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Eight Models to Help Adventism Get Over its Ecumenism Aversion

Joined in Unity

It’s called a golden moment—an instance when a student’s question leads to an exciting new insight. As a teacher, when I experience those moments I have options: I can choose to engage the student’s questions and derail my lesson plans, or redirect them to what I had planned and let the golden moment pass. I had such an opportunity when my students asked about Christian history and why there are so many churches. 

Scrapping what I had planned for Bible class that day, we launched into a discussion about pre-reformation history. I could see that it sparked my students’ interest, so with some quick reconfiguring on my part, we pivoted to a new set of lesson plans (shout out to Dr. Allert’s History of Christianity). 

Leaning into this new interest, I got permission to invite pastors of different faiths to visit my classroom. This generated more excitement among both my students and the guests I invited. But—and there’s always a ‘but’—it all came crashing down. 

After the local Catholic priest visited, some Adventist community members angrily voiced their opposition resulting in a quick end to further visits. 

Seeing the interest my students showed in engaging people of different faiths, I decided instead to take my students to visit other faith communities. I feel grateful for the openness the minsters showed in allowing us to participate in their religious services. Among the highlights, we witnessed one student’s baptism and other student’s first communion service. 

While familiarizing my students with other faiths provided obvious value—both for my students and the faith leaders with whom we interacted—I wondered why it all seemed so threatening to the aggressively vocal church members. Why is inter-church relation such a touchy topic for Adventists? How can they read Jesus’ oneness prayer in John 17:21-24 and then fail to understand the Christian faith as One

I hope that by talking openly about ecumenicalism (or ecumenism, as it’s often derided from the pulpit), we eliminate the its stigma and reduce both people’s pride and their fear. I hope Adventists can instead focus on God’s Kingdom come, His will being done, on earth as in heaven. That is, unless Adventists truly believe they alone will be with God for eternity.

In his Adventist Interchurch Relations: A Study in Ecumenics, professor Stefan Höschele, professor of Systematic Theology & Adventist Studies at Theologische Hochschule Friedensau, noted that 1860’s Adventism lacked a proper understanding of Christian “oneness.” 

Along with that deficiency, Adventists, he wrote, viewed with deep skepticism any Protestant calls for unity, “preferring to have governing energy directed to the growing internal Adventist diversity, [being] bolstered by an affinity to Roman Catholic styles of hierarchical thinking that celebrates uniformity.” 

To start transforming Adventism’s 160-year-old perspective on ecumenism, I offer Höschele’s eight models for understating big ‘C’ Church unity:

1.The Organic union model assumes unity has been broken and needs to be healed because  denominations have misunderstood their relationship to each other. Those in leadership work towards organizational closeness. 

2. The Mutual recognition model sees the need to heal what is broken without fully merging together. The metaphor of reconciliation helps here.

3. The Co-operative-federal model seeks church unity through organizations like The World Council of Churches. It aims for synchronization between churches that oppose unity.

4. The Alliance model does not seek official recognition or orderly coordination, but churches joining together for common causes as partners. 

5. The Ecumenism of profiles model attempts to foster bilateral dialogue aimed at acknowledging the variety of Christian expressions. 

6. The Forum model entails space created for sharing ideas and experiences freely with minimal exclusionist force. 

7. The Spiritual unity (as opposed to “visible unity”) model is grounded in relations between individuals rather than church entities. By way of fellowship of the like-minded this model priorities common experiences. 

8. The Ecumenism of life model envisions disparate churches living together in the same civic community. It implies that the daily practice of ordinary believers can be a reflection of Christian unity. 

Adventism needs to reexamine its self-image. The Adventist origin story—a church started by members who felt “called out” of other denominations—lends itself to the idea that Adventists are set apart for the good of Christianity

The self identifier “remnant” and the Adventist notion of “present truth” reveals Adventism’s self-imposed role as “watchman”—protector of true faith. This self-understanding too easily leads to speaking poorly of other denominations. Adventists will say other Christians lack the “whole truth” or that other Christians might “corrupt” them, thereby doubly sealing themselves off from the rest of Christendom.

Jesus prayed that his followers would be one. That’s the self understanding Adventists need: a generous approach to Christianity—one of humble fellowship, celebration, and commitment to Jesus’ unifying identity, rooted in love.

Title Image by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash

Kevin McCarty

About the author

Kevin R. McCarty is a spiritual care provider and Indigenous ally who lives, works, and worships on the unceded traditional S’olh Temexw territory of the Stó:lō people. You can email him at More from Kevin R. McCarty.
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