We are well accustomed to think of ecumenism in terms of how different denominations, communions, and systems of ecclesial organization and unity seek to come together in common. Ecumenism, as we have learned to understand and contribute to it involves churches (though the very name “church” is itself contested in the struggle) who are separated from each other by doctrine, practices, politics or some combination thereof. Ecumenical effort seeks to remedy this problem of inter-ecclesial division. Thus representatives of various ecclesial organizations meet and discuss their various theological, pastoral, and practical differences in a hope of finding ways to enter into communion with each other. What happens in ecumenism is a constant exercise of examining our differences and disagreements and seeing whether or not they are a sufficient obstacle, a truly relevant condition for us remaining separated from each other in fellowship (usually defined by taking the Lord’s Supper in common and acknowledging each other’s legitimacy in the ministry of the Gospel).
This, I think, is a fairly uncontroversial and commonly-held understanding of what Christian ecumenism is about. Ultimately ecumenism is about taking a look at the differences that separate Christians from one another and seeing if they can be resolved, or if they are really serious enough to keep us separate. This is ecumenism as usual.
Theologically speaking, however, I’ve come to find this understanding of ecumenism increasingly problematic. At the forefront of its problems is its fundamental lack of concern or regard for God, and in particular its willingness to proceed as if the triune God is not in fact a free and living Lord. If the proclamation of the Gospel truly requires the proclamation that “there is no ____ or _____, you are all one in Christ Jesus,” then our questions about unity must proceed, not on the basis discovering the legitimacy or non-legitimacy of our conditions of union with one another, but rather with the confession that all our conditions are illegitimate. It is precisely our conditions for receiving one another or refusing to do so that are nailed to the cross with Christ. What God has done in Christ and continues to enact ever anew by the Spirit is the abolition of all human reasons for not being at peace with one another. Christ has broken down, in his body of crucified, flesh any “legitimate reason” human beings might have for being separated from one another, from refusing to acknowledge one another as brothers and sisters adopted together with Christ.
If the Gospel really is true, if God in Christ has really acted and continues to act as our free and living Lord to save and transform the world into the kingdom of God, our question can never be “What is the condition of our unity with one another?” There is no legitimate condition for giving ourselves away in love to one another other than the triune declaration Cross and Resurrection. If Christ has been raised, and if, in him all humanity is transformed and made new, there is no reason, doctrinal, political, pastoral, sacramental, or otherwise for us to legitimately refuse to receive one another. For us to refuse this, or try to fudge it seems to me to be nothing more than a refusal of the Gospel which proclaims, not what we ought to do and the proper conditions for doing it, but what God in Christ has in fact done and continues to do.
Thus, it seems to me more and more that, if we are to go on talking about ecumenism it must proceed in a manner altogether different than what we have come to understand as ecumenism in the last century. What is needed today is not an ecumenism of ecclesiastical organization and negotiation, but a kingdom ecumenism in which our only question can be “What is the God revealed in Christ, and active in the Spirit doing in God’s mission to save and transform the world, and how do we say ‘YES!’ to that in all situations?” Our ecumenism must become centered firmly on the inbreaking Kingdom of God, wherever that is to be found in our world. Our goal as true “ecumenists,” as those seeking to witness to and participate in God’s oikonomia is to say “Yes” to whatever God’s transforming Spirit, the Spirit of the Living and Risen Jesus is doing in this world.
This, I think is the ecumenism we see in the book of Acts, in which the Apostles and the earliest Christians slowly and falteringly learn, bit by bit, that any prior conditions for unity that they may have, but be set aside in light of the freedom of the Spirit of Christ. Just so Peter learned to proclaim “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Likewise we must learn to say “‘Can we withhold our fellowship, our table, our possessions, our friendship, partnership, and time from any of those in whom the Holy Spirit is active?” If our ecumenism is an ecumenism of the kingdom, in which our question can only be, “What is our free and living Lord doing in the world?” our answer must always be “No, we cannot withhold ourselves where the Spirit of Jesus is present in power!” An ecumenism of the kingdom means the end of insisting on our “legitimate reasons” for rejecting one another and calls us to “welcome one another as God in Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15:7).