Fuller’s Ecumenical Vision

When the subject of ecumenism comes up within Evangelical circles, the symbol that most often comes to mind is the World Council of Churches. It is a global “fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”1 Since it was founded in 1948, its membership has grown to include 348 denominations from 120 nations. Many Evangelicals have chosen not to join the Council, and many others who worship in member churches do not always feel well represented there. As impressive as it is, the World Council of Churches represents fewer than 25 percent of the world’s Christians and relatively few Evangelicals. The Council’s desire for the full visible unity of the Church remains unfulfilled.

The Catholic Church has sometimes been viewed as a symbol of unity also. With its 1.3 billion members, better than 50 percent of the world’s Christians, the Catholic Church ranks as the largest denomination in the world. But Evangelicals are typically conflicted about it. It confesses the same creeds that most evangelicals confess.2 It proclaims that all who are saved attain salvation without exception through Jesus Christ. It has signed, with Lutherans, a Joint Declaration on Justification, moving far beyond the conflicts of the Reformation.3 And in recent years it has joined evangelicals in prayer (e.g., The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity), proclamation (e.g., Billy Graham Crusades), and common witness projects and events (e.g., opposition to permissive legislation; pro-life rallies, etc.). Still, some Evangelicals remind us of the Catholic Church’s past and allege its continuing abuses of power—especially from areas where it is the majority church. They balk at its claims to have an “infallible” pope who seems to sit at the top of a leadership pyramid that excludes women. They question many of the practices they see in popular Catholic piety. Differences and mistrust leave many evangelicals nervous about the idea of any form of ecumenism that includes the Catholic Church while Catholic dreams of returning to a single, visible Church stand unfulfilled.

It is not surprising, therefore, that evangelicals should find the subject of ecumenism to be a neuralgic one. But what this neuralgia has produced is general contentment with the status quo—the acceptance of competing denominations as a normal way of life, the raising of strident voices against groups that are not like our own, the endless splitting of churches, the continuing development of newer denominations and networks, and the emergence of thousands of independent congregations led by entrepreneurs, often with little or no accountability.

It has also led many evangelicals to spiritualize the prayer of Jesus “that they may all be one” (John 17:21), that is, to conclude that Jesus’ prayer is only about spiritual unity, a unity that his followers already enjoy, and that it has nothing to do with visible unity unless, of course, “they” repent and join “us.” Often attempts to work toward visible unity are cast as a failure to accept as adequate the spiritual unity that God has already granted in response to Jesus’ prayer, or as an attempt by human beings to usurp the role of the Holy Spirit by bringing about some lesser and imperfect form of visible Christian unity.

Much of our neuralgia on the subject is the result of past actions. The past cannot and should not be denied, but if we can learn from it, it need not determine the future. We need to identify our legitimate differences and genuine grievances and seek to resolve them. The mutual healing of our historical memories can also help. Ecumenism is built upon dialogue, and dialogue is an effective means to bring healing to broken relationships. Dialogue brings both the end of fiction and the beginning of truth. It is where we learn to trust one another and build upon that trust, with love and accountability. Still, it is important to recognize that many evangelicals are at different stages of ecumenical development.

Most readers will probably not remember that in 1949, two years after Fuller Seminary opened its doors, Dr. Béla Vassady became professor of biblical theology and ecumenics. Yes, ecumenics! He was a minister of the Hungarian Reformed Church, and he was part of the committee that worked to bring the World Council of Churches into existence. He was a committed neo-evangelical, a gifted theologian and ecumenist.4

Fuller’s president at the time, Dr. Harold John Ockenga, convinced the Fuller faculty to embrace Professor Vassady as one of their own. They did, though not without some hesitation. Vassady arrived in 1949 and quickly became a very popular professor. It was Ockenga’s dream, a dream shared by Charles E. Fuller, that the seminary would be a place in which ministers could be trained to go into the churches that were no longer as evangelical as once they had been and help to reclaim them. Ockenga believed that Vassady could also help the faculty to discover the broader role that they might play in the global Church. He even wrote to Vassady that while Evangelicals were often critical of the World Council of Churches, he personally thought there was “much that is worth while in it.”5

Not everyone agreed. The fundamentalist preacher Carl McIntire hammered incessantly at Charles E. Fuller on the radio and in print, pointing to Vassady’s ecumenical appointment as proof that Fuller lacked Evangelical credentials. The ministry of Charles Fuller, which was also used to support the seminary, was deeply hurt by these attacks. With revenue rapidly declining, Béla Vassady was sacrificed for the sake of expedience in the midst of a deep cultural and theological conflict. He was gone from Fuller by the summer of 1951.6

The loss of Béla Vassady from the Fuller faculty did not mean the loss of Charles Fuller’s vision for the seminary. It continued to function as a multidenominational school, broadly ecumenical in nature, raising the standard of Evangelical scholarship, training leaders for the whole Church, and working for the evangelization of the world and the renewal of the Church.

The purpose of Fuller to “prepare men and women for the manifold ministries of Christ and his church” has not changed. With the seminary’s contribution and reputation in place, in 1983 the faculty and Board of Trustees adopted a widely publicized “Mission Beyond the Mission.” It reaffirmed the command of Jesus to “Go and Make Disciples” and it committed itself to “Call the Church of Christ to Renewal” through the four following means.7

Theology, Spirituality, and Mission

Fuller’s academic contribution has been built upon the scholarship of its faculty and the subsequent training that the faculty has provided to its students. Over the years, the growing reputation of its faculty has also contributed greatly to Fuller’s ability to gain a position of influence at many tables around the world. Since ignorance and fear are the two largest ecumenical challenges, Fuller’s faculty has offered wisdom and counsel on them, to many congregations, denominations, and Christian organizations. Fuller does not serve exclusively the interests of any single denomination or even any single family of churches (e.g., Reformed). Fuller’s ecumenical contribution has been important to the whole Church, whether through the Association of Theological Schools, other academic bodies, or the churches themselves.

In 1992, Fuller once again made explicit its ecumenical commitment when it made a faculty appointment in the field of ecumenism. Presidents David Hubbard and subsequently Richard Mouw have assured the position of sufficient, ongoing support not only to provide for the normal load of teaching, research, and writing, but also to encourage participation in a range of ecumenical discussions. Today, Fuller offers a variety of services contributing to the quest for the visibility of the Church. Professor Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen and I both offer ecumenically focused courses such as Contemporary Ecumenical Issues, Post-Vatican II Catholicism, Ecclesiology in Historical Perspective, and Christian Unity and Bilateral Dialogues. We help students understand the more important ecumenical documents, demonstrate how the arguments and divisions of the past continue to play out in the contemporary Church, and provide direction on how to contribute to ecumenical discussions. We also consult actively with a wide range of ecumenical organizations and churches around the world.

Responsible Partnership in the Evangelical Movement

For decades, Fuller Seminary has sought to develop a variety of Evangelical partners. Harold Ockenga was a founder of the National Association of Evangelicals. It has always seemed proper that Fuller should be present in various ways among the churches that constitute NAE and World Evangelical Fellowship (now Alliance) membership. Many of Fuller’s faculty have participated in a wide range of evangelically oriented academic societies, written for an array of evangelical magazines such as Christianity Today, and contributed a long list of biblical commentaries and theological and ministry publications aimed at evangelical audiences. Fuller has established and in some cases fully staffed denominational offices on campus to facilitate the movement of students from the classroom to responsible positions of leadership in a range of ecclesial appointments.

Fuller has also partnered with Evangelical groups such as Young Life, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and World Vision International, just to name a few of the myriad of Evangelical organizations. This year, it is working with Lausanne 2010, which brought 4000 delegates to Cape Town, South Africa to evaluate the status of evangelism and mission around the world and plan for the future. As part of that support, Fuller has linked Lausanne leadership with our ecumenical partners in the Vatican, given leadership through worship and the arts for its services, and convened regional meetings to prepare those who will attend the meeting.

Close Association with National and International Ecclesiastical Fellowships

Under the direction of David Allan Hubbard, the breadth of Fuller’s ecumenical vision became more explicit. While commitment to the seminary’s various evangelical partners did not change, Hubbard envisioned a seminary that would make a substantial contribution to a broader segment of the global Christian community as well. As such, he encouraged faculty participation in Faith and Order and in Mission and Evangelism discussions in both the National and World Councils of Churches. When the WCC held its Assemblies in Vancouver (1983), Canberra (1991), Harare (1998), and Porto Alegre (2006), Fuller faculty members were there, offering both criticism and affirmation.

Following the release of Fuller’s “Mission Beyond the Mission,” Hubbard reached out to the Pentecostal ecumenist David du Plessis, inviting him to serve as Fuller’s “Resident Consultant on Ecumenical Affairs.” Du Plessis’ ecumenical contacts went back nearly three decades. They were extensive, including the World Council of Churches, the Vatican, and a wide range of historic denominations and newer organizations.8

Daved Johannes Du PlessisEcumenist David Johannes Du Plessis was born in 1905 in South Africa and is one of the founders of the charismatic movement. In his autobiography, The Spirit Bade Me Go: The Astonishing Move of God in Denominational Churches (Bridge-Logos, 2004), he describes how ecumenism found root in him (a conviction that later got him “disfellowshipped” from the General Council of the Assemblies of God):

In 1956 I was invited to a retreat in Connecticut to speak to a group of ecumenical leaders on the American front. That was one of my greatest experiences in this ministry.

Twenty-four ecumenical leaders were comfortably seated around me. They had invited me to bring them the truth about the Pentecostal experience and the Pentecostal Movement. I was asked to be devastatingly frank. This very request caused me to seek the face of the Lord to be sure that I would meet these friends just as Jesus would have done if He had been there in person. I could remember days when I had wished I could have set my eyes upon such men to denounce their theology and pray the judgment of God upon them for what I considered their heresies and false doctrines. Here was such an opportunity and they said, “Be devastatingly frank.” I prayed, “Lord, what you You have me to do?”

That morning something happened to me. After a few introductory words I suddenly felt a warm glow cover over me. I knew this was the Holy Spirit taking over, but what was He doing to me? Instead of the old harsh spirit of criticism and condemnation in my heart, I now felt such love and compassion for these ecclesiastical leaders that I would rather have died for them than pass sentence upong them. All at once I knew that the Holy Spirit was in control and I was beside myself and yet sober as a judge. Thank God, from that day on I knew what it meant to minister along the “more excellent way” (I Cor. 12:31).

Collections housed in the David du Plessis Archive at Fuller’s David Allan Hubbard library document religious movements rooted in twentieth-century America such as Pentecostalism and classical evangelicalism. For more, contact [email protected] 

One of Fuller’s important contributions to the renewal of the Church is what President Richard Mouw calls its “convening power.” Fuller has provided a safe space for Christian leaders to meet, who under normal circumstances would never encounter one another. When Fuller hosted a consultation of the National Council of Churches on “Confessing the Apostolic Faith,” it became the first evangelical organization to do so, and Evangelicals gained a hearing. Similarly, the seminary hosted the annual meeting of the North American Academy of Ecumenists in 1994. Since that time it has hosted meetings of the National Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order (1996), dialogues with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches on “Experience in Christian Faith and Life” (2000), with Lutherans on “How Do We Encounter Christ in Proclamation?” (2006), and with the Mennonite World Conference (2006), where three Fuller professors gave plenary addresses.

Fuller has also hosted several ground-breaking ecumenical meetings, with Christian Churches Together in the USA (2003) and with the Global Christian Forum (2000 and 2002). Both of these initiatives have been more successful engaging Evangelical and Pentecostal participation than any previous ecumenical initiative.9 It is the seminary’s calling to consider new ideas, to develop new relationships, and to watch, witness to, and cooperate wherever the Spirit of God is at work.

Participation in Conversations with Churches of the Catholic Traditions

The Catholic traditions include such churches as Roman Catholic, Eastern Rite Catholic, and Orthodox churches of both Eastern and Oriental families, among others. David Hubbard was committed to opening up channels of communication with the Catholic Church, and President Richard Mouw has continued that commitment. In 1973, Hubbard invited Timothy Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Los Angeles, to address the Fuller chapel. He, in turn, spoke at the St. John’s, the Catholic diocesan seminary.

Subsequent to the 1974 publication of the “Lausanne Covenant” and the 1975 publication of Pope Paul VI’s Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi,10 John Stott and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity convened an international team of theologians to plumb the depths of their convergence. Dr. Hubbard joined this international “Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission,” participating in two of its three meetings, Venice (1977) and Cambridge (1982). The resulting report was both insightful and hopeful for future collaboration.11

In December 1987, Cardinal Manning and David Hubbard agreed to form a Catholic-Evangelical Dialogue, co-sponsored by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and Fuller Theological Seminary.12 The dialogue has met monthly throughout each academic year since, developing relationships, studying common documents, sponsoring events in southern California churches, engaging students, and encouraging publications of mutual interest. Archbishop Roger Mahony, who succeeded Cardinal Manning and was later named a cardinal himself, has addressed chapel services in 1988 and again in 2009, when he led a forum on immigration issues.

As professor of church history and ecumenics, I was invited to preach the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service in the earlier Los Angeles cathedral, St. Vibiana’s, (January 17, 1993). I also spoke at the new cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, in a memorial service for John Paul II, April 5, 2005. John Paul II invited my participation in a number of ecumenical events throughout his papacy, including the Jubilee year opening of the Bronze Doors in Rome (2000) and the Day of Prayer for World Peace in Assisi (2002). I attended the installation of Pope Benedict XVI on April 24, 2005, seated beside the altar as a Fraternal Delegate. In 1995, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) asked me to interpret John Paul II’s ecumenical encyclical Ut Unum Sint to the national news media. It has since invited me to lecture diocesan ecumenical officers on various initiatives at their Advanced Institute for Ecumenical Leadership.

While the seminary has worked less closely with Orthodox churches, during the late 90s it hosted a gathering of Orthodox liturgists from various Orthodox families who had never previously worked collaboratively on a project. It also explored possibilities for collaboration with one of the Oriental Orthodox churches. This October, I will participate in an Orthodox-Pentecostal conversation in Istanbul, opened by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.


There is only one Church, though it appears in multiple manifestations around the world. Fuller Theological Seminary continues to play a substantive role in educating and encouraging renewal in the whole Church. It is, therefore, important that the future leaders that we train have a sense of that global reality, recognizing the variations in what it says, how it works, and what it views as important. Fear denies faith, and work toward the unity of the Church requires great faith in God. We continue to teach our constituencies how to think, speak, and act differently towards those with whom they disagree. We continue to train those who are able to demolish unnecessary walls, build much needed bridges, function as peacemakers, and provide leadership to the Church that takes seriously the beliefs and values of the Evangelical community. In the end, Jesus prayed that his followers be united “. . . so that the world will believe.” It is for the sake of the world that Fuller Theological Seminary continues to contribute to the quest for the full visible unity of all Christians around the world.


1. Marlin van Elderin, Introducing the World Council of Churches (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1990), 4. This quotation comes from the Basis of the World Council of Churches.
2. This includes both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
3. The document is available at www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_ 31101999_cath-luth-joint-declaration_en.html.
4. The appointment of Vassady to the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary is clear in the 1949–1951 Catalog of the seminary. When Béla Vassady first came to the United States, he spelled his last name Vasady. Later in life he changed the spelling to Vassady. I have used the later spelling throughout, except in original correspondence.
5. Correspondence from Harold John Ockenga to Bela Vasady, May 27, 1948.
6. His autobiography is Béla Vassady, Limping Along . . . Confessions of a Pilgrim Theologian (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), though Vassady did not fully understand the issues at the time he left. Much of the information on this difficult time may be found in the Ockenga correspondence files of the Ockenga Institute at Gordon Theological Seminary in Brookline, MA. The events surrounding Vassady’s leaving form a sad chapter in Fuller’s history.
7. “Mission Beyond the Mission,” Theology, News & Notes 30, no. 3 (October 1983): 4–17, also available at www.fuller.edu/about-fuller/mission-and-history/mission-beyond-the-mission.aspx.
8. The seminary opened the David J. du Plessis Center for Christian Spirituality in his honor. It includes a library of his ecumenical papers. This collection has attracted other related and unrelated collections that are now open for research by ecumenists around the world.
9. Both initiatives have active websites. On the CCT, see www.christianchurchestogether.org, and on the Forum, see www.globalchristianforum.org. See also Huibert van Beek, ed., Revisioning Christian Unity: The Global Christian Forum (Oxford, UK: Regnum, 2009).
10. “Evangelization in the Modern World.”
11. See Basil Meeking and John Stott, eds., The Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission, 1977–1984: A Report (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).
12. On November 21, 1989, the 25th anniversary of the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, the group issued a pamphlet in an English/Spanish format titled “‘A Journey Just Begun’: A Reflective Statement by the Los Angeles Evangelical/Roman Catholic Committee” (Los Angeles), 12 pages.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2010, “Fuller in Dialogue: Engaging the ‘Other’ with Civility.”