On being ecumenical

Today on YouTube I stumbled across a conversation between Francis Chan, Hank Hanegraaff (radio’s “The Bible Answer Man”), and KP Yohannan (now Metropolitan Yohan). Chan is a fairly famous conservative evangelical pastor, Hanegraaff is a famous evangelical radio personality who converted to Easter Orthodoxy a number of years ago, and KP Yohannan is the founder of the mission organization Gospel for Asia and…well I’m not sure what to call him in terms of Christian affiliation. He’s a leader in a relatively new denomination, but I can’t figure out it if it’s evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or something else. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

Their conversation got me thinking again about being ecumenical in outlook. By “ecumenical” I mean the belief that the Christian church includes Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox—that all those branches of the church are brothers and sisters in Christ, we can work together across denominational lines, and that genuine faith is identified by confessing the risen Christ as Lord and, beyond that, that we all have the Creeds in common.

Not everyone thinks that way. I grew up in a home where Catholics weren’t considered true Christians and Pentecostals and other charismatics were also suspect. I have friends who still think that way about Catholics and Pentecostals. There is a narrow niche of Christianity, often related to the fundamentalism of the early 20th century, that in its extremes thinks the true faith and true doctrine and true understanding of scripture is found only in one denomination, or possibly even just one church or one preacher. These churches seem to have a habit of focussing on what’s wrong “out there” and naming heretical beliefs—which is to say, belief that is different from their own (which is technically not what heresy is)—and serious distrust of and unwillingness to work with others outside their fold. Often this kind of thinking seems to go along with a lot of disunity and what appears to be a significant lack of grace.

I gave that perspective up a long time ago. I believe I have many brothers and sisters across the denominational lines.

I can’t remember exactly what it was that led me down that road, but I can identify bits and pieces along the way. Learning the history of the church was a big one—many evangelicals have a very short and recent history of the church that doesn’t go back much further than 500 years, to their significant loss. The recognition that for certainly 1000 years, if not 1500 years, the church was fairly unified in its belief was helpful. Sure, there was division between east (Orthodox) and west (Roman Catholic) later on, but much was shared. The recognition that all three major branches of the church recognize and confess the ancient Creeds also helped. Developing an understanding of Catholic and Orthodox theology was another help, though I don’t know it well and even though I recognize there are some beliefs I don’t share with them—but these are Christians that confess Jesus as risen Lord!

The reality is that I can’t believe that God’s Spirit was absent from the church between the death of the last apostle and Martin Luther nailing his complaints to a church door some 1500 years later. If that was the case, we don’t have much hope for the last 500 years of the church either!

There is no pure church. I’m not sure there ever was one after the day of Pentecost. Paul’s letters in the New Testament make that clear! I may disagree profoundly on some things with my Catholic sisters and brothers, or for that matter my Pentecostal or Baptist sisters and brothers, but we together confess Christ and seek to follow him.

And so I continue to try to listen and learn from other Christian traditions and to have a bit of humility about correct doctrine. I’d like to think I’m fairly open minded, but sometimes it can be really difficult to allow others to disagree with something I’m passionate about. But it’s necessary. If this isn’t an oxymoron, I’m convinced that we need to have theological convictions and hold them loosely. Our grounding is in Christ, not a set of beliefs. Our hope is in Christ, not a theological perspective. Our salvation is in Christ, not a doctrinal statement.

Here’s a little sketch I drew of why I’m ecumenical. I don’t know if it will make sense to you, but it makes sense to me.

7 thoughts on “On being ecumenical

  1. Toni

    “Easter Orthodoxy” Is that a denomination that give each other eggs and fluffy bunnies?


    Are the words top-right vegimal vanity?

    A few random thoughts……

    Y’know that for a long time I thought the ‘early church’ was THE model to aim for, despite Paul’s imprecations and warnings? But like you, having read a little church history too, I can see it was nothing like. The EO may also have its derivations that no-one has ever heard of, like the Marthoma church in India.

    Ecumenism has long been a dirty word that meant “I have no strong beliefs about anything, and will go with whatever flow”, but that’s plainly as silly as assuming one is part of THE only church with the truth.

    FWIW I would not be surprised at all to see 3DM/Missional comminities become another denomination within the panoply of people going their own way.

    My grandfather was completely afraid of the ‘Holy Spirit’ and convinced that anything to do with ‘it’ would lead to shipwreck & ruin. Pentecostal churches and speaking in tongues were utterly wrong.

    As a general observation, the newer church streams seem much more concerned about good theology, while the older ones tend to be fairly un-fussed. There are exceptions in both camps.

  2. Marc

    Interesting. If we take the start date of the EO and RC churches as 1054, then yes. But of course, both would have a legitimate claim to go all the way back to the apostles like the Marthoma church.

    WRT to your earlier comment, while I recognize that the early church had its problems, I *do* see value in going back to hear how early Christians thought, lived, and worshipped. The early church Fathers and the later theologians I think provide an important voice that we should probably pay attention to more than we do. They aren’t perfect, but they have a chronological proximity to the apostles as well as a (presumably) less complicated relationship to the worldwide church than we do now after 1,000 years of division (since 1054 at least) and thousands of subdivisions since then.

    Which is why I think modern churches’ concern with “good theology” is in *theory* a good thing, but “good theology” usually just seems to end up meaning “theology consistent with my niche point of view” that may or may not resemble what Christians have historically believed or not. I’m thinking, for example, of a recent resurgence in insisting that penal substitutionary atonement (PSA) is both *the* gospel and the *only* legitimate (and non-heretical) way to understand what happened on the cross. Interestingly, my understanding is that the EO church considers PSA a heresy!

    I suspect that for many older churches (depending on what we mean about “older”) it’s not that they aren’t worried about good theology, but that a) they feel “good theology” was worked out in the ecumenical councils, and b) they aren’t defined by theological statements or positions, but by worship drenched in and shaped by their theology. “Good theology” for some means simply, “We’ve got our doctrinal statement and we will spend our time arguing for it, teaching it, and pointing out who falls outside that statement.” For others it means, “We know our theology and we’ve shaped our worship around it, so now we will worship and be shaped.”

    I’m just rambling and musing now. These are just impressions. My comments may be both unsupported and wrong, too.

  3. Jeff Wheeldon

    As there’s a circling of wagons (and yes, I think the colonial metaphor is appropriate here) right now in North American evangelicalism, there’s a counter movement of people finding themselves on the outside, hesitant to join any particular denomination but still convinced that, in some way or another, Jesus is Lord.

    I’d count myself there. It’s super disorienting. And I’m not sure the historical perspective on all of these traditions is helpful anymore, from where I sit. Historical theology, sure; but historical ecclesiology seems kind of moot when you’re standing in the wilderness, so to speak. I wonder what impact this new movement will have on ecumenicism, which is built on the assumption of strong divisions and the need to find common ground. Will there be enough people who have rejected the divisive doctrines to change the shape of it? Is that ecumenicism in itself, to no longer side with any of the divided parties?

    Good thoughts, thanks for sharing them!

  4. Toni

    I’m a little late to reply Jeff, but I’d say history is always important so that you know why things are as they are & in the hope your mistakes can be fresh ones. 🙂

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