Evangelical Ecumenism

Evangelical Ecumenism

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.


  1. […] 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! (Online source) […]

    Pingback by DR. RICHARD MOUW: EVANGELICAL ECUMENISM – Reformata — December 2, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  2. Living in pluralistic societies, I am all for being courteous to the Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox (which includes allowing them to call themselves Christian), but the vast majority of them remain nominal Christians, who still need to be washed by the blood of Christ.
    I just wish those traditions were as charitable with us though. In Greece where I live, the Greek Orthodox are the majority, and I have been greatly persecuted because of my Protestant faith. In my opinion, the Catholic and the Orthodox (especially the latter) still represent subnormal Christianity, and if their teachers can tolerate so much error in their traditions and in their midst, I would have a hard time to trust such teachers.
    I do not imply we should not learn from others. But I tend to learn best from teachers who attract me and have the spiritual gift of teaching.

    Comment by Konstantinos Kalpakidis — December 3, 2008 @ 10:45 am

  3. Encouraging post.

    Like Konstantinos, I grew up in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Loved the culture and tradition (Greek in my case too) but learned very little about the gospel. In those days Greek Orthodox churches in the US insisted on doing all their services in ancient ecclesiastical Greek, so I had no idea what was going on even though I understood modern Greek.

    Ended up learning about God and committing myself through a Campus Crusade guy in high school. Got much, much deeper through InterVarsity Christian Fellowship types at university.

    After graduating,somehow ended up at Fuller. Then spent about 15 years advancing the conservative American evangelical cause among university students in Southern California with IV.

    Then wanted something potentially deeper and more authentic.

    So spent 15 more years building urban poor missions here in the US and around the world from a more ‘enlightened’ American evangelical perspective.

    Now I’m in my 50’s and glad for all that.

    At this stage of life I’m starting to understand better that God is very, very large. Gotta embrace my path but hope for more.

    Sort of wish those Orthodox leaders way back when could have given it to me in English. Who knows how that story might have played out?

    Comment by Tom Pratt — December 6, 2008 @ 9:38 pm