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Biblical and Theological Foundations of Ecumenism

Biblical and Theological Foundations of Ecumenism

  1. Introduction

The word ecumenism comes from a family of classical Greek words: oikos, meaning a "house," "family," "people," or "nation"; oikoumene, "the whole inhabited world"; and oikoumenikos, "open to or participating in the whole world." Like many biblical words, these were invested with Christian meaning. The oikoumene describes the place of God's reconciling mission (Matthew 24:14); the unity of the Roman Empire (Luke 2:1) and of the kingdoms of the earth (Luke 4:5); and the world destined to be redeemed by Christ (Hebrews 2:5). In the biblical community the vision of one church serving the purposes of God in the world came to reflect a central teaching of the early Christian faith, the essence of the church. Ecumenism is a vision, a movement, a theology, and a mode of action.

2.Biblical Foundation

The unity of the church and of all creation is a dominant motif in the Bible. This witness begins in the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, not the New Testament. God established a covenant with the Hebrew people and gathered the disparate tribes into one religious nation, Israel, taking steps to overcome the alienation between God and humans and to reconcile God's people. The tradition of ancient Judaism, therefore, was based on the reality of the one people of God. Their unity was an expression of their monotheistic faith, the oneness of God (Yahweh). Israel's mission was to preserve the faithfulness and unity of all God's people and to prepare them for the realization of the Kingdom of God.[1]

The vision of unity is central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of his Apostles. Those who confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour are brought together in a new community: the church. All New Testament writers assume that to be "in Christ" is to belong to one fellowship (Greek: koinonia). Jesus clearly gave the mandate when at the Last Supper he offered his high-priestly intercession, praying that the disciples and all those who believe in him "may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee . . . so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me" (John 17:21). This unity was evidenced in the miracle of Pentecost (Acts 2) and other actions that constituted the primitive church--e.g., the epoch-making Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), which negotiated conflicts between Jewish and Gentile Christians.Paul taught the Ephesians, God's ultimate will and plan is "to unite all things in him [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth" (chapter 1, verse 10).[2]

The bible has many references to the question of unity. Jesus’ high priestly prayer is the most often quoted basis for the church union discussion in different parts of the world. St Paul too has given adequate explanation on the importance of unity.[3] In the book ‘A History of Ecumenical Movement: an Introduction’, O.L. Snaitang illustrates two biblical instances in relation with the theme of Ecumenism. The first of which explains what is not ecumenism. They are the following..

2.1.1.Babel experience of Unity(Gen. 11:1-9)

The Babel incident represented one type of unity. People had gathered together to ‘build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in heavens’. The main objective behind these plans was well expressed in the statement that says ‘ and let us make a name for ourselves’(v.4) although this chapter tells us that the whole world had one language there were in most probability many linguistic groups and national identities in the kingdom. In the previous chapter, the book of Genesis inform us saying, “each with his own language, by their families, in their nations” (10:5). The gathering, therefore, was an indication of the presence of a certain political authority that had ruled and controlled over different ethnic groups.[4]

Probably, the Babel assembly could have been an assembly of the majority by the majority and in the interest of the desires and wishes of the ruling majority. Their attitude to the minorities was thus negative and had hitherto successfully imposed a single nation and one language. There could have been a sense of satisfaction to the authority for imposing one language in the entire empire. But it was a disastrous movement as it ignored other languages and nations. The gathering of all people for the construction of a heavenward structure in the empire was to strengthen the power of the majority. These all point to the fact that Babel unity was not an ecumenical unity with a healthy mentality.[5]

2.1.2 Experience of Unity on the Pentecost Day( Acts 2:1-13)

unlike the Babel type of unity where humankind looked upward to reach God’s seat at the expense of the minorities, the happening on the day of Pentecost was somewhat different as the gathering together of the disciples in Jerusalem did not have any intention to enforce a mono culture on the people. As a matter of fact, the disciples were lonely poor and powerless. There was no authority that would recognize their presence or role in the society. They were people of humble origins.[6]

The book of Acts informs us that there were as many as sixteen linguistic groups on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. All of them were different and maintained their own distinct identity. Want of a common language was a hindrance in communication. However, the experience of the power of the spirit was such that everyone could understand the Apostles even when they spoke in their own language. It was a mighty work of God. Therefore, the Pentecostal unity was a unity of understanding even in the context of the presence of diverse dialects. So unity in the day of the Pentecost was a unity in diversity. People experienced anew what liberation was- liberation from the bondage of not being able to understand each other.[7]

2.2 Christ’s teaching on church unity

Christ calls attention to how he wants his church to be. His church must be established upon the life and character of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In his priestly prayer, Christ explicitly lays down this principle on the life of the Trinity: “that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:21, 22). The unity of the church is also anchored on its headship as it has one shepherd, for “there shall be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). This definition of church unity by Christ is explicit. This is a metaphor that takes the picture of sheep and a shepherd in order to give us a picture of how Christ sees the church.[8]

2.3 Apostolic Teaching on Church Unity

In his teaching Paul condemns disunity, divisions and acrimony. He condemns the divisions in the church at Corinth (1Cor. 3:1ff). The principle of church unity in Paul’s teaching is one Christ and one baptism which is foundational to subsequent growth and diversity of the church (1Cor. 3:10- 11). This church in Paul’s time was characterized by divisions over personalities and legalistic rules. Such divisions were capable of destroying the unity, growth and strength of the church. If the unity of a small congregation was vital in Paul’s teaching as he condemned its division, then the global church unity would also be in Paul’s mind. He reminded the Corinthians that they are “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Cor. 1:2).[9] Factors that divide the church are to be set aside according to Paul’s teaching. Paul calls the church the body of Christ (Eph. 1:23; 4:12, 16; 5:23, 30; Col. 1:18, 24; 1Cor. 12:27) by taking the picture of the physical body that has various parts but which all work in unity for the common good of the body. He justifies the diversity of the physical body because all the parts are not identical to each other (1Cor. 12: 14-20).

3.Theological Foundation

Ecumenism’s ultimate goal is the reunion of all in one Eucharistic community- the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.[10] Unity is not a marginal or optional concern for the Church. It constitutes the central mystery of all being and of all existences. It is the mystery of all being, because it is the mystery of God’s own being as three in One. And Christ’s great high priestly prayer ( john 17) prays that all may be one on the pattern of the father’s unity with the son.[11] Paulose mar Gregorios in his writings ‘on ecumenism’ narrates the Trinitarian basis of ecumenism. It is as follows…

  1. Trinitarian unity and its implication on Ecumenism

3.1.1 Trinitarian unity is personal unity mare than structural unity. It is held together as one, without however having any limitations in freedom for any of the three persons, by the bond of love, for God is love. Mostly our understanding of ecumenism is that it is structural than of personal.[12] Until the internal relations with in each church, with in each congregation, becomes more personal and love based than structural, the structure existing only to serve the community of love, genuine community does not happen in each congregation and in each church. Ecumenism thus demands changes in the internal structure of each church before it can be effectively ecumenical in its relation with other Churches. Personal community in love and freedom is the primary characteristic of Trinitarian unity.[13]

3.1.2 The characteristic of Trinitarian unity is manifested in the kenotic self- emptying of Christ. Christ did not regard his own equality with God as a thing to be clung, but emptied himself, trusting fully in the love of the father. Most often we regard equality with each other as a thing to be cling to. Mutual kenosis as churches can bring us close to the pattern of unity in the Trinity, but unlike the Trinity, the churches are not equal to each other in size and power.[14]

3.1.3 Trinitarian unity is not a self-regarding unity, but one that holds all else together in unity. So long as the church is preoccupied with unity only as an ecclesiastical problem, ecumenism is bound to dissipate itself into mere building up of greater power structures.

               Christ our Lord has become man, to redeem man in his entirety. He has purchased us with his own precious blood, and has united us with his body, not in order that we alone may be saved but that we may work with Christ in the redemption of the whole world. Christ is the great mystery of the unity of all existents. In him they were made. The unity of the Church can subsist only at the heart of the unity of mankind. The centre must shift in ecumenism, to Christ, and to mankind as a whole to the cosmos as a whole. This is the true pattern of ecumenism.[15] A book published by WCC as a, faith and order study book, illustrates the importance of Nicene Creed and the Apostle’s creed for signifying the unity of Church. They emphasises on the “one God, Father, Creator, one Christ, one baptism, holy catholic church”..etc. to denote the unity of the Church.[16]

Disunity in the world has been as a result of sin. It is the work of the forces of evil that seek to destroy the unity of human race. This has also affected the church, but Christ has conquered the evil forces and has given the church the grace and power to live in unity. Churches living in isolation from one another cannot share in the ecumenical experience. This unity is not a theoretical concept but is expected to have practical value. The unity of the church is the quintessential characteristic of the body of Christ. If the church is indeed the body of Christ, then all its diverse parts must forge together in complement of one another.[17]

The New Delhi statement defines unity in terms of “fully committed fellowship” of “all in each place”. This spirit of oneness is the outworking of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are varying in degree and in kind but they all work for one purpose, the edification of the body of Christ. The urgency for church unity is a wakeup call for unity of humanity because if the church does not find itself in unity then the entirety of mankind will wax in broken relationships. The pursuit of church unity as well as that of all humanity through true justice is a divine mandate. Therefore the world-wide church must exist in this fashion in fellowship and confession of one Christ as Lord. It is on this solid foundation that its mission to the world can be accomplished with greater force[18]. Unity does not mean uniformity. Conciliar unanimity, the unity in the one spirit, should not be confused with generally imposed conformity. When Paul says that “all one in Christ Jesus”, after stating that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and  female”(Gal. 3:28), he does not mean that Christians are an indistinct, neutral, sexless company of beings united in a kind of middle- off- the road compromise, but that the categories enumerated do not represent a limiting characterization of each; they are the expression of a unity in diversity.[19] Ecumenical theology implies total humility and intellectual honesty; it implies being prepared to be guided in to all truth by the spirit of truth (16:13).[20]


4. Conclusion

Ecumenism is thoroughly grounded in the biblical teachings of Christ, the apostles and the early church fathers. Ecumenism is grounded in the life of God. The Trinitarian God lives in unity of three persons as one God. Similarly, the church should both express itself in diversity and unity. The foundational principle of this existence is laid down in the teaching of Christ and the apostles. Ecumenism does not necessarily mean one single organization or one institutional church under one leadership. It rather means the spiritual fellowship of different confessing members under the spiritual headship of Christ. The bond of ecumenical church unity is the one Lord, one Spirit and one baptism. Through this global unity the Lord would accomplish his purpose for allowing the diversity to develop and meet needs that probably would not have been accomplished without the diversity.

[2] Ibid.

[3] O.L. Snaitang, A History of Ecumenical Movement: an Introduction( Bangalore: BTESSC, 2007), 7.

[4] Ibid., 7.

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement( Geneva: WCC Publications, 1991), 987.

[11] Jacob Kurian ed., Paulose mar Gregorios on Ecumenism( kottayam: ISPCK, 2006), 3.

[12] Ibid., 3.

[13] Ibid.,4.

[14] Ibid.,4.

[15] Ibid., 5-6.

[16]  Confessing the One Faith( Geneva: WCC Publications,1991).

[18] Ibid.

[19] Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement( Geneva: WCC Publications, 1991), 1110.

[20] Ibid., 1110.


Kurian, Jacob ed., Paulose mar Gregorios on Ecumenism. kottayam: ISPCK, 2006.

Snaitang, O.L. A History of Ecumenical Movement: an Introduction. Bangalore:                        BTESSC, 2007.

Confessing the One Faith. Geneva: WCC Publications,1991.

Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement.  Geneva: WCC Publications, 1991.

http://cyberspacei.com/jesusi/inlight/religion/christianity/christianity..., 4 pm, 2-2-2014.

www.nou.edu.ng/NOUN_OCL/pdf/edited.../CTH272-Ecumenism.pdf . 4:30pm, 2-2-2014.

Written By: 
Rev. Vipin Kuruvila

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