History presents many ironies. One of them has to do with evangelicalism’s relationship to the task of Christian unity—or what theologians call ecumenism. The mandate is robustly set forth in John’s Gospel 17:21, where Christ prays for his disciples and their followers: “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (emphasis added). In short, sans Christian unity, the task of the Great Commission will always be compromised. (Who would want to embrace to a religion whose members are at one another’s throats or else not speaking to one another?)
At the famous 1910 Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, attendees were overcome with a profound sense of the need for Christian unity for the sake of the transmission of the Gospel. As things turned out, the charisma of this meeting was later routinized into the World Council of Churches, settling into a bureaucratic, least-common-denominator social ecumenism—one that many evangelicals, not without good reason, came to criticize.
Here’s where the irony comes in. The theological vision that animated the original ecumenical-missionary impulse in 1910 was arguably far more in line with evangelical theology today than it would be with mainline liberal Protestantism. By and large, evangelicals remain committed to the Great Commission. By and large, mainline denominations are not—or only minorities within them are. By demonstrating a blithe unconcern for ecumenism for most of the twentieth century, evangelicals, arguably, forsook an important part of their own heritage. The abuse of a thing by liberal Protestants was mistaken for the thing itself: the baby went out screaming with the bath water.
This reality struck me recently when editing a chapter by Timothy George for a book that will appear on the legacy of the Reformation as it approaches its quincentennial in 2017. George enjoins evangelicals to reflect on the tragic dimensions of the Reformation or what he calls the “dys-evangelical” nature of Christian fragmentation. As he puts it:
The tragic side of the Reformation is obvious to those who care deeply about the unity of the church and who feel keenly the dys-evangelical impact of a fractured Christian community and its muted witness in our world today. All Christians repeat Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his church and yet who can deny the open scandal of the followers of Jesus excluding one another from the Lord’s Table, all the while proclaiming “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5)?
The passage prompts two further reflections. First, I’ve never come across the term “dys-evangelical” before. George appears to have coined it. A Google search for the term turned up nada, zilch. But, second, it’s a wonderfully accurate word for describing how fragmentation among Christians works against the Great Commission. In the Greek, the prefix “dys” means bad, abnormal, disordered; while the root of evangelical means “good news.” Hence, dys-evangelical amounts to something like “the disordering or undermining of the good news.”
If Christ’s message in the Gospel of John holds, then the mandate for evangelism and discipleship ought to go hand in hand with that of ecumenism: the task of Christian unity and the Great Commission should dovetail in purpose.
Failure to grasp this is, well, so dys-evangelical.