Church Unity

On Friday, I was invited to participate in an ecumenical symposium put on by the National Council of Churches in Australia, Faith and Unity Commission.  Held in Canberra, the event celebrated 100 years of the ecumenical movement, which traces its origins to the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh.  Its goal has been a vision of a united church in mission and, to this end, visible unity.

Although i have been involved in various ecumenical events, i have not been a participant in formal ecumenical dialogues or World Council of Churches and Faith and Unity Commission forums.  In this i am typical of our movement and my invitation to the event in Canberra to speak for Pentecostalism provided the ‘novelty’ factor; the strange pentecostal academic amidst the traditional churches!

This is not to say that Pentecostals have been against ecumenism, as is sometimes assumed.  It is noteworthy that global Pentecostalism traces its origins to around the same point in history as the ecumenical movement – to a series of revivals that occurred throughout the world in the first decade of the twentieth century which were ecumenical in spirit.  The early history of Pentecostalism involved the pursuit of revival, believing that the Holy Spirit was capable of breaking down the divisions that plagued the church. Pentecostal revival, thus, brought together black and white, poor and (occasionally) rich, women and men and people from diverse church denominations.  There was a strong desire to reject ‘tradition’ and ‘creed’, since these were understood as being both stultifying and divisive.  The founder of Australian Pentecostalism, for example, a women named Sarah Jane Lancaster, had as one of her driving motivations the goal of ‘non-doctrinal unity’- a unity in the Spirit that transcended creeds. Half a century later, the charismatic movement, with its roots in Pentecostalism, elicited a similarly ‘spiritual unity’ – a unity that set aside the formalities of doctrine and church structure, a unity that was informal and grassroots in its orientation, a unity that was grounded in the pursuit of the Spirit whose work it is to bring diverse people together.

Of course, i should not paint to much of an idealised picture. Pentecostalism has been far from perfect in its pursuit of church unity.  As is well known, the movement has become as denominationalised, as doctrinal, as divisive as any other.  It also tended to avoid the ecumenical movement, and few Pentecostal groups became members of World Council of Churches.  I have my own opinions as to why this was so – but i am interested in any suggestions.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • David Keane
    July 12, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    I once heard a wonderful sermon by a wise man named Bill Johnson, and he suggested that right throughout church history, we have seen a ‘cycle’ that tends to last 3 to 4 generations. Firstly, you have a generation that arises and ‘presses in’ for revival – willing to pay the price on their knees to usher in a move of the Holy Spirit. Typically, the generation that follows is not willing to pay a similar price, and therefore relinquish the opportunity to build on the ‘ceiling’ of the previous generation.

    Instead, this second generation memorialises and institutionalises the move of the Spirit in the previous generation, and turn the “new work” into yet another denomination.

    He suggests that this then leads to a downward spiral through the 2nd and 3rd generations, and then a new generation arises, who are once again willing to do what it takes to usher in a new move of God.

    You mentioned the Pentecostal church (of which we are both a part), and I think it fits this pattern perfectly so far. And, true to form, I am now seeing a new generation (Gen Y?) arise with a ‘different spirit’ within them, and I sense that dramatic change is in the air.

    I hope Bill Johnson is right in this instance, and that the new generation of pentecostal believers usher in something new, and don’t merely continue along the same path that has become so stale and lifeless and predictable.

    Just a thought…

  • Craig Benno
    July 13, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I think the the reason the pentecostal church has been reluctant to join in with the WWC is for a number of reasons.

    1) There has been suspicions between the established church vrs the pentecostal church since its establishment as to eaches validity as a Christian movement / organisation.

    2.) Within the Pentecostals end times scenario the established church / ecumemical movement has at times been seen as the whore of Bablyon… this view isn’t held just by the Pentecostals, other fundlementalist groups also hold this view.

    3.) Many church planters / senior pastors / elders etc within Pentecostal movements have been caught up in their own importance / calling / sense of urgency / pride in thinking their movement is more important and is of God and therefore the other traditional churches are dead, the Spirit of God has left them and therefore they don’t want to have anything to do with that dead wood….except to steal their sheep…. ooooops bring new life into the life of stagnant christians.


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