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Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches and Ecumenism: An Interview with Mel Robeck


A conversation with Professor and Pentecostal Statesman Cecil M. Robeck, Jr. As a Pentecostal, how do you define ecumenism?

Mel Robeck: The term “ecumenism” is derived from the Greek word oikoumene, which comes from the noun, oikos. The basic meaning of oikos is “house,” and by extension, oikoumene refers to those things, which have to do with the household. I understand the ecumenical household to be the “Household of God,” the Church, the whole “People of God,” the Christian community. From my perspective, then, ecumenism is a term reserved primarily for the issues of relationship that exist between Christians. My understanding of what constitutes a Christian is fairly simple. A Christian is one who confesses that Jesus Christ is his or her Lord and Savior.

In my ecumenical work, I begin with the biblical premise that there is only one Church and that all who confess Jesus Christ are part of that Church, regardless of their denominational label. But if we drive down the street in any of our cities, we can see that there is something wrong. How is it that we have so many denominations—over 30,000 around the world today—while there is only one Church? Why is it that many of these denominations have nothing to do with one another, yet there is only one Church? Why do we speak against one another, and yet we say that we belong to the same Church?

Many people who are not Christians ask these same questions. Unfortunately, these questions compromise the message of reconciliation that we preach, the message that God has offered through Jesus Christ, a means of breaking down all barriers between God and humankind, and between all individuals. The result is that those outside the Church are either confused about the effectiveness of the Gospel, or they are completely scandalized by what they view as our “hypocritical” claims.

The so-called “Ecumenical Movement” first came into being as a direct result of these evangelistic and missionary concerns. The World Council of Churches, which was founded, in part, as a result of these concerns, seeks to overcome the historic divisions between its member denominations. Along the way, it has also addressed other human, inter-religious, and environmental issues that represent the concerns of the churches that are members of the Council. The World Council of Churches has invited all Churches who can confess that “Jesus Christ is both God and Savior according to the Scriptures” to join together in a common quest for visible Christian unity. Very few Pentecostals have taken them up on their offer.

We have been made one by the Holy Spirit, but our inability to live and work together with other Christians with whom we may at times have deep differences, is clearly confusing to the world.

As a Pentecostal, I believe that this invitation is a legitimate one that is consistent with the Gospel. I believe that we must begin by acknowledging the spiritual, and therefore, the invisible character of the unity that makes Christians part of the Church—but the Church does not stop there. The Church while invisible, at the same time shows a visible face to the world. We have been made one by the Holy Spirit, but our inability to live and work together with other Christians with whom we may at times have deep differences, is clearly confusing to the world. For the sake of mission alone, then, we need a united witness to the reconciling power of the Gospel. I view such a pursuit as nothing more than a response to the Pauline exhortation of Ephesians 4:3 (NRSV), “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” While interdenominational cooperation is a good first step, it is limited in what it can actually achieve. It allows us to continue to live with the status quo, cooperating on our own terms, and not when it is difficult for us. Interdenominational cooperation does not ultimately challenge us toward fuller healing and reconciliation, while a genuine quest for some form of “visible unity” challenges us at a very deep level.


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Category: Ministry, Winter 2003

About the Author: Cecil M. Robeck, Jr., Ph.D. (Fuller Theological Seminary), is Senior Professor of Church History and Ecumenics and Special Assistant to the President for Ecumenical Relations at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. He is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God who has served at the seminary since 1974. His work on the Azusa Street revival is well known. His ecumenical work, since 1984, is highly respected around the world by Christian leaders outside the Pentecostal Movement. He continues to serve as a bridge between Pentecostalism and the larger church world, leading international dialogues, participating in ecumenical consultations, and working on and writing about church-dividing issues. He appears regularly on the Town Hall weekly telecast. He co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Pentecostalism (Cambridge, 2014) with Amos Yong, The Azusa Street Revival and Its Legacy (Wipf & Stock, 2009) with Harold D. Hunter, and The Suffering Body: Responding to the Persecution of Christians (Paternoster, 2006) with Harold D. Hunter. He is also the author of The Azusa Street Mission and Revival: The Birth of the Global Pentecostal Movement (Thomas Nelson, 2006 and 2017) and Prophecy in Carthage: Perpetua, Tertullian, and Cyprian (Pilgrim, 1992). Faculty page

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