May/June 2011 - Vol. 50
Our Ecumenism:
How do we know if 
we are winning?

by Dave Hughes

This article is addressed primarily to members of the Sword of the Spirit, an ecumenical international network of communities. The practical wisdom and principles addressed here can be helpful for any group of Christians who seek to grow in the fruit of unity. 
I used to work for a boss who was obsessed with the concept of winning. His main approach to leadership involved making sure the team could answer the question: how do you know if you’re winning? While my old boss certainly took this to an extreme, I learned from him that it is important for leaders to define what victory looks like, what  the signposts are that let us know we are on the right path, especially in situations where progress may be difficult to gage.

I’d like to apply this question to our ecumenical life in the Sword of the Spirit – how do we know if we’re winning? I think it’s a fair question. Progress can sometimes seem slow or non-existent. Sometimes it may even feel like we’re moving backwards. 

To answer this question on winning, though, we first need to answer a different question: is our ecumenical work a destination or a journey? That is, do we define “victory” or “winning” as realizing the ultimate unity of God’s people? Or can we define “winning” as simply making progress towards that goal? Is it a destination or a journey?

Let me propose the following answer: it is both. Without doubt the ultimate “victory” is the total and definitive unity of God’s people. This is what Jesus prays for in John 17, and it will come to pass. “Father make them one” is not a prayer of foolish hope, it is a prayer of confident certainty. In the end, the King will have but one bride. This may not be achieved this side of heaven, but Jesus’ prayer will surely be answered in the affirmative. Our unity will be perfect in the end. The destination is clear.

At the same time, we are on a journey towards this ultimate unity. “Winning” in this context can be defined as progress to the goal. As a Protestant, I have been inspired by a quote from Pope John XXIII, “Whenever I see the wall dividing Christians, I try to take out at least one brick.” This is a great perspective for us: we are on a journey, we take small steps, we take out bricks, some days all we can do is chip away at the mortar, but it is progress and on this journey that means we are ”winning.”

This may sound like a cop-out – we cannot achieve total victory so we settle for simply “progress to the goal.” I reject this thought. When we think of other areas of the Christian life we take a similar approach. For example, theologians often speak about the “already, but not yet” of the Christian life. What they mean by this is that there are areas of the Christian life that, viewed from one angle, are fully complete but, viewed from another angle, are still works in process. Take our overall relationship with God. In one way we are fully accepted as God’s children, but in another way we are in a process of sanctification. We are “already” his but “not yet” fully transformed. Or consider the kingdom of God. On one hand Jesus announced that it was at hand – it is already here. On the other hand we are enjoined to work for the kingdom and to pray for it to come in fullness. It is “already” here but “not yet” complete. In a similar way we can consider our ecumenism in an “already, but not yet” way. Our ultimate unity is assured and complete, yet we are called to work for it here and now. It is a destination and a journey.

So how do we know we’re winning? I think it’s as simple as this: we know we are winning when we are on the journey. Are we praying for unity in alignment with the Father’s heart? Are we exercising greater ecumenical courtesy towards one another? Are we improving our understanding of one another and moving towards ecumenically convergent positions? Are we chipping away at the bricks?

If we are doing these things we’re on the journey, we’re in the fight. To me that means we’re winning.
Dave Hughes is Chairman of the Sword of the Spirit's Assembly of Ecumenical Communities and is a coordinator of Word of Life Community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA. Dave and his wife Jane have five children. They are members of Knox Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor.

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