Editorial Note: Under the auspices of the Campus Ministry Division of the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. (LCUSA) the author led twenty-five students from Canada and the United States to work on several farms in Zimbabwe in 1984 after the Rhodesian-Zimbabwe war. The work there was coordinated by Lutheran World Service, the development arm of the Lutheran World Federation. In preparation for the visit the author had the opportunity to interview both the donors and some of the recipients of the World Council of Churches grants to the liberation movements of southern Africa.
Something changed the meaning of ecumenism after Caesar Augustus called for the taxation of the whole oikoumene. Then the word meant the whole inhabited Roman Empire. Quite possibly Luke was instrumental in that change when he juxtaposed Caesar’s oikoumene with the birth of him who was the beginning of a new oikoumene, the birth of one hidden in swaddling clothes. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament oikoumene often referred to God’s world. Psalm 24:1 affirms, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world (oikoumene) and those who dwell therein.” In Isaiah 62:4 oikoumene refers to the most intimate relations with God, “Your land shall no longer be termed Desolate; but you shall be called, My Delight is in Her and your land Married” (oikoumene).
Mary also had a glimmer of that new empire when she sang, “He has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted them of low degree.” Jesus joined in when he said, “The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the good news.” Thus the vision of Daniel was coming true when a stone, not cut by human hands, hit the feet of clay of the oikoumene and destroyed the empires to become the great mountain filling all the earth.
Already in the second century Polycarp speaks of the oikoumene as “all those regions where Christ and his church are living.” Like the babe in a manger, the new oikoumene is weak and vulnerable as even the bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, is burned and martyred. But the new oikoumene thrives nonetheless. In its exuberant growth with a myriad of teachers it becomes necessary to define what the church believes and teaches. Councils were called, and these councils were designed to represent “all those regions where Christ and his church were living.” Thus, they were called “ecumenical councils.”
In modern parlance ecumenical has retained the idea of assembling those from “all regions where Christ and his church are living” and out of that diversity forging an overarching unity. Said simply, ecumenicaltoday means “getting together.” All of which is nice, but it has become something of an afterthought. Ecumenical advocates are quick to quote Jesus in John 17:21, “that they may all be one … so that they world may believe that you have sent me.” However, since such unity is still partial and fragmented, few, it seems from a human standpoint, have come to faith because of church mergers or ecumenical organizations. In fact, some historians and sociologists point out that denominations seldom come together until they have stopped their rapid growth. Thus, mergers and declarations of “altar and pulpit fellowship” are signs of a leveling off rather than of a vital faith.
Missing from most current ecumenical concerns is the unity of Christ’s people against the principalities and powers of this present world. Revelation 12:9 speaks of the great dragon that is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the oikoumene. That was Caesar’s oikoumene. For Luther that oikoumenecomprised Pope and Turk, the powers that be who arrayed themselves against Christ and his people in all their vulnerability. Might we say today that the old oikoumene is represented by the powers of corporate globalization and vicious Islamists? One undermines morality advertising their goods and gods, and the other evokes exaggerated fears and mind-boggling military expenditures.
Ecumenical directions are tied to ecumenical visions. Rejecting its previous ecumenical commitments to the Lutheran Council and Lutheran World Service, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is now wed to the vision of church bodies with the same doctrinal commitments. As a result, its hesitant and fearful ecumenical outreach is limited to a few related church bodies. The strategy of the ELCA is guided by history as it embraces first world Lutheranism, then the reformed traditions of western Christianity, continuing dialogue with Roman Catholicism, and finally, membership in the World Council of Churches.
What would happen if the ecumenical vision was again joined with the struggle against the principalities and powers of this present darkness? What if it was not only the province of church bodies but of all Christians engaged in the battle? Occasionally that vision has broken through mere organization and dialogue, such as in 1969 when the World Council of Churches created a special fund of the Programme to Combat Racism to provide humanitarian help for the liberation movements of southern Africa. Widely condemned as a Marxist move, it was inspired far more by the bruised and battered opponents of racism like Martin Niemoeller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of whom spent years in Nazi prisons. That effort elicited help from far more sources than the constituent church bodies. The governments of Sweden and the Netherlands made large contributions, as did many individuals. Inspired by the example of the WCC, cities and towns across the world divested from companies in South Africa. The currency of South Africa plummeted, and Nelson Mandela was released later to head a new South African government.
Why should any of us care about ecumenism, when the LCMS has slammed the door on membership in the Lutheran World Federation and will only engage in conversations with the ELCA to talk about “differences”? When faced with the survival of our own congregation, why should we care about conversations with our rivals down the block? Yes, on occasion we will join with other church bodies in reaffirming American values and being part of that oikoumene. But that association is quite different from the ones enjoyed by him who was a friend of prostitutes and sinners and had nowhere to lay his head.
The burning need for ecumenical efforts today is to be in solidarity with vulnerable Christians throughout the world. Perhaps this is the reason why twelve church bodies with which the LCMS has altar and pulpit fellowship are also members of the Lutheran World Federation. These include the India Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Gutnius Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea, the Lutheran Church in the Philippines, the Lutheran Church of Southern Africa, the Lutheran Church in Korea, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Kenya, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, the Lithuanian Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Lanka Lutheran Church Center of Sri Lanka, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Venezuela and the Lutheran Church of Nigeria. Two others, the Lutheran Church of Australia and the Japan Lutheran Church, are associate members of the LWF. Perhaps the LCMS will only get involved when, instead of seeing our strengths, we become aware of our dire weaknesses. Then perhaps he who was hidden in the manger’s straw can lead us into a wider fellowship of those millions of other needy Christians throughout the world.
Ecumenical involvement for the LCMS should not be just an afterthought but should figure prominently in a new agenda for the synod. Joining our sister church bodies around the world, congregations should submit resolutions to the next synodical convention to apply for at least associate membership in the Lutheran World Federation. Other resolutions should be made to better coordinate LCMS World Relief with that of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Lutheran World Federation. In the 1960s the LCMS had made some solid progress in working with other Lutherans in the United States and around the world. Quoting St. Paul in Galatians, we might ask now in an ecumenical context, “You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?”