On further reflection, the book I recently read and reviewed in our last episode has a certain ‘How To Guide to Ecumenism’ vibe to it throughout. And consequently, as I think about ecumenism, an awareness dawns on me how much of it has marked my own Christian life as a 35-year-old American man.
For starters, my father was raised Mennonite, but my mother attended Pensacola Christian and Bob Jones University. They both met at Cedarville University. I grew up then with a combination of Mennonite and Baptist influences predominating. There’s just no denying the differences between Mennonites and Baptists. First-hand experience has taught me that.
What’s more, in high school, my part-time job was at the Highland County Family YMCA in Hillsboro, Ohio. I also attended the ‘One Way’ non-denominational Bible Study with kids from the Methodist, Catholic, Pentecostal, Baptist churches in town, as well as kids who had no background in the church. These too were by design and intentionally meant to be boiler-plate Christian institutions, as free as possible from divisive or upsetting dogma which would typically be associated with traditional denominations and their expression of Christianity.
What’s more, I remember now how First Baptist Church of Hillsboro, Ohio – where Lauren and I met, and she grew up – used to hold joint-services with many of the other churches in town. Irrespective of denomination, Christmas Eve every year we would light candles and walk from one church to the next, each of the houses of worship in Hillsboro having their own selection of songs and thoughtful reflections to share with the whole lot of us. The big idea was that we were all one in Christ regardless where we attended. And thus we set our differences aside, perhaps all of us hoping they would therefore not matter or else dissolve into nothingness.
Before moving back to Montana in 2012, I will confess to occasionally listening to K-Love on the radio over the years. But come to think of it now, pretty much all of Contemporary Christian Music is like this. Stripped of the lyrical particulars which might aggravate doctrinal differences between Christian denominations, the mass market appeal is also a kind of ecumenism, constantly reinforcing the core of Christian teaching like a mantra until such drowns out all but the sweet milk of the gospel message.
Then there is the fact that after we left First Baptist, Lauren and I attended Good News Gathering in Hillsboro, Ohio. Though affiliated with Willow Creek on some level, this church nevertheless emphasized sticking to the gospel and being seeker-friendly. The important thing was to share the gospel with those who either had suffered bad experiences with more traditional churches, or else those who had no experience at all growing up in church. Come just as you are, especially if you wear holey blue jeans instead of a suit and tie. Accordingly, leadership there was very conscientious about not getting in-depth about “the minutiae” of theology out of a concern such would confuse, frustrate, divide, or upset those attending, both saved and unsaved. Truth-seekers of a certain stripe were welcome, then. Yet truth-seekers past a certain point were encouraged to move along and find something different.
I also participated in Kairos Prison Ministry in Southern Ohio around that time. The volunteers – clergy and laymen alike – hailed from diverse denominations. The point here also was to focus on the gospel, and primarily to make converts among residents of correctional institutes and prisons. By God’s grace, we would make them Christians without stressing a certain tradition or confusing anyone with in-depth theology and doctrinal concerns. The songs and messages and conversations were to focus on Christ’s love for them as demonstrated, among other things, by the very fact we were taking the time to be there at the prison. And we brought a lot of homemade cookies with us to drive the point home.
When Lauren and I moved back to Eastern Montana in 2012, living there until we moved to Northern Colorado in 2019, we attended CMA churches in Glendive, Savage, and Sidney. Originally founded by A.B. Simpson in 1887 as an organized movement of world evangelism, it eventually became a denomination. And at the root, the Christian & Missionary Alliance sets aside many historical denominational distinctions in favor of the making disciples of all nations, preaching the gospel in earnest all over the world to this end. The emphasis here too seemed to be on making converts, and the discipleship process was largely focused, in my view, on teaching converts to make still more converts, and for all of the above to focus on living a life of simple love and trust for the Savior to the end of having a good testimony for evangelism.
Besides this, I have encountered more and more in recent years the increasing influence of the group called The Gospel Coalition. Their articles and resources are shared seemingly everywhere online, with their website serving as arguably the preferred resource for pastor friends and family members of mine all over the U.S. to open discussions on everything from politics to history to culture to casual observations on how mean and unwelcoming Christian laypeople can be to those who are different than they are. Again, the emphasis is on sticking to the core gospel message, and setting aside more sectarian and denominational differences in pursuit of this goal.
Yet all of this brings me to a question – or host of questions – which came to mind in reading Gavin Ortlund’s ‘Finding the Right Hills to Die On’ this past week. And not only that book, but in reading so much on theology and church history the past year, I find myself scratching my head about ecumenism.
The more I study both Church History and Modern History generally, the more unusual, superficial, and disproportionate the ideal of Christian Unity, as it’s been presented in my experience chronicled above, seems today in comparison to the depth, breadth, and intensity of discussion and debate which marked the faith and practice of the Church the past two millennia.
All over the U.S., dare I say it, the more in-depth the study and subsequent discussion, the harder the pushback seems to be to embrace a kind of latent liberalism. And this is because such is often not called liberalism at all, but is termed rather humility and peace. Thus a quenching of more rigorous analysis is often presented as imperative in the interest of focusing on the core gospel message.
Make no mistake, both Peace and Unity are generally good and praiseworthy goals. But they cannot just be had on any terms whatever. And so the details do matter as to what is being compromised even in saying we will agree to not get into certain things for fear they would threaten Peace and Unity. This holds true for the ecclesia in all spheres – civil, social, and in Christendom. But especially when we come to the doctrine and practice of the Church, I know for a fact that there is more than meets the eye for most Christians when it comes to how we define our terms and engage in the process of discipleship. And that concerns me.
It is not going too far in my estimation to say that the more peace and unity with liberalism is stressed on liberalism’s terms, the less recognizable many examples and ideals of the Bible and the historic Reformation feel. The more I ponder on this, the more I realize how that is the root of my discomfort.
But is this just my imagination? Is there a history for the past century of what we call ecumenical, made up of facts rather than merely feelings and conjecture, which can explain what forces and influences gave rise to this emphasis today on setting aside disagreements as often as possible in favor of Peace and Unity? Is there a record which makes sense of this forgoing of more rigorous researches and dialog which either confirms or denies my sinking suspicions?
As I reckon, the only way to find out is to study and consider still more, not only individually but as the Church proper, trusting such will prove both fruitful and illuminating.
10 freshly printed copies of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: A Refutation of Liberalism’ by Groen Van Prinsterer just arrived in the mail at my house.
This is the first time this important work by Groen has been available in English, and the translation was recently commissioned by my friends at RefCon Press, an imprint of The Reformed Conservative; check out thereformedconservative.org for more information.
The first ten listeners to contact me with a commitment to reading and reviewing this book, or else making a donation to The Reformed Conservative, will receive a free copy of the book as a thank you.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how you can get your copy today.
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