I gave some talks on another campus recently, and someone observed to me that some of my best examples and quotations came from Catholic thinkers. I am well aware of the ways in which I have been learning about Christian faithfulness in recent years from non-evangelical Christians: Catholics especially, but also Eastern Orthodox thinkers and some mainline Protestants.
Evangelicals should not have allowed the latitudinarian Protestants to co-opt the label “ecumenical.” We too are—or at least we ought to be—a people who love the whole oikos, the entire household of the faithful. To be sure, we have been justifiably suspicious of the “organizational unity” endeavors of Christians who are fond of inclusivist councils and mergers. But that merely signals a commitment to a different style of ecumenism, one that emphasizes cooperation in common tasks, such as evangelism and mission. When we think of ecumenism in these terms, Billy Graham is one of the most important ecumenical leaders in the twentieth century!
In my present ways of thinking about the Christian life, the idea of mystery looms much larger than ever before. We evangelicals express a sense of mystery in our hymns, but that sense of awe before the mysteries of God’s grace has not always carried over into our theologizing. I have been learning much about mystery from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican writers.
But the very experience of learning from people whose traditions I have distrusted in the past has itself been an occasion of encountering the divine mysteries in new and exciting ways. The Holy Spirit continues his ministry of renewal in all sectors of the Body of Jesus Christ. As people who claim the power of that Spirit in our lives, we have no other choice but to discern and identify with his work of renewal wherever it is happening.
We evangelicals also have to learn some ecumenical lessons even closer to home, however. We must find new ways to live with diversity in our own midst. Roman Catholics decided long ago that encouraging diverse “orders” to pursue their unique callings and emphases is no real threat to consensus on the basics of Catholic identity. Evangelicalism also has diverse “orders,” and we must learn to appreciate this diversity as a sign of theological and spiritual health. This is turn will enable us better to appreciate the diversity that exists beyond our evangelical borders.
In all of that, however, I am convinced that we must keep our sense of evangelical identity alive. In distributing his gifts to the entire Body, the Spirit has graced the evangelical “orders” with unique sensitivities and memories that are crucial for the building up of the whole church for obedience. We are a people who have been blessed with a strong devotion to the authoritative Scriptures, and with a special burden for the lost. Evangelicals have a unique way of celebrating the gift of an authoritative Word, and of exercising the gift of pointing men and women to the Savior whose blood is the only power in the universe that can cleanse us of our unrighteousness. There has never been a more exciting, or a more urgent, time in the human drama for these gifts to be shared lovingly and widely. We have much to learn from others. I hope we are viewed as having some important things to contribute to the larger church as well.