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Kingdom ecumenism

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).


  1. Brian LePort wrote:


    Well said, I say “amen” from the inside. I do wonder what the response from others may be as regards being able to decipher what God is doing from our own apostatizing tendencies? For instance, a Roman Catholic may agree here but then say there is no way the Spirit of Christ is leading the church to change A, B, and C. Even I wonder what the difference would be as regards being wise and avoiding false teachings and ideas and being wise and recognizing the work of the Spirit.

    Any thoughts/advice here?

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 11:28 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Well, certainly I don’t think there’s a way to secure, in advance, certainty that we will be right about the Spirit. Hence the need for constant discernment, repentance, and prayer for the Word of the Lord to reveal itself everanew in the life of the church.

    The one thing that I think is absolutely vital is that we be obedient at every point where it is clear that the Spirit is working, even (especially?) if that lies in those “outside” of our ecclesial structures and lines of division. In a sense what this requires is for us to live “as if” such separations do not exist because, in Christ they in fact do not. There’s just nothing more important or true than that.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Brad A. wrote:

    I’m largely in agreement, but I do wonder how we know what the Spirit is up to in a way that doesn’t itself devolve into disputed interpretation rooted in prior tradition. That’s what I would foresee as the primary concern coming from some quarters.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I think that argument is destined to continue.

    However, what I want to continue to do is say that it isn’t just about how we “interpret” what the Spirit is up to; rather it’s about what what the Spirit in fact does. Certainly all of this is wagering on the hope that the Spirit is indeed real and active and that, despite our unfaithfulness God will be proved faithful ever and again. And that ultimately the truth of what the Spirit is doing will be established as true by God’s own action, such that it isn’t for us to interpret so much as to obey. That’s what I see in the narrative of Acts, where the apostles and the church are, little by little, “forced” as it were, to see that truth of what the Spirit is doing. Our only hope lies in the Spirit continuing to do just that.

    So all of this needs to be couched, as I see it, in very real and serious prayer: Come Holy Spirit!

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
  5. Brad A. wrote:

    Agreed on the prayer, but how would what the Spirit does be communicated to us unequivocally so that we can obey without interpreting? I’m trying to figure out how your paragraph in this latest comment would work, such that the church would recognize and obey.

    In Acts, it seems interpretation is still at work on multiple sides, and the Jerusalem Council, for example, is a nice picture of competing interpretations resolved. I’m really not trying to argue the point, but rather understand how your vision here would look.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Well, a lot would hinge on what exactly we’re talking about when we say “interpretation” and how we utilizing that term in the discussion, which I think would take us afield from the main point I’m thinking of here.

    The main thing that I believe this would look like would be a certain willingness to disregard ecclesiastical boundaries when and where we recognize the Spirit at work salvificly (which as we’ve already sort of hinted at is no easy task, but its part of the task of discipleship).

    For example, I do not feel I can do other than acknowledge that the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work in the life and work of the Berrigan brothers, who are Roman Catholic. In light of the work of the Spirit there, I do not feel like I could do other than regard them as brothers in the fullest sense. Thus, if I were to have opportunity I would not limit our fellowship in any way, “Catholic vs. Protestant” difference notwithstanding.

    That’s kind of the “kingdom ecumenism” I have in mind.

    One final thing about “interpretation” and “tradition.” Certianly we all exist in traditions and we all interpret our experience, including our experience of the Spirit. However, that fact doesn’t really change anything one way or the other in this question. Unless of course we’re trying to say that everything is just subjective all the way down and we don’t acknowledge at all that God’s Word may have the power to speak decisively and freely, transforming even our most determined and ingrained proclivities toward misinterpretation. And I don’t think you’re saying that. But sometimes I feel like the language of tradition and its relation to communual formation often has the function of simply doing away with the idea that God’s Word and Spirit are free, and can “break on through to the other side” so to speak.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Brian LePort wrote:

    I like what you are saying about loving “as if” these differences don’t exist. It doesn’t overlook the differences, but rather sees them as non-entities where it really matters, in God’s eyes. Sadly, as you have said about groups like the Roman Catholics, to move in this direction would, likely, be the demise of their ecclesiology and we know how important that is to Catholic identity.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Permalink
  8. Brad A. wrote:

    No, I’m with you on this in terms of my own desires and ecumenical sensibilities. I think my questions stem from a couple things. First, the fact of my own overtures sometimes being rejected or only allowed to progress so far, with the explanation that the other “side’s” theology won’t allow for it without some sort of adjustment on my part (which often involves narrowing my field of vision wrt the activity of the Spirit). So what do you do when your openness to unity isn’t shared by the other?

    Relatedly, my point on interpretation is simply that if we’re going to talk about discerning the Spirit (and discernment is clearly necessary here) toward obedience, then we’re going to be talking about various processes and criteria of discernment. This has nothing to do with what God is able to do, of course, but rather with our reception. “When and where we recognize the Spirit at work salvificly” is precisely the disputable question I’m talking about. We’d need to begin with an openness and willingness to learn from the other possible ways in which the Spirit operates perhaps contrary to our expectations (e.g., even in more narrowly defined, objective sacraments?). Ecumenical dialogue would, it seems to me, need to work through that first.

    Wednesday, March 2, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  9. Ben Sternke wrote:

    This is fantastic: an ecumenism that actually pre-supposes the ongoing activity of God. Thanks.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 7:42 am | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    Brad, briefly I think I’d answer as follows.

    First, since life together in Christ’s love is noncoercive it may well be that openness is at times all we have. By this I of course don’t just mean a sort of passive availability, but an active openness of love in which we act towards others “as if” (i.e. “because really”) their reasons for rejecting us do not determine our love for and posture towards them. But we cannot control their response. There again we must trust the work of the Spirit.

    Second, I think your comment that we must begin with getting “various processes and criteria of discernment” down before we can receive one another is really the king of logic of “ecumenism as usual” that I critique in the post (not sure that you intend it that way, but I think that’s where it leads).

    Certainly we need to constantly work to recognize the Spirit’s work. That is a given. But there is just no way, in my view, to achieve practices of discernment in advance that give us a secure place to start. Our processes and criteria, no matter how ecclesial or traditionally-rooted are just as likely to inhibit as to obey the Spirit’s work (I think the history of Israel and the church bears this out quite clearly).

    So to be sure we need to always begin, everanew with openness to wherever the Spirit may be it work, but it seems to me to be a mistake to try to figure out, in advance based on our communal criteria or tradition how and where the Spirit will work. The whole history of the Spirit in the NT is one in which the Spirit acts in ways that people do not expect, are not prepared for, and only “discern” because the Spirit actively and decisively makes known where and how God is acting.

    So really this comes down, in some ways, to what we believe about revelation and how God can and does work (or not). My presupposition is basically Barthian in that I hold God’s self-revelation to be self-attesting and to contain in itself the condition of its intelligibility and truthfulness such that our reception of it is not ultimately a matter of “interpretation” but of obedience or disobedience.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 8:10 am | Permalink
  11. Brad A. wrote:

    Halden, as usual, I think we’re in more agreement than not. (And btw, is there any way to allow more “Reply” levels?)

    I am in complete agreement on the first point, and I never doubted your position vis-a-vis your last paragraph, though I’m still trying to figure out from that claim how exactly we come to know what it is we are to obey. On your second point, I do not, in fact, think we have to establish processes and criteria in order to be true to the content of the first point. At no point did I say that we need to secure anything in advance. I’m simply saying we need to be aware of the difficulties that will inevitably come up, and I’m wondering aloud how we would address them toward a friendship that includes the possibility of worshiping together. On that point, can truly open ecumenism as you’ve described it here actually deny others’ definitions of ecumenism as you describe them in the first two paragraphs?

    True “ecumenism,” in my mind, would need to include dialogue and conversation; it can’t be reduced our own orientation toward the other. So does our “active openness of love” include receiving the other party’s response of, “No, that’s not how the Spirit acts”? What do we do with that? Again, how should our openness handle others narrowing possibilities of understanding the Spirit in a way that allows conversation to continue?

    Keep in mind that I say this as someone active in such a context for a number of years now. I have enjoyed fellowship and friendship “ecumenically” during this time, in various ways and to various degrees. However, while I hold such friendship as incredibly important, even definitive in certain aspects for ecumenism, some of those same friends of mine would say that we still cannot worship together (perhaps even denying my own congregation the status of “church”) for various doctrinal and liturgical reasons. I am very much open to the contrary, but it is as yet impossible. Your concern for a neglect of “God, and in particular [a] willingness to proceed as if the triune God is not in fact a free and living Lord” would make no difference since they are firmly convinced that the lordship of the triune God in Christ is precisely what they’re acknowledging and attempting to be faithful to in their own doctrine and liturgical/sacramental practice. So what precisely is to be accomplished here “ecumenically”? Are you saying my continued openness to them itself qualifies as “ecumenism”? Is that openness prepared to receive their own form of obedience?

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  12. Brad A. wrote:

    It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Catholic (or other) resistance is located primarily in attempting to defend institutions for their own sake, and only secondarily (if at all) for the sake of faithfulness to the gospel.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 9:22 am | Permalink
  13. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Brad, it seems to me that your concerns are ultimately rooted in precisely the kind of framework that must be rejected. I think, at the heart of the problem, is that you are presupposing that the purpose of ecumenism is institutional unity. If the primary concern of ecumenism is institutional unity then this will inevitably lead us to what we might call “ecumenism-as-negotiation.”

    Even if we grant that the primary motive behind, say, Roman Catholic ecumenism is “for the sake of faithfulness to the gospel,” the problem is that such faithfulness is still seen as a matter of defending a given institution. The whole approach to ecumenism as “dialogue and conversation” that is geared toward negotiating a kind of formal unity of doctrines and liturgical rites is precisely the problem. What we need, as far as I’m considered, is to put an end to the kind of ecumenism that seeks to establish institutional unity. In other words, what we need, and I think this what Halden is ultimately arguing for, is an end to “ecumenism” as such, because it is always bound up with the kind of distinctions (Protestant vs. Catholic, etc.) that are, in Christ, an unreality. The problem with ecumenism, in other words, is that it operates according to the flesh, according to the logic of distinction and exclusion of the old world that is now passing away.

    Christian unity is a only ever a matter of divine action; we must refuse to think it otherwise. It is for this reason that the only method of “ecumenism” is prayer for the Spirit to come.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Permalink
  14. Good post Halden and great comments. Seems like Christians willing to make any compromise with the ‘world,’ from slavery, to genocide, to Hydrogen bombs, to godless capitalism/communism, often reject fellowship with those suspected of the slightest shade of difference of some obscure doctrine (from rapture time-lines to anologia entis). I was just reading Russian poet Akhmatova so let me offer an insight here from her poem. “The Last Rose:”

    With Morozova I should Bow and obey,
    I should rise with smoke from Dido’s pyre,
    I should dance with Salome.
    And thus be again with Joan in the fire.

    Oh Lord! You see how tired one grows
    Of resurrection, and dying, and living,
    Take it all except this crimson rose–
    Let me feel the freshness of the gift it’s giving.

    I ain’t sure why Dido is included here, but Feodoria Morozova was a follower of Archpriest Avvakum, and a martyred saint of the ‘Old Believers’ (those that resisted the ecclesiastical reforms of Patriarch Nikon and subsequently refused to fellowship with any other Orthodox Christians (or anyone else for that matter). At the extreme is the Lykov family I am reading about (“Lost in the Taiga” by Vasily Peskov), a single family of old believers that moved further and further into the Taiga forest pursuing religious purity and fleeing persecution (first from the ROC then from the commies–who have their own host of ecumenical issues!). They lived isolated there for 50 years until discovered by geologists looking for oil in 1978. A cautionary story, pray for our dear sister Agafia, the sole surviving Lykov, she still lives alone in the Taiga even after finally visiting with other remote ‘Old Believer’ nuns at Deriabi but found their differences unreconcilable :-( She could benefit from the wisdom of the Townes Van Zandt song I was singing just last night:

    “All things at our life
    Are brothers in the soil
    And in the sky
    And I believe it
    With my blood
    If not my eyes
    I don’t know why we can’t
    Be brothers here
    I know we should be
    Answers don’t seem easy
    And I’m wonderin’
    if they could be.” T.V. Zandt Hi, Low, and Inbetween.

    Van Zandt knew his bible and apparently his Balthazar: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14). And from HUVB, “Even if a unity of faith is not possible, a unity of love is,” Obliged (by blood, if not by sight).

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 5:54 pm | Permalink
  15. Brad A. wrote:

    No, Ry, I think you’ve misread me. What I’m asking about is how we approach unity via an ecumenism of openness as Halden’s suggested, when the people with whom we hope to be united share a different understanding of it. And of the church. And of the activity of the Spirit, etc.

    I think ecumenism, by definition, is aimed at the unity of the church, but I don’t conceive of that primarily, or even necessarily, in institutional terms. And I never suggested otherwise. I see such unity much more in terms such as Phil 2:1-4. Moreover, I agree that our unity in Christ is the fundamental reality in this context.

    But it is a reality that must be lived into. You assert that unity is only a matter of divine action, but I wonder how this can be since it requires obedience, a point to which Halden seems to allude above. If unity were fully present and actualized regardless of that, then Jesus would have no reason to pray to the Father for it, and the apostles would have no reason to repeatedly exhort believers to it in the face of factional division. Yes, we pray for the Spirit to come, but it seems both unbiblical and simply strange to suggest that we don’t participate; that would amount to the “passive availability” that Halden rightly precludes.

    Moreover, you prompt what is for me a deeper concern: if we are to be open to the full potentiality of the Spirit, then who are we to preclude the Spirit’s possible presence and activity in conventional ecumenical discussion over institutions of doctrine and liturgical rites? Doesn’t genuine openness to the Spirit suggest at least the possibility that others are being faithful in attempting to safeguard certain understandings of how the Spirit operates? It seems to me that an “active openness of love” would preclude rejecting that. Indeed, rejecting the defense of a given institution as you do here would require proving that (a) the Spirit is not active in that institution, and (b) that the institution itself quenches the Spirit in some way. Until you can make that case in specifics, I’m not willing to “put an end to” discussion over the institution (sounds coercive to me), even if I don’t participate in that institution myself.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 5:56 pm | Permalink
  16. Ben W. wrote:

    I’ve been musing over this the past couple days, and it truly is beautiful. I have the pleasure of living in an ecumenical community in Ann Arbor this year, and it has been incredible for me to see this in practice. It’s encouraging to see unity across denominational barriers; it really seems to be a glimpse of the Kingdom breaking in. And I’ve come to the same conclusion as you: that it is only by the Holy Spirit that we can truly be united as one body. It’s not about making compromises, but it’s about rejoicing in the one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. Thanks for capturing that. Peace.

    Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink
  17. Peter wrote:

    Yes, very much so, but;

    Isn’t there a process by which our differences are brought to the cross rather than them being simply annulled so to speak?

    And doesn’t trying to discern and embrace the presence and activity of the Spirit (unfortunately) engender just as much disagreement as consensus?

    I would have thought that part of the lesson from Acts is that aside from the clearly miraculous, sometimes the presence and purposeful activity of the Spirit is eventually revealed in robust disagreements over the genuine differences which are unavoidable in real life.

    Can we infer then that some of the dialogue which continues to take place over our perceived differences may also eventually yield the fruit of the Spirit, and be seen in hindsight as being in truth a part of ‘Kingdom ecumenism’.

    After all, wouldn’t it be fair to say that invalidating such discussion may be seen at cross purposes with the main argument?

    * * * * *

    And yes, it really is staggering to think that with Christ in common we still manage to find so much to argue about…


    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink
  18. Peter wrote:

    BTW, the passage;

    “If the Gospel …. continues to do“.

    Is as cogent as it is beautiful,


    Friday, March 4, 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

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