Some of the differences between Christian ecumenical and evangelical thought and how these differences can be bridged were the focus of the third session of the Theologian-in-Residence series Tuesday at Tusculum College.
Biblical analysis and application have in the past been a major factor in bridging divides between ecumenical and evangelical Christian groups, and Bible study can again help build bridges for differences that still exist, said Dr. Marian McClure, the featured speaker for the 2009 Theologian-in-Residence series, co-sponsored by the Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College.
In the series, Dr. McClure has focused on the divide between Christians with an evangelical focus (a focus on spreading the gospel primarily through proclamation of the Word) and Christians with an ecumenical focus (a focus on sharing the gospel through living example, which includes addressing people’s material needs and social justice issues).
Dr. McClure has served as 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.
While there are a number of differences in thought between evangelicals and ecumenicals, McClure said, time restraints for the lecture led her to focus on three major ones.
One of the differences between the groups lies in the implications of eschatological urgency - how an understanding of end times prophecy influences the priority given to different ministries, McClure said.
On the evangelical side, there are two major groups, she explained. One group is influenced by pre-millennial dispensationalism, a Biblical interpretation that became popular in the 19th century when it was included in the Schofield Study Bible and was more recently popularized by the “Left Behind” novel series, she said. Dispensationalists often have rigid political and social stances, considering times of violent conflict as a phase in God’s work and efforts to prevent the violence by such groups as the United Nations as pointless and against God’s will. They are also typically completely supportive of Israel as a nation because of its interpreted role in prophecy.
Another group is Pentecostalism, McClure continued. For many Pentecostals, the outpouring of God’s spirit as evidenced by speaking in tongues, etc., is a sign that God may be bringing about the end times in this age.
“Since the earliest days of the Jesus movement, some have found it paralyzing to believe that Jesus could come at any moment - either everything you do will mean everything or nothing you do will mean anything,” she said.
This was addressed in Paul’s letters to the church, McClure noted, and the Bible clearly states that Christians are to have a clarifying urgency in living for God, to be bold in ministry to others and spreading the gospel and to not hold too tightly to those things that are not lasting.
However, a problem arises when Christians are influenced by this urgency to do a “triage” with Jesus’ commands, giving priority to some over others, she said.
Do the commands to be peacemakers and reconcilers, to care for the poor and sick and to proclaim the message of salvation all have an equal claim on Christian work in light of the end times? A scriptural study of this question as well as a study of the scriptural mandate for Israel to treat its neighbors justly can help build bridges between evangelicals and ecumenicals, McClure continued.
For ecumenicals, some of whom consider their efforts to make the world a better place a way to usher in the end times, she said, this Bible study would help give urgency to their efforts and also re-emphasize that the final triumph is a work of God, not man.
Bible study can also help construct a bridge between the groups in the area of what the gospel means for different identity groups, i.e. what being a new creation in the church means for different genders, ethnic groups and classes, McClure said.
To help explain the difference in thought between evangelicals and ecumenicals, McClure gave an example of two different groups, the “untouchables” in India and women as a gender group. Both ecumenicals and evangelicals agree in support of bringing the gospel to and fighting for social justice for the “untouchable” class of people in India. However, she said, there is much difference between the two groups in regards to the role of women in the church.
If the two sides can have a true and honest discourse about gender relations, McClure said, it would help the church as a whole address other difficult subjects such as homosexuality, poverty and racial relations.
A third area of difference between evangelicals and ecumenicals is how to relate to indigenous Christian groups under oppressive political or governmental structures.
The Bible presents more than one perspective of how to deal with government and authority, she noted, as the disciples were commanded by the Jewish authorities not to preach and in response, the church prayed, continued to share the gospel and practiced social justice by sharing all they had with each other.
In contrast, Paul escaped from the authorities in one city by being lowered over the city wall in a basket and wrote in Romans that Christians are to submit to government authority as a witness of the humble spirit of Christ, McClure continued.
Repressive regimes, whether right- or left-wing, prevent Christians from full exercise of evangelism and social justice, she said, and Bible study could help ecumenicals and evangelicals find a common focus together of what they can do to help these Christians, to avoid harming them and slowing the spread of the gospel in these nations. She recommended that a case study of some of past mistakes in relating to indigenous church groups and the lessons learned also be part of the study.
In the future, the church will have to decide how it will relate to Christians in Muslim or Hindu communities who continue to participate in Islamic or Hindu worship as the best way to share their faith with those in these places where being Christian means isolation from family and friends, she said.
In the concluding session of the series next Tuesday, McClure will turn her focus to ecumenical efforts in East Tennessee that have brought different denominations and groups together. The lecture begins at 10 a.m. in the Chalmers Conference Center in the Niswonger Commons on the Tusculum campus. The session concludes at 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.