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by Al Maxey

Issue #784 ------- October 7, 2019
Men have lost sight of distant horizons. Nobody writes
for humanity, for civilization; they write for their country,
their sect; to amuse their friends or annoy their enemies.

Norman Douglas [1868-1952]

Evidencing a Spirit of Ecumenism
Being Ecumenical in a Denominational World

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), an English philosopher and statesman, who is also credited with developing what has come to be known as the "Scientific Method," observed in one of his essays: "The greatest vicissitude of things amongst men is the vicissitude of sects and religions." For those who may be reaching for their dictionary, "vicissitude" simply refers to a rather dramatic change of circumstance or fortune, and generally a change that is regarded as unwelcome and unpleasant. Rich to poor; good health to bad health; freedom to slavery. The British theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) wrote, "Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better." I have heard so many people over the years say, "I hate change. Why can't things just stay the way they are?" Even change for the better is at times inconvenient, and thus a cause of stress. Such changes, especially when they disturb our comfort zones, often cause us to resist or reject them, even if they might ultimately prove beneficial if embraced. Such are the "vicissitudes of life." The Merriam-Webster web site states, "To survive 'the vicissitudes of life' is thus to survive life's ups and downs, with special emphasis on the downs." The word itself is from the Latin "vicis," which simply means "change."

Sir Francis Bacon was of the opinion, and I think he may well have a valid point, that the most traumatic of life's unpleasant changes are those significantly affecting our theological convictions, religious institutions, sectarian traditions, and party preferences. Men have murdered and been murdered as a result of the vicissitudes impacting each of these areas. Not everyone handles change well, especially when those changes occur within the pleasant parameters of our religious and spiritual comfort zones. We like our religious parameters, and we don't take kindly to them being moved, and we most assuredly don't take kindly to those who dare to move them (or who even dare to suggest that perhaps they should be moved). Over time our religious parameters have solidified and calcified into rigid partitions that isolate us from all these horrid vicissitudes (and also from all those who think and act differently than we do). The global landscape of Christendom, as a result, is dotted with myriads of denominational, sectarian and factional encapsulated colonies, each containing members who are taught that they, and they alone, are the "favored few of the Father" ... the ONLY chosen and cherished ones ... "the one true church." It is a pathetic sight that must truly break the heart of our Lord God.

As Norman Douglas, the British author, noted in the quote prior to the beginning of this article, too many people have completely "lost sight of distant horizons." We don't perceive the greater reality of the universal One Body in Christ, for we see only as far as the boundaries of our own group. We then wrongfully equate our religious and denominational parameters with the far horizon; we write for our sect, assuming that in so doing we are writing for the One Body as a whole. It is a deadly delusion; it is self-destructive; it is a folly born of a factional spirit. I was raised in a very conservative denominated ("Church of Christ") wing of a larger religious movement ("The Stone-Campbell Movement"), and in this group we were indoctrinated to believe that WE were the ONLY true Christians on the planet. WE, and we alone, were "the one true church." All other disciples of Jesus Christ were godless apostates doomed to Hell. Later I would learn that in a good many of these other denominated groups, the members were being taught to believe the same thing: i.e., that only they had cornered the market on Truth; thus, only they were truly redeemed, while all others were destined for destruction. The tragic result of such widespread delusional indoctrination was the dismemberment of the One Body. Brethren, we will never gain sight of that distant horizon (the fullness of the universal One Body) until we remove our sectarian blinders and tear down the walls of exclusion and isolation that we have built around our personal and party precepts, perceptions, preferences, and traditional practices. In short, believers in the Lord must become ecumenical in a denominational world.

While I was in graduate school at the university I attended, I began to discern that my spiritual worldview was askew. Our little faction of a segment of a movement was not even close to being (as I was taught) THE "one and only true church" on planet Earth. "We" were wrong about that, and about a great many other things as well. I began a journey of spiritual discovery that gradually led me to begin not only challenging "our" religious parameters, but also to begin the process of tearing down those confining and restrictive sectarian boundaries. I began to realize that our Father had many more children than I had been led to believe. I began associating with my newly found spiritual siblings, many of whom were experiencing the same enlightenment. Without even knowing it, we were embracing and evidencing an ecumenical spirit. As I began writing about and speaking about this liberating revelation, I also came to be increasingly criticized and condemned by those within my faith-heritage who were not amused by my growing ecumenism. In fact, while still preaching in Hawaii, several of these critics began referring to me as "Ecumenical Maxey." Back in those days, I had never heard of (at least not that I could recall) the term "ecumenical." I didn't know what it was, and had to look it up in a dictionary so that I could find out what I was "guilty" of.

Ecumenism comes from the Greek word "oikoumene," which means "the whole inhabited earth." According to the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica, this word refers to a "movement or tendency toward worldwide Christian unity or cooperation." This source further characterized it as a desire among believers for "unity in diversity," and a willingness to work toward that end. This focus "led to a dynamic discovery of a much wider oneness in Christ" [Eerdmans' Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 634]. Those who have an ecumenical spirit are those who understand that there is only One Church, but its members may legitimately be diverse in the expressing and manifesting of the Faith. George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was right when he observed, "There is only one religion, though there are a hundred versions of it." No version constitutes the whole! It is okay to be different from one another on countless matters of opinion and conviction, but it is not okay to divide over these differences! Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) astutely noted, "We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another." A shallow faith tends to exclude; deeper faith tends to embrace. "Perhaps the phrase that best expresses the motivation for such involvement in the ecumenical movement is 'Christians only, but not the only Christians'" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 291].

"Some members maintain that their community IS the one church, founded at Pentecost, and thus unity can occur only when believers join in local congregations on the basis of the pure teachings of Scripture set forth in the Stone-Campbell Movement" [ibid]. That is sectarianism, not ecumenism. For the record: I am unashamedly ecumenical. I have been working tirelessly for decades to bring down the sectarian walls that have isolated spiritual siblings from one another. I have lost friends over this. There are people who absolutely HATE me for this; who will not even speak to me; who will turn and flee the other direction if they see me coming. Many of these were people with whom I had previously enjoyed sweet fellowship (cf. Psalm 55:12-14). Sadly, such is often the fate of those who dare to take a stand for ecumenism: standing for the oneness of the Body of Christ and for embracing our fellow believers even in the presence of diversity of understanding and practice. It is a plea for unity over uniformity; for Truth over tradition; for love over law; for relationship over religion; for Christ over creeds. It is "Christians working together beyond the boundaries of their churches" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 290]. Whenever and wherever disciples of Jesus set aside their differing traditional views and practices, and work for closer relationships and better understandings within the Family of God, one will find an ecumenical spirit.

"Ecumenically speaking, the Church transcends all historical, institutional and geographical expressions, but is, nevertheless, manifested in all local assemblies called into being by the kerygma of Jesus the Christ" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 199]. The One Body of Christ (the "One True Church" our Lord established), consisting of ALL (past, present and future) who are IN HIM by grace through faith, can never be reduced to a single sect, faction or denomination. When the Lord returns to claim His Bride (the Church), He won't be coming exclusively to any one group denominated within the Yellow Pages of our phone book. He won't come just for Baptists, or Methodists, or Catholics, or Lutherans, or even Church of Christers; although He will certainly be claiming as His own individual disciples from within each of those groups (and countless other groups as well). The One Body is made up of people, not organizations, institutions, denominations or schisms.

What does it mean to be "ecumenical"? Does it mean we are compromising ultimate Truth? No, it does not. We must never set aside Truth. But, let's be careful here. Not everything we characterize as "Truth" is really divine Truth: the vast majority are human assumptions and preferences that have been elevated over time to the status of Truth. In reality, they are nothing but human traditions that have become so revered that they assume the mantle of divine Truth. Such convictions and practices must never become the source of our separation from one another in the One Body. Nor should brethren be forced to give up their cherished convictions and traditions for the sake of an imposed uniformity (which is then falsely proclaimed to be "unity"). Paul makes it very clear in Romans 14 that we are called to unity in diversity. We are to accept one another and not become divisive over our differences. This means walls and barriers are going to have to come down; it means we are going to have to look beyond the parameters of our partyism and perceive the distant horizon of God's acceptance of all men and women of faith (even when that faith is expressed in ways unfamiliar to us). Unity is spiritual, and it accepts all who look like Jesus; uniformity is sectarian, and it accepts only those who look like us.

When the Lord Jesus called us to oneness, He called us to ecumenism. Jesus broke down the walls and barriers of rigid religiosity, and called us into a loving relationship with the Father and with ALL of our fellow believers throughout the world and throughout time! In the Jan/Feb, 1994 issue of a newsletter published by the Graymoor Ecumenical and Interreligious Institute one will find an article listing some of the identifying traits of those who are ecumenical. Let me just share a few of the many that were listed in that article: 1) We risk peeping out of our provincial perspectives and opening ourselves to the bigger picture. Ecumenism is a way of living that dares to think globally and live trustfully with differences in community. 2) We realize that Truth is seldom discovered in isolation, but rather through dialogue in diverse community. Each Christian tradition has preserved better than others one or more aspects of the mystery of God's work in Christ. The work of unity aims at restoring the fullness of our common appreciation of that mystery. 3) Genuine ecumenists are not at the margin of their church's life, but at the heart of it. They know what is important in the Christian life, and can recognize those elements in other churches even if they may be differently expressed. 4) Christ suffered for unity. At times so will we. Biblical patience involves staying with it, seeing it through, searching for the healing that comes from understanding and forgiveness. Everyone is in favor of Christian unity. Some are even willing to work for it. But few are willing to suffer for it.

Notice with me just a few more, although these most certainly do not deplete the list found in the article: 5) We are ready to celebrate vitality in the Body of Christ wherever it is found. What advances the reign of God in any church helps all churches, The churches are not like competing corporations in the business world, with the stakes of one rising as the lot of others falls. Any loss of divine Truth and life is a loss to Christ and His Church. The only triumph a Christian seeks is that of Jesus and His cross. Our rivalry is not with one another. 6) We feel the scandal of our divisions! Being ecumenical means feeling a holy unrest to live consistently with our Gospel message; unrest that we are more interested in proving our "rightness" and other's "wrongness." Our mission is to announce the Good News: that we are reconciled to God and to one another through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; yet we know that our divided state as we announce this deprives the message of credibility. 7) We accept that the only constant is change, and the only refuge is the security of faith. We struggle against the temptation to live in a closed, uniform, secure system that reduces our level of fear and satisfies our desire for control.

"The NT stress upon unity among Christians is almost too obvious to require illustration" [The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 2, p. 199]. I think we would all agree with this statement. For those who don't, go read our Lord's prayer in John 17. Jesus came and died, in part, to break down barriers not only between God and men, but between the many diverse peoples of this earth. Jesus never sought uniformity among the peoples of the earth; He sought unity in diversity (the only true unity there is). He has also called us all who believe, and who have given our lives to Him, to come together as a people of faith and purpose. We who share a love for and faith in Him should never be at war with one another, for that is a defeat for both our faith and purpose. Yes, we are different. Yes, we have different perceptions of things, different preferences, even different ways of expressing and implementing our faith. Yet, our diversity enhances the fulfilling of our purpose, as it also presents a challenge to show greater acceptance in love of one another. When we rally around divine Truth, rather than human Tradition, we evidence the very foundation upon which an ecumenical spirit takes its stand. Mohandas K. Gandhi (1709-1784) summed it up well, and I'll let him have the last word, as he issues to each of us this challenge: "You should be pioneers in presenting a living faith to the world, and not the dry bones of a traditional faith which the world will not grasp."


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Readers' Reflections

From an Elder in South Carolina:

I'm having a discussion on Facebook and may not have represented something correctly. You had a Reflections article published several years ago (I've been a follower of your work for many years) in which you broke down Acts 2:38 grammatically (especially with respect to Greek person and number), thus suggesting it could be correctly translated, "Repent for the forgiveness of sins, and be baptized every one of you." Now I can't find that article of yours. Can you help?

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, have you ever stopped to think about one of the questions Jesus asked those who opposed Him? - "The baptism of John: was it from man or from God?" (Mark 11:30; Luke 20:4). Al, you need to seriously consider whether or not you really want to stand before God at the Judgment while holding to the views on baptism that you do, and what you will say when asked to give an answer for telling people to disobey a commandment that came directly from the mouth of Christ. Your books and writings seem to be a fine example of Gnostic teaching. They, and you, will lead many to stray from the Truth, and thus not know what to teach their children.

From a Minister in Texas:

Al, I hope this message finds you doing well. I am currently having a discussion with a preacher in our brotherhood who took issue with my recent podcast on the Holy Spirit. Among his many disagreements with my view was this: he suggests the "gift" of the Holy Spirit referred to in Acts 2:38 is a reference to eternal life. I have heard this view before, and I have some ideas of how to respond, but do you have any materials you could point me to that might help me in the forming of my response? Thank you, my friend.

From an Elder in Texas:

Al, if you haven't yet done so, you might be interested in reading C. Leonard Allen's book: "Things Unseen: Churches of Christ in (and After) the Modern Age." The author suggests that the development of "patternism" within the "Churches of Christ" tradition came from Campbell himself.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Your work has helped shape my faith, brother! I appreciate you so much!

From a Minister in Wyoming:

I will often find myself pondering and studying a topic in preparation for a class or sermon, when I will think, "I wonder if Al Maxey has dealt with this in one of his Reflections?!" I then go to your Archives and Indexes and see. Thank you so much, Al, for this resource!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Al, your collection of Reflections articles over the past 17 years contained in your Archives is some of the most informative work ever written! I cannot even adequately put into words how much I have benefited from your Reflections!!

From a Reader in Alabama:

WOW, Al Maxey!! I came across your writings on your web site, and I have spent the last two hours or so reading your Reflections. I can't get enough of them. You have provided a world of information, and you are now at the top of my list for excellence in writing and for personal mentorship of those who are genuine seekers. God bless you, Al.

From a Reader in Colorado:

Thank you, Al, for your writing and speaking ministries. I love to read your Reflections, and am truly blessed by your life's work!

From a University Professor in Alabama:

Al, I appreciate your ministry and your commitment to regular, sustained writing. I particularly enjoyed the Jesse Ferguson Reflections article from the other week (Issue #782 - "The Post-Mortem Gospel: Rise & Fall of Jesse Babcock Ferguson"), even though I was a bit slow in getting to it. I devoted a chapter in my recent book to Ferguson and John Thomas, since I agree with you that their stories are crucial for understanding how our Movement has policed its theological borders (if not necessarily how those borders should have been defined).

From a Reader in Florida:

Bro. Maxey, Have you done a Reflections article on the "Son of Perdition" and "The Falling Away" mentioned by Paul in 2 Thessalonians?

From a Minister in New Zealand:

Hi, Al. I trust you are having a good weekend. I just recently presented a couple of lessons on the baptism of John, its real significance, and on Apollos and his understanding of the same. I have been made aware that Philo used an allegorical method of teaching, and I thought this was interesting in view of the fact that Apollos also seems to use an allegorical approach (e.g., Melchizedek), if indeed he is the writer of Hebrews. Have you done a Reflections article that deals with the possibility that Apollos was the author of Hebrews? If so, what issue number is it? Thank you. By the way, we are now entering Spring here, and the weather is beautiful. God bless, brother!

From a Reader in Arkansas:

Al, do you remember the Restoration Forum series of publications that were the result of dialogue between the Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches? I think it started sometime in the late '80s or early '90s. Maybe you were a part of those meetings? Anyway, I read volume 6 years ago, and I learned so much from it! Back then I tried contacting College Press in an effort to obtain more books from the series, but they were already out of print. I just thought I would mention these books, for if the rest are as good as the one I read, this would certainly make for a great collection. Perhaps some of your readers might know how to obtain this series. Have a great week, brother.

From a Reader in Unknown:

Al, I am curious to see if you agree with this quote that I came across, which deals with the "faith only" and "eternal security of the believer" doctrines to which many adhere: "The believer is assured of everlasting life and is thus eternally secure, since that life is guaranteed by the Lord Jesus Christ to all who believe in Him, and it is based upon His substitutionary death, burial and resurrection (John 10:28-29; Romans 8:38-39). Therefore, it is inconsistent with the Gospel and with Scripture to seek to gain or keep everlasting life by godly living."

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