Ecumenism – or how to ride a bicycle between this life and the other

 — Nov. 8, 20078 nov. 2007

“Church unity is like riding a bicycle. We will fall unless we go forward.” This affirmation was posed as a challenge by Korean missiologist Wonsuk Ma to participants at the Global Christian Forum taking place on 6-9 November in Limuru, near Nairobi, Kenya.

In a keynote address delivered on the second day of the forum, Ma analyzed Christian developments in unity and mission over the last century. He affirmed that in Christian mission, the seemingly contradictory emphases on “life before death” and on “life after death” – which have separated “mainline” and “evangelical” Christians for decades – are actually complementary and in need of each other.

Ma’s presentation was considered both provocative and stimulating by many at the forum, which included some 240 church leaders from Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Evangelical, and Pentecostal and other churches and interchurch organizations from around the world. The event is being described as one of the most inclusive Christian gatherings ever to advance Christian unity and explore common challenges.

Ma, a Pentecostal theologian from Korea and the head of the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies in the UK, based his reflection on his personal journey. He described himself as a second generation Christian in growing up in an environment hostile towards his faith expression.

While the “life before death” camp focuses on the “creation of a just society,” Ma said, the “life after death” camp emphasizes on the “the ‘soul saving’ business.” For the former camp, all the issues that hinder the goal of justice are mission topics, and the sympathy with the victims in the society leads to the involvement in their struggles. For the latter camp, evangelism and church planting are the key topics.

However, Ma affirmed, “these two approaches are complementary to each other” as the announcement of the gospel “has to include [the] earthly aspect as well as the heavenly one.” To the extent that “each ‘life’ camp has a part of the whole truth,” each of them “does not represent the full truth” and “one is never complete without the other.”

“Although it is a bit of a caricature, there have certainly been those tendencies,” says Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in response to Ma’s comments. “But we in both ‘camps’ are discovering the wholeness of the gospel and, yes, we need each other.”

Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, agrees with Ma’s statement “in a general sense, to the extent it articulates emphases.” But he sees that description as appropriate only for the early 20th century, as far as evangelicals are concerned.

Before that, he says, they were engaged in societal issues like the abolition of the slave trade. And more recently, after the 1974 Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, evangelicals felt they had “permission to engage in issues pertaining to ‘life before death’.”

The “evangelical” camp, said Ma, who affirmed he belongs to a radical branch of it, has spent “energy in ‘converting everyone’ to our form of Christianity, including other Christians as much as non-believers.” In addition to indulging in “aggressive evangelism,” sometimes portrayed as “sheep-stealing,” this camp has also invested “much time and energy trying to figure out who is in and who is out.”

Tunnicliffe recognizes this as a “valid observation” so long as “most of the missionary resources are spent in Christian countries and not in areas where churches haven’t been planted.” But he prefers to frame the issue in terms of religious freedom: “People have the right to make their choices and if they find something authentic they cannot come across with in their own traditions, it should not be assumed that amounts to sheep-stealing.”

On the other hand, affirmed Ma, the “ecumenical” camp, has “ironically” created an environment that made it “simply impossible for some churches to approach the network.” In that way this camp, too, has established distinctions between those who are “inside” and those who are “outside” the circle.

“The way in which the ecumenical movement has formulated the goal of visible unity in Jesus Christ has made it difficult for some churches with a more evangelical theology to join in; and yes, some of our attitudes have stood as barriers,” acknowledges Kirkpatrick.

“So we need openness to the new things God is doing without losing the core ecumenical commitment to the visible unity Jesus Christ has given to us,” he said.

In his address, Ma compared the story of the relationships between the two “life camps” to a tale of two siblings who never met each other. Until today, when a long process of “self-critical reflection and growing awareness of each other” has led the two “much closer to each other than was possible decades ago.”

“There has been a growing convergence as both ‘camps’ have respectively rediscovered the gospel call to personal salvation and to social justice,” Kirkpatrick agreed.

Tunnicliffe is more skeptical, however. “I’m not convinced that is a global phenomenon,” he says. “There are helpful conversations taking place at certain levels, but at the grassroots there is a long way to go, and in both camps stereotypes and significant divides around core issues still remain.”

For Ma, the years ahead will see those riding the bicycle of Christian unity facing major challenges. “There will be more reasons why divisions will further intensify, on the one hand, and a more urgent and predominant reason why the church should work together, on the other hand.”

However, Ma believes that occasions like the Global Christian Forum have the potential to foster an “authentic ecumenicity by combining open koinonia, Spirit-filled worship, and diligent learning to discern what the Lord is doing in different Christian communions.”

Juan Michel, WCC media relations officer, is a member of the Evangelical Church of the River Plate in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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