Coming together. Or not.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 September
ECUMENICAL ɛk.jʊ'mɛn.ə.kəl adjective. Representing multiple Christian churches or denominations.
2. Promoting unity among Christian churches, regardless of affiliation.
3. Representing all Christian churches, regardless of affiliation.
[Ecumenism ɛ'kjʊ.mɛ.nɪz.əm, ɛk.jə'mɛn.ɪz.əm noun.]

One of Jesus’s commands was that we Christians love one another, Jn 13.34, 15.12, 1Jn 3.23 and one of his prayers was that we be one, like he and his Father are one.

John 17.20-23 KWL
20 “I don’t only ask about these, but about those who believe in me by their word,
21 so they could be one—like you, Father, in me, and I in you.
So they also could be in us. So the world could believe you sent me.
22 The honor which you gave me, I gave them, so they could be one like we are one.
23 I in them, you in me, so they can be perfected as one,
so the world could know you sent me, and love them like you love me.”

Originally we Christians were one group. Or at least every Christian church was affiliated with every other Christian church. Didn’t take long for that to change; for individual Christians and church leaders to insist, “We’re real Christians, but they aren’t.” Happened among Jesus’s students; Mk 9.38-39 happened among the Corinthians; 1Co 1.11-13 happened throughout Christian history. The reason there are a thousand denominations is because we Christians don’t obey Jesus’s command to love one another.

Well, ecumenism is about undoing all that. It’s about overcoming our differences and recognizing we all share and follow the same Lord. It’s about loving one another, like Jesus ordered. Sometimes working together; certainly not working against one another.

Yet there are many Christians out there who insist ecumenism is devilish. (And they’re in every church, so don’t go blaming the Fundamentalists for this one.) Not only that, many of these isolationist Christians insist one of the tricks the Beast will try to pull off during the End Times is to get all the churches to recombine into some devilish one-world religion. It’s based on a profoundly out-of-context interpretation of Revelation 17-18, which you can read for yourself and notice it says no such thing.

In any event, these isolationists insist we’re not to overcome our differences. We’re not to love one another—’cause those other churches aren’t real churches, and the Christians they consist of aren’t real Christians. They’re phonies who’ll do nothing but corrupt us. So keep ’em at arm’s length. Interact with them only to try to win people away from their compromised, poisonous churches. Stay separate and independent and pure.

When our differences take precedence.

See, I get why differences in belief could become significant problems. I’ve worked with multi-denominational ministries and seen it up close.

Say you’ve got a Christian ministry which feeds the homeless. Sooner or later one of the folks you’re ministering to, is gonna have a God-question. Let’s say about prayer; prayer comes up a lot. Certain Christians are gonna tell the questioner when you’ve got a difficult prayer request, one thing to do is pray in tongues. And certain other Christians are gonna be horrified at this idea—’cause they think tongues ceased in the first century, and present-day tongues might even be devilish. It’s gonna start a fight. It’ll force the ministry to create a policy which either accommodates the tongues-speakers and alienates the Christians who reject tongues; or (which tends to be my experience) bans prayer in tongues, forcing tongues-speakers to hide that ministry.

And I haven’t even touched upon the Christians who pray to saints. Yep, I’ve seen that too.

Now, the whole prayer kerfuffle? Has nothing to do with orthodoxy. That’s right: How you pray has nothing to do with the creeds, the foundational basics of Christianity. It has to do with our preferences. How we believe the scriptures oughta be interpreted. How our churches traditionally behave. What we’ve experienced when we follow Jesus. All the lenses we use, other than bible, to develop our theology—but of course we have no idea we’re using lenses. We’ll claim we’re just following the bible, but those other so-called Christians aren’t.

Preferences alone give Christians plenty of an excuse to split apart. We split over whether holy communion is literal or symbolic. Whether to sing with our hands raised or not. Whether women should preach. Whether the pastor is too political—or not political enough.

I haven’t even touched on orthodoxy. We should come together on that at least: Whether Jesus is God’s son, whether Jesus really rose from the dead, whether Jesus is really coming back, whether Christians oughta go to church in the first place. But you’d be surprised how often preferences are more important to Christians than orthodoxy. (Partly because some of ’em think these preferences are orthodoxy—that you’re not a real Christian unless you’re Calvinist, or unless you baptize by dunking, or unless your leadership can show an unbroken line of succession to the Twelve.)

Give you a fr’instance. Last week I asked a pastor of my acquaintance whether his church could work with people who don’t believe God’s a trinity. He was entirely certain they’d never.

HE. “If they’re not trinitarian, it’s not possible. We worship Jesus as God and they don’t.”
ME. “Well, some don’t. You’re thinking of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. But Oneness Pentecostals fully believe Jesus is God. They just don’t believe he’s a different person from the Father. Same person, different forms. You know, modalism.”
HE. “That would still be a problem. Our doctrine is that the Holy Spirit indwells believers. If they’re modalists, then they believe the Father also indwells believers, because the Father is the same person as the Holy Spirit.”
ME. “Right. I agree, their theology has big problems. Still, is it too problematic for you to minister together? They do believe Jesus is God, same as you.”
HE. “I do not think we can overcome those differences.”
ME. “You could never minister with nontrinitarians.”
HE. “I do not believe so.”
ME. “According to your church website, you partner with [synagogue] for your food ministry. As I recall, Conservative Jews are hardly trinitarian.”
HE. “That is not an evangelism ministry.”
ME. “But you still minister with nontrinitarians.”
HE. “We do not. Not in evangelical ministry.”
ME. “I didn’t specify evangelism. I only said ‘Can you minister with heretics, like nontrinitarians?’ and you said no. I admit I was kinda setting you up there, ’cause I already knew you work with the Jews, who technically aren’t heretics. Still nontrinitarian. So if it’s not an evangelism ministry—if Jehovah’s Witnesses offered to pitch in at the food ministry, would you let them?”
HE. “Okay, you got me. And yes I suppose we can work with JW’s in the food ministry. But we absolutely cannot evangelize together. (I do not think that they would even want to!)”

So heretics get a waiver on the food ministry. Which is fine, if you never use this ministry to share Jesus (which, to my mind, means you’re doing it wrong, but that’s another rant). But when it comes to working together in evangelism, this pastor really feels uncomfortable about working with any other churches. In part because—and he admits this—he wants ’em to come to his church. He knows his church’ll point you to God. He can’t vouch for any others.

’Cause we’re rougher on one another than we are on outsiders. Orthodoxy isn’t really the issue. In fact orthodoxy seldom comes up. Just about all the Christian churches we know are orthodox. Our beef is with all the other differences between us. We just can’t seem to overcome ’em.

Well… we can. We just don’t wanna.

Purity above obedience.

Competition with fellow Christians is probably the most benign of the reasons we won’t work together: We want our church body to get all the new Christians. Not the church down the street. Not the megachurch in the conference-center-size campus on the edge of town; they’re hogging all the Christians as it is! Not the tiny old-timey church in the next neighborhood… unless we’re the tiny old-timey church, in which case we don’t want it to be the hipster church in the renovated gas station. They’re sisters and brothers in Christ… but we figure they’re the competition.

And they’re not. They’re family! Same Lord. Same core beliefs. Slightly different religious practice. Less similar worship styles. But does Jesus consider them his? Of course he does. And yet… we’ve turned them into estranged family members. Like the racist uncle you don’t wanna invite to Thanksgiving anymore ’cause he always picks fights. Except this uncle actually doesn’t pick fights, and we have no valid reason for never seeing him.

Seems our “benign reason” is way more dysfunctional than benign.

Now for the less benign, more hostile reasons: We suspect those other churches aren’t real Christians. They’re too ritualistic—or not enough. Too political—or not enough, or they picked the wrong politics. Too into the supernatural—or not enough. Too old-fashioned—or not enough.

Like a couple who refuses to ever go to marriage counseling ’cause they’re convinced divorce is the only realistic option, we’re dead certain our differences are too substantial. And dead certain if we choose to set any issues aside, we’ve compromised the gospel and fallen for the devil’s schemes.

Love one another? Be one like Jesus wants? Not till they change first. Our interpretation of love keeps a record of wrongs, and seeks its own way, 1Co 13.5 claiming of course it really seeks Jesus’s way. ’Cause we assume Jesus prioritizes doctrinal purity far over his command to love one another.

There we slam right into the problem. Remember Samuel’s statement to King Saul, “To obey is better than sacrifice”? 1Sa 15.22 The “sacrifice” Samuel spoke of was ritual sacrifice, transferring our sins on an animal, then killing and eating it, and burning up the blood and fat for God. It’s a worship practice we Christians abolished ’cause Jesus did that once and for all. It’s a practice the Hebrews notoriously overdid—’cause it’s way more fun to barbecue hundreds of animals in worship, they obey God’s Law. And we’re guilty of the very same thing. It’s way more important to us to elevate our favorite doctrines, than actually obey Christ Jesus who ordered us to love one another.

No I’m not saying we compromise on orthodoxy. Nobody’s saying that. Isolationists claim we are, but only ’cause they’re trying to justify their isolationist stance. The only churches which wanna set aside orthodoxy for the sake of ecumenism, already went heretic long ago. The rest of us believe as we believe—as we believe Christ authentically teaches—and won’t compromise that, and shouldn’t. But just like the pastor whose church interacts with his local synagogue, yet still upholds the trinity: Why can’t all our churches have friendly relationships with one another, yet still individually uphold our teachings? Why must Christians and Jews get along (as we should, by the way; love your neighbor) better than Christians and fellow Christians?

Cut the crap. Love one another.