Is Heuertz's "New Ecumenism" Sufficiently Christocentric?

I've just finished reading an article by Chris Heuertz called "The New Ecumenism: Becoming the Living Body of Christ."  Chris is one of a growing number of self-proclaimed Evangelicals I know who are more or less championing a kind of ecumenical spirit. I'm doing my best to listen to them and understand what they are saying, but I'm still struggling. I'm not fully on board at this point.

In Chris's article he speaks mostly about traditional divisions between Catholics and Protestants. He shares some personal experiences within his family and ministry and how working through and joining together with each other, they've been able to move closer to Christ as the center. But I have a few honest questions:

1. Chris speaks rather negatively about "doctrinal lines" as if to suggest that none should exist. He describes this as an essentially evangelical effort to determine "who's in and who's out." I want to agree to a point that the demand for absolute theological conformity has often been taken to ridiculous and sinful extremes. But is Chris suggesting that no lines be drawn at all? Perhaps such talk appears safe enough when speaking of Protestant/Catholic relationships, but what about Mormans, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Oneness Pentecostals? Is Chris suggesting that we throw the flood gates open for any and all who call themselves Christians? And if not, on what basis would he exclude some and include others?

2. Chris shared that the incorporation of some Catholics into his ministry resulted in a strengthening of it. I don't want to challenge that; however, he continues to say, "The only hurdle we really experienced was at the communion table. Other than that, community carried on . . ." I find this a troubling statement to simply breeze by. The indication I get is that the incorporation of Catholics and Protestants together in a mission agency resulted in conflict around one of the central aspects of worship -- Communion. I wish Chris would have elaborated on this. I'm not sure how a group of people could be said to be experiencing truly Christian community without taking the Lord's Supper together.

3. Why does Chris label the "tendency to reject other traditions" as a Protestant one? Weren't Wycliffe, Huss, and Luther excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church rather against their will? Aren't Catholic and Orthodox leaders every bit as dogmatic and "divisive" as Protestants?

4. In speaking about the idea of moving towards theological unity, Chris asserts that reductionism is bad, but I'm not convinced that he doesn't go on to do just that. For example, he writes, "We can all agree that God doesn't want children's sexuality exploited and commodified in the commercial sex industry. Discovering theological unity in that tragic space is easy. So we stay in those obvious places and inch our way closer to one another based on what else we can agree on." But Chris doesn't do anything to explain what makes such an issue an "obvious place" theologically. What makes this "easy" and another issue difficult? Is it simply deemed easy on the basis of a kind of straw poll among self-proclaimed Christians? I understand the practical draw to such thinking, but I'm unaware of any Biblical justification for it. And then what happens when a professing Christian suggests that he/she doesn't exactly agree with this "obvious statement"? It may seem far-fetched, but we're having to deal with something very near to that right now. What does Chris's ecumenism do with such a person? If the answer is to throw them out, upon what basis? If its only a matter of majority view, then we're no better off than when we started.

So, I'm left at the end of Chris's article feeling that he simply hasn't provided a sufficient Christocentrism to build a real Christian unity. To simply say that Christ must be the center doesn't mean that He really is. For it means something to be a follower of Christ. It has doctrinal and theological ramifications as well as necessary practical and missional commitments.  I don't claim to know for sure what those are but sincerely believe that the Lausanne Covenant goes a long way in capturing these.  Anyway, my mind is not at all closed to the pursuit of ecumenical unity and I deeply appreciate the heart behind what Christ has shared, but I'm just not convinced that he has done enough to really show us the way forward.



  1. Points 1 and 2 should invite reflection. Point 3 seems a little weaker in light of the moves the RC Church has made (in particular VCII and following). Point 4 doesn't seem particularly weighty. Historically, consensus has been important in the evolution of the church/theology and one only needs to read the book of Acts to see the weight given to it, even if consensus cannot provide a guarantee.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Dan. I think you have to do a bit more than just refer sweepingly to V2 and beyond if you want me to be convinced that the RC Church isn't every bit as divisive as Protestants. Also, while I agree that the Spirit speaks into the communion, I don't think that popular opinion should be allowed to drive theology. The fact is that consensus exists on no topic including the seemingly obvious one that Chris has shared.

  3. I'd love to see Chris respond to the first two points.

    My comment was an invitation for you to say more (or construct more careful or transparent arguments) about your last two points.

    As far as point 3 goes, I was only stating that your argument could be strengthened by choosing examples other than Wycliffe, Huss, and Luther, since the RC Church has changed since the 16th century. That is not my way of saying you're wrong, but that your argument would be better served by examples that exist in spite of documents such as Lumen Gentium. Said differently, I wasn't trying to convince you of anything.

    With regard to point 4, it's not clear what to me what you're arguing. It seems you're saying something like: since there is no absolute consensus anywhere, significant levels of consensus that do exist cannot be taken as theologically important (even if consensus seems to be an important NT concern--Acts 4:32, 6:1-5, 15:22, 1 Cor 10:1, Eph 4:1-3, 1 Pet 3:8). If this is your argument, it seems rather sophomoric. Which, again, doesn't mean I'm disagreeing with you, but was hoping you could share more to make a little more sense of your argument. I'm assuming that you're not personally going to take up the side that God wants children to be sexuality exploited and commodified in the commercial sex industry or that you'd be unwilling to work with Chris against such exploitation. I should note that the reason that there is a great deal of consensus on this issue is not based on the consensus itself, but on other substantive theological convictions.


  4. Let me try to reflect on your comments regarding point 4. We may be on the same page with point 3, but I'm not sure. My point is simply that it is unfair to suggest that this is only a problem among Protestants and that RCs are lining up, just waiting for us to join hands with them and walk off into the sunset. I don't believe that's true and feel that most in the RC Church hold that there is no salvation outside of their communion.

    On #4, I'm looking at the verses you've sighted. The Acts passages you've sighted all present believers agreeing together to take specific action (share possessions, distribute food more equitably, send representatives from the Jerusalem Council). The theological unity is a given in chapters 4, 6. In chapter 15, there is theological disagreement that is resolved not by mere show of hands but by interaction with Scripture, testimony, and the direct work of the Holy Spirit on the gathering. Not sure of your point from 1 Cor. 10:1. I urge you to keep reading in Eph 4, unity of faith results in maturity in terms of doctrinal discernment (v.13-15). 1 Pt. 3:8 could be any other verse about unity. I agree with being united in Christ. The question is what that means.

  5. "But Chris doesn't do anything to explain what makes such an issue an "obvious place" theologically. What makes this "easy" and another issue difficult? "

    I think you're being too clever by half. Like pornography, I know moral violation when I see it. I think any panel of thinking adults, inside or outside the Christian community, would agree that sexual exploitation of children is as bad as human behavior gets. And we don't need a citation from scripture.

    Chris' larger point seems to me to be that there is a great deal of work to be done, and getting hung up on doctrinal differences is not constructive. Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Athiests et al. can agree on the worst excesses and how to reduce them-- at least on a simple level like creating safe places for kids (independent of denomination).

    On the big stuff (which, in fairness, is specifically what Word Made Flesh works on), doctrinal difference (e.g., communion) is irrelevant. On more nuanced issues, you can see space for disagreement depending on faith communities (condoms, etc.). But if you need Biblical citation for why he welcomes help in stopping child sexual abuse, I think you need to go back to first principles.

    You can do God's work without belonging to any denomination.

  6. Adrian, I appreciate your comment. I do feel you are making some unfair assumptions about me in suggesting that I'm just being clever. As I indicated in the post, I have an actual case that we're dealing with right now in which committed Christians on one said are crying "sexual exploitation" and on the other "that's our culture". Clearly, without the authority of God's Word speaking into the context, we have no basis to make a case one way or another. You haven't indicated whether or not you are a follower of Christ, so I don't want to assume it. However, the clear teaching of the Bible is that humanity by and large doesn't know moral violation when they see it. If this were true, we'd have no need of a Savior.

    If "Chris' larger point" is indeed what you've said, then I have completely misunderstood him in his article and in my personal conversations with him. He very clearly advocates putting Christ at the center of our partnership/fellowship together. I think he would agree that Jews and Atheists would take serious issue with that.

    A question that I think you have to answer is, how do you determine what the "big stuff" is. Without the final authority of Scripture, who's to say what is big stuff and what isn't?

  7. Anonymous12:22 AM

    There are some very big theological and one would have to say biblical splits between RC and what were the main points of the protestant reformation,and in order to bring it to the point of truth! Then these would have to be brought forth.

  8. Cody, you make valid points, points I believe I address in my book, Your Church Is Too Small but I also think your Baptist ecclesiology can blinker your response in ways you may not see clearly yet. I see Chris as inviting us into a real conversation where we drop our fears and misunderstandings and "listen" more carefully. My own ecumenism really began when I stopped assuming I knew what kept us apart and why and really did listen to the other side with respect and love. Again, I am NOT suggesting you are not trying to do that since it seems very evident that you are trying.

    In short, I think the issues you bring up are very large, very important and only resolved inside relationships, not by simple doctrinal debates. I think you know I value doctrine as of major importance but I wonder about how we have used doctrine to divide us when we hardly understand the issues that we are divided over.

    The one tragic division, which you clearly sight in your response, is communion. One reason I cannot conceive of the Roman Catholic stance is here. Communion is not, as I understand it, related to a view that requires a succession of bishops and fidelity to the papacy. We have a long way to go here and no one should deceive themselves over this point.

    Thanks for your compelling honesty and your willingness to put this out there for people to think about and respond.

    Readers who care about my take will see that I do not believe we can pursue "Christian" unity without some ancient way of saying what it means to be a Christian. This takes us back to early creeds and writers, something evangelicals are very weak on. They appeal to Scripture, rightly so, but then divide and divide and then divide again.

  9. John, thanks as always, for reading and commenting. Allow me to push back by saying that you haven't actually answered the questions that I have raised. Questions that come from a sincere heart. For you, I've been wanting to ask more about the creeds. It is their sheer age that makes them you top candidate for "way of saying what it means to be a Christian"?

    I think that the creeds have a number of shortcomings that must not be overlooked. First, they don't reflect a very broad perspective. These creeds were ecumenical in a sense, but they were not truly global. Not that they could have hoped for much more. Still, it seems to me that something like the Cape Town Commitment is superior in the sense that it seeks to reflect the voices of Christians from every nation, demographic, sphere of society, gender, etc.

    Second, the Apostles' Creed contains a line about Christ descending into hell that is questionable at best. It has no real Scriptural support and should hardly be considered on the level of essential Christian doctrine. Since I cannot, in good conscience, say that I affirm the AC (with this line), does that mean I am not a Christian?