In a small town, the height of ecumenism is a joint Christmas choir concert. We certainly tolerate each other enough not to throw our respective clerics/elders out of our steeples. But we don't really come to any sort of understanding of each other.

I've learned more about protestantism in 2 weeks of this website than I have in the last 20 years of parish life. Which raises the question, what is the overarching goal of ecumenism?

It would seem to me that there are two natural ends.

  1. Reconciliation, where we acknowledge our differences and proceed on our different courses towards salvation in harmony with one another or
  2. Reunification, where we acknowledge our differences and proceed with our one course toward salvation in a sonorous melody.

perhaps there are more goals, but are there any ecumenical documents to show that we're making any progress toward these goals? Also, are they polar opposites, if we proceed toward Reconciliation do we throw out Reunification?


Very interesting question.

First, what should be the goal of ecumenism? I believe it has to be reunification. Pardon my translation of choice (NIV) (added own emphasis)

Paul talks about our differences in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

In the broader context of the passage, this is talking about gifts and each of us are called to do different things for the body of the Church. But it does highlight that we are not all the same, we have our differences.

But the overall goal of the true church should be unity.

Ephesians 4:4-5 (NIV)

4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But why not reconciliation? When I hear that word, I think of the definition to compose or settle (a quarrel, dispute, etc.). Given that there has been millenia for people to offend each other and great chasms in the different denominations, it seems unreasonable to believe we can work through all that history.

Besides, it is a christian command to forgive one another. But it has to be our prayer to be united in Christ so the world will know he is from God

John 17:22-23

22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

So to answer the question Also, are they polar opposites, if we proceed toward Reconciliation do we throw out Reunification?: I don't believe they are polar opposites, but using the above definition of reconciliation, I don't think it's necessary to reconcile in order to reunify.

As for the official progress of ecumenism, wikipedia has some history on it from a (mostly) Catholic point of view. Focusing on the section of 'recent' progress:

The mutual anathemas (excommunications) of 1054, marking the Great Schism between Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) branches of Christianity, a process spanning several centuries, were revoked in 1965 by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

I find it interesting that ecumenism between Catholics and Protestants don't seem to be a main focus. It seems to be between Catholics and Orthodox, and the various denominations of Protestants.

Organizations such as the World Council of Churches, the National Council of Churches USA, Churches Uniting in Christ, Pentecostal Charismatic Peace Fellowship and Christian Churches Together continue to encourage ecumenical cooperation among Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, and, at times, Roman Catholics.

Most recently, the US Episcopal Church seems to have made a blunder in uniting the beliefs (also from that wikipedia article):

The decision by the U.S. Episcopal Church to ordain Gene Robinson, an openly gay, non-celibate priest who advocates same-sex blessings, as bishop led the Russian Orthodox Church to suspend its cooperation with the Episcopal Church

But the American denominations are making some progress by remaking an organization to unite the churches in 2002.

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    I understand the foundation for the emphasis on Catholic/Orthodox ecumenism, we have a shared 'sacramental ecology' which makes it easier to align our goals. – Peter Turner Sep 6 '11 at 15:19

To my knowledge, while both 1. and 2. of your hypothetical are indeed both implicit and expressed purposes for Protestant/Catholic ecumenism, the primary purpose is to ensure that Christian witness itself is not diminished because of Christian infighting.

  • Reconciliation tends to be the goal of Protestants in ecumenism,
  • Reunification tends to be the goal of Catholics in ecumenism.

For Catholics to really accept Reconciliation would require a different understanding of salvation (which is in the church) given that Protestants reject the papacy.

As for Reunification, given that Protestantism is a protest against certain aspects of Catholicism, one of which is the papacy, considered the unifying organ of the church, this view would have to change for it to happen.

It seems unlikely that either goal will be meaningfully achieved unless one side changes their mind about issues regarding church governance, theology, etc.

But as I said at the beginning, ecumenism continues to prevent or reduce infighting, which dampens the Christian witness.

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Since we already know the end of the Story, let's see where the Church is headed:

Revelation 19:6-10 (ESV)
6 Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out,
For the Lord our God
   the Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and exult
   and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
   and his Bride has made herself ready;
8 it was granted her to clothe herself
   with fine linen, bright and pure”—
   for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.
9 And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” 10 Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God.” For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

To be clear, in the imagery of the New Testament, the Bride is the united Church and the Lamb is Christ Jesus Himself. So the goal of ecumenism is (or ought to be) the part I bolded: to make ourselves ready for our marriage with Christ.

We can understand marriage imagery: especially if we are ourselves married. The bride and groom prepare intensely for the big day: caterers, officiants, bridesmaids and groomsmen, DJs, guest lists, invitations, venues, honeymoons, etc., and etc. It can be overwhelming. But the primary duty of the bride is the please her future husband and vice versa. In the long run, the marriage will only work if each person commits to giving the other agape love that Paul describes in 1st Corinthians 13.

The Lamb has already prepared Himself: His central task was His work on the Cross. That is done, but He is still active in preparing the Church for her great day. He is ready; we are not.

What does the Lamb expect from His Bride? Well, that seems clear from this passage too: to clothe ourselves in the "fine linen, bright and pure": "the righteous deeds of the saints." Already, we can start to see denominational pitfalls. Since the official canonization process was not in place, "saints" means simply "holy people" or those who have been sanctified. Also, the "righteous deeds" here have nothing to do with salvation: the Bride has already clothed herself with them at that point in future history. We can argue about exactly how that will happen, but we can't argue that it will happen.

John fell to worship the angel, but the angel redirected him worship God instead. His reasoning is that he is a servant of God, just like John and his "brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus." That's a pretty good definition of the Church historically. It's also a vital part of getting the Church ready: "hold to the testimony of Jesus." The other part is to do what He commands.

What does that mean when the rubber meets the road? As you say: do we try to sing in harmony or do we sing the same tune? Both and more! The songs of every nation will rise up and, though they now sound discordant, will then be harmonious and in praise of One God together. I got a taste of that at Urbana '93 with thousands of fellow students as we worshiped God together and celebrated communion. At that moment, it would not have surprised me if Christ Himself walked into Assembly Hall. Around the same time, John Piper preached these words:

Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church; worship is. Missions exist because somewhere true worship doesn't. Missions is a means to creating worship in the hearts of those who have never drunk from the wells of salvation. The father is seeking people to worship him in spirit and in truth. This is the ultimate meaning of missions—to bring about Christ-exalting worship in all the peoples of the world.

I think the barriers to Reunification are too high. In our sin we have separated ourselves too definitively to be rejoined before Christ returns to set all things right. You and I can never agree on certain issues until we are before God's throne and see everything clearly. But I can look over the barrier and see whether or not God is worshiped in your tradition. (He is.) So the spirit of ecumenism, in my opinion, encourages us to point out the one, true God to each other.


Different streams of the Christian faith have different ideas about how it will happen, but according to Revelation, all will eventually flow into one mighty river. We know this will happen because we are all aiming at the same goal: union with Jesus, the Lamb of God. Ecumenism only makes sense if we are encouraging each other to follow that course.

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The word ecumenical has changed over time.

Originally, it meant a general council of the Catholic Church, where the Pope and Bishops would get together and condemn heresies, or clarify some point of Dogma. For example the Council of Trent was convened to condemn what they called Protestant heresies.

Today the word ecumenical means to "The principle or aim of promoting unity among the world's Christian churches"

Practically what it means for the modern 'Catholic' Church is to retract their earlier condemnations of Protestantism:

Benedict XVI, Principles of Catholic Theology (1982), p. 202: “It means that the Catholic does not insist on the dissolution of the Protestant confessions and the demolishing of their churches but hopes, rather, that they will be strengthened in their confessions and in their ecclesial reality.”[41]

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  • I think the original meaning is preserved though yeah, it's infrequently used. For instance, Vatican II was an ecumenical council in the 1960's. – Peter Turner Sep 14 '11 at 21:06

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