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September 4, 2012Leadership

Cooperation, Ecumenism, and Elitism: Learning, and Even Cooperating, with Others without Compromising What You Believe

The last time I spoke at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, my friend Dr. Roy Fish invited me to speak to his class. Dr. Fish introduced me with something like the phrase, "Ed is the most ecumenical person I know." It's interesting, because to Dr. Fish that was a very gracious compliment (and I took it that way). However, when that phrase is used in my denomination about me (or others), it is generally not a positive comment.

What Dr. Fish meant was that I tend to build bridges and engage in relationships with people both inside and outside of my denomination. For some people having relationships with Christians who are not in your denomination is not just bad, but it is seen as a threat to the denomination itself. (I have the letters to prove it.)

I obviously don't see it that way. I see having relationships and friendships with Christians outside of your denominational tradition to be a good thing-- a Christ-honoring thing. I don't see my denomination as a prison, but as a home. It's a home that I stay in, I'm comfortable in, and my theological values are reflected there, but I can go out and visit others and learn from them.

That is one of the basic differences between fundamentalists and evangelicals-- and it is often called "separation." Fundamentalists "separate" from people and organizations that believe things they consider wrong-- hear Kevin Bauder explain it better that I can. (There is also something called "second degree separation" where you separate from those who don't separate from people that believe things you consider wrong.) Although it is a bit different as a "speaker" rather than a denominational head or pastor, we all practice separation to a degree. The question is at what point and for what reason.

Regardless, "fundamentalist" and "ecumenical" are perceived to be opposites. Certainly, exceptions exist, but one of the reasons I am not a fundamentalist is that I do believe in learning from, speaking to, and under certain conditions, partnering with Christians in other traditions. (I've written on the subject of how I decide where to speak in an earlier blog.)

Now, I'm not anti-fundamentalist. I actually like them quite a bit. The best of them are passionate, they love the gospel, and in most cases, their desire is to reach people for Christ. However, I believe one of the dangers of fundamentalism is that it can become an insular movement, unable to learn from others. And, there are times when I see that impulse often in my own denomination as well-- the idea that we should only learn from ourselves-- only from those who live in the same denominational house.

In contrast I think most evangelicals have a passion for learning from one another, and conservative evangelicals specifically can do so while maintaining a theological framework and still appreciating and respecting the views of other Christians.

For example, I recently saw someone question why we would quote Christians from other eras and other streams of Christianity in The Gospel Project. They were shocked we would include a quote from C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Herman Bavinck, or some ancient church fathers. Why were they concerned? Because they were not part of our denomination.

Yet, my view is that this impulse to only learn from people just like you often means you will never learn anything new-- your presuppositions will not be challenged. You will never be challenged to consider opposing views or differing ideas. Furthermore, it fosters the belief that only members of your denomination are the real Christians. This can, and often does, lead to theological inbreeding and elitism. As a result, theological shallowness is all but guaranteed.

Ironically, those who often espouse this position have no issue opening up a hymnal every Sunday morning and signing hymns authored by persons of different denominations-- Methodists ("O for a Thousand Tongues"), Presbyterians ("When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"), Anglicans ("Amazing Grace"), Pentecostals ("Majesty") and more. Yet they sing these songs without fear that their theological system will not be corrupted. Perhaps it's because it's in a hymnal!

So I'm thankful for what Dr. Fish said. I would not self-identify as "ecumenical," partly because of the word's association with the Ecumenical Movement which has historically, in my view, blurred theological distinctives for the sake of common unity. Instead I've written on many occasions on the opportunity for mutual learning, which I call "candid cooperation" and why I don't generally participate in interfaith endeavors.

We must realize that there are many things on which we will agree with other Christians, and there are some things on which we will not. However, we can have a candid conversation-- and yes, even cooperate-- on things such as evangelism and community ministry in that process. (Though we need a different approach in things like church planting, as I shared here.) So, I am a Baptist, but I also am an evangelical who can, and does, help Anglicans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and folks with no denomination at all.

Yet, some in every denomination seem to want to put on the blinders and not learn from other brothers and sisters in Christ here today and those throughout the ages. They desire to create a self-affirming theological and regional subculture that perpetuates the belief that only they-- or those who think just like them-- are right. I, however, think that your belief system should be strong enough to engage with other evangelicals and learn from them, while at the same time holding to the essential truths we find in the pages of Scripture.

Yet, it is beyond just quoting. We can and should, in some ways, cooperate with other Christians when desirable. My denomination expresses the value of such cooperation in it's statement of faith, saying:

Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.

We must cooperate and work together as the functioning body of Christ for the sake of the nations and to the glory of God. And when doing so, there is no place for denominational elitism. Make your denomination a home, not a prison. Listen to and learn from others. And, visit some other homes-- just remember that you can always go back to yours.

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