Let me clarify my title right away by saying that I am not opposed to the ecumenical movement. I believe that in many ways this movement, rightly understood, is the hope of Christianity, and in the long run even of the world itself. However, I am concerned over some facts and trends that ecumenism should take into account if it is to avoid serious distortions and perversions. There is a real need for some negative thinking about ecumenism for the sake of ecumenism itself.

One of the concepts that has been a source of strength to the ecumenical movement is encounter, the encounter that takes place when a Christian meets Christ in another Christian. A common love, faith, and loyalty engender an instant kinship, a joyful mutual recognition, that leaps across all national, racial, social, political, ideological, and denominational differences. Differences continue to exist, but they no longer irritate and divide.

Unfortunately, much that is regarded as encounter seems to be something actually quite different. It is rather a phenomenon that occurs as ecclesiastical bureaucrats associate with one another. Are you acquainted with TAUPCE and UMHE? Do you know Dr. Esel of Marburg and Monsieur Lemoine of Brussels? Have you ever met Bishop Satsuma of Japan? Are you familiar with that fine report on the inner city by Moderator Igreja of São Paulo? Some people think that if you can answer yes to these and similar questions, you have had an “encounter” in the authentic sense. Sometimes that may be so, but more likely the “encounter” is really only a superficial acquaintance among veterans of much briefing programming, scheduling, and budgeting, a relationship in which there is nothing specifically Christian. These veterans come to enjoy a professional camaraderie that is warm because of what they endured together but shallow because procedure has been allowed to crowd out substance. In this way there develops an international and interdenominational set that feels it embodies the ecumenical movement. But surely the Kingdom of God is not to be measured by the number of people we know on five continents nor by the extent of our immersion in the religious alphabet soup.

A major emphasis of the ecumenical movement is, of course, church merger. The text usually quoted in support of merger is Christ’s prayer that his disciples “may be one … that the world may believe.…” This is generally interpreted to mean that unless the Christian denominations unite in a single structure, the world will not believe.

Article continues below

Few Christians would deny that an effective witness in the world may require some mergers. There is no reason why denominations that have lost their vitality must be continued, why structures developed to meet conditions that no longer exist are sacrosanct, why new challenges should not lead to the unification or reunification of church structures when we can accomplish our purposes better jointly than separately. But these truths are not so simple as they seem, nor so one-sided.

One need not assume that when Christ prayed for oneness among his disciples, he meant that we should be housed in a single organization. Unity and uniformity are not synonymous. To “be one” does not necessarily mean to be all alike. The record of history shows that the same Holy Spirit who unites churches also divides them for the sake of a purer faith, a more vital spiritual life, and a more effective witness.

The existence of one organization rather than several is no guarantee that the world will believe, this has been amply demonstrated. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church has had a monopoly in South America for several centuries, but the Christian witness on that continent has been notorious for its feebleness, corruption, and ineffectiveness. In the United States, however, where we have had a great number of denominations, the Christian witness has been much more vital and effective. And who would doubt that the dissenting churches in England have been a real asset to Christianity in that nation, and that the spiritual life of the people has been enhanced by the fact that not everyone was in the Church of England. The reasons why mergers will not necessarily accomplish what many ecumenists so uncritically expect are not hard to see. The larger and the more encompassing an organization is, the bigger its bureaucracy becomes. As we know only too well from secular life, large bureaucracies nearly always mean red tape, inflexibility, resistance to change and new ideas, and a separate corporate spirit alienated from and unresponsive to the constituents.

In arguing for merger, ecumenists often point to the weakening of denominational loyalties in this country. The fact cannot be denied. Most church members are quite ignorant about the doctrines of their denomination, unacquainted with their denominational history, insensitive to the ethos that is—or was—characteristic of their church. They know little about their denominational structures and programs. In a mobile society, people shop around and change from one denomination to another for quite frivolous reasons—this church has a popular preacher, the next has a fine choir, another is conveniently close, still another has “the best people in town.” The issues that excite and divide church members, such as conservatism vs. liberalism, are not denominational issues; they cut across all denominations. And this lack of concern over denominational differences is, of course, even stronger among the non-affiliated.

Article continues below

It is not the fact that is wrong, then, but the conclusion that ecumenists draw from it, namely, that denominational merger is the remedy. The weakening of denominational loyalty is lamentable chiefly because it signifies a weakening of the Christian faith itself. It is mainly in the context of the great traditions that the individual Christian understands and shares in the treasures of the faith. From the ecumenical viewpoint, Christians who lack distinctive church ties have little to contribute. It is those who are well grounded in their denominational heritage who contribute the most—Baptist emphasis on personal decision, Episcopal sense of beauty and continuity in liturgy, Lutheran emphasis on doctrinal purity, and so on. If we are all alike, what do we have to give to one another? So long as there exists an appreciation for the common core of Christian truth through the ages and among all churches, so long as a strong sense of spiritual kinship pervades the churches, Christendom is actually strengthened by its differences. The total witness of the Church is made impressive and beautiful by the harmonious blending of many different notes.

Closely related to ecumenism is the problem of theology. One sometimes feels that the theological issues are ignored. It is true, of course, that man is not saved by orthodoxy alone. It is also true that too detailed and meticulous an insistence on doctrine can be undesirably divisive. Nevertheless, to ignore theology is dangerous. Theology is the attempt of men to worship God with their minds, as Christ instructed them to do. There is a danger that creeds will become watered-down doctrinal statements developed much as political party platforms are. This essentially political way of arriving at truth is out of place in the Christian Church. The rightness of a doctrine is not measured by the number of those who subscribe to it. The United Presbyterian Church has tried to get around the difficulty by lumping together a number of creeds without bothering about inconsistencies and contradictions. Were all the denominations to handle the theological problem this way, the members of the merged church would be subscribing to a library. The compendium idea shirks the responsibility of facing and attempting to solve theological problems. A faith without content, or whose content is full of contradictions, cannot be the Christian faith.

Article continues below

Finally, ecumenism has taken an increasingly interventionist stance. Ecumenical bodies are taking strong stands on race, war, poverty, housing, integrated schools, and many other social matters. Whether church bodies should properly tangle with political issues is hotly debated among Christians. My own position is that some intervention is necessary and proper. The Church should minister to all the needs of men, and that includes those political, economic, and social needs that are so desperately central to human welfare.

But the danger of this interventionist stance is that church bodies will make pronouncements and engage in political activities that are inadequately grounded in theology and Scripture, hastily decided upon without the assistance of technically competent advisers, and categorical when they should be tentative. There are signs that the ecumenical movement has gone too far. Having justly criticized the Church for complacently accepting the status quo, many ecumenists have leaned toward an uncritical endorsement of revolution. If one-sided political conservatism is wrong, it does not follow that one-sided liberalism is right. A new intolerance is born that can be just as undiscriminating as the old, and it extends to vocabulary as well as persons. Words like “sin,” “salvation,” “sanctification,” and “justification” are regarded as outworn and irrelevant. But “dialogue,” “interaction,” “open end,” “cutting edge,” “responsible,” and others are supposed to be precise, relevant, and full of meaning. In short, the ecumenical movement is threatened with a loss of Christian balance, the sort of balance that enfolds in the household of faith Christians who not only make many mistakes but make different kinds of mistakes. Some ecumenists need to be reminded that, while the Gospel is relevant to political and social issues, it is not identical with even correct solutions to these issues but transcends them all.

All of us who have high hopes for the growth and success of the ecumenical movement should seriously consider the dangers that threaten it, and do what we can to eliminate them.

Article continues below
John 17:21 And Church Union

In church synods and interdenominational conferences on church union, John 17:21 (“that they all may be one.…”) is frequently quoted. But it is seldom if ever interpreted in the light of its immediate context nor in the light of the whole Gospel of John. The ardent champions of union quote the words as if they were the final sanction or even the absolute command of our Lord that the churches, as we know them in the twentieth century, should unite.

Furthermore, this text is almost never interpreted in relation to the higher unity explicitly stated in John 10:30, “I and my Father are one.”

It must be pointed out, to begin with, that John 17 is a prayer for the unity of the disciples of Christ. There is in this chapter no specific mention of church (ekklesia) or churches. Only by inference or extension, which may or may not be valid, can the prayer be applied to the Church. Obvious though this fact is, it is generally ignored in discussions on church unity.

Supposing, however, that we accept the assumption that the prayer, as a prayer for the unity of the disciples, is also, by implication, a prayer for the unity of the Church, we must then ask what is meant by, “that they all may be one.” Do these words mean that Christ desires that there be one Church in a unity of administration and organization? Such an interpretation is certainly not warranted from a study of the text.

In each of the three places in John 17 where Jesus prays for the unity of his disciples, he qualifies this unity by comparing it with the unity he has with the Father. The three passages are these (italics added): “… that they may be one, as we are” (v. 11); “that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us …” (v. 21); “that they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one …” (vv. 22, 23). Thus if we would know the nature of the unity that Christ desires his disciples to have, we must look beyond it to the unity he has with his Father. And there is no doubt that in these verses there is a reference back to John 10:30, “I and my Father are one.” The interpretation of John 17:11 and 21–23 depends—as Tertullian, Novatian, and especially Athanasius made clear—upon the interpretation of the unity stated in John 10:30.

And so the early Church found in this far-reaching claim of Jesus (“I and my Father are one”) the clue to the secret of the relationship between the Father and the Son. In it they found the assertion of the distinction between the Father and the Son that the Sabellians denied, and also the assertion of the unity of the Father and the Son that the Arians denied. The unity of the Father and the Son is one in which there are “personal”—or, to use the technical theological term, “hypostatic”—distinctions. This is the kind of unity that is to be the pattern for the unity of Christ’s disciples.

Article continues below

Therefore, if we want to apply John 17:21 to church unity, we must postulate a unity in which are distinctions and allow for distinction-within-unity. William Barclay says,

What was that unity for which Jesus prayed? It was not in any sense an ecclesiastical unity. It was a unity of personal relationship. It was a unity of love for which Jesus prayed [The Gospel of John, Philadelphia, 1955, p. 255].

And William Temple, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and great leader of the ecumenical movement, wrote as follows:

The way to the union of Christendom does not lie through committee-rooms, though there is a task of formulation to be done there. It lies through personal union with the Lord so deep and real as to be comparable with His union with the Father. For the prayer is not directly that believers may be “one” in the Father and the Son. The prayer is “that they may be in us.” It is not our unity as such that has converting power; it is our incorporation in the “true Vine” as branches in which divine life is flowing [Readings in St. John’s Gospel, London, 1940, p. 327],

This type of unity is explicit, also, in the Pauline doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ—“one body, many members” (Rom. 12:4, 5; 1 Cor. 12:4–31; Eph. 4:4–16). By using the term “body,” Paul is able to include the concepts of organic wholeness, the interrelationship of the members, and the self-identity of each individual.

This idea of unity made it possible to speak of one Church in the era of the Fathers, when each church was autonomous, yet all were united in the one Church of Jesus Christ. The unity of the Church is a unity-with-distinctions.

It is certain that discussion about church union will continue. It is equally certain that there may be cases where distinctions between “churches” are invalid or where, through the passing of time or because of the missionary situation in which the “churches” are set, the distinctions will become meaningless and a hindrance to the Church’s mission. At such times let those churches unite. But let us be honest enough to stop trying to argue for church union by false exegesis of the high-priestly prayer of our Lord.—The Rev. JOHN H. JOHANSEN, pastor, Bruderfeld Moravian Church, South Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.