January 21, 2021

iMonk Classic: Evangelical Ecumenism and a Jesus-Shaped Guest List

Note from CM: Here is an example from Michael Spencer’s post-evangelical journey of his emergence from certain fundamentalist ways of thinking about the faith and its various expressions. This was first posted in 2009.

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Point: evangelicalism contains within itself some almost irresistible itches from its fundamentalist DNA. From time to time, the urge to scratch is almost overwhelming. These itches would include:

“Must say that Catholics are not Christians….”

“Must say that all things ecumenical are bad unless it’s guys on our team writing books or putting on a conference….”

“Must say all mainline Christians are apostate….”

“Must find ways to say our church actually has the pure Gospel others don’t have….”

“Must point out heretics like the emerging church and N.T. Wright…..”

Recently I’ve noticed a new variety of fundamentalist itch.

“Must show that creeds written before the Reformation are deficient compared to Reformation theology….”

Apparently, we’re on track to a kind of KJV-only logic. Don’t trust anything before we got everything right somewhere in there in the Reformation. Somewhere in there. Somewhere.

In a hundred years, we will be warning young theologians about reading the church fathers or anyone before Wayne Grudem. Be careful about listening to preachers before Piper.

Of course it all makes sense. Our various kinds of exclusive Fundamentalism always do. It’s so inclined towards rationalism that making perfect sense to your intellect is never the problem.

Making the case that the Nicene Creed isn’t enough to answer all the questions in Christianity- which no one ever claims- is clear as new glass. You won’t solve every theological issue with the Nicene Creed. No, we’ll need more than that.

Right. But then what are we going to say together as a common creed? Nothing? Jesus is Lord? Your book of Confessions? Whatever’s in the head of the latest reformation cop?

The more you add to that brew, the fewer and fewer people are going to be at the party…oh wait…that’s the real issue isn’t it? Is there a party? Do we want anyone else to stop by and have a hot dog and a root beer? Or is this get-together just for us and our closest friends?

Conservative evangelicals are pretty easily convinced that ecumenical conversation is not nearly as interesting or as helpful as telling all the Eastern Orthodox near you that their church is the “Orthoborg.”

Is the Jesus you are following calling you into ecumenical relationships with other Christians? Not evangelistic relationships, but fellowship around a shared Christ, even if not a shared table?

Or is Jesus giving you your theological policeman’s orders for the day? Get your quota of arrests. Get the Catholics off the streets. Arrest some mainliners. Let’s clean this neighborhood up. And be careful out there.

If grace has created an ecumenical party around the Jesus described in the Nicene Creed, it’s not the church. those can’t be the absolute boundaries. Some are left out. These days, a few that shouldn’t be in may use that good confession to slip in the door. The party may not be much more than a meal, a drink and a few laughs. Or it may be a clinic, a clothes closet and a meal for the poor. It may be working together on ecumenical worship during Holy Week or a prayer walk around your community.

In my house, it’s loving my wife, her friends and her church. At my ministry, it’s loving and sharing a school day with Orthodox, Catholic and every other denomination and tradition.

In my own experience of seeking a Jesus shaped spirituality, it’s learning that “if they aren’t against us, they are for us.” It’s the party grace throws for all the many different kinds of prodigals, sinners and lost sheep Jesus has collected.

It’s about the flavor, scent, sound and presence of grace toward other believers.

It’s not about agreement, but it’s about mutual confession of the ancient faith.

It’s not about the table, but about reverencing the one who is on the table.

It’s not about whether major things are at stake, but about knowing that people for whom Jesus died are always important and worthy of love and respect.

It’s not about whether the Gospel applies, but about how I apply the Gospel.

The ecumenical community is created by Jesus. It’s his guest list, and I can set up a lecture room at the Hyatt and outline my objections, or I can go in and have some food, drink and conversation. Jesus won’t beg me. He’ll just tell me where to find him.


  1. Susan Dumbrell says

    Beautiful and profound.

    Thank you for reminding us of this post.


  2. “Orthoborg”… that’s a new one to me. I wonder what the heck it’s supposed to imply… since local/ethnic autonomy seems to be the EO standard. Any insights, Burro?

    • I’m not Burro, but I think it refers to the fact that the local autonomy in EO hasn’t produced the kind of local institutional freedom, in terms of variant worship styles and theological emphases, that is typical of Protestantism. I.e., Eastern Orthodoxy has produced nothing but Eastern Orthodoxy, which is taken to mean there is no spiritual freedom in it. This is a strange and ironic complaint coming from fundamentalists, since, if they had their druthers, all churches that proclaim themselves Christian would cleave to a particular Protestant form of doctrinal orthodoxy, albeit with perhaps more allowance for differing worship styles than is typical of E astern Orthodoxy. Maybe the fundamentalists are actually envious of the success of EO in maintaining its own form of orthodoxy, and the complaint of it being “Orthoborg” is just sour grapes.

      • Burro [Mule] says

        I don’t want to go here today.

        There isn’t any external authority in the Eastern Orthodox church pressuring anyone to believe a certain way.

        • My comment is not critical of Orthodoxy, which maintains external unity by requiring member institutions to do things a certain way if they want to remain in the family, but of Protestant fundamentalism of many kinds, which would require doctrinal conformity if they could, but don’t have the institutional coherence to do so. Usually, when Protestants attempt to enforce orthodoxy of any kind, it results in a church/denomination split. It is certainly no criticism to note that Eastern Orthodoxy intends to produce Eastern Orthodoxy.

  3. “If grace has created an ecumenical party…”

    Maybe i just can’t think straight after Tday….but can someone please explain this paragraph to me…especially the first 3 sentences? Not sure what it’s saying.
    Pretty sure I agree with it, but….

    Other than that, love this post!

    If I’d send this to my evangelical family and friends…. pretty sure they’d be raining fire and brimstone on me – which I’ll take as a good sign?

    Again, still feeling like I’m walking the post-evangelical wilderness alone (besides here, of course).

  4. Thanks, Mike. Michael had a lot of the questions and observations that I have, but he did a better job of it. Thanks for keeping it going. I don’t remember reading this article, but it’s right on target.

    Here’s a cartoon from Thomas the Doubter that fits right in:

  5. I heard one a few months ago, I had to work hard not to start laughing. “The Eastern Orthodox, you shouldn’t be reading that blog, those are the ones that don’t believe in the Trinity”

  6. I confess I’m at a point where I see so many versions of Christianity that claim to be the True Church that I want to give up trying to find the “right” church or denomination. Who has the most correct doctrine on baptism or the Eucharist? Who has the most correct Christology? Soteriology? Eschatology? Spiritual gifts? If I pick the “right” church am I saying all the others are wrong?

    Sigh…. It’s confusing enough to want to give up on Church and simply depend on the Person of Christ and call it good. I love the ecumenical spirit. But until Evangelicals can partake of the Lords Supper with Lutherans, Catholics and Orthodox I will remain skeptical.

    • Steve Newell says

      How about when Evangelicals accept the baptism of Lutheran, Catholics and Orthodox? Lutherans accept the baptism from other Christian churches regardless of the form or the age of individual. This is not true of Baptism and many “evangelicals”.

      • I agree Steve. This makes me sad. This is my point. Exclusion and ungenerosity within Christianity seems to go against everything Jesus represents.

      • Do Evangelicals actually see any importance in baptism?? I thought the attitude was “take it or leave it.”

        • If it is important in Evangelicalism the emphasis is put on the wrong person being the primary mover in the water. But does what one believes about the Sacraments make them any less or more what they are or aren’t?

  7. I recently had the experience of visiting my old college christian friends, scattered across the south (several are now pastors). With each conversation, over coffee or a beer, I sensed coming from them, an unorthodoxophobia. Rather than asking me about my family, my job, my dreams (which I was trying to ask them about), they, with raised eyebrows, were only asking me about my doctrines and practice of faith (looking for a crack to expose and exploit). Even if they did ask about my kids, they only seemed to want to know what type of church they attend, and usually expressed displeasure in my answer.

    Truth is never relative, or otherwise our epistemology would be hopeless. Yet, with a fallen-ness within our nature, certainty is also not obtainable. Therefore grace must fill the gaps.

    I think the barracks of Hell will not be filled with those who thought they were Christian, but missed the perfect doctrine or orthodoxy by a couple of degrees, but those who had such a confident sense of accomplishment in finding perfect orthodoxy, that the Gospel seemed superfluous.

  8. It’s not about the table, but about reverencing the one who is on the table.


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