All others will be damned,
There is no place in heaven for you,
We can’t have heaven crammed!
Exclusivist triumphalism receives nothing from others, for by definition, the others are always wrong. “We have the truth. The others are doing the work of the adversary.”
Biblical passages such as “Now we see through a glass darkly. . .” are explained away by supposed prophetic knowledge with the details of fulfillment. But knowing a prophecy does not make one a prophet, able to predict by extrapolation. The words of a prophecy do not necessarily give an understanding of its import. The Jews knew the prophecy of Malachi 4:5,6. But they didn’t understand what it truly meant (Matt. 11:14).
Exclusivist triumphalism raises its head in times of religious fervor, often at the turn of a millennium, such as in the year 1000 and again around the year 2000, or in times of great social crises. World War II fired preachers with Armageddon zeal. COVID-19 signaled “the end” for some preachers. The Religious Awakenings of the late 18th and early 19th century, it seems to me, created a climate wherein many thought they were called of God to give particular messages.
The 19th century may properly be called the great era of American prophets, with a flowering of triumphalist denominations. But triumphalism is unnecessary; it adds nothing to the truth.
Particular denominational positions or their leaders dare not claim to “be all.” Denominational positions can only be partial knowledge, unable to sound the depths of religious truths. “Now we see through a glass, darkly . . . Now I know in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). For example, we don’t claim to fully and deeply understand why Jesus had to die. There are many theories, but the deepest truth of that has not been revealed.
Our understanding is partial, and is modified with time. Almost 200 years after the Millerite movement we are still arguing over passages in Daniel and Revelation. Interpretations of these passages change, but salvation is always by grace through faith in Christ.
Faith says “I believe”; it doesn’t say, “I know.” We will probably never know all that is involved in the “plan of salvation.” Consequently, all claims to superior knowledge, pitting one denomination’s reasoning against another, are irrelevant for salvation.
We have assurance only in what God has clearly revealed. Scripture says all humanity is sinful, yet God loves us and gave His Son to die for us; Jesus has been our Advocate in heaven since His ascension; He will return to receive those who have believed and who believe in Him.
These are what we know. All who believe this and live that faith belong to the body of Christ.
Ecumenism is positive
According to the Bible there is one Christian church, “one fold” (John 10:16). True Christians are, by definition, not separated. Christ has broken down all walls of separation, for all are saved by the same Jesus. “For he is our peace . . . that he might reconcile both unto God in one body by the cross . . .” (Eph. 2:14-17). Though Paul here addresses the problem of Jewish exclusiveness vis à vis non-Jewish believers, it holds true that believers are united in Christ.
Doctrinal differences touching inessentials do not “unchristianize” believers. Administrative positions and policies voted by the General Conference do not annul our shared salvation in Christ. All walls of separation have been broken down by that phrase “whosoever believeth in him.” There is therefore just one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all (Eph. 4:3-6). Christians are to keep “the unity of the Spirit,” whatever denominations may claim as theirs.
Jesus highlighted this when he prayed for believers, “that they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they may be one in us; that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:20, 21). Denominations focus on their particularities, using these as reasons to feel chosen above other groups.
But Jesus advocated unity among believers as that which will cause the world to believe. The Lord twice mentioned this in His prayer, indicating its importance (John 17:23).
Christian unity is inevitable. It is of Christ’s and of God’s imposing, and that, for a reason: the world will not believe while Christians are criticizing, accusing, or denouncing one another.
Collaborating without compromise
Christians are to love one another, and live in unity without compromising their spiritual values and principles, all the while engaged in the world for the betterment of humanity. We are to accept that God works with others even as He works with us.
John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker, after observing a tumultuous, spirit-catching religious revival responded with the poem “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.” Whittier thought such loud, noisy behavior unworthy of the term “worship,” and some acclaimed his poem the finest literary picture of true worship (A. E. Bailey, The Gospel in Hymns; Scribners, N.Y., 1950; p. 540).
But let us contradict him. Pentecostal “joyful worship” brought a refreshing breeze of the Spirit into 20th-century Christianity. Many denominations have benefited from bringing energy back into worship. Even Roman Catholics speak today of “charismatic renewal” and participate in joyfully worshiping the Lord.
Whittier wrote a poem advocating peace in church—while the “rowdy” brought joyful worship. God be praised!
This is an illustration of why ecumenism should be encouraged. Seventh-day Adventists reject it because of denominational prophetic interpretation: that Protestants with Roman Catholics will persecute us because of the Sabbath. Again, we see “them” against “us” We want nothing to do with “them.”
But the fear that denominations will become one doctrinally is unreasonable: two thousand years of Christian history belie that idea. The sacramental teachings, or lack thereof, between Catholics and most Protestants are simply too profound to be wiped away. Ecumenism is not seeking to get any group to change its doctrines. Ecumenism advocates that Christians belonging to different denominations work together to develop closer relations among their churches and promote Christian unity. Any interdenominational action encouraging cooperation between Christians and their churches is “ecumenical.”
Ecumenism operates best at the level of local congregations, where it is neither doctrinal nor administrative. Churches are not one in the Lord, but believers are. For example, Christians persecuted and killed in Middle Eastern countries—Copts, Abyssinians, Syrian Jacobites, Armenians, and Assyrian Christians—deserve our sympathy. They do not believe some details that we hold. Yet, we lift them up in prayer. We participate where possible to alleviate their suffering. And in a sense, we celebrate their mission, for theirs is about the only voice that speaks of Jesus and His salvation in their entire region.
Let us work with others for the good of humanity. Our expected fulfillment of prophetic interpretation must not close our minds. We are part of the world Christian family. Let us affirm it and live it in love for one another. Jesus prayed for it. Everybody wins if life is made more livable through mutual denominational cooperation.
The World Council of Churches will hold its 11th Assembly from August 31 to September 8, 2022, in Germany, under the theme “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.”
Could we pray with them?
Dr. Clarence Pamphile studied at Caribbean Union College in Trinidad, at Andrews University, and in the Institut de Théologie Protestante in France. He has worked as pastor, theology professor and church administrator. He and his wife, Reinette, are retired in Guadeloupe.