This post continues my series on nine critical challenges on the changing landscape of world Christian missions. Here I describe critical challenge #2. See link below to previous posts.
They can seem like zealots of two different religions, the Christians who love evangelism versus the Christians who love social justice. In my work from east Africa to South Korea to the U.S., “evangelicals” versus “ecumenicals” is the shorthand I often hear. The evangelical Jesus is the Savior of John 3:16, who said God “gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The ecumenical Jesus is the Prophet of Luke 4:18-19, who said “the Spirit of the Lord …has anointed me… to set the oppressed free.”
Each group is only a fragment, but each imagines itself as the whole – with tragic consequences.
The warning to evangelicals: According to scholar Brian Stanley’s acclaimed book, the greatest single challenge faced by Christianity in the 20th century was “the repeated subversion of Christian ethics by a series of tragic compromises between Christianity and ideologies of racial superiority.” This ran from Nazi Germany to South African apartheid to Rwandan ethnic genocide to racial segregation in the U.S. In each context baptized, church-going people who failed to bring a prophetic voice were deeply implicated in supporting vast discrimination and even violence.
From ecumenicals, evangelicals can learn how to diagnose and address injustice, following the Jesus of Luke 4.
The warning to ecumenicals: Over time, ecumenical mission agencies became more and more uncomfortable with missionary preaching. According to historian Robert Westbrook, “Ecumenical Protestants found it increasingly difficult … to say what exactly Christianity brought to the missionary table that could not be found just as well in secular humanitarianism.”
From evangelicals, ecumenicals can learn the difference between humanitarianism and humbly embodying the uniqueness of Christ, following the Jesus of John 3:16.
For me, increasingly restless on either side of this divide, Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann said it well: “A ‘rightist’ Christianity is as frightening as a ‘leftist’ one, and I know why I sway to the left when dealing with the rightists and to the right when I am with the leftists.”
Yet we can take heart from Christians in Africa and Asia I know who are building alliances across the ecumenical-evangelical divide in spite of their differences. They have come to believe they cannot grow into the fullness of Christ without one another.
Previous posts in this series
Chris Rice is director of the Mennonite Central Committee United Nations Office in New York City. He is co-author of More Than Equals and Reconciling All Things and was founding co-director of the Duke Divinity School Center for Reconciliation.