Two days ago the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID) have released an historic document on the ethics of Christian mission – Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct. This historic document is in part a response to criticisms levelled at Christians by some religious communities in what they perceived to be a use of unethical methods. In some case these objections have led to anti-conversion laws and violence. The three main world Christian bodies have responded with this document that not only identifies the biblical call to evangelism but outlines the ethical mandates related to the Gospel.
Basically this document recognizes that Christians whether Catholic, Protestant or Evangelical have been poor witnesses to Christ in their respective mission fields. In a nutshell those who signed recognizes that we need to be better at witnessing and that includes being respectful of each other and of the cultures of those whom we share the gospel to.
A friend of mine was gracious enough to share this with me through a note on Facebook, to which another person who was also tagged in the note denounced the content in the note on the basis of saying that the center of missions is the offensive message of the gospel of Jesus which separates people more than binds them. Anything that falls short of that offensive message is in that person’s words: “NOT the true GOSPEL.”
I rightly agree with that person because indeed the message of the gospel is offensive and scandalous, but what is scandalous about it may actually surprise that person because like him I also held much of his conviction which motivated him to comment in passionate disagreement with the Facebook note’s content, because not so long ago I was also vehemently opposed to the idea of churches uniting for the sake of the ‘gospel’.
Looking back, that opposition was borne out of my church’s tradition that traces its roots from the independent Baptist missions that came to the Philippines from China after the Second World War. Much of the theology on the church came from the American conservative Christian reaction to the then emerging innovations in both science and the arts including the concept of ecumenism, which was something that started among established Protestant churches that are responding to the challenge of providing a unified witness to Christ in the mission field.
I was then told of so many ‘good’ reasons why ecumenism must be opposed. It ranged from the need to persevere in upholding ‘sound doctrine’ because unity among Christian should not be done at the expense of doctrine; while in some instances ecumenism is understood by many well-meaning Bible Christians as consular inter-faith relations (which is not); while to others it is because the uniting of churches also signals the beginning of the One-World-Religion that they have concluded to be coming at the End Times.
For so long I held on to that distrust of ecumenism, basically because that was the norm at church and because I really believed in my heart that opposing it is what the Bible really commands us Bible-believing Christians to do.
Taking my faith seriously I tried my very best to live in accord with what the Bible says and what is consistent with ‘sound doctrine’ and it eventually landed me to taking a stand that was counter to the faith-claims of my Evangelical Christian tradition, among that is my understanding of ecumenism in light of Jesus' statement that: “They may be one...” in the Gospel of John.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” John 17:20-23 NIV
Here we find Jesus nearing the end of his earthly ministry ardently praying to the Father for his followers, in Gethsemane, while agonizing over his impending vicarious sacrifice in Calvary he lifts up his Apostles unto his Father.
"My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message. My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message." (v.20)
Who is this addressed to?
To Catholics? To Orthodox? To Protestants? To Evangelicals?
The passage clearly states: “for all those who believe in me through their (the Apostle’s) message.” Here Jesus is praying for all Christians who believe through the message of the Apostles. Here then is a simple question that Jesus is posing to us in this prayer: Aren't all who believe in this message included in this prayer, and aren't all who believe limited to Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Protestants and Evangelicals?
What is tragic is that people who oppose ecumenism are those who profess as adherents of the supremacy of Scriptures.
What is ironic with this is that they oppose ecumenism on the basis of DOCTRINES, not by clear pronouncements in Scripture but rather of their faith traditions’ understanding of Scripture. It may sound offensive to Evangelicals but in reality doctrines are man-made.
In the basic sense doctrines are theological conclusions that are formed because of a community's act of making sense of the Scriptures' implication to their own context of living. It is worth examining that perhaps the heart of the matter is that the probable reason why many Christians oppose ecumenism on grounds of doctrine do so because of the fact that they want to preserve the status quo of their belief in their denomination or local church's pride of being the sole arbiters of what is right or in their own words ‘biblical’.
"that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (v. 21)
This is a prayer that has an intent --that those who believe in Jesus as according to the message of the Apostles, will be one. When we speak of unity yes it means being united in what binds them which has already been established that it is Christ who binds them. It is the belief in the message of the Apostles bind them. It is the will of Jesus that they be bound to himself through that message as Jesus himself is bound to the Father.
I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (vv.22-23)
This reveals the deeper meaning of this prayer so that we will be one, because Christ's unity with the Father reveals to us that in the person of Jesus we have a human being who is perfectly coordinate with God – because He is God, therefore when we see Jesus, we see God. When Jesus does something, God does something. When we look at Jesus’ life and see what He did for us and how He lived, we know not only what Jesus is like, but also what God is like because as the Word Jesus explains God to us.
The impetus for unity is missional because Christ desires us to be One so that the world would believe in our message, so that the world will believe in the God that we proclaim. How can a fragmented witness proclaim a message of reconciliation and the God who was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:19), to the world if it does not practice what it preaches?
Those who have studied church history would know that splits have occured throughout Christianity's history most notable is that of the Protestant Reformation from the Roman Catholic perspective the Reformation destroyed the unity of faith and ecclesiastical organization of the Christian peoples of Europe which was also partly because of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of the Protestants in Trent, which in their perspective diminished a unified witness to the Body of Christ.
Via the Reformation what resulted is a fragmented Christian movement with the tendency to split over issues of dispute within their respective traditions and interpretations of Scripture. It is not totally wrong to say that this is the Protestantism’s weakness as this transition from a monolithic Christian expression of Western Christianity to a diverse group of faith communities unified by agreement on principal doctrines was able to renew Christianity and not to mention reach out to more people and re-establish the place of evangelization in both Protestant and Catholic Churches, which is now challenged with the need for a unified witness that is both in spirit and in truth.
Looking at it from today’s perspective this fragmented Body of Christ also shows a Christianity that tends to look more after its denomination’s distinctive rather than what unifies them, on a personal note there is much to be learned from Philip Schaff, who stated on numerous occasions his ecumenical hope that: “In Christ all contradictions are reconciled.” Thus I believe this aftermath of the Reformation presently challenges us Christians to pursue a greater understanding of all expressions of the Christian faith, as well as gives us the hope to pray and work harder for an uncompromising and reconciliatory reunion of, all those who profess faith in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps that is the most offensive message of the gospel, that we recognize the candour that God’s love is bigger than our doctrinal loyalties. What's scandalous is that he commands us to love people especially Christians in spite of our disagreements with them.