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A Comment on “Toward a Renewed Understanding of Ecumenism”


No one could ever object to the specific actions that the document recommends. Christians are urged to form groups to alleviate the loneliness of senior citizens, to collaborate with non-Christians in supporting residences for battered women, to encourage the development of affordable housing, etc. Yet as unobjectionable as these recommendations are, they are to the same extent unremarkable. Who would ever oppose them, think them unworthy of Christians’ endorsement, or suggest that they contradict the gospel?

At the same time, the theological and biblical articulation that underlies the document is both remarkable and objectionable in view of the reductionistic theological conclusions and the distorted biblical exposition.

Major theological assertions are largely one-sided. We are told, for instance, that the great prophets of Israel were convinced that God cared about every aspect of the world’s life. (Correct). Conspicuously absent, however, is the heart of the prophets’ passion: the thunderous announcement of unavertible judgement, the exquisite urgency of repentance, the undeflectable insistence that oppression and exploitation and desolation are the result of culpable defiance of the Holy One of Israel and of his reaction to this.

The skew just illustrated pervades the document: the undeniable theocentric thrust of scripture gives way to the anthropocentric bent of the document. We are told that the fact that “the world is in serious trouble” has galvanized the new understanding of ecumenism. (Hasn’t the world been in trouble since the Fall and since God’s holy hostility to humankind’s disdainful dismissal of him?) Absent entirely is the “downbeat” of scripture: God’s central concern is his vindication of his “name” (reputation), upon which name the nations and the church have alike heaped slander. Throughout scripture God acts to clear his name of the slurs now besmirching it. It is as a result of God’s vindication of himself in the face of outrageous vilification that the church is called, identified, equipped and preserved as God’s “peculiar treasure” — even as one aspect of the church’s vocation is its intercession for the world!

Difficulties bristle when we are told to “discern and celebrate God’s Spirit, not only in the people of the churches, but also in people of other faiths and ideologies.” No qualification is added! Then how are we to recognize, where are we to look for, God’s Spirit in them? Ideologies abound: Marxism, materialism, antisemitism, the North American way of life, sovereignty-association for Quebec, hedonism, new ageism. How is the Spirit to be discerned here? To what end? (According to the New Testament Jesus Christ uniquely bears and bestows the Spirit. To say this is to not say that those outside the church are God-forsaken.)

Theological inaccuracy and inadequacy surface in such statements as, “For Paul, all human beings are one in their tendency to sin.” Are we one in the tendency? Is Jesus Christ our tendency to righteousness? According to 1 Cor. 1:30 he is our righteousness — as sin is our oneness, according to Paul.

Difficulties with scripture abound. First, there is a failure to recognize the context of scripture passages (e.g., of the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25). Second, there is a failure to appreciate the point of the text (e.g., when Paul speaks in Romans 2:15) of the law’s being written on the heart his point is the inexcusability of humankind before God, not a natural theology supporting “whole-world ecumenism”. Third, there is one-sidedness arising from referring to only part of the text (e.g., while 2 Cor. 5 certainly does assert that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, it also asserts — while the document does not — that we are ourselves to be reconciled to God). Fourth, — and very damaging — is the denial of the truth-claim of key texts (e.g., John 14:6, where John’s vocabulary is reduced to “love-language” , the gushing sentimentality of someone whose admiration has eclipsed objectivity and recognition of truth).

OIKOUMENE, a Greek word, originally meant “the entire inhabited world”. Then “ecumenical” meant the witness of the church catholic before the world; then interdenominational cooperation. In the document before The United Church of Canada it has come to mean something akin to “lowest common religious denominator”.

This ought not to be countenanced.

Victor A. Shepherd