Thoughts on One Church
“Our service will be ecumenical,” John said. I didn’t know what that meant. I’d heard the term non-denominational, which was a strange concept for a Southern Baptist gal, or at least a small town SoBap gal in the 1980s. We didn’t have non-denominational churches where I grew up. Campus ministry and visiting various churches in Lexington would introduce me to a notion of gathering under no particular denominational banner. But ecumenical, that was a new word.
Merriam-Webster defines ecumenical as:
: of, relating to, or representing the whole of a body of churches; b: promoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation
Yes, I conceded to John, even though not on a global scale, our wedding service would be ecumenical with a Disciples of Christ pastor in a Southern Baptist church and following a United Methodist liturgy, with hymns and classical music and some then-modern worship songs. I loved our wedding, for the obvious reasons of marrying John and the good glory of that. And the ecumenical, global church incorporation remains a treasured aspect. It meant a great deal to us both that so many elements of the whole Church came together as we stood before family and friends to say, “Thank you for being with us as we join our lives together; this is us, this is the very core of who we are.”
Our wedding, unbeknownst to me then, foretold things to come. In the years since my formation in the SoBap and DOC churches, since marrying a UM pastor, ecumenical teaching has grown me and invited me into deeper relationship with Jesus.
My faith has been shaped through Catholic priests, United Methodist pastors, Wesleyan professors, Reformed leaders, Baptist teachers, charismatic influencers, liberation and womanist theologians, desert fathers and mothers. I’ve learned from everyone from Beth Moore and John Piper to N.T. Wright and Henri Nouwen, from Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Efrem Smith, from St. Francis of Assisi and Kathleen Norris to the ladies at Truth’s Table and Robert Gelinas at the Sankofa Experience. My father-in-law and my husband, both Wesleyan pastors and teachers, have helped me to ask better questions, and they challenged me to consider writings and teachings outside of their own disciplines, outside of my comfort zone of familiarity.
The Church is either all of these beautiful and potent aspects, or she is none of them. The Body of Christ is either expansive and beyond what I can box up and tie with a bow, or she is small and I’ve smashed the mystery with my certainty.
I relish certainty. As a six on the Enneagram, certainty, stability, clear lines all secure a safe nest where I can live in peace. On the other hand, it is in that same six nature to question everything, to play devil’s advocate and not land very precisely on a side.
If sides are how we talk about it, I lean toward a side. But I see it less like a singular line with opposite poles or sides and more like a multi-faceted prism, a gem stone of high value. I would be lying, however, if I said I am always willing to make my way to another part of the prism, to some point across the facets where it not as comfortable for me.
It is a nagging conviction that—as much as I believe in ecumenicalism and the expressions of the Body of Christ across the world, much less here in America—I get to feeling a bit stingy with what kind of room I want to make for places in the Church that bug me. I’m sure the feeling is mutual, depending whom I ask.
As that conviction won’t relent, there has to be a reckoning in me. If I can’t let another believer hold their doctrinal position, cannot celebrate God’s work in their life and heart, then what I want most is not unity in the body of Christ. If I can’t release it and let God work how God wants to work, then I don’t want ecumenicalism, I want some form of control.
Control is not trust. I can practice better listening skills, can be quiet if my opinion has not been solicited. This needing to convince another or to determine for someone how they understand doctrine is a tiring business. It's likewise judge-y, self-righteous, and prideful. And as my friend, Santy, pointed out, it’s frankly not very biblical. I have to repent, and I do. Lord, have mercy.
24 years into our marriage, we are living in the wide, wild west. Our arms are linked with people from other states and countries. We work in a ministry whose employees, speakers, and teachers are from variety of Christian faith traditions. We learn from each other. We sharpen one another. It is not easy or shiny or smooth, not always the polished version of the gem stone. It's ecumenical, a lived prayer toward Christian unity, a posture of promoting cooperation in the Body of Christ.
When we were preparing for our wedding service, John gave the pastor some specific points we wanted to include. John wrote the whole thing out as an example. Rick felt it to be a complete representation, and he used every single word John wrote. Concluding the reflection on the Bible passage we chose for that November 20th service, John wrote a prayer we wished to offer for our guests that evening.
The Message translation had barely been born when we got married, but Eugene Peterson encapsulates the prayer we still utter. It is our hope for the Church, for all her facets and surfaces that reflect the beauty of God's love.
So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:9-11, emphasis added