“Oikoumene” is derived from the Greek word oikein , “to inhabit”. With the meaning of “inhabited earth” or “the whole world”, the term has been used since Herodotos (5th century B.C.). Since the Hellenistic period the term has been used in secular contexts to refer politically to the realm of the Greco-Roman empire or to mark the cultural distinction between the civilized world and the lands of the barbarians.

The biblical writings generally follow the secular usage, e.g. taking oikoumene as a synonym for “earth” (Ps. 24:1), yet without giving particular prominence to the term. In the New Testament the political connotation of the term is visible in Luke 4:5-7 (see also Luke 2:1; Acts 17:6) and in Revelation (esp. 16:14). The expected reign of God can be called the “coming oikoumene” (Heb. 2:5).

The subsequent, much more widespread ecclesiastical use of the term is linked with the extension of the Christian community across the entire Roman empire . By the 4th century the oikoumene had become the “Christian world”, with the double (political and religious) meaning of “Christian empire” and “whole church”. The adjective oikoumenikos (Latin universalis or generalis ) refers to everything that has universal validity. Thus, ecumenical is a quality claimed for particular councils and their dogmatic decisions (see ecumenical councils ) or is used as a title of honour for specific patriarchal sees or for respected teachers of the whole church.

In Roman Catholic and Orthodox tradition, which preserved the memory of the early link between church and empire, the term remained in use, though its meaning became more and more technical. The churches of the Reformation which developed into regional or national entities lost sight of the ecumenical dimension for more than 200 years. The pietistic revival (under Nicholas von Zinzendorf et al.) led to the re-discovery of the worldwide missionary calling of the church as well as to a renewal of the consciousness of Christian unity* and fellowship across the differences of nations and confessions (Evangelical Alliance, 1846). In both contexts the term “ecumenical” has been re-claimed; the specifically modern meaning, however, refers to a spiritual attitude mani- festing the awareness of the oneness of the people of God* and the longing for its restoration (Söderblom).

Present-day usage is largely conditioned by the new reality of the organized ecumenical movement, as represented in particular by the WCC, and the different ways of reacting to this reality. The WCC itself, in an early statement by its central committee (1951), gave an account of its understanding of the term “ecumenical”. In the light of the original Greek meaning, the term should be used “to describe everything that relates to the whole task of the whole church to bring the gospel to the whole world. It therefore covers… both unity and mission in the context of the whole world.” It has proved difficult to maintain the tension built into this definition.

Thus, the Roman Catholic Church , after having overcome its very strong initial reservations, accepted the new usage of the term, placing the emphasis, however, exclusively on the unity dimension. The Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council* (1964) defines: “The term ‘ecumenical movement’ indicates the initiatives and activities encouraged and organized… to promote Christian unity” (para. 4).

The Orthodox churches have participated actively in the ecumenical movement from the beginning. With a critical accent they defined their understanding of the ecumenical movement as “ecumenism in time”: “The immediate objective of the ecumenical search is, according to the Orthodox understanding, a re-integration of Christian mind, a recovery of apostolic tradition, a fullness of Christian vision and belief, in agreement with all ages” (New Delhi 1961).

Among the churches of the Reformation there is no common understanding of ecumenism. For many Protestant majority churches “ecumenical” refers to the external relations with churches in foreign countries. For those living among a diversity of denominations, “ecumenical” means the coming and being together of churches. For many, the ecumenical movement represents the manifestation of Christian concern for a world community in justice and peace. Over against this “worldly ecumenism” conservative evangelicals advocate a “confessing ecumenism” gathering the true believers from among the churches.

Within the ecumenical movement the WCC has sought to integrate the vision of John 17:21 (“that they may all be one… so that the world may believe”) with the vision of Eph. 1:10 (God’s “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth”). But the effort to integrate these two biblical visions has been challenged by a continuing tension and sometimes antagonism between those who advocate the primacy of the social dimension of ecumenism and those who advocate the primacy of spiritual or ecclesial ecumenism. More recently, a growing number of voices from the churches, especially in Asia but also in Latin America, have spoken of the need for a “wider ecumenism” or “macro-ecumenism” – an understanding which would open the ecumenical movement to other religious and cultural traditions beyond the Christian community.

Churchly and worldly, spiritual and missionary-social dimensions belong together in a comprehensive understanding of oikoumene. Oikoumene is a relational, dynamic concept which extends beyond the fellowship of Christians and churches to the human community within the whole of creation.* The transformation of the oikoumene as the “inhabited earth” into the living household (oikos) of God – that remains the calling of the ecumenical movement.




n Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the World Council of Churches: A Policy Statement , WCC, 1997 n W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Meaning of Ecumenical , Burge Memorial Lecture 1953, London, SCM Press, 1953 n W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, “The Word ‘Ecumenical’: Its History and Use”, in HI-I .

The text above is extracted from “ Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement ” 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)

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