Ecumenical Is Not a Four-letter Word

Gary Kinnaman 

For many, “ecumenical” means one world church, compromise, apostasy. In fact, for most people it’s just a more sophisticated term for unity. An online dictionary defines it simply as “promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world.” The term comes from the Latin oecumenicus, which means “belonging to the whole inhabited world.”

More broadly, “ecumenical” refers to something that includes or contains a mixture of diverse elements or styles, so you could have an ecumenical meal of German, Italian, and Chinese dishes.

And “ecumenism” is movement about unity.

With all that said, I think I prefer just using the word “unity.” It’s what Jesus famously prayed for in John 17, that we would be one as the Son and the Father are one, that is, that Christian believers would experience the transcendent and perfect unity shared in the communal being of our Triune God. 

To describe John 17 unity, I lean heavily on the adjective “transcendent,” like the peace of God that transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:6-7). In other words, unity is something we can experience and live, but it may not be possible entirely to define it. In fact, as soon as we define precisely the unity of the Spirit, what it is and what it isn’t, we also create a kind of unity screening system that we can used to decide who can and who can’t in unity with us. Unity with parameters is an oxymoron.

Unfortunately, those of us who live in a Western culture don’t think a lot about transcendence. Mostly, we want things neatly defined so we can know who’s right and who’s wrong, but according to 1 Corinthians, love triumphs over every difference. In I Corinthians 13:2 the Apostle Paul writes, “If I … can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love,” I’m just making a lot of noise.

A recent article on ecumenism from the on-line “Vatican Insider” reports that Cardinal Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict, stood firmly on transcendent unity.

“For a true ecumenism to exist it is important to recognize the supremacy of divine [transcendent] action and there are two consequences to this attitude. The first is that ecumenism requires patience. The real success of ecumenism” does not consist in constantly reaching new agreements, in new “contracts” on different aspects of the separation. It “consists in perseverance, walking together, in the humility which respects the others, even where we have not yet achieved a compatibility in church doctrine or practice; it consists in the willingness to learn from each other and to accept each other’s corrections, in joy and thanksgiving for each one’s spiritual treasures, in a permanent essentialization of one’s own faith, doctrine and practice, which must be continually purified and nourished by Scripture, while we keep our eyes fixed on the Lord.”

Unity is about fixing our eyes on Jesus, submission to one another out of reverence for Christ. It’s what I like to call Jesus plus nothing. Many things are very important, but only our shared relationship with Jesus is essential. 

If your heart and brain can take it, there’s much more to consider in the full article: