Missional Ecumenism and the First-Century Church

Missional Ecumenism has been a big discussion over the last century of church life. If this phrase is new to you, in it’s simplest form, it means unity of the body of Christ around the mission of God. The word “ecumenism” comes from the Greek word oikoumene, which means “the whole inhabited earth.”

This ecumenical vision is both the mission to reconcile “the visible Church of every era” which is referred to as being ‘one body’ (Ephesians 4:1-4) and God’s mission to reconcile the “whole inhabited earth” (Matthew 24:14) as the concern of all who are God’s children (Genesis 12:1-3).

Unity of the body of Christ is always about mission. The mission of God is always about unity. One could also take the words “ecumenism” and “unity” and replace it in some way with the word “reconciliation,” which is the heart behind the whole gospel; Christ reconciling all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).

This reconciliation is wrought by men and women, who through faith in Christ Jesus, live a beatitudes kind-of-life, embracing the poverty of their own spirit, mourning over their sin and sin done against others and themselves, restraining their power to be used for good, and ultimately, working up a hunger and thirst for justice and goodness. This will lead to a life of mercy, purity, peacemaking, and in most cases, a life of persecution.

For a good example of what the beatitudes kind-of-life look like in story form, we could turn to the letter to Philemon, where the reality of reconciliation is employed in all it’s beauty, and missional ecumenism is seen from the very beginning of this Jesus movement.

In this letter we learn of a problem. Philemon had a run away slave named Onesimus, who fled his home, left Colossae and somehow ended up in Ephesus. We don’t know if Onesimus knew of Paul from Philemon, or if he was on the run, and heard Paul preaching while Paul was under house arrest in Ephesus. But somehow, he heard the gospel, received Christ, and became a disciple of Paul there in Ephesus, and falls head over heels in love with Jesus. Paul clearly sees the renewal that took place in this run away slaves life and wants to disciple him by having he and Philemon eventually live out a picture of the gospel; reconciliation.

It’s clear that Paul has in mind reconciliation with his letter to Philemon, because he urges Philemon to not just allow Onesimus back into his community, but to receive him as a brother, a partner in the gospel!

Go ahead, check it out for yourself. Grab a Bible and read Philemon real quick, it’s a brief one-page letter.

Did you see it? The gospel of reconciliation? Paul is crystal clear, he wants nothing less than the unity of two enemies who are now both unified under the Messiah, and one brother is to give the other brother emancipation papers. “Free him Philemon!”

In this letter, we read overtones of the Exodus narrative which was behind all of Paul’s letters and interpreted through Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul now wants Philemon to embrace the new exodus that Christ gave him (Philemon), and extend a new exodus to Onesimus. “Live out the gospel Philemon! Let Onesimus go free!”

We need to know that the punishment for a run away slave was likely crucifixion in this case. After all, if slaves run away without punishment, then who’s to say other slaves won’t follow suit unless somehow puts the hammer down. And what of Philemon if he goes along with it? What will other slave owners say? Will they try to harm Philemon? Paul is asking a lot, but if we continue to look at this passage, we see that Paul may be offering a lot as well.

This is why Paul also mentions, “If he has wronged you at all, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” (Philemon 18)

Notice Paul says to charge the cost of Onesimus’ offense to his account, which would mean whatever Onesimus would be given, or maybe whatever would be blamed on Philemon for releasing a run away slave, blame it on Paul. So Paul may be saying, “If he deserves the cross, then I’ll take it for him!” Or, “If you might receive punishment for releasing him, let the town know it’s on me, I’ll receive your punishment.” Paul is displaying the ministry of reconciliation here, he’s displaying Christ’s sacrifice in a tangible way.

Clearly after reading Philemon in this context, Paul has a much bigger view of reconciliation than we have after a casual reading of this text. Paul has an entirely different perspective. Indeed Philemon and Onesimus are a part of the new creation in Christ.

For Philemon to be able to receive Onesimus back, he had to think more of him than himself (poverty of spirit). He had to mourn over what he lost, what he’s going to lose in the community if he doesn’t punish Onesimus, and how he may  have wanted revenge or punishment against Onesimus. He would’ve had to restrain his cultural power and offer freedom, and this would surely fuel his hunger and thirst for more justice in areas of oppression elsewhere.

The cross of Christ is busting out of this letter to Philemon as Paul is able to say to Philemon, whatever he owes you, put it to my account, I will pay for his offense. This is the ministry of reconciliation that we are being gifted with as followers of Jesus, and this is what God is asking of us to live out for our sake and for His name’s sake.

The purpose of life in Christ was always and will always be a mission of ecumenism, being reconciled to Christ, and laboring to be reconciled to one another. The former empowering the latter. This is at the core of being the church. May we not allow other things to become more important than this reality that Christ prayed for in John 17; that they may all be one… so that the world will believe.

The Ancient Catholic Church

Back Camera

I am committed to this thing called ‘ecumenism’. It’s a funny word, I know, and it has multiple meanings depending on the context one hears it. In it’s simplest form, for me, ecumenism is referring to any inter-denominational movement towards unity or concerted cooperation among Christian denominations, including Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants. I’m not here to define clearly my view of ecumenism, which would be a good post for another day. As I have thought and prayed and connected outside of theological ‘tribes’ that I’m usually comfortable with, I have wrestled with what the word “catholic” means, and particularly, what did it originally mean when referring to the church.

Justo González, in his fantastic work of retelling The Story of Christianity (volume I), ends his 8th chapter with a small closing entitled, “The Ancient Catholic Church”. The context of the chapter is a discussion of the 2nd and 3rd century church’s “deposit of the faith”, which would be how the church would refute false testimonies about their lifestyle, their doctrine, and their traditions. Creeds, the canon of Scripture, and the apostolic succession were all a part of determining “the rule of faith” for followers of Jesus.

González mentions that the first time the phrase “Catholic church” is used among Christians, it was used to identify Christians in the 2nd century apart from Gnostics and Marcionites (google the meaning of those sects if you’re curious). The Catholic church was not only the church that was connected to apostolic successors (Christians who were discipled by an apostle in the 1st century or by a disciple of someone who was an apostle; see the first comment from Matt Marino for a brief background of the episcopal collegiality and why apostolic succession was so important in their apologetic), but it was also the church that was connected to the network of bishops or church leaders who desired to stay true to the rule of faith and who were approved as godly leaders by apostolic successors.

Many people may think of the word catholic as referring to the Roman Catholic church, and some creedal Protestants and Orthodox would understand the word catholic to mean “universal” in terms of being the “one” church of God. However, the ancient church in the 2nd century first used the word catholic to mean “according to the whole”, or “according to all the bishops and church leaders” who were interconnected by creeds, apostolic succession, and the canon of Scripture, to preserve the truth of the gospel.

González goes on to say that the ancient church understood this title to refer to “both its universality and the inclusiveness of the witness on which it stood… the total witness of all the apostles and all the evangelists.” This “Catholicity” among the church would be it’s claim to a true witness of Christ Jesus and his gospel. This was what kept the teaching of the person and divinity of Christ truthful, or orthodox, or catholic. 

The irony of this story is that after many centuries of church growth and polity, arguments and discussions about what the word catholic really meant began to be centered on “the person and authority of a single apostle–Peter”, more so than the authority “according to the whole”.

Now I’m not here to pick on any Catholic forms of authority, but I wanted to tell this story to draw our attention back to the ancient church’s desire to hear the collective voice of the whole, which provided a type of shared leadership that formed organically before it was institutionalized in the 4th century.

There is much we can learn from the ancient, or the first Catholic church, and their desire to have a collective voice together, protected by creeds, apostolic successors, and Scripture. There is much division among the body of Christ today, and there is no one answer, but there are on ramps to this movement for us today.

One on ramp that I am reminded of today is that we need to work really hard in each city to connect the whole body as much as we are able to, and begin dialogues and prayer gatherings, trusting once again the “forgotten” God of the Protestants, the Holy Spirit, to be the one to preserve the purity of the church and for Christian leaders stop living in fear of “going down the slippery slope” of universalism or theological liberalism if they were to embrace those who differ from them theologically.

God preserves his church and his people. We are to be so utterly confident in that truth that we can be free to reach across tribal boundaries and trust that Jesus’ people are in more corners of our cities than we ever imagined, and that if we were to be courageous enough to go to those places and extend a hand of friendship, that Jesus’ prayer in John 17 would begin to reverse some of the curse we see in modern day Christendom.

Ecumenism is an important endeavor for the bride of Christ, and for many, it will mean that you may lose friends and favor among some of your “Christian” circles. So be it. Be courageous and confident in the sovereignty of God and the Lordship of Jesus the Christ, to begin friendships and gatherings with those who claim to follow Jesus. Give God’s Spirit a chance to surprise you and sift through the junk of all of differing theologies.

I will close with the words of Pope Francis at a vespers prayer in St. Paul (Rome) last Sunday: “To plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another, and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts.”

Lessons From The Early Church: A Person, Not a Form

Lessons From The Early Church: A Person, Not a Form

The first century church has much to teach us followers of Jesus in the twenty-first century, not in the way of copying forms or methods, but as a way of peering into the heart of this movement which is still moving today. One notable lesson for us is that they did not seem as concerned as we do today with the “form” of the church. The idea of church structure seemed to occupy very little brain or heart space. Plans for how the building should look or what the stage should be decorated as bore little weight in the hearts and minds of our fore-fathers and mothers.

Indeed, the One they followed, Christ Jesus, did not leave a blueprint for the church, for the building or the form of her gatherings. I guess the question/statement to be made is, “Why would he? It’s his workmanship, not ours.” He has said, “I will build my Church,” and gave no builders manual, codes, or forms for its development.

So, from he heart of the One who is followed, the first century believers were more concerned with the proclamation of that One person, than the building of an institution or method of “doing” church. As they declared and displayed the person of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, things began to take shape, and in many different shapes they formed, from context to context, city to city, culture to culture. As Christ built, they observed, learned, and applied within their particular geographic locale.

The early church took lessons from Jesus, lessons that shaped this unstoppable movement. In a series of posts to come, I will share small lessons from Jesus that I have gleaned from as I observe the gospels and the early church.