The proper aim of ecumenism

Ecumenism in Christianity aims at unity between branches of Christianity. It’s important to distinguish, however, between unity in spirit and unity in organization.

That Christians have better dialogue, exchange of ideas, and a sense of kinship all sounds like the right approach to me. However, there is also a sense in Christianity that there needs to be unity of organization – one church, say. This to me seems an error.

First, understanding various denominations is important for 3 reasons. 1. It allows you to see what’s working in another approach, and consider how to modify it and apply it yourself. 2. It allows you to see what’s not working in another approach, avoid it, and also give constructive feedback. 3. It allows you to cooperate or coordinate on areas where there is overlap between your approaches.

Having said that, diversity of approaches can be highly useful. The basic idea is the same as in free markets. Different approaches = experimentation = success of certain approaches, iterated. This is similar to various ideas in evolutionary biology – having a certain amount of diversity of approaches is useful.

Therefore, it seems wrong-headed to me for Christians to want all Christians to move to the same church, or even to see it as primarily a competition between churches. Christianity, as a whole, probably benefits from different approaches, learning from other approaches, and being critical of approaches that seem obviously wrong. Understanding what is actually happening in other churches benefits all these points, and ecumenism properly should be about better understanding of other approaches with an approach to unity in spirit.

2 thoughts on “The proper aim of ecumenism

  1. Bruce Charlton

    I agree – but this in itself is contrary to the rules of most churches. If one regards the different denominations and specific churches as ‘merely’ helps in the Christian life, this is contrary to most Christian churches – and one would not be able (honestly) to join as a convert; not able to make the requisite promises of committments.

    The exception is some evanglical and low church protestant churches; but even with these, one could not take any positions of responsibility or authority within these churches without affirming exclusivist doctrines.

    So, if simply attending church services is enough for someone, then there is a wide range of choice. If taking communion is desired, then there are very few. If making the church a central part of your life is desired, then one is compelled to adopt a specific and partisan stance – and no serious Christian church will accept a covert unless he adopts specifci exclusive doctrines and rules.

    I don’t object to this – indeed I think it is necessary to have any kind of strong and effective organisation – but it means that unless one’s Chrstian beliefs happen to fall into a specific, predefined pattern, then serious church engagement is not an option.

  2. admin Post author

    You make good points here, but I don’t think your conclusion that “unless one’s Christian beliefs happen to fall into a specific, predefined pattern, then serious church engagement is not an option” follows.

    Serious church engagement, in my opinion, is very important. Just as Jesus said ‘the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath’, so I think with denominations. Jesus didn’t say to Matthew, “well, you can sit down with me and become my disciple, but only if you believe in doctrine A, B, C, D, E, …” If it is, in fact, very important to have serious engagement on the level of an immediate community (such as a local church), then one has to ask God for guidance, and then work to figure it out.

    It is also a mistake to think, well, I disagree with the Catholic church (say) on the perpetual virginity of Mary, therefore I can’t be a Catholic. If engaging with a local community is important, God might think it’s more important for you to ignore that aspect of Catholic belief than have complete conformity of your beliefs to the doctrinal ones of a specific church!

    I don’t have any pat answers, but increasingly my view is that broader engagement in a Christian church is important for most any Christian. Again, discernment is key here.


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