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The New Ecumenism and Christian Witness to Society

by Tom Oden

The irony of the new ecumenism is that it is much older (by a millennium) than what we are here calling the old ecumenism. So by old we mean old modern, by new we mean new classic. The old ecumenism is focused on new structures of organic unity. The new ecumenism is seeking to restore classic Christian verities within and despite the old divisions.

The old ecumenism is moribund. A new post-Lambeth, post-NCC ecumenism is taking form in the womb of current history. Some readers of First Things will understand themselves as called to be a handmaid in this birthing. Interpreting this emerging situation is the first task. We are witnessing a basic reconfiguration of ecumenism.

The Old and New Ecumenisms Contrasted

1. How do the two ecumenisms, old and new, differ?

There are two ecumenisms. Theold ecumenism is decisively identified with Geneva and the 475 Riverside establishments—the World Council of Churches (WCC), and the National Council of Churches (NCC). This is the old ecumenical movement everybody has known for fifty years. But few are aware of anew ecumenism which is embryonic, yet sufficiently developed to recognize some of its characteristics. These two do not differ absolutely, but represent distinguishable tendencies, and have quite different manifestations. Here is a brief glimpse of the differences:




distrustful of ancient ecumenism deliberately grounded in ancient ecumenism
accommodates modernity uncritically critical of failed modern ideas
oriented mainly to Enlightenment assumptions, and the Reformation’s left wing oriented mainly to classic Christianity,  conciliar and patristic teaching
revolutionary pretenses organic view of historical change
preoccupied with rapid social change keenly aware of the recalcitrance of sin
ideologically drawn to the heirs of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche sees many tragic consequences of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche
chronically activist patient amid historical turbulence
bureaucratic suspicious of top heavy administration
left-leaning state planning strategies defense of a free and democratic society
utopian realistic
seeks negotiated inter-institutional unity seeks unity based on classic Christian truth
declining emerging
hierarchical business organization analogy web-networking analogy
loss of nerve, financially vexed confident, resourceful
unity sought in shifting political alliances unity already found in Christ
politics-driven Spirit-led
begins in 1948 (Amsterdam) begins in the council of Jerusalem, 46 A.D.
apogee in 1966 (Geneva) apogee in seven Ecumenical Councils
dying by 1998 (Harare) still much alive

This list of characteristics points to tendencies, not absolute distinctions, and these categories overlap to some extent. But it serves to point to distinct differences of tone, predilection, orientation, and trajectory.

The new ecumenism is not headquartered in any particular bureaucracy or establishment but is as diffuse as is the uniting work of the Holy Spirit. What is happening? God is awakening in grass roots Christianity a ground swell of longing for classic ecumenical teaching in all communions. There are innumerable lay embodiments of this unity. Some are calling it analternative ecumenical movement.My own view is that it is not alternative, but the original and realoecumene.

What I am calling the old ecumenism begins in 1948 with the launching of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam, in the same year the United Nations was created. It is modern ecumenism. In its early years it was in sound continuity with international missionary societies which were well grounded in classical Christian teaching. It was not until 1966 that this modern ecumenism took its radical turn to an imaginary revolution. Although this occurred gradually during the sixties, it was at the World Conference on Church and Society in Geneva 1966 that this turn became public and irreversible. Thereafter the ideological radicals increased.

I attended as a youth observer the second world assembly at Evanston in 1954, and the Geneva Conference in 1966, as well as the Harare Assembly in 1998. I have personally beheld the old ecumenism in its earlier, middle, and later phases, and can attest that a radical turn occurred by the mid-sixties toward revolutionary rhetoric, social engineering, and regulatory politics. The engine of utopianism was revved up in 1966 and persists today in the Geneva bureaucracy. Major designers and players in 1966 were Paul Abrecht, Eugene Carson Blake, and of course Archbishop Alexie who was later identified as a willing agent of the Soviet KGB. By 1998 at the Harare General Assembly the old ecumenism had disintegrated into a cacophony of politicized voices. By the end of the 20th century the soundest element of the old ecumenism, the Faith and Order Commission, had been virtually booted out of the WCC-NCC leadership circles.[1]

2. What are evidences of the new ecumenism?

The Holy Spirit is creating forms of unity in the church far beyond our poor attempts. The promise of the spirit is to guide church into all truth. The Spirit enables accurate memory of the apostolic testimony. The Spirit is even today reliably reminding the faithful of the good news of the kingdom. The Spirit is at work to transcend ecumenical bureaucracies, provide a critique of blatantly politicized ecumenism, and restore confidence in classic ecumenical teachings. This uniting work of the Holy Spirit is taking form on a breathtaking world scale, yet manifested primarily in quiet and inconspicuous ways in local churches, parachurch ministries, food relief, bible studies, and grass roots missions. It is not just a matter of pragmatic cooperation, but of a living embodiment of the body of Christ.

There may be an internet analogy here, imperfect but suggestive. You tell me if you think it is valid. Think of the new ecumenism as structurally analogous to the world-wide information web: It is dispersed, decisions are made mainly through local initiatives, and there is minimal need for centrist integrative control. The old ecumenism may be more like defensive proprietary hardware, while the new ecumenism is like public domain software. The old wants to keep control. In the new ecumenism there is no desire to control the work of Holy Spirit, but only to reflect it and celebrate it, not capture and can it institutionally.

The terminal illness of old ecumenism has been the entrenched habit of believing that the embodiment of the body of Christ depends largely upon human ingenuity, rhetoric, and cleverness. It remains fixated on negotiation and management gathered around “causes” of political action. It imagines that this unity will be accomplished by getting institutions and groups together to agree with each other, even at the lowest common denominator, especially in supposed political acts that give the appearance of great prophetic courage, yet with a steady eye on sympathetic journalistic reporting.[2]

The old ecumenism brought institutions together to agree on high-sounding documents and bold sounding revolutionary policies. The new ecumenism sees the Holy Spirit as doing something far more unexpected, diffuse, and magnificent than paper proclamations or building a bureaucracy in Geneva. God the Spirit is not sentimentally attached to a proto-Marxist vision of social change at a time when Marxism is collapsing. The new ecumenism has already survived the collapse of Marxism, and is grateful to God for bringing this to pass.

The new ecumenism is already widely dispersed among Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox believers, not as an organizational expression of institutional union, but a movement of the Spirit. The old ecumenism was largely a liberal Protestant artifact, with Orthodoxy always as a frustrated minority partner.

The new ecumenism is above all committed to ancient classic ecumenical teaching. That means that it has a high doctrine of scripture, and a long term view of cumulative historical consensus, a Chalcedonian Christology, and a classic ecumenical view of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It adheres to a consensual doctrine of the atonement and the resurrection, and the return of the Lord. These are fixed boundary stones in the ancient ecumenical tradition which we are commanded not to move. In the old ecumenism of the hot-house God-box in New York, these doctrines became gradually submerged and almost forgotten amid provocative rhetoric of radical social transformation. The old ecumenism became intensely embarrassed by allegedly sexist language about God the Father and God the Son. It appealed constantly to Marxist social location analysis and psychoanalytic theories of religion. It looked desperately for alternative humanistic explanations of the mystery of the incarnation and resurrection and holy trinity.

The old ecumenism has suffered the shock of wave after wave of ideological excesses. It has become habituated to viewing current public policy issues mostly through the eyes of liberation theologies, feminist theologies, sexual liberal advocacy, and run-amuck egalitarianism. All of these patterns are focused on one central commitment: the mesmerized fixation on accommodating to modernity. The managers of the ecumenical takeover in the mid-sixties ranged from Margaret Mead to Stephen Rose, from Janet Lacey to Robert W. Spike, from Arend van Leeuwen to Metropolitan Nicodim of Leningrad, from Betty Thompson to Harvey Cox, and from Richard Shaull to Konrad Raiser the ideological echoes have continued.

The embryonic new ecumenism pulled through the sixties with a growing commitment to the defense of free societies, an incremental view of social change, plausible arguments warranting a free market, and equity judgments shaped by classic Christian moral reasoning. In the old ecumenism the institutional manipulators were trying to create unity by negotiation. In the new ecumenism all territorial claims are less relevant, and proprietary ownership concerns subordinated. Within the old ecumenism, Christian unity appeared to be based more on negotiation skills, tolerant expression of feelings, and the sharing of political goals. In the new ecumenism, Christian unity is based on Christian truth, not deliberative compromise.

The 50 years of the old ecumenism dates from Amsterdam to Harare (1948-1998). What begins with Amsterdam’s ideal vision ends with Zimbabwe’s pathetic Padare (Shona for talking it out), where a broad platform of absolute toleration is provided for anyone to speak of any faith feeling or chic take on history and baptize it as authentically ecumenical.

The apogee of the old ecumenism was already reached in 1966 at the World Conference on Church and Society. From then on the trajectory was downhill. That Conference occasioned Paul Ramsey’s brilliant response: Who Speaks for the Church? Thereafter the momentum of the old ecumenism decisively turned in the direction of faddism and utopianism. Thereafter it began to decline, with diminishing theological equilibrium, spinning out into a frenetic accommodation to outdated ideological programs. It collapsed into desperate syndromes of self-justification that bore bitter fruit in Canberra and Zimbabwe.

What happened to the old ecumenism at Harare 1998 was a final shift from Christian truth to interfaith, world-religions dialogue. The frame of reference was changed from the apostolic deposit of faith to a group-think (“Padare”) conversational search — not for truth but for self-expression. From there it became increasingly tempted toward neo-pagan, shamanist, and animist primitivism as supposed alternatives for ecumenical rejuvenation.

Meanwhile the new ecumenism has been quietly rediscovering ancient Christian ecumenism, without press notice, without fanfare. It has silently reclaimed the courage of the martyrs, and the faith of the confessors, the resolve of the early Councils, and the wisdom of the Fathers. It is being rediscovered by the truth once for all revealed in Jesus Christ. That truth is constantly being renewed by the work of the Holy Spirit in engendering proximate unity of the community of baptized believers world wide.

But does the new ecumenism already exist, or is it just a dream or a rhetorical ploy? It already exists as a fact of our time, as a palpable movement of confession and renewal within the churches, and as a deep-felt hunger within modern culture. It already has produced a vast literature. It is emerging world wide. Documenting the evidence for the new ecumenism is the task of a book-length study which I am now writing.[3]  Yet it has not achieved either conceptual or institutional definition. 

3. What constitutes the present crisis of the two ecumenisms?

It is a crisis of legitimacy. The very notion ofoecumene implies a claim to wholeness, an appeal to classic catholicity.[4] The old (modern) ecumenism presumes that it has a proprietary right to shape with its modern ideology every potential modern expression of the unity of the church. Meanwhile the very modernity to which it is seeking to adapt the church is dying.

The old ecumenism assumes it owns the term ecumenical. But this now must be tested.  Is the WCC the sole legitimate heir of the office of bringing unity to the body of Christ? This obviously circumvents North American evangelicals in the mainline, Roman Catholics, and most Orthodox. The old NCC ecumenism is making a claim of truth and universality, yet that claim is corrupted by a radical relativism. This is precisely the false presumption that has required the Holy Spirit to raise up a new ecumenism.

The old ecumenism wholeheartedly accepts the canons of modern consciousness as a permanent feature of every conceivable future. The new ecumenism is not intimidated by modernity, and does not permit modern assumptions to stand as absolute judge of apostolic truth. Modernity has miserably failed to create viable, stable, humane conditions for living. Apostolic truth has now become the critic of modernity, not the other way around, in the voices of the new ecumenism.[5]

The crisis comes down to the question of whether God in time will bless one or the other, the modern institutional form, or the classic ecumenical form. There is increasing evidence that God is now blessing the renewal of classic Christian ecumenism, re-grounded in the ancient consensual tradition and patristic exegesis.

4. What does it mean today to confess with integrity “Credo in unam Ecclesiam” [I believe in one church]?

We cannot rightly confess the unity of the church without re-grounding that unity in the apostolic teaching that was hammered out on the anvil of martyrdom and defined by the early conciliar process, when heresies were rejected and the ancient orthodox consensus defined. This one church is constituted by all who repent and believe, whose lives are shaped by their participation in the living Christ, all who live in this real but imperfect communion. To be the one church, it must be apostolic, refracting the holiness of God in our lives in the world. It reaches out to all cultures, all classes, all languages. We behold this one church most fully alive when we see believers ready to put their lives on the line for its truth.

5. Can we ground Christian social witness in a better proximate understanding of the unity of the church?

It is only now that we can clearly see how damaging the old ecumenism has been to the very cause of Christian unity. We now know how deeplythe old ecumenism has fostered the disunity of the church. Arguably nothing has been more divisive in contemporary Christianity than the social witness of the modern ecumenists who have forgotten the ancient ecumenical consensus. They have been most divisive just at those points at which they have offended against ancient ecumenical boundaries: in permissive sexuality, power politics, and deadly dreams. Meanwhile the new ecumenism stands in between the times of having grasped a vision of the unity of the body of Christ, yet not able to actualize it or manifest it institutionally within its own emergent networks and memories of confession.

We must continue to hone an accurate and truth-telling form of advocacy journalism. Why? Because each mainline bureaucracy has a kept, wholly owned, publishing operation, with slanted reportage designed to prop up the wayward infrastructure. They all maintain vast closed shop publication resources that remain largely in the hands of the tired apologists for the old elitist ecumenism. In order to break through this defensive gridlock, there must be a continuing effort at accurate investigative journalism to challenge just those points of the old ecumenism that are inconsistent with classic Christian teaching. We pray for grace to reclaim the ecumenical ministry for the church catholic and from all who have diminished that unity which is grounded in apostolic truth.[6]

6. What are the institutional instruments of the new ecumenism?

Since Canberra and Beijing, the Holy Spirit has been teaching Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians that they are closer to each other than either is to modern liberal accommodative assumptions. The Holy Spirit is at work to elicit and create an apostolic unity that has not yet been manifested fully but is in the process of being created.[7] What configuration promises to emerge out of the old alphabet soup of WCC, NAE, NCC, ACR, and NCCB? The old ecumenism is already overly burdened with institutionalism. My own view: The Holy Spirit will show us the way in God’s own time. We already have corporate manifestations of parachurch movements and embryonic unity movements such as the Lausanne Movement and the World Evangelical Fellowship that are in their own ways working to bring greater proximate unity to the body of Christ.

The instruments of this unity all over the world are seen in believing Christians in every communion, but also in international ministries that express proleptic unity concretely and pragmatically, transcending denominational boundaries, i.e., such vital ministries as Prison Fellowship, World Relief, World Vision, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Samaritan’s Purse. These must be brought closer to Catholic and Orthodox prayers and hopes for unity.

The old ecumenism has collapsed through boredom and neglect. It cannot raise money for its programs. It has lost its historic identity. The Holy Spirit is acting concretely and tangibly the world over, but it is hard for us to see the unity in all this diversity. The unity lies in the One who unites: God the Holy Spirit, who can work precisely through antinomies, historical development, signs of contradiction, and paradox. The major challenge of the new ecumenism is to grasp the incredible abundance of gifts the Holy Spirit is bringing to the faithful community.

The new ecumenism hasn’t clearly decided whether or how it might engender or manifest new post-WCC expressions of the unity of the body of Christ, or whether to not focus at all on any institutional manifestation of organic unity. It may decide not to seek any structure at all at this time, but allow the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit to shape whatever structures are required. This debate is only beginning. Among the journals giving voice to substantive debates on the new ecumenism are First Things, Pro Ecclesia, Touchstone, and Faith and Freedom.

7. What is the Holy Spirit doing in our time to bring greater unity to Christian social witness?

Indeed there is much that we do not know of what the Holy Spirit is doing on our behalf, although we can and do know something. This work is happening all about us, yet often without our recognition. Here are some evidences and preliminary clues:

a. There are growing evangelical and confessing movements within all mainline denominations, calling their churches back to classical Christianity as the source of renewal and unity. This is an historical fact of our time.

b. The Holy Spirit is giving encouragement to the martyrs and confessors of all many different ecclesial memories, under appalling conditions of state persecution.[8]

c. The Holy Spirit is hedging and undercutting the false teachings of narcissitic hedonism, autonomous individualism, and oppressive totalitarian statism in our time.

d. The Holy Spirit is engendering liturgical renewal in all the branches of the vine.

e. The Holy Spirit is mending conflicts that have stood for over a thousand years, like those that have prevailed between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches.[9]

f. One arena in which I am personally involved is the recovery of the history of exegesis. Every reader of scripture has a right to the texts of its classic interpretation. Every scripture text has a history of interpretation. In the early Christian centuries this history of interpretation was ecumenically informed by a decisive attentiveness to the unity of the body of Christ. Christians are now reclaiming these texts, and returning to classical understandings of scriptural wisdom. We have watched this work powerfully during the seven years we have worked on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, since 1994, an intrinsically ecumenical scholarly project which has been blessed by intensive participation of Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants.

These are just samplings of what the Holy Spirit is doing in our time, with much left unsaid. Our oneness in Christ is not a matter of our searching to discover a way to some negotiated settlement. It is rather a matter of recognizing and expressing what is already present in our actual life in Christ, in the Spirit’s leading, and in our intercessions, hymns, and hopes.


Action focus: It is time to call the mainline denominations that are subsidizing the prolonged malingering of the National Council of Church and World Council of Churches to withdraw their financial support altogether, and seek a new ecumenism grounded in classical ecumenical teaching.


[1]It took only two decades (1948-66) for the old ecumenism to be taken captive to utopianism of the left, statism fantasies, and planned economies.

[2]Here is another related analogy: Think of the new ecumenism as somewhat analogous to home schooling as distinguished from the public schools in this sense: Home schooling has arisen only when the failure of many public schools has become all too evident. The professional administrators and teacher’s unions earlier were assumed capable of managing public education until the opposite became obvious. Home schooling is now proving its effectiveness. Similarly the new ecumenism has arisen only upon recognition of the utter failure and incompetency of the old non-representative forms of political ecumenism. The laity are saying, we can do ecumenism better than the pros.

[3]The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, HarperSanFrancisco, to be published in 2002.

[4]In describing two ecumenisms, we are already speaking of two competing alleged universals, two contrary claims to the idea of the whole body of Christ.

[5]The crisis of ecumenism is the crisis of two contrary and incompatible views of Christian unity. It is the crisis of conflict between apostolic testimony ecumenically received versus the presumed legitimacy of modern truth claims relativistically conceived. One is grounded in revelation, the other in modern assumptions, always bent toward reductive naturalistic arguments.

[6]The new ecumenism is still reaching out for wisdom and well-grounded apologetic strategies in the arenas of parenting, schooling, the complementary relation of men and women, international aid, world debt, microeconomics, the environment, trade policy, taxation, terrorism, nuclear energy, technological change, economic development, biomedical dilemmas, life and death questions, popular culture, and social welfare.

[7]Take for example the doctrine of justification by grace through faith active in love. Under the rules of the old ecumenism, an effort was being made to bring bureaucracies together to talk about justification, and see if there could be any agreement on it among modern theologians, historians, and exegetes. The Joint Declaration of Lutherans and Catholics is a laudable expression of that sort of quest for unity. It is among the better expressions of the old ecumenism. Yet it proceeded with almost no recognition that in the ancient Christian consensus there was an exegesis of passages of scripture on justification by grace through faith active in love that is very much like the classic Protestant reading of the New Testament. Patristic exegesis is virtually identical with reformation exegesis on key texts on justification (Eph 2, Galatians, Rom 3-11), as I am showing in my book, the Justification Reader (Eerdmans).  The rediscovered unity of the body of Christ is being regrounded in patristic exegesis of passages that became divisive in the 16th century. We must now go back to the first millennium of consensus to recover from the division of the second millennium.

[8]The living body of Christ is growing precisely under conditions of persecution, unjust accusations, imprisonment, state terrorism, and unauthorized death squads. This courage amid peril can only be a work of God the Holy Spirit. No one could have predicted that the Chinese church would grow so fast under such limiting conditions, but the Spirit has enabled this. What has happened to Chinese Christians is subject to objective historical reportage and analysis. It is all too obvious to any worshiping Christian who reads the Bible what the Holy Spirit is doing in China and the Sudan and Cuba and Indonesia. We have tried to tell the story of Christians in the former Soviet Union, Poland, Lithuania, Cuba, Ukraine, Turkey, Greece, Nigeria, many Islamic countries, Zimbabwe, all around world. These efforts, while sometimes applying effective public pressure against the offending regimes, have always given a voice given a voice to those who are suffering in jails and camps of displaced persons. They have suffered for Jesus Christ, and we have not been silent about their suffering.

[9]The non-Chalcedonian communions are coming into a greater recognition of what they can and do honestly share with the Chalcedonian tradition.

[NOTE: This is a revision of the Address given on the 20th Anniversary of the Founding of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Oct. 1, 2001, omitting IRD references.]


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