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Can You Be Ecumenical and Still Be a Christian?

Can You Be Ecumenical and Still Be a Christian?

According to a poll conducted by Gordon Conwell University, in 2013 there was roughly 43,000 Christian denomination throughout the world. That estimate was projected to grow by 55,000 by 2025. If this is true, there are close to 100,000 Christian denominations today. Each denomination contains characteristics unique to themselves. To be ecumenical means that we value such differences. Ecumenical theology states that the differences between Christian denominations actually strengthen the Church’s witness throughout the world.

An important question to ask, however, is how being ecumenical relates to Christ’s desire for unity amongst all believers. Does this call to ecumenism violate Christ’s prayer that his followers “be one as we are one” (John 17:11)? Similarly, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to “allow no divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 1:10). The Scriptures are blatantly clear when it comes to the matter of church unity: Divisions within the church are antithetical to the way of Christ.

If unity is the call of Christ, how do we reconcile this call with the countless differences that exist within the church today? How do Christians know if a difference in belief or practice disrupts the unity of the church, or if it is to be valued and accepted? To put the question another way, can one be ecumenical and still be a Christian? In answer to this question, there are five things to consider.

Defining Ecumenism

For those unfamiliar with the term, ecumenism refers to an acceptance of Christian witness across denominational boundaries. To be ecumenical is to recognize that the body of Christ (the Church) is wider than our own denominational structure. No one denomination has a monopoly on the way of Christ. Ecumenism is often practiced on the local level. Whenever Christians gather together for a prayer breakfast, a vigil, or a joint celebration, they are being ecumenical. The World Day of Prayer is one such example. Ecumenism states that Christians of all types are part of the great company of faith.

Importantly, ecumenism is not the same as interfaith dialogue. The two are completely different. Ecumenism is about valuing the denominational differences within the boundaries of Christianity, say between Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches. Interfaith dialogue, on the other hand, involves conversations with faiths outside of Christianity.

Ecumenical Difference Does Not Mean Division

Some charge ecumenical theology with working against the unity of the church. We must recognize, however, that Scripture describes the community of faith in a variety of ways. The apostle Paul likened the community of faith to a body: “Just as the body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). Paul proceeds to explain how the “eye cannot say to the hand, I do not need you!” (12:21). The differences between the members of Christ’s body support and enhance the Church’s common life and witness. Difference does not necessarily equal division, just as unity does not equal “sameness.” While Christians are called to be united, we are not called to all be the same.

This makes sense if we think about it. As Christian people, we all have different temperaments, styles, and preferences. This means that people will naturally congregate for worship in the manner most befitting their preferences and style. Some Christians, for example, choose to worship through traditional music, robed choirs, and formal liturgies. Others favor a more contemporary style with drums and guitars. These differences do not suggest that one style is right and the other wrong, it simply highlights various ways of being the church of Christ.

Ecumenical theology, therefore, is not a celebration of division within the church; it is a recognition of the natural differences that exist between various expressions of Christian faith. This acceptance of differences is fundamental to the life of the church. It strengthens our witness in the world.

Ecumenical Theology Focuses on Jesus

While ecumenism embraces the natural differences between churches, it is a fallacy to suggest that ecumenical theology focuses on difference. Being ecumenical is to recognize the fundamental unity which binds each denomination together. Ecumenical theology celebrates the various ways that all Christian denominations engage in one unifying activity; exalting the name of Jesus.

Again, we see this focus in the description of the New Testament church. The church was radically centered-on Jesus. This centrality nullified any possible division based on heredity, style, or temperament. Famously Paul writes to the Galatians that “There is now no longer Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In writing this, Paul is not suggesting that one’s individuality is somehow lost within the context of the community, or that men, women, Jews, and Gentiles were now “the same”. Rather he is suggesting that unity in Christ is stronger than any human-based difference

To be ecumenical is to be radically centered on Jesus. Unity in the church is not realized through any human structure, style, or standard. It matters not if Christians all worship in the same manner insofar as they all worship the Triune God. Whether one is Baptist, Anglican, Free-Church, Methodist, or Roman Catholic, the center of faith remains the same. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ binds all Christian denominations together.

Ecumenical People Still Discern

Does this mean Christians blindly accept any doctrine, idea, or practice? Do ecumenical people simply accept one another without godly discernment? The answer is a resounding “No!” Being ecumenical is not contrary to diligent thought or discernment about the faith. The biblical injunction to be cognizant of false teachers remains upon all Christians; we are to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (John 4:1). 

“Ecumenical” does not mean “relative.” The New Testament church saw people who claimed allegiance to Jesus but taught unsound doctrine. Thus, being ecumenical means that one must take seriously the charge to “watch out for false prophets for they come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). Ecumenism takes the gospel seriously. Ecumenical theology, therefore, does not dismiss the foundational truths of the faith; In fact, it upholds them, promotes them, and stands upon them.

The fact is, not every group, denomination, or church gathering that uses the moniker “Christian” adheres to the claims of the gospel. Some “churches” blatantly reject the doctrines of the Christian faith. If, for example, a denomination does not accept God as Triune, then that denomination has departed from the Christian fold. This is both a theological fact, as well a historical one. The church is built upon the revelation that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Similarly, any gathering that denies the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is fundamentally antithetical to the gospel. To suggest that Jesus is “a lesser god” or “a first creation”, or “just a story” is simply not in line with historical Christian teaching.

The Ecumenical Creeds

The strive toward ecumenical unity has always been part of the Church’s witness throughout the ages. In the first 600 years of its existence, the Christian church combated proponents of Arianism, Adoptionism, Docetism, Montanism, Pelagianism, and various others. The list is quite extensive. Yet throughout this time, the Holy Spirit protected a unity around the core doctrine of the faith. These core doctrines were often articulated in the various creeds of the early church councils, creeds that, to this day, serve as a corrective against false teaching. The three ecumenical creeds are: The Nicene Creed, The Apostle’s Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. Many churches today recite one of these creeds as part of a regular act of worship.

As we navigate the complex landscape of Christian denominations today, we can use the ancient creeds as a guide. For example, the Nicene Creed begins “We believe in One God, The Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” All Christian denominations ought to assent to such a statement. Similarly, the Athanasian Creed affirms “This is the catholic [meaning universal] faith: We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the being.” Such a statement makes it clear that non-trinitarian denominations are outside the unity of the Christian Church.

Christians Are Ecumenical

So, can you be ecumenical and still be a Christian? The answer is a resounding “Yes!” In fact, we might even say that to be a Christian one must be ecumenical. Otherwise, we are left suggesting that one’s own personal brand of faith is the exclusive way to be a Christian person. It is to suggest that others must pray like me, worship like me, think like me, and serve like me. Yet, as Paul writes “if they were all one part, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:20)

Being ecumenical is not antithetical to the Christian faith. In fact, being ecumenical means that we take the doctrines of our faith very seriously. It means we work with one another to strengthen our witness, and to glorify Jesus in this world.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/HenrikSorensen

SWN authorThe Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.comibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca.  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.

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