The Path to Ecumenicity
I love biblical ecumenicity. I am thrilled that “…the Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself, by his Holy Spirit and Word, in the unity of the true faith, a church, chosen to everlasting life…”1I am thankful that our “Catholic and undoubted Christian faith,” can promote unity and cooperation.2I relish reading in the pages of Acts and the Epistles about cooperation between churches and believers. I’ve enjoyed serving on denominational committees for church unity. Along with our elders and congregants, I have worked hard to pursue ecumenicity on a local level. I’ve been enriched by expressions of inter-church fellowship that have left an appetite for more.
But, perhaps like you, I have experienced frustration over how churches are sometimes content to allow ecumenicity to remain at a formal, denominational, and theoretical level. Biblical ecumenism is possible because of spiritual unity, but it is practiced through concrete activities that promote tangible fraternity. So, what does ecumenicity look like locally?
The answer is not immediately obvious. The Church Order of the URCNA simply says that, “Fraternal activities between congregations … may include occasional pulpit exchanges, table fellowship, as well as other means of manifesting unity.”3In addition to pulpit exchanges and communion, what are some “other means” of expressing practical ecumenicity? Much of the literature on the subject focuses on the important subject of what we might call macro-ecumenicity or formal, denominational ecumenicity.4There seems to be much less written on what we might call micro, or local, ecumenicity.5To help move forward the pursuit of more meaningful catholicity at the congregational level, I suggest three main action items our churches should take.
Evaluate Ecumenical Commitments
Most meaningful endeavors begin with evaluation. In the pursuit of biblical ecumenicity this will mean several things.
First we should evaluate the ecumenical history of our congregations
Ask questions like, “What does our congregation know about faithful churches in our area? On what level of fraternity are we with other congregations? How often does our church pray for other local churches? How have we partnered with regional churches in gospel ministry?” Secessionist churches whose history has been characterized by isolationism might have to overcome significant hurdles before engaging churches outside of their congregations and tradition.
Second, we should evaluate our ecclesiastical reputation
Our ecumenical efforts will be affected by how other churches perceive us. Is your church known for being cooperative or schismatic; affirming or judgmental? For better or worse perception will often be the reality upon which other churches will decide to interact with your congregation.
Third, we should evaluate our current challenges
What keeps us from connecting with other churches? Are we hamstrung by past conflicts with other local congregations the fallout of which continues to keep congregations at arm’s length from each other? Maybe your congregation has overreacted against the broader ecumenical movement and needs to learn to distinguish between true and false ecumenism. Maybe your church fears that engagement with other churches will lead to distraction, theological compromise, or ecclesiastical wanderlust. We must avoid the cult-like habit of discouraging our congregations from positively connecting with the broader church (Cf. Mark 9:38-41) and firmly trust Christ to build his church as He pleases.
Fourth, we should evaluate our congregation’s ecumenical goals
For some churches that might not take long! Perhaps we lack goals because we subtly assume that ecumenicity happens spontaneously. If we do have goals for promoting practical catholicity, we should determine how much energy we are exerting toward those goals.
Evaluation helps us identify the true starting point from which we must move forward in pursuit of realistic goals.
But goals call for activity.
Exemplify Ecumenical Activity
As church leaders, we must lead by example. This means a number of things.
First, church officers need to practice ecumenicity before they preach it
Perhaps much of our teaching on ecumenicity falls flat because it is not birthed out of real experience. But a church will seldom be more ecumenical than its leaders. One way of leading by example is for ministers to join their local ministerium. Even when local clergy groups are formed from a broad theological spectrum — an often unwelcome situation for confessionally-minded leaders — they can help a minister think more ecumenically. Further, if community spiritual leaders are having ongoing conversations about religious matters, should we not participate? In my own experience, being part of the Carbondale (PA) Area Ministerium has allowed me not only to speak from a confessional perspective during the meetings, but also to contribute to a weekly newspaper column called “Faith Matters” (to which I try to contribute with disproportionate regularity!). Beyond the ministerium, church leaders should develop relationships with other local church leaders outside of their own congregation. The enthusiasm that results from deepening personal inter-church relationships can be contagious.
Second, ministers should preach ecumenicity
When preaching Lord’s Day 21 (if you preach from the Heidelberg Catechism), or John 17, or Ephesians 4, or Psalm 133, etc. ministers should bring the theology to bear on their local situation. In Ephesians 4, for example, Paul teaches on the catholicity of the church. He says, “There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call — one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all” (vv. 4-6). But Paul starts that chapter by admonishing believers to walk worthy of the calling with which they were called (v. 1).
In our preaching and teaching we should apply the “body principle” of the church, beyond our congregations. The principles of 1 Corinthians 12 describe the interconnectedness of both believers and churches; there is one church with many parts have been brought into intimate koinonía, or fellowship (Cf. John 10:16). Fellowship could be briskly defined as “having in common, and giving and receiving.” Believers are called to give and receive for the benefit of the body. If we have study habits, enthusiasm, policies, seriousness, joy, or evangelistic zeal, we must share these things with those who differ from us. Perhaps “they” have something to teach us as well.
We should also preach about the dangers of failing to be ecumenical. We need to remind our people that, as Christian churches continue to functionally disregard each other, the world will increasingly perceive us as schismatic and irrelevant (John 17:21). Our effectiveness will be reduced, and our churches and believers will become more prone to imbalance. In a hostile world a robust, Reformed witness requires practical catholicity.
Third, leaders should help their congregation develop and apply a standard for fellowship
Specifically, we need to figure out how to engage churches around us by allowing both theology and geography direct our ecumenical energies.
In the early years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, J Gresham Machen and Ned Stone house attempted to express the unity of Christ’s church, “while at the same time do justice to their confessional commitment to the Reformed faith … by recognizing different levels and purposes of fellowship and unity.”6They recognized that even dissimilar churches of Christ already have some relationship with each other. The crucial task is to figure out how respective proximity or distance, both theologically and geographically, impact that relationship. Such an approach can help congregations develop a protocol for interacting with all congregations that cross their path. In a sense, denominational affiliation as well as networks like the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) can help us to pursue relationships with regional churches of similar theology.
But how do we engage local churches outside our theological “inner-circle?”
First, we should exercise a judgment of charity; not by ignoring the marks of the true church, but by charitably using those marks to evaluate other churches. The Second Helvetic Confession, is helpful: “Hence, we must be very careful not to judge rashly before the time, nor to exclude and cast off or cut away those whom the Lord would not have excluded nor cut off, or whom, without some damage to the church we cannot separate from it.” 7
Second, we should attempt to develop meaningful relationships with neighboring churches. For some churches, limiting their ecumenical activity to NAPARC churches would rule out practicing local ecumenicity. Those churches that are closer to us in proximity might be further from us in theology. But the fact that they are our neighbors should drive us to at least pursue ecclesiastical neighborliness. Doing so will help us avoid caricaturing their theology, and, if possible, help them find a better way.
Exercise Practical Ecumenicity
What follows are three areas in which we might begin the work of practicing local ecumenicity.
First, we should work to cultivate common ground between congregations
One of the simplest ways of doing so is to introduce NAPARC to our own congregations. It might be news to our congregations — perhaps to our leadership — that NAPARC members have committed “…to advise, counsel, and cooperate in various matters with one another, and hold out before each other the desirability and need for organic union of churches that are of like faith and practice.” We agree to “exercise mutual concern in the perpetuation, retention, and propagation of the Reformed faith” and to “promote cooperation wherever possible and feasible on the … local level...”8Better yet, we might introduce to our congregations local churches of NAPARC, and pray for these congregations publicly. Our folks need to know that we value these churches and that we have more than a formal relationship with them.
It might also be helpful for Reformed churches to teach through the Westminster standards, and for Presbyterian churches to do the same with the Three Forms of Unity.9By so doing our congregants will note how much commonality we have even with respect to our differences.10
Second, be pro-active, persistent, and patient
Some of us may be more comfortable being on the receiving end of ecumenical contact. Remember that the officers of the churches in your region might have a different notion of ecumenicity; if we don’t take the initiative, perhaps no one will. Ecumenically minded churches will also be persistent. Churches should beware of defending their so-called ecumenism by citing long out-of-date examples of inter-church interactions. Persistence and regularity is critical; local churches might be skittish and need repeated contacts and phone calls between leaders before a relationship can bud. Relationships that are forged will need steady nurturing to remain healthy. One caution: As we take initiative we should be careful to be patient, wise, and respectful. “Keep in mind that rushing to get commitments too quickly can kill a budding partnership. Allow God to build the relational foundation for the ministry efforts that will come later.”11
Third, be creative
What follows is an attempt to give shape to the nebulous “other means” of manifesting unity referenced earlier. Consider these suggestions and brainstorm for more!
- Hold joint church picnics between congregations. Depending on the liturgical differences you might face between other congregations, this less-formal way of expressing church unity might be advantageous.
- Participate in joint prayer meetings. Reconsider your decision to never again participate in community National Day of Prayer gatherings (being fully prepared to hear myriad atrocious prayers). By participating we take the opportunity to demonstrate our interest in the people of the city, while at the same time modeling biblical prayer.
- Hold joint worship services. With due diligence in considering potential practical and theological concerns, combined Christmas Eve services, Good Friday services, Reformation Day services, or occasional combined evening services can bear great fruit. Some potential awkwardness can also be avoided by hosting the service rather than being hosted.
- Organize occasional conferences, speaker series, or choral concerts. Approach these types of events as genuine opportunities to be sharpened, to enjoy fellowship, and to strengthen solidarity among local believers. Depending on where you live, your conference might also be a great way to introduce people to sound theology and worship.
- Promote and participate in pulpit exchanges. The small congregation I pastor has come to know and appreciate dozens of other churches and their respective denominations through pulpit exchanges. Not only do pulpit exchanges capitalize on various ministerial gifts in building up the body, they also can help build awareness and trust between congregations.
- Brainstorm. Might your church participate in cooperative mission, education, or relief efforts? Would involvement in local pregnancy resource centers or prison ministries be more effective if the work-load were shared? Could you form a joint softball team with another church? What if your church held an in-house ecumenicity symposium so the members could share ideas by which you could partner with other believers?
It is not enough to confess our belief in the catholicity of the church by way of the Apostles’ Creed. It is not enough for our churches to be mutual members of NAPARC if our membership amounts to a badge of Reformed conservatism. We need to take the principles and the commitments that we’ve already made through our NAPARC involvement, and which are impressed upon us in the Word of God, and translate them on the local level. When that happens we’ll no longer have to “sell” ecumenicity. It will easily sell itself.