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Pentecostal/Charismatic Churches and Ecumenism: An Interview with Mel Robeck Why do so few ecumenical documents reach pastors and congregations?

Within the Pentecostal and Charismatic tradition lies the fact that virtually any move toward greater ecumenical understanding or cooperation is viewed with extreme suspicion.

Mel Robeck: Ecumenical work takes place through a variety of methods. One of the most common is in the development of documents that are intended to lay out points of agreement and disagreement, prospects for convergence, and areas in which common action are possible. Literally hundreds of ecumenical documents have been written at the local, regional, national, and international level over the past half century. Very few of these documents have found a place in the ongoing life of the local congregation. This is a tragedy, for in some places this is seen as a vote against the development of all formal ecumenical documents as though such things were completely irrelevant to the life of ordinary Christians, and perhaps even to the Church as a whole. But this is not the case.

Part of the reason that these documents are not more widely received is the fact that they are often technical in nature. All divisions that separate Christians have come about at some point in history, in many cases these divisions may have taken place centuries ago. Many ecumenical documents presuppose a certain level of understanding of the historical factors that led to these divisions as well as historical developments that have taken place since the original break. At the beginning of the 21st Century, few Pentecostal or charismatic leaders possess the level of training in church history (with the possible exception of their own), that is necessary to enable them to interact meaningfully with what appears in many ecumenical documents. Insofar as potential readers do not know that history they are disadvantaged.

Similarly, the authors of most ecumenical documents are the Church’s theologians who pay close attention to the language of division. Like those who work in any trade or profession, these specialists have sometimes developed and employed a jargon that functions as an in-house form of shorthand. As a result, their work does not always communicate clearly to the person in the pew. Reading some ecumenical documents is like reading through some legal documents. The experts know what they mean, but ordinary lay people do not. In the case of Pentecostalism, where education has seldom received the support it deserves even in the preparation of pastors and other church leaders, some of these documents are largely incomprehensible. The theological vocabulary is simply above their ability to engage it.

We are suspicious of these documents, suspicious that they may be documents of compromise.

What this suggests is that those historians and theologians who write ecumenical documents need to think seriously about the audience toward which these documents are aimed in order to guarantee that they receive the attention they deserve. It suggests that Pentecostals might be able to offer better critiques of or be better able to embrace many ecumenical documents were they to have the academic tools necessary to evaluate them fairly and accurately. It also suggests that we need more and better historical/theological translators who can bridge the gap between those from the academy that produces many of these documents and the ordinary pastor or the layperson in the pew.


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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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