Ecumenical Dialogue Clarifies Baptist Beliefs


Prof. Steve Harmon

Why are some people afraid of ecumenism? I suspect that, besides fundamentalism, this fear is rooted in unclear identity.

Baptist theologian Steve Harmon, adjunct instructor of Christian theology at the Baptist-affiliated school in Boiling Springs, N.C., argues that ecumenical dialogue can help people clarify and refine their own beliefs. He refers in particular to the latest dialogue with Orthodox theologians.

Here is more on this topic:

Ecumenical dialogue between Baptists and other Christian traditions clarifies Baptist distinctives rather than dilutes them, says a Gardner-Webb University professor who participated in recent preliminary conversations between Baptists and Orthodox Christians.

“The purpose of ecumenical discussions is not to water down core Baptist doctrines, or to sacrifice congregational autonomy,” said Steven Harmon, adjunct instructor of Christian theology at the Baptist-affiliated school in Boiling Springs, N.C., in a university press statement. “Rather, ecumenists strive to clearly understand what other traditions believe on their own terms, rather than relying our own caricatured images of them.  That also involves more clearly understanding those doctrines and practices that make us different, even as we search for the convergences that will help us establish unity.”

Harmon was part of a three-person team representing the Baptist World Alliance which held exploratory talks in Crete Oct. 30-Nov. 2 with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople — widely regarded as the spiritual head of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians — that could lead to formal dialogue between Baptists and Orthodox Christians internationally.

Other members of the Baptist delegation were BWA general secretary Neville Callam and Paul Fiddes, professor of systematic theology at Oxford University in England.

The BWA has since its inception engaged in conversations with other Christian groups as part of an assignment to improve understanding and cooperation between Baptists and other faith communities. Two rounds of talks have been held with Catholics — one in the mid-1980s and a second continuing initiative that began in 2006. Last summer, the BWA announced it would begin preparatory conversations with representatives of both Orthodox Christianity and Pentecostal churches, aiming for eventual formal theological dialogue with both.

“As is the case with any ecumenical conversation, we hope to identify convergences between our churches, and possibly identify some ways we could work together in missions, evangelization, or addressing certain social issues with a common voice,” said Harmon. “For example, the current Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, is a passionate advocate for ecological justice. Perhaps that’s an area in which Baptists and Orthodox can work together to bring that issue to the forefront of the world’s attention.”

Representing Orthodox Christians at the exploratory talks were Gennadios of Sassima of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and professor of Orthodox theology and canon law; George Tsetsis, a former permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the World Council of Churches; and Konstantinos Kenanidis, general director of the Orthodox Academy of Crete.

Harmon said the Baptist delegation drafted a concise statement of Baptist identity, including essential theological beliefs and a brief narrative of Baptist history, to be included in an official recommendation by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Orthodox Churches to participate in formal dialogue.

Participants left the meeting with the understanding that the Ecumenical Patriarch would examine the proposal developed at the Crete meeting and determine whether to remit it to Orthodox Churches with a view to securing their participation in the formal dialogue, he added. A decision is expected by March 2012.

“These were just preliminary conversations, for now,” said Harmon.  “They were exploratory in nature. But the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate seemed very eager for these conversations to go forward.”

Ecumenical dialogue has a solid biblical basis, Harmon said in comments posted on GWU’s web site.

“I think John 17 really is the foundational biblical text for the quest for Christian unity,” he said. “This is where Jesus prays for his disciples on the night before his death, and in particular, prays that they may be one as Jesus and the Father are one.  After repeating that, he says, that is ‘so that the world may believe.’

“That suggests that the quest for Christian unity, and finding more visible forms of unity, isn’t an end in itself, but it’s an end that serves the greater end of evangelism.”

In fact, he added, the modern ecumenical movement had its roots in the modern Christian mission movement.

“In the 19th century, when missionaries from divided Christian nations arrived in the same countries to do evangelism, they instinctively sensed that there was something wrong with asking nonbelievers not only to become Christians, but to become this particular kind of Christian instead of that particular kind of Christian. So those missionaries were the ones who really put a lot of pressure on their sending denominations to seek greater unity.”

If successful, ecumenism will have a “trickle down” effect, leading to grassroots collaboration among Christians, Harmon maintains.

“We usually strive [in ecumenical dialogues] to produce reports that present the convergences we identify, as well as ongoing points of disagreement,” he said. “Ultimately, we hope these reports will be used as educational tools, both in institutions of theological education but also by pastors whose congregations have personal relationships with members of other Christian churches. The ultimate goal would be some form of grassroots ecumenical engagement, as Christians work together for the purposes of missions, evangelism, or even social activism.

“There is great potential for the Church to affect change when our attitudes toward one another are cooperative rather than combative,” he added.

Article written by Robert Dilday, managing editor of the Religious Herald. Source, HERE.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

2 thoughts on “Ecumenical Dialogue Clarifies Baptist Beliefs”

  1. Dialogul evanghelic-ortodox ar fi un lucru binevenit, insa cel putin in Romania este un lucru cam dificil de realizat, dat fiind trecutul nu tocmai fericit, iar la nivel doctrinar nu prea se are habar despre ce cred unii si ce cred ceilalti mergandu-se mai mult pe “folclor”, din partea ortodoxa “pocaitii, care au venit sa strice credinta noastra strabuna de 2000 de ani si hulitori ai Maicii Domnulu” si altele asemenea, iar din partea evanghelica “ortodocsii inchinatori la idoli”, etc.

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