People who are passionate about theology are often skeptical about ecumenism. (I should know; I used to be there myself.) At first blush, ecumenism seeks to ask everyone to sell out: sacrifice precious convictions, or I’ll give up this if you give up that, or ratchet everything down to the lowest common denominator. Ugh. The resulting Christianity would be too boring even to contemplate.
In a good many cases of Christian division, the matters over which we were divided were considered so serious as to be worth going to war over. They were seen as the choice between truth and heresy, between the real gospel and false religion, between Christ’s own church and some distorted imitation of it.
So it’s a good question: if we disagreed about things so bitterly in the past that we became separate churches, how can we possibly claim to agree about them today?
Agreement can exist today over things that were disputed in the past in three ways: 1) there was a misunderstanding in the past; 2) there were different traditions at work within the churches of the past; and 3) the churches have in fact changed over time.
We’ll start with misunderstandings today and save the others for tomorrow and the next day.
Here’s a case of misunderstanding. Not long after Luther came on the scene and the Reformation started getting underway, some Christians came to the conclusion that infant baptism was worthless. Although they themselves had been baptized as infants, they decided to be baptized as adults upon their own profession of faith and commitment to lead a Christlike life. Lutherans and others named them “Anabaptists” (re-baptizers), though of course from the Anabaptists’ point of view they were getting baptized for the first time. These Anabaptists are the forerunners of today’s Mennonites.
As with all new movements, the Anabaptist started out a bit wild and woolly. There were many different Anabaptists claiming many different things, and it took awhile for the dust to settle and a clear center to emerge. Certain marginal extremists among the Anabaptists claimed “that the Holy Spirit comes to human beings without the external Word through their own preparations and works”—and that’s what Lutherans zeroed in on, so this phrase was inserted and preserved in the Augsburg Confession (Article v), which is the Lutheran “charter” document, so to speak. Pretty much ever since then, Lutherans have assumed that Anabaptists/Mennonites stuck to this idea, that even the Scriptures aren’t really necessary for Christians.
Well, Lutherans were right to condemn that position—but they were wrong to think that Anabaptists and Mennonites through the centuries have believed it. Almost immediately it was excluded. Mennonites actually share the Lutheran condemnation of that position. It was only in recent decades, and especially through the work of the International Lutheran-Mennonite Study Commission, that this longstanding “disagreement” was resolved. In fact there was no disagreement at all, just a misunderstanding.