The Heritage of the Coptic Orthodox Church

Ecumenical Movements and the Problem of Authority

Mark Mueller
February 17, 2004

A short essay on the Ecumenical Movement, with information and thoughts about the mission of the World Council of Churches.

I was recently asked what my thoughts were on the Ecumenical Movement and whether or not I believed such a great spiritual feat was possible. Since I attend an Old Calendar Church very much skeptical of the Ecumenical Movement, and was asked this question by a friend of mine from a certain Christian denomination known to make great strides for the cause, I found myself in a bit of dilemma. “Should I base my response on my church’s teachings that I had gradually come to accept for myself?” I thought. “Or should I set aside whatever convictions I had at the time for the sake of being polite?” And if I were to do the latter, what sense of authority derived from the Scriptures would we have in common? Soon these reflections caused me to ask whether or not any Christian engaged in the “ecumenical question” faced a similar dilemma, and what, if any, sense of authority bound the various denominations together.

The modern Ecumenical Movement was born out of the evangelical revivals of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when missionaries from various Protestant denominations desired to set aside confessional differences in order to share missionary experiences and bring Christís message to the entire world. This “International Missionary Council” first met in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1910 and was joined by other interdenominational movements such as “Faith and Order”, “World Missionary Council”, and various student Christian movements across Europe years later to form what is now known as the World Council of Churches. The purpose of this new council was to develop a common response to the challenges of modernity among the various denominations, to restore links among the churches broken by war, and to act as a voice for persecuted or neglected minorities (i.e. Jews during Nazi Germany). As the churches in the Council began to understand their purpose as a common search for meaning and obedience to Christ in the world whose mission and self-understanding all would contribute, they soon developed the slogan, “Doctrine Divides! Service Unites”, as a way to bind them all together. Though such a movement promotes positive values such as inclusion, unity, and cross-cultural appreciation, there is, as Gonzales points out, an indissoluble link between the mission and the church (Gonzales 289). In other words, what is the “nature” of the Christian Church and the “content” of the Christian message? It is because of such questions that the World Council of Churches encountered this dilemma in India during 1961 at the New Delhi Assembly when several large Orthodox churches entered into fellowship.

Unlike the first ecumenical councils of the early Christian Church, the World Council of Churches neither claims any authority in resolving such issues nor does it claim to speak the final word on itself or the ecumenical movement as a whole. Rather, the sole purpose of the WCC is to create wider possibilities of ecumenical fellowship: not only among the various Christian denominations but also among the cultural and religious traditions beyond the Christian community. The ecumenicalism promoted by the World Council of Churches is a social one that recognizes the diversity of the churches in Christ and one that emphasizes a “common calling” or “areas of common interest” in and through the Council (Chapter 3:31). Although the Council does seek a common witness and eucharistic faith, there is nothing in the constitution of the World Council of Churches that states what exactly that common witness and eucharistic faith is. It is a “spiritual ecumenicalism” that seeks unity through “missions” and “evangelism” as opposed to an “ecclesial” ecumenicalism that seeks to define “what is and has always been believed by all.”

As such, it is difficult for a movement that seeks “mutual enrichment”, “cross-cultural appreciation”, “social and economic reforms”, and “the sharing of experiences” to form a common Christian response to the challenges presented by modernity. Can a celebration of diversity really bring about a common Christian response to such questions as the unique place of Christianity among the world’s religions, the nature and structure of ecclesiastical authority, and the historical accuracy and the moral relevancy of the Holy Scriptures, when some denominations deny the basic tenets of the Christian faith? Perhaps these questions can only be answered at the Second Coming of our Lord, and the WCC is not meant to be nor is it meant to be perceived as a theological authority at all. Rather, the WCC is to be seen for what it is, a fellowship of faiths and denominations working together for the promotion of “justice” and “peace”. But would such a fellowship come at the expense of basic Christian doctrine and witness? The believer must decide!