If you look around your neighborhood, city, or church, you’ll most likely see something other than unity characterizing relationships and organizations.
In his essay, A Call for Unity in the North American Church, Tim Keller writes that “When you’re at the end of your life and you have your last words to say, you only say the things that are most important. There’s nothing heavier on Jesus’ heart than that Christians be in unity—a unity so supernatural that the world takes notice.” But, as Keller argues, our current reality is different: sectarianism, racism, political polarization, and generational strife seem to define church life more than love and ecumenical concord.
An etymological exploration of οἶκος — the root word for economy, ecology, and ecumenism — can provide modern-day wisdom to confront these challenges.
The Relatedness of Economy, Ecology, and Ecumenism
Meaning “home,” οἶκος, with all of its benefits and responsibilities, captures the essence of what these terms imply for us ethically as God’s image-bearers. When properly understood, our home-embeddedness offers a blueprint for faithful action.
- Economics (“management of the household”) takes a holistic view of productive, life-giving relationships and exchange leading to flourishing communities.
- Ecology (“study of the household”) recognizes a systems perspective of God’s creation, not just a flourishing Earth but the entire biosphere.
- Ecumenism (“a representing or uniting of the entire world”) connotes an inclusive concern for the health and unity of the Church, especially its service and witness of love in the world.
Together, these three words reinforce our God-given mandate to practice interdependency and mutuality, honoring God’s holy household so that it may flourish. Sadly, each term has been mired in polarized politics. In lieu of “good news” signposts for gospel creativity and restoration, each construct — when wrongly understood — functions more as an impediment to unity, relational health, and compelling kingdom witness.
For example, economics — rather than conceptualized as righteous market relationships — is often reduced to commercial progress, or shareholder wealth maximization at the expense of other vital stakeholders. Ecology — rather than a loving response to God’s cultural mandate to care for the biosphere — is flatlined by passivity, finding expression in climate change inattention or denial, or alternatively an unjust “lording over” creation resulting in environmental degradation.
Lastly, and possibly the greatest blind spot for the evangelical community, is a disinterest or even aloof disregard for ecumenism — trading the pursuit of unity and shared mission of the Church for doctrinal hairsplitting, or a tunnel-vision pathology that justifies ministry as most effectively pursued alone or only alongside “like-minded” partners.
Ecumenism in Historical Context
Although the terms council and synod are not explicitly used in the Bible, the meeting at Jerusalem in 48 AD to address any required Gentile observances of the Mosaic Law (see Acts 15) serves as a prototype for how the Church might deal with key doctrinal, administrative, and ethical disputes. Councils actively pursued for the first millennium held the church together until the schism of 1054 AD. Thereafter, both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox streams retained a commitment to ecumenical councils, which have largely produced ongoing ecclesial unity and cooperation within, and at times beyond, their own ranks. The origin of the Protestant Church — dating to Martin Luther and the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 AD — produced many more tributaries without the same ecumenical fruit as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Mainliners and Pentecostals have fared better than evangelicals, which is surprising given evangelicals’ core commitments to biblicism (high regard for the Bible), crucicentrism (belief in atoning work of Christ), and conversionism (belief that humans need to be converted), three of the four core evangelical distinctives famously described by historian David Bebbington.
In Jesus’ longest recorded prayer in Scripture, known today as The High Priestly Prayer, Jesus, on the night before his death on the cross, prays to the father for unity.
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).
So, in this season when division is so pervasive both outside and within the church, our opportunity to present a countercultural witness of radical love may never be timelier. Here are three possibilities for greater ecumenical action.
Become an Irenic Leader
After their dispute about who among them will be greatest in the kingdom, the disciples tell Jesus that someone outside their inner circle drove out demons in Jesus’ name. “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you,” (see Luke 9:49-50). There are certainly times when we may need to draw a line in the sand with whom we will co-labor, but these moments are rare, and when they do occur should be pursued for peacemaking purposes that allow us to sidestep active antagonism or a squelching of the Spirit that impedes our ability to express our God-given identity and fulfillment of mission.
Be a Bread and Wine Christian
In a homily for the Holy Mass and Eucharistic Procession in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI reminded believers that “Jesus, as a sign of his presence, chose bread and wine. With each one of the two signs he gives himself completely, not only in part.” Bread and wine together, not singularly, comprise the Lord’s Supper. As with the communion meal, we too find unity and diversity in the body of Christ. As the apostle Paul declares in 1 Corinthians 12:12, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts … so it is with Christ.”
Remember Jesus Founded the Church
Lastly, ecumenism reminds us that Jesus, not a celebrity pastor, judicatory, or even a pope first formed and ultimately superintends the church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Simon Peter that upon him, the rock, he will build his church. The book of Acts picks up the story — a narrative that continues today. In a world where the church is under pressure to reaffirm its value in a much larger and countervailing storyline, a commitment to unity and love rooted in the person of Jesus Christ is our most effective means for inviting God’s people home.
These three strategies contribute to a holistic expression of the Christian tradition: head, hands, and heart working together to facilitate the diverse ecclesial ecology through which change best occurs. Evangelicals — not typically committed to partnership with those unlike themselves — should take heed. It is only when we welcome the full body of Christ that we regain all four sides, the last and omitted side being activism (social reform and justice), by which other faith tributaries better enact their faith in Christ.