Shallow ecumenism

Last summer, some marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of ecumenism. A 1910 conference in Edinburgh seems to have developed into the milestone that launched it, but I didn’t find myself all that excited about the anniversary.  It seems to me that at the nexus of restoration and unity emerges a dangerous eventuality:  the watering down of just about everything in order to bring disparate elements together.  Inasmuch as ecumenism seeks to minimize material doctrinal differences for the sake of shallow unity, it should not be supported.  This kind of unity is not for Bible-believing Christians.

  • While we can agree that Mormons and Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals and Congregationalists and Roman Catholics and “just Christians” and Baptists and Presbyterians all believe Jesus existed, we can’t always go much further than that.
  • While we can agree that Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t correctly understand the nature and place of the Christ, we shouldn’t be satisfied that all the rest of us are just about alike.  Merely believing that Jesus is the Son of God obviously doesn’t bring us together into the single church to which God gave life.
  • While we can agree that Wesleyans and Pentecostals agree that the Spirit of God works actively, that’s not enough agreement for unity of most of their members.
  • While it strikes most as “cool” to talk to a relatively open Christian church about unity even with Roman Catholics, unity must be more than surface-level.  The seven “ones” of Ephesians 4 has for some been a starting point, but even that list is unsatisfactory in practical, 21st-century unity thinking and praxis.  See here for a bit more on an aspect or two of Eph. 4.

Institutional union such as that espoused by the Congregational Church/UCC, and by the ELCA and the UMC,  just won’t suffice.  The artificial merging or juxtaposing of humanly devised creeds is a step in some direction, but institutional union is relatively unimportant, in the grand scheme.

Barton W. Stone

My call, like that of Barton W. Stone in the 1820s, would be for every  man-made creed to be burned.  As close as the Apostles’ Creed comes to being universally acceptable, it doesn’t quite do it, and other creeds and faith-statements I’ve seen don’t do as good a job.  No, creeds must not be the basis of ecumenical unity.

Ecumenism is irenic in its conception and “nice,” as human efforts go, but it is ultimately ineffectual, if not shallow.  Its primary weakness seems to be its emphasis on the institutional church rather than on individual Christians.  The “branches” of John 15 are not congregations or entire denominations, but individuals.

In a sense, unity on the broad scale is already accomplished:  The church of God is “essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one, and consists of those in every place who profess their faith in Christ and who obey Him in all things according to the scriptures.”¹ Yet in another very real sense, individuals bear the weight of practical unity.  They must be the ones who work out in practical ways the grace, the kindness, the forbearance, and yes, the truths of the gospel and the letters.  Other unity principles and slogans bear repetition here:

  • unity in diversity
  • intolerance of division
  • separation without division
  • union in truth or unity based on “Thus saith the Lord.”

Insofar as ecumenism inculcates unity in diversity, it acknowledges reality.  Insofar as it ignores what the Lord has said through inspired authors, it must be relegated to a place of impotence.


¹ Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address” used this expression in 1809.


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