Why the western Christian church has experienced a division into groups with ecumenical or evangelical focuses and what harm this has caused the church were issues addressed Tuesday during the 2009 Theologian-in-Residence lecture series at Tusculum College.
Dr. Marian McClure, the featured speaker of this year’s series, discussed the origins of the division and the damage it has caused within and without the church during the first meeting of the series. The Theologian-in-Residence series is an annual event, co-sponsored by Tusculum College and the Holston Presbytery, and held at the college during each Tuesday in February.
Dr. McClure has served as the director of the worldwide ministries of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and is serving as the associate director and North America representative of “Edinburgh 2010: Witnessing to Christ Today,” the centenary celebration of a pivotal world mission conference that challenged Christians to greater ecumenical and evangelistic collaboration.
McClure told the audience of about 70 clergy, retired ministers and lay people that her lectures for the series are based on the premise that today “is the best opportunity in the past 100 years to reintegrate two areas of Christian life (ecumenism and evangelism) that should have not be separated in the first place.”
People have a tendency to form different groups and camps with like-minded individuals and then start comparing their group to others and criticizing other groups, she said. This is what has happened to the Christian church in the western world, McClure continued, and by the mid-twentieth century, the spaces between the camps had become deep chasms.
While it is natural for people to come together in groups of like-minded individuals, she said, there is a difference in regards to the church because it involves matters that are holy and of utmost importance to each person.
“What do we aspire to – for the differences to go away or to glorify God by cooperating with each other? I would respond the latter. It is not wrong to have differences. It is not that we have differences, what is wrong is the harm that comes from the inability to cooperate with each other.”
The two camps can be described through the patience they have in working with others with different ideas or beliefs. McClure said she has found those in the ecumenical camps show much more patience in their determination to make efforts with those in other denominations successful whereas the evangelicals have less patience for taking the time to make these efforts a success.
However, she said, she has found that the two camps are difficult to easily characterize as both have aspects of both ecumenism and evangelism. “One group is a big “E” ecumenical with a small “e” evangelical and the other is a big “E” evangelism with a small “e” ecumenical.”
On either side, few embrace a balance in faith for their members that can be found in Biblical characters such as Zacchaues, who entered a strong, personal relationship with Jesus and expressed his faith in his relationships with others by making things right with those he had wronged in the past, she said. “Churches would be more holistic if fear, animosity and competition between the two sides had not come into being.”
There was a point in the 1800s when the Christian church reached its most holistic and unified moment thus far. In studying the time period, McClure said she was surprised to learn that revivals of the time were not only efforts to reach people with the gospel so they would enter a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but also to seek their commitment in addressing social ills. People were asked to make a personal commitment to faith in Christ, she further explained, but were also asked, for example, to commit to the abolitionist cause.
Eight different factors have contributed to the chasm the church experienced in the twentieth century, McClure noted. Those eight factors include:
• Revivalism vs. ‘light on a hill’ approach (seeking to reach people primarily with the gospel using the Word of God vs. seeking to primarily reach people through a lifestyle witness);
• Slavery (some Christians became adverse to applying the gospel to the social ills of the day);
• Reaction to the rapid changes in society (such as the Industrial Revolution, the theory of evolution and new interpretations of the Scriptures and how they were written);
• Dispensationalism (an interpretation of the Bible that gives sacred meaning to dramatic changes in society)
• Reformers vs. Capitalism;
• Fundamentalism (effort to determine Christian orthodoxy through statements of belief of text rather than lifestyle reflecting belief);
• Great power interest and the Cold War; and
• Neo-evangelical institutions (a movement in the 1940s and 1950s to restore reputation of the term that had been lost through chasm).
The costs of the division have been manifold for the church, she said. “It creates impaired Christians who raise more impaired Christians,” she said. For example she said, many Protestants are committed to living out their faith boldly and courageously in what they do as a witness for Christ, but the use of words is not part of that witness. Conversely, she said, there are other Christians whose total focus is on telling people about Christ in an effort to meet their spiritual needs but ignore their physical needs.
In addition, the division has alienated people from the Christian faith, and has disillusioned or weakened the faith of young Christians or those new in their walk of faith, she said.
The division has also led to the wasting of resources as there has been duplication of programs between the groups, and the lack of communication between the two camps has led to missteps by one or the other in the mission field, McClure continued. “It has an effect on real people who have real needs and a need to know God.”
McClure said she saw those costs personally when she was in Haiti in the early 1980s. She told of one Catholic priest who was a leader in addressing social issues affecting people. When she asked him what made him different in wanting to address these issues, McClure said he told her of his family’s sacrifices to make sure he recovered from an accident as a young boy.
Listening, McClure said, she immediately saw parallels to the gospel story – an outpouring of unconditional love by the Father through the sacrifice of His Son. McClure said she has referred to this story as an expression of the gospel in someone’s life and how it inspired him to give to others as he had been shown compassion. “But, in the past year, I have come to feel kind of sad because this man was not equipped to tell how his experience led him to apply Jesus’ teaching to his life. What effect would that have had in spreading the gospel in a place where there is so much need?”
It is tempting to say that the existence of the camps is acceptable – that people are using their gifts for God in the various camps. However, McClure said, that is a statement with which she would not agree. The church is often described using the analogy to a physical body, she noted, and each cell of the physical body contains DNA of the whole being. “If we impart faith, we need to impart the whole faith. . . . It has been said that the real question is not whether to do evangelism, it is how and with what attitude.”
Dr. McClure will discuss how the chasm between the two camps has been bridged in the next session of the series on Tuesday, Feb. 10. The lecture begins at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum campus. The session concludes at about 1:30 p.m. and lunch is included. Reservations are requested and can be made by calling (423) 636-7319 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.