General CBF

Book Review: Ecumenism Means You, Too by Steven Harmon

The Body of Christ is divided. From the East/West schism of 1054 to the modern period of rampant denominationalism (I remember reading somewhere that there are 32 “varieties” of Baptists alone!) the Christian Church exists in a myriad of often closed, competing, and conflicting denominations. Steve Harmon’s new book, Ecumenism Means You, Too is a call to Christian unity. Believing that denominational divisions compromise the church’s witness to the world and betray Jesus’ prayer that his followers would all be one, Harmon hopes to stir his readers to become leaders of a renewed ecumenical movement, seeking grassroots ecumenism in local contexts as well as at the denominational and academic level (14).

Drawing on the moving, and often Christian-influenced, lyrics of the rock band U2, Harmon frames the quest for Christian unity as a task not to be left to theologians and high-ranking clergy, but for every “ordinary Christian” in the divided Body of Christ. This short and accessible work moves from an introduction of the concept of ecumenism, to a brief history of the ecumenical movement, to personal stories of reconciliation. Transitioning from the theoretical and personal to the practical, Harmon lists ten “things you can do for the unity of the church,” beginning with intentional prayer for unity. This list describes practices accessible for every believer, lay or clergy, from embracing a particular denominational tradition and particular local church, to “adopting” another denomination and joining with other traditions in the work of evangelism and social justice.

Drawing on important aspects of his life’s work and experience, Harmon craftily describes the complexities of ecumenism and the tedious road that leads to unity. He helpfully differentiates between ecumenism and pluralism, asserting that interreligious dialogue, while important, is not the same as the attempt to embody the unity of the Body of Christ. Instead, in the ecumenical task of unifying a church divided by hundreds of denominations “the healthiest approaches to ecumenism—the quest for specifically Christian unity—do not minimize the significant differences of faith and practice that exist between churches” (3). He suggests that while the Church is one, “we are not the same” and ecumenism does not mean outright dismissal of the important distinctives within each tradition. Instead, as the U2 lyrics continue, “we must carry each other” and work to overcome the differences that divide by focusing on paths to unity rather than perpetuating differences. This work of perpetuating distinctives and focusing on denominational differences rather than unity with other denominations often seems to this reviewer to be requisite in many Baptist circles, by heralding our dissenting tradition over traditions of reconciliation. Harmon, however, suggests that this practice betrays the church’s primordial identity as the one Body of Christ. Ultimate unity requires honesty and appreciation for one’s own principles and convictions, while also expressing respect for other traditions. Harmon suggests this work means an ability to “contest our serious disagreements with each other in love,” and requires such practices as reading scripture together with other traditions in unified worship (70).

At a time when many believe denominations are becoming a relic of the past, Harmon suggests the answer to division does not lie in “non-denominationalism.” Rather it exists in the grassroots and committed efforts of people of all traditions to work for unity and heed Jesus’ call to become one. In the end, I think this book is an important and necessary work for the church, especially those of us in a Baptist church prone to division and wall-building.

Harmon does an exceptional job of producing an easy-to-read guide to ecumenism. He makes often-complex theological themes such as eschatology and Trinitarian theology easily-understandable for readers of all types. I highly recommend Ecumenism Means You, Too not just to those who have an interest in ecumenical topics, but to all members of the Body of Christ called to a unified witness, unified mission, and unified identity. This book can be beneficial to all Christians as it highlights an important aspect of missional living that churches often tend to overlook.

One thought on “Book Review: Ecumenism Means You, Too by Steven Harmon

  1. “ONLY” 32 varieties of Baptists. Wow, if that were only true. Well maybe, if you only count those currently active. When I stopped counting in 1979, I had reached 56. Unfortunately Baptists have an approach to church life that seems to generate controversy and division. While I greatly appreciate and even cherish the Baptist distinctives, even the autonomy of the local church, it is sad that Baptists have generated so much division. Although, even within other traditions, differences abound.

    I really liked Dr Harmon’s book. I hope more read it and take it to heart.

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