December 18, 2017

iMonk Classic: Evangelical Ecumenism and A Jesus-Shaped Guest List

Council of Nicaea, Sistine Chapel

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
November 6, 2009

POINT: Evangelicalism contains within itself some almost irresistible itches from its fundamentalist DNA. From time to time, the urge to scratch is almost overwhelming.

These itches would include:

  • “Must say that Catholics are not Christians….”
  • “Must say that all things ecumenical are bad unless it’s guys on our team writing books or putting on a conference….”
  • “Must say all mainline Christians are apostate….”
  • “Must find ways to say our church actually has the pure Gospel others don’t have….”
  • “Must point out heretics like the emerging church and N.T. Wright…..”

Recently I’ve noticed a new variety of fundamentalist itch.

  • “Must show that creeds written before the Reformation are deficient compared to Reformation theology….”

John Calvin

Apparently, we’re on track to a kind of KJV-only logic. Don’t trust anything before we got everything right somewhere in there in the Reformation. Somewhere in there. Somewhere.

In a hundred years, we will be warning young theologians about reading the church fathers or anyone before Wayne Grudem. Be careful about listening to preachers before Piper.

Of course it all makes sense. Our various kinds of exclusive Fundamentalism always do. It’s so inclined towards rationalism that making perfect sense to your intellect is never the problem.

Making the case that the Nicene Creed isn’t enough to answer all the questions in Christianity- which no one ever claims- is clear as new glass. You won’t solve every theological issue with the Nicene Creed. No, we’ll need more than that.

Right. But then what are we going to say together as a common creed? Nothing? Jesus is Lord? Your book of Confessions? Whatever’s in the head of the latest reformation cop?

The more you add to that brew, the fewer and fewer people are going to be at the party…oh wait…that’s the real issue isn’t it? Is there a party? Do we want anyone else to stop by and have a hot dog and a root beer? Or is this get-together just for us and our closest friends?

Conservative evangelicals are pretty easily convinced that ecumenical conversation is not nearly as interesting or as helpful as telling all the Eastern Orthodox near you that their church is the “Orthoborg.”

Is the Jesus you are following calling you into ecumenical relationships with other Christians? Not evangelistic relationships, but fellowship around a shared Christ, even if not a shared table?

Or is Jesus giving you your theological policeman’s orders for the day? Get your quota of arrests. Get the Catholics off the streets. Arrest some mainliners. Let’s clean this neighborhood up. And be careful out there.

If grace has created an ecumenical party around the Jesus described in the Nicene Creed, it’s not the church. those can’t be the absolute boundaries. Some are left out. These days, a few that shouldn’t be in may use that good confession to slip in the door. The party may not be much more than a meal, a drink and a few laughs. Or it may be a clinic, a clothes closet and a meal for the poor. It may be working together on ecumenical worship during Holy Week or a prayer walk around your community.

In my house, it’s loving my wife, her friends and her church. At my ministry, it’s loving and sharing a school day with Orthodox, Catholic and every other denomination and tradition.

In my own experience of seeking a Jesus shaped spirituality, it’s learning that “if they aren’t against us, they are for us.” It’s the party grace throws for all the many different kinds of prodigals, sinners and lost sheep Jesus has collected.

  • It’s about the flavor, scent, sound and presence of grace toward other believers.
  • It’s not about agreement, but it’s about mutual confession of the ancient faith.
  • It’s not about the table, but about reverencing the one who is on the table.
  • It’s not about whether major things are at stake, but about knowing that people for whom Jesus died are always important and worthy of love and respect.
  • It’s not about whether the Gospel applies, but about how I apply the Gospel.

The ecumenical community is created by Jesus. It’s his guest list, and I can set up a lecture room at the Hyatt and outline my objections, or I can go in and have some food, drink and conversation. Jesus won’t beg me. He’ll just tell me where to find him.

Comments

  1. “It’s not about whether the Gospel applies, but about how I apply the Gospel.”

    Mike,

    Ths Gospel is not something you apply. It’s “something” you believe…

    • brendan says:

      The Adventures of Missing the Point

      …perhaps intentional…?

    • Can’t say as I agree…the Gospel isn’t just something you believe…it’s something you DO. Jesus never taught a believe-only system. He taught an active Gospel. Don’t just say you love people…actually love them with action (1 John 3:18). And faith without action is useless (James 2:14). To many Christians think that faith is something you believe, but it’s so much more!!

      • Matt 25 comes to mind….. I’m not at all sure I can hang with “the gospel requires nothing of us….” either..

    • I thought the gospel was Jesus and his death on the cross for the forgiveness of our/my sins (i.e an event, Gods redemption plan specifically on a hill, 2000 years ago).

      db: I think you are stating the implications of the gospel. The gospel makes no demands upon the recipient. It gives life and provides. Your actions and love towards others is a response to the gospel, a response that is promised. When Paul talks about the gospel he talks about Jesus, not you. He however does clearly define that acts of love result in believers from a life lived with the gospel (word and sacrament, Jesus the word and the word with bread, wine, water).

    • Dan Crawford says:

      Belief and behavior are not related? Where do I find that in the New Testament?

  2. Rob is right as rain!

    The gospel is DONE TO YOU.

    The gospel is DONE TO US.

    The gospel is not something that WE APPLY. God applies it TO US!

    That’s why they call it….THE GOOD NEWS!

    Now…go help the world. You are free to do so.

  3. Let’s get back on the point of the post, folks.

    • This comment line shows the even the “gospel” is not cleary defined. There will be no ecumenical aggreement if thie basic foundation is in question.

      • In the post, Michael is talking about the Creed as a sufficient formulation of the Gospel for unity among Christians. The commenters have muddied the water, but Michael’s definition in the post is clear.

  4. Correct me if I’m wrong, Chaplain, but I think what you’re getting at here is for us to remember that “everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to everyone else who belongs to Jesus” — even if we disagree on many of the secondary issues.

    And if that’s the case, I concur enthusiastically.

    (It’s good to be back.)

    • Christiane says:

      sounds like a description of the Body of Christ 🙂

    • Correct me if I’m wrong, Chaplain, but I think what you’re getting at here is for us to remember that “everyone who belongs to Jesus belongs to everyone else who belongs to Jesus” — even if we disagree on many of the secondary issues

      REALLY like this !!!

  5. The ecumenical community is created by Jesus. It’s his guest list, and I can set up a lecture room at the Hyatt and outline my objections, or I can go in and have some food, drink and conversation.

    To me, this was the best sentence in the post. There are plenty of people who focus so intently on defining and promulgating their own criteria and for who’s in and who’s out that they really do miss the party.

    I had some of those tendencies in my 20s but years ago concluded that it’s not up to me and never will be. I can discern to a limited extent, but I don’t decide, not even close. The greatest commandment is still to love (and I think that’s what Michael’s post meant when he wrote about applying the gospel; let’s not over-analyze, please) and our neighbors are those we least expect. It’s about expanding the circle and reign of God’s grace, not shrinking it. I appreciate the reminder and challenge to do this more.

  6. John, I agree. “He drew a circle and shut me out, heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the will to win, we drew a circle and locked him in.” Jesus said ,”Love the Lord with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself. He didn’t say don’t drink caffeine and alcohol, judge your neighbor and avoid him if he sins. It’s hard to love holier than thou people, but I guess we should.

  7. dumb ox says:

    “Of course it all makes sense. Our various kinds of exclusive Fundamentalism always do. It’s so inclined towards rationalism that making perfect sense to your intellect is never the problem.”

    Stop making sense. Please.

  8. It’s still cold here, so I might as well enter the firestorm 🙂

    I have to say this is mostly a strawman argument. Besides Fred Phelps, is there any “Fundagelical” church anywhere actually kicking people out or refusing fellowship on Sunday?

    Yes, many preachers will preach that Catholics are not Christians. If you listen carefully, they will usually also tell you that many people in churches (including their own) are not Christians. Church is a great place to preach the Gospel.

    “all mainline Christians are apostate” again I’m not sure of anyone who says “all” (there is a branch of Lutherans who are pretty solid – Missouri?). But when you have a church where a bishop left his wife and children to live with another man, I think you have to say something.

    “Apparently, we’re on track to a kind of KJV-only logic.” KJVO is totally different. James White (Alpha/Omega ministries) has some excellent stuff on disputing KJVO.

    “what [is] a common creed?” Actually, that is where the term “Fundametalism” comes from. A set of fundamentals that was laid out near the beginning of the 20th century. Wikipedia lists them as:
    * The inerrancy of the Bible
    * The literal nature of the Biblical accounts, especially regarding Christ’s miracles, and the Creation account in Genesis.
    * The Virgin Birth of Christ
    * The bodily resurrection of Christ
    * The substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross

    I originally was willing to yield on point 2b (literal 6-day Creation). But the more I investigate, the less I see that an Old Earth is compatible with the Gospel.

    • I have to say this is mostly a strawman argument. Besides Fred Phelps, is there any “Fundagelical” church anywhere actually kicking people out or refusing fellowship on Sunday?

      Not a straw man for those of us who have experienced it. Few would literally kick you out. It’s far more subtle than that, but no less real. Express a differing view on what you think is assuredly a secondary issue at most and you are subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) excluded; you need prayer, or correction, or “godly counsel” etc. You are deficient and need fixing. It rapidly becomes clear that you don’t truly belong until and unless you toe the party line. That’s a denial of fellowship just as real as being booted out the door.

      • This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us – everyone at your church is a sinner! They are going to sin against you (it’s what sinners do). Smile, turn the other cheek. You’ll survive 🙂

        • Actually, I have. I don’t respond in kind when this sort of thing happens. No interest in escalating things. It doesn’t change the fact that their stance makes genuine fellowship very difficult at best.

          But my greater concern is the apparent complacency and acceptance for this kind of behavior. Is this really what we want the church to be? Are we not capable of a grace that makes the church attractive and shouldn’t we encourage one another to that? Can we be complete jerks and excuse it by saying we’re just sinners like everyone else and expect to be effective witnesses for the Prince of Peace and the Suffering Servant who is our Lord?

          We are surely all sinners, but in this case, the sin has become redefined as a virtue and codified into a system that’s destructive. Dorothy Sayers wrote about this dynamic and its potential for destructiveness more than 50 years ago.

          • I’m not sure how you can make that happen. If someone is a jerk, just tell them that they have hurt you. There’s no global solution.

          • One more Mike says:

            The global solution is to leave where you’re not wanted and refuse to abandon your beliefs in order to fit in to the club. Thus this blog and the post-evangelical wilderness.

      • there are not-so-subtle forms of what i call Christian propaganda that does ‘exalt’ itself above the countless other voices claiming their version of doctrinal correctness thee most pristine compared to all others…

        i have been the subject of the Ken Ham school of Genesis superiority by some that have swallowed the kool-aid & accused me of being on that slippery slope sliding off the back side of Ararat straight into perdition because i could not rightly divide the New Testament in ‘light’ of my diluted view of scripture…

        [roll eyes…]

        it was like a response from a pre-recorded message, a divine rebuke pointing out my silly creation notions ripe for satanic deception before i ever got to the 4th chapter of the bible…

        so, there are unspoken expectations put upon other believers that pigeon-holes them into a convenient predetermined category of tidiness. it is a way to maintain control & a sense of safety on their ark of rightness while the rest of Christianity is experiencing the last great deception before anti-christ suckers them all into the one-world religion…

        Lord, have mercy… 🙁

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          it was like a response from a pre-recorded message…

          In the words of George Orwell, “duckspeak.” Mindless parroting of a Party Line without activating any higher brain functions. In a way, it WAS a pre-recorded response.

      • ” Few [churches] would literally kick you out.”

        Freezing people out is more the style. It is much easier.

  9. I don’t think its a strawman argument.

    Been there and done that. There are lots of small pentecostal, baptist and gospel chapels where this kind of stuff reigns supreme.

    I know I raise eyebrows when I tell my old crowd that I am Anglican.

  10. “’what [is] a common creed?’ Actually, that is where the term ‘Fundametalism’ comes from. A set of fundamentals that was laid out near the beginning of the 20th century.”

    The more I learn the more I realize that both liberals and fundies preach a reductionist gospel. Even the “fundamentals of the faith” were little more than a knee-jerk reaction to the excesses of liberalism, and created their own problems.

    Sorry, but I’ll stick with the older creeds. Both Biblically and historically there’s more room for different beliefs than fundies and their evangelical brethren are typically willing to admit.

    • What do you mean “reductionist gospel”?

      No one I know is saying the older creeds aren’t good. The question is, as we develop ideas, is there something more we can say? Don’t we need to evaluate everything in the world Biblically, and come to some decision on whether it is compatible with the faith as handed down, or not.

      • By “reductionist gospel” I’m referring to the fact that liberals have pretty much abandoned salvation in favor of what we refer to as “social causes,” while we have mostly abandoned the idea of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry because the only thing that matters is getting “them” saved (Michael Spencer’s “wretched urgency”). The scriptures have a lot to say about justice and the causes of the poor and orphans & widows, and we in fundy/evangelical circles have, for the most part, thrown that out.

        In the process fundies and liberals both preach an incomplete, or reduced, gospel. Hence my use of the term “reductionist gospel.”

        I’m also convinced that the fundamentalist (i.e. modern Western) doctrines of inerrancy and literalism actually do violence to the ancient Eastern documents we have collected and compiled into our Bible. Literalism is especially dangerous when it runs roughshod over context and literary style to force literal meanings where the original language makes no such requirement. Further, much of what we might call “the faith handed down” is less than 200 years old, and was unknown throughout most of the history of Christianity.

        So no, I’m not convinced that the so-called “fundamentals of the faith” are valid, as they go beyond “the faith handed down,” as well as the creeds. The creeds stopped where they did for a reason, and I can respect that.

        • James, it’s a fair charge that conservatives neglect calls to care for the poor. I think a lot of that is overreaction to the left (I need to stand way over here, so I am not confused with being you!).

          The creeds were responses to the problems of their time (mostly involving Christology). Is it not reasonable that we would have responses to the problems of our time? That being modernism, and liberal criticism of the Bible.

          • Yes, such a response would have been reasonable had we not over-reacted. However, concepts like inerrancy and literalism tend to force modern Western understandings into the Bible that would have been foreign to the original hearers.

            Without rehashing the recent discussions here regarding creationism, the one thing I find especially troubling with literalism is the demand that we interpret the Genesis creation accounts as if they were prose, and were written for a modern Western audience. They’re not prose, and the audience was both ancient and Eastern. But in the context of fundamentalism we can’t look at how an ancient Eastern audience might have understood the accounts because we’ve already written their understanding out of our definition of how the Bible should be understood.

            So while well-intentioned, the fundamentals of the faith have served to create as many problems as they’ve solved, and serve now to create division rather than encouraging Biblical faith and unity.

          • The problems for Old Earth interpretation have little to do with the text of Genesis. They pertain to fundamental questions as to whether God created evil, and whether there is even such a thing as sin.

            What are the problems of fundamentalism?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          By “reductionist gospel” I’m referring to the fact that liberals have pretty much abandoned salvation in favor of what we refer to as “social causes,” while we have mostly abandoned the idea of clothing the naked and feeding the hungry because the only thing that matters is getting “them” saved (Michael Spencer’s “wretched urgency”).

          The Social Gospel became a Gospel without personal salvation.

          The reaction to it became a Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

          “A fanatic is someone with one piece of a pie who thinks he has the whole pie.”
          — Pope John Paul II

  11. Protestants and evangelicals are akin to backyard redneck mechanics tyring to tell G. M. how cars work G. M . of course being the Catholic or Orthodox Church.

  12. Michael Spencer was right, it’s between you and GOD.

  13. We have some of the exact limited mindset among the Orthodox. One of our bloggers has nicknamed them monkwannabees. Metropolitan PHILIP even wrote a foreword to a book several years ago that warned precisely against the mindset above. The Orthodox have no problem saying that we are the Church. But, those who claim to know for certain that everyone outside of Orthodoxy will probably not be in the Kingdom are regularly rebuked by our bishops. GRIN.

    It is a very strong temptation to always be right. It means that you no longer have to struggle with Scripture; you no longer have to struggle with Church history; you no longer have to, uhm, think. It supposedly frees you from all your problems and gives you peace.

    But, in this case I agree with Martin Luther King. I, too, have a dream of a day when I can shout, “Free at last, free at last, thank God I’m free at last.” But, I will have to die to see that day (die to self now, die in the body later unless the Lord come back soon).

    • Yuri Wijting says:

      Thanks Fr. Ernesto,

      Hubris is always a dangerous predisposition. But you nailed it head on that we want the comfort and blanket security of a theological system, intend of having to wrestle with the difficult issues.

      I think it is essential if brotherhood is to be achieved to be able to see matters through the eyes of the other. It’s an uncomfortable experience but, unfortunately this side of heaven, the only way to forge collaborative friendship.

      Blessings
      Yuri

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      We have some of the exact limited mindset among the Orthodox. One of our bloggers has nicknamed them monkwannabees.

      Though I’d call them “Monastic Fanboys”.

      Ever wonder if the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats is Christ saying “GO AWAY, FANBOYS!”

  14. Protestantism is just every man doin what is right in his ” (masculine) just like in the bible “, own eyes. Result ……………. Rob Bell. Its just a matter of time before you all become a bunch of religeous Charlie Sheens going off the deep end.

    • This one’s my favorite 🙂

    • Geoff, can you honestly not tell the difference between someone like John Macarthur or John Piper – and Rob Bell, Benny Hinn, and Doug Pagitt?

      Doug Wilson rightly says there is a ditch on the left and right side of the road. Don’t confuse which people are in which ditches, nor confuse that with the idea that there is a road in there somewhere.

  15. It seems to me that there are two tendencies at work in the church. There is the exclusive tendency, addicted to comparisons, faultfinding, self-exaltation and self-righteousness. Then there is the inclusive tendency, or at least intention, which is based on what Paul said Jesus wants, that “all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4).

    I think if you read the NT epistles carefully, you find churches and individuals within them that some of us would simply write off, but which Paul takes the time and effort to remind, corrrect, explain to and occasionally rebuke. Look at the Corinthians (divisions, immorality, spiritual pride, charismatic disorders), Galatians (legalism), Thessalonians (idle, thought the resurrection already took place), for example.

    And yet in the two letters to them, Paul addresses the Thessalonians as “brothers” 22 times. Unless Paul was just a flatterer, that must mean something. If Scripture “is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16) then it stands to reason that there are Christians who still need to be taught, rebuked, corrected and trained in righteousness. That doesn’t mean they aren’t Christians.

  16. Beautiful post by Michael–I especially love his last paragraph! As other commenters have noted, Paul’s body of Christ metaphor comes to mind: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!'” (whether that’s “fundies” blasting “libs” or vice versa).

    Greg Boyd has a very helpful illustration (probably not original to him, but that’s beside the point): If we envision Christ himself as the center of our personal lives and church communities, there are two different ways we can be oriented in relation to him. Either we can form a circle around him with our backs turned toward him, so that we can continually guard and patrol the “boundary,” or else we can be facing Christ, moving hand in hand toward him and reaching out a gracious and loving hand to any who may be slipping or stumbling, and in this latter case there isn’t any clear “boundary” that separates the “ins” from the “outs.”

  17. I can understand why Michael’s wife converted to catholicism: her husband paved the way intellectually and spiritually and although he didn’t convert himself, she did what he should have done had he been honest about his leanings.

    As a former catholic monk I know how horrid the roman catholic system is, so not out of some ‘knee jerk’ reaction against anything catholic (I’m from a catholic family and don’t hate my own flesh and blood!!!).

    My final advice before leaving this blog for good (I fear it’s too difficult to see ‘eye to eye’ after this confession of mine):
    follow the bible NOT traditions of men (be it church ‘fathers’, mysticism or liturgy).

    May the reader understand.

    • Damaris says:

      Don’t leave, Hans. People who always see eye to eye never have a larger view.

  18. Yup….been there done that, noticed that myself looking back on evangelicalism as a recovering “fundgelical” How bad was it….? I knew a staff member of Crusade who ignored a Catholic sister who asked about building bridges and doing ecumenical events.

    At Crusade when I got involved I was going to a Catholic church. I remember at this Bible study this Crusade members went around and was asking people, “Where do you go to church?” People would say: “Evangelcal Free, Bible, Non-denominational…” etc.. He got to me and I said, “xyz…Catholic” My Crusade staff member stopped and stared at me for a minute. Other guys at the table got quiet. I realized that I said something dirty..(perhaps even pornograghic to an evangelical!?! 😯 MY GOD Catholic…!?! 😯 ) And after an akward minute he moved onto the next guy.

    But then and there and (as I began to be brainwashed…) I leanred Catholics aren’t Christian. It actually led me to tell my Mom something that affected my relationship with her…I told my Mom that her Father was in hell because he was Catholic. It was something I was taught. What a loving son….. :’-(

    But this ackward view of culture goes beyond that…it also includes people who leave the church, or people who walk away from para church ministries. They aren’t true Christians many would say…

    This video captures what I am trying to say well….

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JpdPXfbQBRg

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      That video was made by our own JMJ/Christian Monist, another wanderer in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness — he comments here as “J MIchael Jones”.

  19. VolAlongTheWatchTower says:

    “Must say that Catholics are not Christians….”

    This jer, uh, er, BROTHER finds me and sits beside or behind me in World Civ and mutters this almost verbatim under his breath at LEAST once a day. Has that stup, uh, SILLY bumper sticker on his jeep : “If it ain’t King James…” Sometimes I wish the North would invade again…

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The only reason Mister KJV-ONLY has SCRIPTURE(TM) to quote is that back when years AD were in the low three digits, the Bishops of what is now the Catholic and Orthodox churches forcibly kept the Shirley Mac Laines of the time from rewriting it in their own image.

  20. Anyway….As usual Michael was on to something……

    T

  21. Ironic that in a post about a Jesus shaped ecumemism, there woould be the beginnings of a doctrinal food fight less than 10 posts in…. Michael S. kniew his audience well. May HIS Kingdom come , on earth as it is in heaven.

    Coming from a RC background myself, much of what he wrote resonates with me; I’ve found life goes MUCH better when I see JESUS as the center of my family life, and not my denominational grid.

    GregR

  22. “The global solution is to leave where you’re not wanted and refuse to abandon your beliefs in order to fit in to the club. Thus this blog and the post-evangelical wilderness.”

    As long as we don’t make a new club out here in the wilderness and start freezing out people who don’t agree with US. . .

    That would be the opposite of what Michael Spencer was trying to accomplish.