Ecumenism is usually low on the spiritual hierarchy of values for most. Passive indifference to passionate disdain—the equivalent of dancing with the devil—parenthetically enclose a wide spectrum of perspectives. If not the alleged compromising work of the devil, ecumenism is often viewed as something reserved for the academy. There, grizzled and gray theologians parse and probe the subtlest of theological nuances trying to come up with “unifying statements of faith.” Its value-relevance to ground-level realities of parish or local church life is simply not recognized. What follows is a true story of the human pain that can occur when ecumenism is not valued.
I know the person involved very well. I will call him Cliff (not his real name). Cliff is an exceptional young man. He is intellectually astute and spiritually vibrant. He was raised within mainstream Evangelicalism. He is employed at an entity within that universe. Over recent years, he began to read the church fathers and church history from non-polemic sources. He began to question some of the historical narrative and beliefs that he had been taught in Evangelicalism. His journey recently culminated in his “coming home” (I do not like the term conversion) to Roman Catholicism. This was neither an impulsive nor reactionary decision. I had substantive conversations with Cliff during this process. I was very sympathetic to many of the issues and perspectives he was bringing up. His path was deeply intellectual, contemplative, and full of conviction.
As many of you might imagine, this decision has (regrettably) cost him dearly socially and fraternally. Many he thought were friends have abandoned him. And not just abandoned, but abandoned with malice. Of special pain is that a man to whom he had looked as a spiritual mentor (I will call him Bill, also not his real name), friend, and advisor for almost two decades terminated all relationship with him, even basic friendship. I have seen the email exchanges between them. Bill was haughty, accusatorial, and judgmental. Cliff was kind, generous, magnanimous, inclusive, pleading, entreating–begging in the name of Christ–that there was no reason to break fellowship with each other—no reason to not continue to be friends and even more than friends. His pleas fell on deaf Protestant ears.
As painful as this is, it incisively illuminates the issue. I believe Cliff’s experience is all too common. It illustrates why ecumenism is not the equivalent of a spiritual appendix—something we can live without. Rather, ecumenism is the canvas upon which the truths we value are painted for the world to see and to testify that Jesus is alive—“Behold, how they love one another.” Ecumenism is not first theological. Ecumenism is first social/relational and anthropological: “How do we live as human beings together in Christ? How do we treat one another?”
Many are more committed to their theology about Jesus, than the Person of Jesus. This is true of many Protestants I know, though they would deny it (Catholics too, I just personally know fewer—zealots know no labels.). Their faith is in their hermeneutic, not the Person of Jesus in resurrection. What is the evidence for my claim? Cliff’s experience is typical:
Differ with me in doctrinal perspectives and I must separate from you. As long as you agree with me, we are friends, but since you don’t, good bye, I cannot associate with you, at any level. I cannot be your friend.
So very sad. Since Jesus was friends with “sinners” how is this even possible between two followers of Jesus? This bane of Protestantism has resulted in between 12-35,000 different sects, denominations, or groups (depending on whose statistics you prefer). Apparently, agreeing on:
- the Apostle’s Creed
- the Nicene Creed
- Chalcedon and other historical creeds
- Jesus is Lord, resurrected from the dead bodily, and coming again
- Loving Jesus personally, and loving others passionately
- the Great and the New Commandment
- sharing in the same Spirit, in union with the Head by faith
are not enough to maintain social friendship let alone spiritual communion! This is tragic! This is sin! This is the satanic, scapegoating, voice of victimization:
You (my now former friend) are the problem. You must be destroyed. You are a contagion to truth.
This is modern Fundamental Evangelical Protestantism at its worst and it is incarnate evil. There, I said it. I don’t take it back. That is how strongly I feel about what is at stake. The Gospel itself is at stake. At least the Catholic Church gave up this kind of thinking and behavior centuries ago. Just because today’s Protestants are not committing literal torture and murder is no bragging-right virtue. Internet slander, accusation, and character assassination are just white-glove inquisitions. Don’t be fooled. The spirit of the matter is the same.
Ecumenism is the remedy for this. Ecumenism is just the structural name for the expression of love in diversity. Ecumenism is simply the manifestation of 1 John 4 et al. Ecumenism is the outworking of and the labor necessary to maintain the bond of peace and unity of spirit. Ecumenism is not a suggestion. It is command. It means I live sacrificially–as a living sacrifice. I give myself as a perpetual offering of reconciliation. I actually become an ambassador for Jesus, carrying a ministry of reconciliation! Imagine that. What if the message and ministry of reconciliation begins with those who are His, not the world?
Reconciling peace making might mean it necessary to allow myself to be slandered, misrepresented, and lied about without retaliation. I do not return evil for evil. I become a part of the One Loaf, the one living sacrifice for the world by putting all my opinions and beliefs on the altar of Christ’s love, for the sake of relational peace and the testimony of His name. It is not that I cast away my convictions! It is how I hold them in communion with others who do not share them! That is the nub of the matter. I have written elsewhere about cruciform reconciliation here.
As painful as the rejection that Cliff experienced may be, it reveals not only the spiritual and ethical fault lines that existed in their relationship, but also exposes the fault lines common in many so-called mentoring or discipling relationships. Godly mentors/disciplers are not the doctrinal Gestapo of the soul. Godly mentors do not require conformity to their points of view on secondary issues. Rather they support individuals in their own journey, even when it is different than their own. Godly mentors are spiritual, emotional, and intellectual liberators. Discipleship is not conforming people to our image and hermeneutic.
I do not attribute malice to Bill. His paradigm precludes any other response. If deviation of even the slightest degree is considered heresy or apostasy, it is inevitable. He would see his actions as trying to rescue a blind man heading for a cliff. He would interpret his responses as prophetic love, warning an obstinate one. That spirit is clearly conveyed in his emails.
Is there not a better way? Can we not learn from one another even in our differences? Can we not develop breadth of soul, mind, and spirit, as we respectfully listen to, and try to understand others with who we may be in strong disagreement? Can we not admit that there is only One who has complete objectivity in truth—He who is The Truth–and the rest of us, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic et. al., are merely approximating pilgrims trying to find our way? Must I malign the “different other” rehashing and reanimating 500 or 1,000 year-old arguments and polemics? Can I not hold to my convictions of the moment, to the very best of my ability with a spirit of charity and inclusivity toward others who differ? Can we not be a family of brothers and sisters who scrap and bloody each other in robust debate yet still walk away bound together by the cords of love? Must we be the “enemy other” who must be destroyed? Must we in the name of passion for truth and doctrine fail in the chief doctrine of love? Could there not be an irreducible minimum through which, all of our squabbles and divisions must be filtered?
“He that does not love does not know God.”
Lays it out rather plainly, I think.
Ecumenism is not the tool of the devil to dilute and compromise the Church. Ecumenism is our ante. It is our all-in for John 17. Ecumenism is our “statement of faith” — not toward the world, but toward our Lord. Part of a Roman soldier’s process of induction was called the sacramentum–an oath of allegiance. Also, Roman soldiers were taught to fight in pairs, back-to-back. The partner who literally “covered your back” was called the paraclete. Ecumenism is simply the spiritual equivalent of our sacramentum oath to His cause. It is also a commitment to treat the other who may be facing the opposite way than I, as not my enemy, but as my necessary help, my covering brother, my paraclete.
We have a long way to go. This is not easy. But if you believe in the treasure of Christ buried in earthen vessels, you will not mind the human sand you must shovel to get to it.
Holy Spirit, transform us. Teach us to love one another as you have loved us. Help us to at least be friends as we call upon the same Father, Savior, and Holy Spirit. Teach us to be determined treasure hunters, looking for the Christ within anyone who calls on His name, and may we treat each other as preciously as you treat us.
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appreciate the passion of this appeal. However, there may be some temptation here to over-simplify. Relationships depend in much more than premise. If the practical things which held bond between people are somehow lost, it may be difficult for them to continue relating to one another as they had previously enjoyed.
as from your account, “Cliff” had effectively moved from one sectarian group (evangelical) to another (RCC). Our group associations often require that we limit ecumenism (or, limit our association with the group). The individuals involved may find themselves in a difficult spot, where a choice is being made by which they personally would not otherwise prefer. Surely there are miracle exceptions to this… some “Catholics” do venture to maintain close spiritual association with “Protestant” individuals, all while maintaining a “low profile” for same. In time, “Cliff” may discover that his awakening to the RCC does include some implicit requirements of him regarding spiritual fellowship.
Hi Marshall, I get your point to a degree. My premise is, you can hold convictions without being sectarian about them. Yes, their “social association” will be limited and differentiated, but that does not necessitate hate, hostility, and alienation, especially from a Christian perspective. If Jesus is in communion with both of them, to some degree (not necessarily identical or fullness) they must be with each other, and at the simplest level, that is to remain friends. The army and the navy are sectarian. They have their own flags. They operate differently and in completely different realms of expression. But they are united under a greater flag and for the greater purpose they contain their sectarian animosity to a once a year Army-Navy football game where they beat each other’s heads in. When the greater cause is at stake, they unite under a greater flag. From a Christian perspective if our sectarian differences which preclude complete socialization, become a higher value than our union, this is betrayal of the higher cause, and it is sin. I concur with you that the specifics of their former relationship will be different. It has to be, to your point, let’s not be naive. But I hold fast to the premise that the difference need not include hate, judgment, accusation, and 100% alienation. That is an epic failure of the beliefs they profess to hold.