Ecumenical has not been a friendly word in my lexicon. In my younger years, our small church, and much of our community was in a defensive mode, somewhat fundamentalist and afraid that if we got involved with “liberal” mainline Protestants, it was the beginning of a slippery slide to a faith lukewarm.
This major rift within Protestantism, between a growing Evangelical world (and in my case more specifically Pentecostal) and mainline Protestants had enormous consequences. At stake, so we believed, was that their theology might erode our trust in the Scriptures and in Jesus as the only way to the Father. That made ecumenical dialogue something to avoid.
Yes, we were too sectarian and our reaction often unnecessary, stoked by what we sensed was a manifest lack of respect by mainline churches for who we were and what we believed. These two perceptions soured our sense of each other and resulted in a loss of mutual witness of Christ to our world. We also lost potential in working together to do good within our communities.
That’s why recent days spent in Bogota Columbia, as part of the Global Christian Forum, was important. Various major groupings of the global church met to affirm friendship and strengthen Christian witness and bonds in the life of Jesus. Here’s how this came about.
A little history
In the early years of this century, four groups formed a global grouping to share concerns within a dialogue framed by love and devotion to Jesus. This group would not make pronouncements or take actions. Instead, meeting every few years, we would face matters in an open and honest way about our respective witness. The four groups making up this “forum” are The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the Vatican (Roman Catholics), the World Pentecostal Fellowship (WPF), and the World Council of Churches (WCC). (See http://www.globalchristianforum.org/news.)
The theme-- this the third forum (the last was in 2011)-- was "Let mutual love continue." (Hebrews 13:1) Balanced with representatives from Orthodox, Roman Catholic, mainline Protestant (these called “older”) and Evangelical, Pentecostal, Independent (these called “newer”), this meeting was rich and inspiring. Much of our time spent was within smaller groups, telling personal stories of faith and how our lives had been captured by Jesus. Be it Orthodox or Methodist, Catholic or Pentecostal, we were connected by knowing Jesus and in having been taken hold by the Spirit.
Of those in our circle, Rosallee, raised in Brazil, educated and now living with her husband and children in the UK, walked us through her early coming to faith. She now heads up the global office of the Theological Commission of the WEA. Said, living in the unrest and struggle of Lebanon, told us how he and his family survived and thrived in the midst of gun battles and Syrian refugees. Paolo, serving in the Taizé community in France, through worship led us in their plaintive and inspiring music. Stefan from Moscow (we had met at the 500th Anniversary Service of the Protestant Reformation last October in Moscow) told of his early knowing of God’s presence. Joseph from Ghana learned of the Gospel as a child. We learned from Rauli, a Finlander, of his early adventures into the former Soviet community. We laughed and prayed as we learned the ways of the Spirit. It was these stories, shared in groups among the 250 delegates, that linked to messages we heard from the biblical text, the greatest of meta- narratives, itself held together by the many, many stories of both testaments.
All was not sweetness and light. Issues of regional conflicts and differing interpretations of on-the-ground realities filtered through. Syria was an issue on which there were two distinct sides, one charging that the American and Allied response to the gassing of Syrians was to them an invasion from the West. This surprised many who saw this intervention as a responsible move, especially in the face of the gassing of women and men and children.
Then there was the predictable concern over proselytizing. This is seen as an unfair invasion, especially in countries where there has been a Christian majority, usually populated by the Orthodox or Roman Catholics. And on this topic it is generally assumed the critics mean Evangelicals who are at fault, often described as missionaries. The majority churches view this as unnecessary, indeed insulting that “newer” Christians assume that even some who have already been baptized need the Gospel. The Christian majority see this as needless religious reconversion.
To that, there are occasions when an apology is offered but also a reasonable defense. A story was told of a drug addict raised in a country of a Christian majority, though baptized as an infant, had never had a personal walk with Christ. Led to faith, converted through the ministry of an Evangelical church, he was freed from addiction and later as a pastor started a local church. But the police, acting on complaints of the Christian majority, threw him in prison. So, was this a needless reconversion, or was it an overreaction by the majority church, the speaker queried?
Making the text sing
From the four corners of the world I heard biblical homilies that would make the heart of my Pentecostal father sing. In our prayers, messages, debates or side bars we were framed by this singular interest that in fellowship and dialogue, Jesus the Christ, is Lord and King of all of life.
From conversations in groups, to times of prayer, as we heard messages from the Word, I concluded that if this is what “older” churches mean by the word ecumenical, that’s mighty fine with me.
Dr Brian Stiller
World Evangelical Alliance