Cooperative Ecumenism: Being Different without Being Distant

Guidelines for working together while maintaining our theological integrity

Can Christians belonging to different traditions – Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox – work together while keeping their distinctive commitments intact? A growing number of Christians are asking this question as they find themselves laboring side by side in evangelistic efforts and renewal movements, Bible studies and prayer groups, pastoral training and political causes such as Right to Life.

The question can be asked two ways. On the one hand, given our differing beliefs, can we overcome frictions and tensions in order to cooperate with each other effectively? On the other hand, can we achieve harmony in any way other than by suppressing and forgetting about our differences?

I am convinced it is possible. Indeed, many groups of Christians are learning to do it. From their experience, I believe we can distill principles for ecumenical cooperation that lead neither to blow-ups and bad feelings nor to a loss of our theological convictions.

Three Types of Ecumenism

First it is helpful to recognize that not all ecumenical efforts have the same aim. There are various kinds of ecumenism, and many problems can be avoided if we keep them distinct.

The kind of ecumenism we are concerned with here can be called “cooperative” or “grass-roots” ecumenism. It is different from “dialogue” ecumenism and “structural” ecumenism.

In dialogue ecumenism, theologians from various churches discuss points of disagreement and explore convergent ways of expressing what the churches hold. The participants in the dialogue seek for clarity of topics that have been shrouded in obscurity through cultural prejudice, polemical attitudes, and ignorance. Both sides make an effort to understand what the other side has been trying to say, and to talk through points of controversy in a spirit of charity.

Ecumenical dialogues have borne real fruit. For example, the document on justification produced in 1983 by a Roman Catholic-Lutheran dialogue in the United States is a very valuable contribution to Catholic-Protestant understanding. [Now updated by The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ), agreed to by the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999]

Structural ecumenism involves official leaders of Christian bodies working to join their churches in a structural union. Several Christian bodies around the world represent the results of such efforts. The United Church in Canada, in Australia, and in South India, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America (two Lutheran bodies which are themselves moving toward merger), are each an example of a church produced by joining together smaller bodies of Christians.

By contrast with dialogue and structural ecumenism, cooperative ecumenism does not necessarily involve official leaders and representatives of the churches. It is mainly the work of ordinary Christians, which is why it can also be called “grass-roots” ecumenism. The goal is to accomplish certain tasks or to share aspects of Christian life.

In cooperative ecumenism the focus is not on resolving theological disagreements, let alone trying to achieve structural unity. Rather the participants take what they already have in common as the basis for doing something together.

Of course, participants may personally be quite interested in the theological issues and earnestly desire to see their churches brought together. But they recognize that direct progress toward these goals must come on the official level. Efforts to overcome theological and structural divisions on the grass-roots level can only be frustrating and can even damage cooperative enterprises. Christians who engage in cooperative ecumenism do foster the long-term goal of Christian unity, but they do so by carrying out activities that build understanding and love between different Christians, not by tackling theological and structural issues head on.

Christians engage in cooperative ecumenism for many reasons. We find that we have similar concerns and viewpoints. We face common challenges and experience common needs. However, the most significant motivation for ecumenical cooperation is the reality of our relationship to Jesus Christ. We are brothers and sisters, baptized into Jesus Christ and by virtue of that fact are joined to one another, whether we like it or not.

Numerous expressions of cooperative ecumenism have sprung up in response to these factors. Among them are:

  • Publications. Many Christian book publishers publish the works of both Protestants and Catholics. There are ecumenical periodicals – Living Bulwark, for example.
  • Evangelism and apologetics. Protestant evangelistic organizations, particularly those reaching out to young people, have always been ecumenical among Protestant evangelicals, but in the last few years some of them have begun to work across Protestant-Catholic lines as well. Some, for example, are beginning to work in Catholic countries in Europe in ways that help bring the gospel to nominal Roman Catholics without urging them to leave the Roman Catholic Church. The Cursillo Movement, although it began as a Catholic evangelistic movement, is often able to work in an ecumenical way. In the field of apologetics, Southwestern Baptist Seminary, some leaders of Campus Crusade, and Catholics in the International Academy of Philosophy have worked together in recent years to present reasoned arguments against contemporary atheism.
  • Practical instruction about Christian living. James Dobson is an example of a Christian leader who is able to give practical teaching on family living and other aspects of daily life that is helpful to Christians from many different church backgrounds.
  • Schools.
  • Prayer groups and Bible studies, spiritual renewal groups and movements.
  • Renewal communities, like The Sword of the Spirit.
  • Social and political action movements concerning issues such as abortion, pornography, and religious liberties.
  • Relief of the needy.
  • Movements for fidelity to the basic truths of the gospel and the renewal of the Christian people, such as the Allies for Faith and Renewal conferences sponsored by the Center for Pastoral Renewal.

The Ties That Bind

How do we engage in these kinds of ecumenical endeavors without jeopardizing either our cooperation or our different theological positions? I would suggest twelve principles.

The first I would call the principle of the family tie. This principle involves loving one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

In recent years Christians from a wide variety of backgrounds have been coming to recognize that they have brothers and sisters in Christ in churches different from their own. They may still find much that they cannot accept in one another’s churches, but they acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters in Christ,

This is a very promising development because, in fact, we do have a relationship in Christ; we have a family tie. And the relationship carries with it obligations. This is clearly the scriptural teaching; for example, look at the First Letter of John: if we recognize each other as brethren, we are acknowledging a bond that we must express practically, concretely, in love.

In an ecumenical group, this bond determines the way we work out the various difficulties and obstacles that we encounter. There is a parallel here with the way that members of a natural family ought to treat each other. In my family, I have some serious differences with my brothers. One of them is not a Christian at all, and his world view is very much that of a secular humanist. But he is my brother, and that determines the way we handle our differences and difficulties. Despite problems we treat each other with respect, and help each other as we are able, and do not speak about each other critically in front of other people.

No Other Foundation

The second principle I call the principle of the one foundation. In cooperative ecumenism, we base our common life and work on the great truths shared by all Christians. Our cornerstone is Christ himself, as the apostle Paul says: “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11).

We are not gathering together simply because we all have good intentions; we are not merely humanitarians. And certainly we do not base our unity on a common set of interests – we are all interested in education, we enjoy conferences. We are coming together because we love Jesus Christ. We want to dedicate ourselves to him, to his service, to his cause in the world. We are united in our faith in the incarnation of the Son of God, in his atoning death and victorious resurrection. We are united in our knowledge of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – one God, three Persons – and  in our conviction that the Bible is the word of God and is authoritative for our lives. Even though we hold different views of baptism, we acknowledge our common baptism into Christ.

This is a strong foundation. To stand on it together does not mean engaging in “lowest common denominator” ecumenism. In mathematics, fractions are combined by reducing them to a lowest common denominator. To come together as Christians on the basis of a “lowest common denominator” would mean reducing our Christian beliefs to whatever minimal formula we could all agree on and forgetting about everything that did not fit into the formula. But the principle of the one foundation does not mean that we regard everything we disagree on as unimportant. It means that we appreciate the greater importance of the faith that we already share. It means emphasizing our existing unity rather than our differences, even though we maintain them.

Theologians sometimes speak of a hierarchy of truths. They mean that truths are related to one another in a certain ranking or order; certain truths of the Christian faith are more foundational than others. While holding to the full doctrinal position of their different traditions, Christians can nevertheless come together on the basis of the most fundamental elements in the hierarchy of Christian truths. When we are involved in a common ecumenical effort, we need to keep reminding each other of this foundation we share.

Don’t Rush Ahead

There are differences between us, and those differences need to be recognized rather than ignored. That leads into the third point, which is what I call the offside penalty. The reference is to soccer. Being “offside” involves running ahead of the ball, getting ahead of your own men.

Some folks involved in cooperative ecumenism run ahead of their church. Commonly, for instance, Christians get offside regarding inter-communion. A group of Catholics involved with a group of Protestants will say to themselves, “Experiencing such a profound union in the Holy Spirit, how can we deny our unity by not sharing in the Lord’s body and blood?” Then they “go ahead” of the Roman Catholic position and share communion.

I am not saying anything about whether I think the Roman Catholic teaching on the issue is right or wrong. The point is that, whatever one thinks of the teaching, it is the Roman Catholic position to refrain from inter-communion. Catholics or Protestants who ignore it may be trying to foster Christian unity by the sharing of communion. But Catholics who do so subject themselves to serious criticism from within their own church and in the long run create more suspicion and bad feeling than real unity.

On the other side, I believe Protestants make a similar mistake when they join in certain Catholic practices, such as Marian devotions, as a way of expressing their solidarity with a group of Catholics. In some Protestant churches, members who took part in Marian prayers would be viewed as abandoning biblical teaching, possibly giving cause for their dismissal from the church. Again, the tensions provoked within their own church might actually impede progress toward ultimate unity.

I Will Support You

Fourth principle: the imperfect marriage. The principle concerns our supporting fellow Christians in their church commitments even though we see their churches as imperfect. The comparison is to a brother or sister or close friend who marries someone we do not think is a good partner. Once the couple have formalized their commitment, we do not seek to break up the marriage. Rather we take the marriage as a given and do what we can to support the two in living out their commitment as well as they can.

I do not believe that church commitments are of the same order as the marriage commitment. But the “imperfect marriage” analogy serves to show that there are situations in which we do support a person in a concrete relationship to someone or something, even though we think that someone or something has some serious flaws.

But how, it might be asked, can we honestly be committed to supporting our fellow Christians in their church commitments? Doesn’t that mean we are encouraging them to adhere to teaching or practices that we believe are defective or mistaken?

No, not directly. Our fellow Christians have decided to make commitments not just to particular positions we disagree with, but to entire churches and Christian traditions. Those churches and traditions contain not only some elements which we may view as deficient or incorrect, but also many which we can agree are right and good. The key question for us to ask ourselves is not whether we agree with everything the other person’s church teaches (obviously we do not) but whether, despite its deficiencies, we can recognize it as a real Christian communion in which God is at work. If so, we can say, “I wouldn’t have chosen that “partner for you, but since you’ve chosen it for yourself, I will support you in being faithful in that relationship.”

From my past experience when I was a pastoral leader in The Sword of the Spirit, which is an ecumenical community, I found myself on several occasions caring for a Roman Catholic who was having difficulties with Roman Catholicism, or for a Presbyterian who was having problems with Presbyterianism. I have referred them to the people who are responsible for their relationship with their church – their priest or minister.

Because I am committed to supporting brothers and sisters in our community in their church commitments, situations like this have spurred me to study other churches. The more I have studied, the more I have appreciated. I am neither a Roman Catholic nor a Calvinist, but I have come to be able to make a decent case for Roman Catholicism or Calvinism. Indeed, I have sometimes held forth on the virtues and strong points of those traditions to brothers and sisters who were part of those churches.

If they reach the decision not to continue in a commitment to their church, that changes the situation, and then I will talk with them from a different angle. But as long as they are committed to another church, I seek to support them in that. (Of course I am referring only to churches that are clearly Christian bodies, not non-Christian groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.)

Headache or Blessing?

Speaking of appreciating the strengths of other traditions leads to the principle of the blessing of in-laws. This builds on another family analogy. When a person marries, he or she is marrying into another family-gaining in-laws. This is challenging. The in-laws present many potential problems, but there are also benefits. Inlaws can make a real contribution through wisdom shared, help extended, care for children, and sometimes financial provision.

Whether in-laws turn out to be a headache or a blessing depends to a great extent on the attitude that the couple takes.

Similarly, without losing sight of disagreements between our traditions, we can benefit from the treasures of other Christian traditions. It largely depends on whether we are looking for and expecting a good relationship.

I personally have benefited enormously in this way in our ecumenical community. As soon as I was willing to drop the walls of prejudice that I had set up to institutional Christianity, I began to appreciate spiritual treasures there which now I would not want to do without. I think of what reading about Francis of Assisi has meant to me – and going to Assisi and praying there. Even reading about Ignatius Loyola-the founder of the Jesuits and not a man who sympathized with Protestant views-has inspired me, and so has reading about the North American Jesuit martyrs, The Desert Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition have come to mean a great deal to me.

I know many brothers and sisters who are Catholic and Orthodox who have come to appreciate men and women like John Wesley and Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael and Gladys Aylward, to whom they have been introduced by Protestants in our community.

Admittedly, the anti-Catholic or anti-Protestant attitudes of many of those who have written about such people are an obstacle to other Christians’ appreciation. In the times when many of these great people lived, relations with separated Christians were often marred by prejudices and unfair judgments, and even very admirable Christian men and women often shared these views. But there are treasures to be found, if we can overcome these problems. The acquaintance with other Christians that we gain through cooperative ecumenism can be an opportunity for discovering more of the vast spiritual inheritance we have as Christians.

Secret Agendas

The sixth principle is the principle of the nonaggression pact. In a cooperative ecumenical venture, we must agree not to actively seek to convert other Christians to our own church. Seeking converts is experienced as aggression against the other person’s commitment and naturally provokes defensiveness and the suspicion that everyone has a Secret agenda.

To say that we are not going to seek actively to bring other Christian brothers and sisters into our church does not mean that individuals never make changes according to changing convictions. Nor does it mean that we do not speak to one another about all the dimensions of our faith and the disagreements that we have with other traditions. It does mean that we are not engaging in practical ecumenical activities from the point of view of Seeking to bring the other person around to our way of seeing the truth.

Principles seven, eight, and nine are closely related. They concern the importance of not behaving in our cooperative ecumenical groups or organizations as though everyone belongs to the same church tradition.

Cultural Sensitivity

I call number seven the principle of culture shock. As Christians become involved with one another in cooperative ecumenical activities, they encounter each other’s distinctive cultural expressions. Some of these expressions stem from theological positions; they all reflect different cultural and historical experiences.

Catholics notice that what they call the “Our Father” Protestants call the “Lord’s Prayer” and pray with an addendum about “Kingdom, power, and glory.” Protestants see Catholics crossing themselves and genuflecting. Protestants also notice that Catholics and Orthodox use pictures of Jesus, Mary, and notable Christians of the past-which Protestants generally do not do; Orthodox notice that Catholics in addition use statues, which Orthodox generally do not do. Everyone finds each other’s music and devotional practices unfamiliar.

We may find some of these differences interesting. We may find others disturbing, even offensive. The social environments we create in our ecumenical groups and organizations need to minimize this second reaction. This does not mean that, as a courtesy to each other, we refrain from using controversial religious expressions in ways that imply that everyone in the common ecumenical setting accepts them. Neither does this mean that we abandon these particular expressions, but only that we restrain ourselves from seeming to impose them on others. Each of us has many other times and situations outside the ecumenical setting in which to make use of the full range of manifestations of our own Christian tradition.

In our own community we make a distinction between “common situations” and “church situations.” Common situations are those where the whole body is together or where there are groupings of brothers and sisters from different church backgrounds. Church situations are those in which our church groupings – Reformed, Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and nondenominational – meet, and occasions when a family or group is together in which everyone is from one church background. In the common situations we avoid cultural expressions that involve points of difference or which are likely to seem very foreign to some members.

Most Christians tend to be oblivious of ways in which other Christians find some of their cultural expressions disturbing or offensive. Especially if we ourselves are theologically inclined, we may mainly think about divisions in terms of theological differences. But most ordinary Christian people experience the divisions on the cultural level. What songs are being played? What are the words? Is that a cross or a crucifix? What kind of robes is the person wearing?

It was hard for many of the Catholic brothers and sisters in my community to understand that I had a negative reaction to crucifixes. It was based on both my Protestant and my Jewish background. I could appreciate the way that a crucifix could inspire them in worship, and I did not object to Catholics using crucifixes in their homes, for example. But it was important for the Catholics to see the inappropriateness of using crucifixes in common community situations.

Inclusive Language

Eight, the principle of the exclusive part. This concerns how we speak. It is all too easy to speak about things in ways that implicitly exclude some of the Christians who are present. Those Christians are then in the uncomfortable situation of a person invited to a party where an “in-crowd” dominates the conversation. We unwittingly create this effect when we use terminology such as “non-Catholics” or “non-Baptists.” The obvious implication is that our group is Catholic or Baptist – surely not the message we want to send if we are trying to work ecumenically.

To use terms familiar only to people in our own tradition without explaining them is also exclusivist. The terms may not be controversial, simply unfamiliar.

I still remember the first time I heard about a “novena.” I had no idea what a novena was, and the Catholics who were talking did not stop and explain (it turns out to mean making a petitionary prayer for nine days, a practice that recalls the nine days which the apostles spent together in prayer between Christ’s ascension and Pentecost).

Protestants sometimes use terms connected with church order – synod, presbytery, classis, calling a pastor – which make Catholics scratch their heads and wonder what is being talked about.

All of us grow up with certain terms in our respective traditions, and they become second nature to us. In cooperative ecumenism we have to make a conscious effort to learn what parts of our tradition need to be explained to other Christians.

By What Authority?

The ninth principle is the principle of the abuse of authorities. In an ecumenical setting, if we are presenting teaching, giving an explanation, or making a proposal, we should be careful to use as authorities only what everyone recognizes as authoritative. Otherwise we are giving the situation the flavor of a particular tradition, and those who do not recognize the authorities appealed to will feel excluded or manipulated.

We certainly do have scripture as a common authority, although we are not all in agreement on the canon of the Old Testament. Some of us recognize additional authorities, to various degrees. For instance, some traditions consider the creeds of the ancient church to be authoritative, but others would view them as less than authoritative, although to be taken very seriously. Some would put church councils and the early Fathers of the church in the authoritative category, while others would not.

In addition, in some traditions there are certain great teachers of the past who are especially influential. In one setting, to cite Thomas Aquinas clinches an argument. In another setting, it is John Calvin.

In all such cases, in an ecumenical group we should never take it for granted that the authorities we are used to citing are acceptable to everyone.

An example of the problem is the use of the deutero-canonical, or apocryphal, books of the Old Testament. Some Christians regard those books as scripture. Others treat them as books deserving great respect but not on the level of scripture. Anyone referring to these books in an ecumenical setting needs to be careful not simply to cite them as scripture. I wrote a book called The Angry Christian in which I quoted some sayings from the book of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus. In the preface I explained that it is a book which not all Christians regard as scripture but which all can at least recognize as a source of wisdom about godly living. I think that such an approach is the kind we need to take in an ecumenical setting.

Honest Differences

My next recommendation, number ten, is the principle of the honest mistake. This principle applies to how we view our theological disagreements.

Even in cooperative ecumenism, where we are not concentrating on the issues that separate us, there is a place for talking about our doctrinal disagreements. If we take each other’s sincerity and commitment to Christ seriously, we can see the positions which other Christians take as mistakes that a Christian could honestly make rather than as deliberate attempts to distort the truth. This perspective allows us to discuss issues without calling our relationship as brothers and sisters into question.

Some years ago, before I had much contact with Roman Catholics, I thought that the Catholic Mass was idolatrous. As I have gotten to know Catholics who are fine Christians and who believe the Catholic teaching, and as I have studied the Roman Catholic position, I have come to see that it is clearly not idolatry. I still do not agree with it, but I have come to respect it.

When we speak about our differences, we ought to be seeking to understand them more clearly, rather than seeking to persuade each other of our own positions. This is related to the principle of the nonaggression pact that I mentioned earlier. That kind of informative, non-threatening conversation changed my view of Roman Catholicism. When I really began to listen to what Catholics believed, I was able to recognize my prejudices and preconceptions for what they were. I began to see their position as reasonable, even when I was not persuaded of the truth of it.

Know Thy Tradition

The eleventh principle is the principle of the educational imperative. I put this near the end because the ten previous principles ought to make clear our need to learn about one another, and we cannot do that properly unless we know something about our own tradition. We need not only to learn about each other through reading, studying, asking questions, and engaging in relationships with other Christians; we also need to educate ourselves about our own tradition. Sometimes we get into difficulties in our ecumenical relationships by defending positions that are not necessarily the positions of our own church. I know that I have been in that situation, and others have too.

Finally: Forbearance

A final principle is the deportment of non-defense. It simply means not being touchy when our brothers and sisters in Christ violate all the other principles. We are going to be in situations where people from other church backgrounds do not handle things the way I am suggesting.

And, obviously, even if we are trying to follow these principles, we ourselves are going to make lots of mistakes. But if we start off with a genuine commitment to work together, to work past the difficulties and the differences, to make allowance for the mistakes that our brothers and sisters make (and desire that they make allowance for our mistakes), not being defensive and overly sensitive, and forbearing in love, then we will be able to cooperate with one another successfully in the service of the Lord.

Cooperative Ecumenism: Being Different Without Being Distant, by Mark S. Kinzer, was first published in Pastoral Renewal, Volume 10, December 1985, © The Alliance for Faith and Renewal. Reprinted in 1996 by Tabor House in How to Be Ecumenical Today: Cooperative and Convergent Ecumenism.

Top image is a montage of Cross in Sunset with a quote from John 17:21: Image of cross is from, © by Virrage Images, stock photo ID  50160386.

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