Ecumenism: The Narrow Path that Avoids Cheap Grace


The narrow path (stock photo):
On one side, a steep drop off.
On the other, a difficult climb.

In working toward better relationships–and ultimately unity–among followers of Christ, I often find people who hold two extreme views. Both of them can be guilty of fostering a kind of cheap grace.

The first are those who are satisfied with division. In the name of doctrinal or moral purity, they are quick to draw hard lines between their group and others. They sometimes even celebrate divisions along these lines, including denominational splits and reformations. These tend to be conservatives.

The other group sees unity everywhere. They simply see unity as self-evident and can’t be bothered to dig any deeper. They aren’t invested in the work of building unity by addressing the points of division head on, which can often seem too tedious to them. They often act as if unity is already present and they don’t have time to sweat over the details. These tend to be liberals.

Both sides are guilty of giving up too easily.

To the first group, yes, there may be times when some formal split may be necessary. But it’s not so simple. Scripture calls us in many places to promote the reconciliation of all back to Christ. And even if some demarcation may be regrettably necessary, we should always, well, regret it–we should never celebrate it. On top of that, no group is all good or all bad. God has clearly showered gifts to all people, even to those outside your chosen group. We can maintain hard lines, but those hard lines do not seem to match God’s actions nor God’s call to us.

And to the other side, if the rules don’t matter, then why have them? It is one thing to have a vision for unity. Perhaps from the standpoint of Christ himself, all Christians are already united in him in some mystical way that we cannot fathom. Still, that does not spare us from the hard work of making that unity visible in our lives right now. We can simply say that ‘all Christians are one’, but our Christian denominations have rules and doctrines on the books which directly contradict that. There have been mutual condemnations and other exclusionary practices. We worship separately, we do charity separately and we often marry separately. Those divisions between denominations have left a long history of real human suffering in their wake, and many of those wounds still need a healing touch. If unity were so self-evident, we should work with our churches to make sure the rules, rubrics, doctrines and practices match what we believe in our hearts.

This is why I always respect those who work hard to thread the ecumenical needles. If Christ calls us together, we should find a way to say that out loud in a way that is consistent with what our respective denominations say. Our rules and practices should reflect that. The work can be incredibly tedious when it comes to hairsplitting differences over doctrines, but again, if those doctrines don’t matter, why do we have them?

I appreciate that some folks don’t have the patience for this. They may simply say they need to live their lives today and not wait for the churches to come around. People marry across denominational lines and take part in worship celebrations across the board whether they are members or not. There is some merit in this. In some ways, these are the pioneers who help us envision a more unified future. But if we acknowledge this, we have to–by the same logic–respect the folks who want to stay within their divisions for the same reasons.

This is why I want to hold up the ecumenical workers who try to untangle this mess–so that those who feel there is a need for division can be satisfied that that need no longer exists, and that those who believe unity is the ultimate reality can be satisfied that we are able to say that out loud and be consistent in all our statements and practices.

In a time when both sides have difficulty getting excited about the work of Christian unity, I hold that this is work worth doing. But it is a narrow path that takes great trepidation to walk. But it is also a path of love–love for the churches as they are and love for the vision of the unified Kingdom that Christ calls us to. With two outstretched arms, ecumenical workers try to hold both together and become the bridge between them. This is good work.

Visit Frank Lesko’s website The Traveling Ecumenist.

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