In some ways ecumenism is a threatening undertaking. Our churches have become comfortable with their separated existences, which sometimes have been established for centuries. Our natural instinct is to protect our own interests, our own family, or our own heritage. It sometimes seems that, if ecumenism’s goal is to say that we’re all one, then all the things our ancestors fought for, all the things we love most dearly, are suddenly worthless. On the flip side, we often see things in other churches that disturb us greatly. Sometimes we don’t understand them and so we misinterpret them; but sometimes we do understand them and we disagree profoundly. In this light, ecumenism may seem like a big reduction into meaninglessness, claiming that nothing is really right or wrong, good or bad.
On the other hand, it is equally true that the disunity of Christians has been damaging both to the church and to the world. After splitting in 1054, Eastern and Western Christians battled each other in some of the Crusades. After the Reformation, terrible religious wars ravaged Europe. They were so bad that they actually discredited religion itself; much of Western culture today is still controlled by a desire either to escape or to privatize the claims of Christianity, supposedly to keep the world safe. (Christians deserve this loss of confidence in many ways, but the history of the 20th century shows it’s doubtful that secular ideologies can do better.) The competition in the mission field did much to discredit the gospel when it was introduced to new lands. Was this really that the faith that Jesus commended to his disciples, commanding them to “love one another”? Or was it human sin attacking the most precious gift of God to the world?
What all of this means is that we must approach ecumenism as a spiritual calling. It is not a political strategy, an intellectual game, or a bland effort at being nice. The unity of the church is both a command and a gift of God. If we are to obey this command and receive this gift, we have to undertake certain spiritual disciplines to put our hearts and souls in the right place so they will welcome, not impede, the work of the Holy Spirit. Tomorrow and the next day I’ll lift up six spiritual disciplines that are essential to ecumenism.