2 Approaches to Ecumenical Studies

Kent Shaffer —  September 11, 2012

I began studying different denominations a year before I started Church Relevance. I knew I needed to learn what they believe, how they talk, and how the live out the Bible in order to grow outside of my own theological bubble and explore ministry on an ecumenical level.

It has been a slow journey, but like a cogwheel, my understanding both spiritually and culturally has gained momentum and made dramatic shifts within the last year and even more so within the last 3 months.

Of course, the Holy Spirit gets credit for the spiritual insights, and last fall marks the beginning of my greatest spiritual awakening yet. But unfortunately, studying ministry and its methods are often just as much or more about culture than it is about Scripture. People’s behavior, beliefs, and social environment outside of God’s Word determine much of how they choose to interpret and live out the Bible.

So the Holy Spirit gets credit for spiritual insights, but you have to act like an anthropologist if you want to understand the methods and cultural idiosyncrasies of each denomination and theology. Because humanity is flawed, we seem compelled to take spiritual insights and then build upon them with our own ideas using our own strength.

The Same Tree but Different Angles

Five years ago, a retired minister named Leon Blackwell generously gifted me 600 books from his library. During his decades of travel, he visited countless used book stores collecting the best theological works and Bible commentaries he could find regardless of their denominational background. He gave me this advice:

The Bible is like a tree that stays the same but looks different from each angle. When you read different theological perspectives, it gives you glimpses of the same tree from different angles. And the more you read, the better you understand the tree as a whole.

I’ve found this to be true in my own life. As I study different opinions of Scripture and the Great Commission and then judge those perspectives through my own study of Scripture, I find it tremendously more insightful and quite effective at revealing my cultural blindspots.

2 Approaches: Stained Glass vs Melting Pot

Here are two approaches that have both worked well for me in better understanding Christian cultures. Both are theories.

I have spent a few years trying to learn firsthand from the opposite ends of the church spectrum – seeker sensitive, Reformed, charismatic, emergent, missiological, organic, Orthodox, denominational, liberal, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, and more. It has left me with an eclectic group of friends. Many of whom think each other are heretics.

For me, the key to finding the best insights is to talk to the leaders on the fringe of each niche. I find their ideas so highly concentrated that it is easier to see the underlying strengths and weaknesses of their niche and discern what is biblical and what is cultural. More ecumenically accepted leaders within each niche tend have a more diluted stance, which is why they are more popular among mainstream Christianity.

I still have much to learn, but at the moment, it seems like:

  • Melting Pot
    Trying to achieve a global Church worldview by weaving together the strengths from the diluted perspectives of more ecumenically accepted leaders achieves more of a melting pot because these leaders are more like each other than they would care to admit. The melting pot muffles their individual strengths.
  • Stained Glass
    However, trying to achieve a global Church worldview by weaving together the strengths from the highly concentrated perspectives of more fringe leaders achieves more of a stained glass effect that better showcases and appreciates each of their strengths, and I think gives a bit brighter total biblical picture.

Both approaches have their pros and cons. In both cases, you must challenge everything against Scripture to see for yourself what is said.

The melting pot method won’t rock your world too hard conceptually. But the melting pot has more subtle weaknesses that can more easily be mistaken as truth.

The stained glass method can mess you up sometimes conceptually. You have to go back to the basics more often and anchor yourself in the gospel, the Great Commission, the two love commandments, worship, and the pursuit of purity. Like a teeter-totter you stretch your perspective some and then go back to the basics before stretching it some more. The stained glass has more obvious weaknesses, but they are more destructive if mistaken as truth.

Currently, I prefer the stained glass approach. It works well for me now but might not be the best approach in the future. It may never be a good approach for you.

I’d love to hear your feedback on these theories.

 

Kent Shaffer

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I live in an RV with my wife and 2 kids and work with OpenChurch.com to help Christians collaborate and build a global Church library of free, open content.

One response to 2 Approaches to Ecumenical Studies

  1. I like the images you use here. The difference between melting pot and stained glass. I definitely also prefer the stained glass analogy and think you’re correct. It turns into a great work of art when you highlight the strengths of each stream. It also better fits the body analogy that we find in scripture, where the differences (strengths and weaknesses) of each part are what make unity within the body necessary. Thanks for that picture!