Love it? Hate it? There is a biblical ecumenism (really),
but unless you love the Christ of Scripture,
you won’t want to obey it.
For over a 100 years, large and small Christian denominations have been passionately trying to bring about world-wide Christian unity. The movement, called ‘ecumenism,’ traces its zeal for unity to a series of missions conferences in the early 1900s.
Since that passionate beginning the movement has been both hated and loved. Too often the critics neglect that ecumenism is a biblical ideal based on our Christian hope that our Lord Jesus rules the world. Our English term comes out of New Testament Greek. The word oikoumene (οἰκουμένη) can be translated, “the inhabited earth” found in Mat. 24:14.
The highest goal in ecumenism has always been to connect all Christian traditions into one global organization. But today many of those organizations are either defunct, or have shifted to another agenda.
For over a century ecumenism was the target of massive funding. I say “was,” because it is no more. Despite the philanthropy of men like John D. Rockefeller and others who surrendered hundreds of millions of dollars to see the goal of world-wide unity realized, ecumenism is now in poverty.
The best known ecumenical organization in the United States is The National Council of Churches, consisting of 37 ecclesial entities representing over 100,000 faith communities. It once possessed remarkable energy and optimism, but now struggles to pay its bills. It stays alive, but just barely, due to its copyright on both the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Versions of the Bible. Other than that, the NCC receives about half of its income from contributions.
However, even that funding is dwindling. The past few years have seen an ever-widening gap as expenses outstrip income annually by about 33%. It now employs but a few staff and has lost prestige amongst its member organizations.
This coincides with the weakened global ecumenical organization, the World Council of Churches. In both organizations one can detect a recession of ecumenical thinking. No new ideas are forthcoming that are specifically ecumenical in focus, or from their member organizations. Indeed, NCC’s web site has offered nothing new since 2012.
This is surprising. World-changing ideas once bounded from them with fervent hopes of joint communion everywhere. But none of the ideas, it turned out, worked, and as a result ecumenism is adrift. The Journal of Ecumenical Studies begun in 1964 no longer devotes itself to Christian unity but to dialogue between different religions. Even the Consultation on Church Union, which was a plan to build a giant Protestant Church, recently dissolved and now sees its mission as ending racial bigotry.
On the surface we should all be shocked. All member groups are explicitly Trinitarian in doctrine. And if an orthodox view of God isn’t enough to bring churches together, then what is?
Here I offer here a plan, explained in the New Testament, for bringing schismed churches together.
But before that I need to speak to ecumenists.
Come, Let Us Reason Together
Remember when you were pumped with passion, hoping that cooperative evangelistic efforts would answer Jesus’ prayer in John 17:21-23?
Where has that passion gone? Has it been diverted by internecine squabbling over social agendas, and even doctrinal squabbles (i.e., church stuff)? If unity is in fact Jesus’ prayer (and it is) have you begun to lose hope in Him?
Remember when…. no of course you don’t, you’re too young. But anyway, remember the great ecumenical council in Oberlin Ohio, and how powerful it was:
“The whole story of ecumenical movement is, of course, so long and so colorful that it defies any brief summary. Basically it is the story of all the efforts made by the people of God to bring their whole existence into obedience to the unity and wholeness intended for them by their Lord.” Paul Minear, ed., The Nature of the Unity We Seek, a report on the North American Conference on Faith and Order in 1957
Well, that was bold, coming as it did contra mundum. Since the beginning of the ecumenical movement the world hasn’t helped you. Two World Wars required national churches to divert their attention from ecumenism to survival. Yet even though tens of millions of souls were lost in the wars of the 21st Century, most of you kept faith and optimism in humanity. Wars and squabbles didn’t end your movement. Your faith was stronger. Why then does the flame flicker so low now?
We who are more conservative expected the human failures and church sins of the past 100 years to put an end to your optimism. We were wrong. It wasn’t human failure that shook you lose from your ecumenism, but fear. If I may be ironic, are not most of you now more concerned about how shall humanity survive on this allegedly fragile planet? Is that to be the final chapter of the ecumenical movement, and is that really the domain of the church that the gates of Hades can’t defeat? (Mat. 16:18)? As an outsider looking in, I must ask, with your attentions thus diverted, how shall your ecumenism survive? Having feared the Darwinian end of civilization as we know it, is not ecumenism as you envisioned extinct? If you agree, where does your faith now turn?
I would urge you to believe unreservedly in the Word of God – the 66 canonical books of the Christian Scriptures, and specifically, what “the Spirit says to the churches” therein (Rev. 22:16).
A Movement on Life-Support?
Present ecumenical endeavors are not strong. Are you old enough to remember when it was recommended in the 1980s that all member ecclesial institutions become episcopal with “paper bishops?” And then, how non-episcopal institutions were less than thrilled and voted “no thanks,” to put it mildly. Things got more and more vague. Others proposed a set number of Christian creeds but without explaining how such creeds would unify churches other than some vague agreement and sharing of pastors and occasional Eucharist tables.
In the 1990s other ecumenists made joint statements on justification and ecclesiology. The result? Only OK. Some Anglican churches are transitioning to Roman Catholicism and some Lutheran churches are looking to do the same. But wouldn’t you at least admit that those conversions had less to do with ecumenism and more to do with changes in their own ecclesial fellowships, such as ordaining homosexual bishops?
And when apologists for the Roman Catholic Church apologise for ecumenism, what can they do but cry for Protestants to become Roman Catholics? Is there any other way given the three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium?
More recent ecumencial efforts seem to be like evaporated waters in the desert. In 2004 the Accra Confession went nowhere as it was tied not to anything ecclesiastical but a decidedly neo-Marxist view of Third World alienation. And a few years ago, in 2009, another joint statement called The Manhattan Declaration affirmed long-standing Judeo-Christian and Islamic morality. True enough, it obtained over a half million signatories on the internet.
But what the internet giveth it also taketh away. Apple Computer pulled the online Manhattan Declaration app from all their products since it was deemed offensive to large numbers of Apple users. In the pixilated world of anonymous signatories, ecumenism’s hoped-for sotto voce was silenced.
I suggest to you ecumenism is digging its own grave. Consider this. The World Council of Churches recently got excited about the “salvation of all Creation.”Annual Review of 2102, p. 8. But if all is saved then nothing is judged, and if nothing is judged, then who really needs church? And if we don’t need church, we surely don’t need ecumenism.
It used to be excited about the “coming great Church”:
“At the first assembly of the World Council of Churches held in Amsterdam in 1948, the report dealing with the Universal Church in God’s Design listed a series of points on which there was agreement and others on which there was disagreement. Many of the important disagreements do not present obstacles to union. They are differences in theological opinion which cut across the various confessions and denominations. Differences which are now contained within the several divided churches could well remain within a coming great Church.”Clarence Tucker Craig, The One Church, 27
Who even talks about that anymore.
To change metaphors, ecumenism is poised to self-induce an abortion. Several of your member organizations are almost as excited about saving mother earth as supporting a girl’s rights to free morning-after pills.The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice lists several member ecclesiastical institutions who are also members of the WCC, http://www.rcrc.org/about/members.cfm Other member organizations violently oppose abortion. Will they even give you the time of day once they wake up and realize most ecumenists support a culture of death, as they view it?
To keep the ecumenical spirit alive some have proposed paradigms combining universal and local church identities while (allegedly) maintaining all the streams of the Christian church intact. But have you noticed? Those organizations, nor their member churches never change anything tangibly because, after all, ecclesiastical organizations are always, and ultimately, doctrinal. At heart they are all non-ecumenical.
I believe Avery Dulles got it wrong when he wrote, “We must pray to God to overcome our deafness and open our ears to what the Spirit is saying to the churches, including our own” (source). The only churches the Spirit spoke to are in Revelation 2-3, where Dulles’ got his quote from. We must interpret Scripture in its own context, not ours, if we are to hear the Spirit. If we want to hear Him who is holy speak to churches, we must treat Him as such and hear Him there. After all, what if your church is more like Laodicea than Philadelphia and He is poised to spit you out of His mouth? You won’t know unless you go to the ascended Christ who speaks in Scripture.
Further, why should He speak to me or you in our own churches if we dismiss what He said to those churches? Should we just assume our ecumenism improves upon the ecumenism Jesus instituted and initiated in the New Testament?
G. R. Evans is right: “Ecumenism cannot proceed without an ecclesiology.”G. R. Evans, The Church and the Churches, 3. She then writes, with some prescience, “But it is not easy to settle on ecclesiological principles which will be acceptable to everyone and acceptability to the whole community is ecumenically essential.” Again, spot on.
I believe the only way to find common ground in ecclesiology is to tie it to obedience to Scripture, even as Jesus did in Revelation 2-3, and as the apostle did on Crete in the book of Titus.
Scripture is Authority
I see an ecumenism in Scripture, but it isn’t on the same level as the ecclesiologies of the failed ecumenism of the past century-plus. The ecumenism in Scripture is higher than that of man and commands my church’s repentance, faith, and obedience. It is first obeyed at the level where we Christians actually live – in our churches, dealing with our Adamic hearts before both God and man. Obedience to Scripture presupposes that no church is in authority over the Scriptures but the Scriptures are the authority over every ecclesial institution and they must change themselves to find their Scriptural self-identity in it, not vice-versa. This principle makes sense. It was the prophetic word from Peter that formed the first church in Jerusalem in Acts 2. Later the Jerusalem disciples were scattered and preach Christ – thus churches were planted. The word always precedes the ecclesia.
Jesus twice prophesied the church’s existence well before the Day of Pentecost (Mat. 16:18, 18:17).Typical of ecumenical confusion is this: “And so it is unimportant that the word ekklesia appears only twice in all of the Gospels. Of course Jesus did not use it…” So who is the authority now? Clarence Tucker Craig, The One Church in the Light of the New Testament, 20. The word came first. Paul argues this in Romans. In Romans 10:9-14 the word is preached and a person is saved because a preacher is sent by a church. Churches send out the word to be preached, they don’t send out churches to be preached. The word comes first.
Why Should Ecumenism
Be So Distant from Scripture?
For whatever reasons, many tied to ecumenism seem dull to the inscripturated Word. Perhaps an illustration or two will help. In Evans’ book just cited, one reads forty-five pages before any Scripture is even cited. Imagine that. A book on church, itself the product of the word, taking so long to even reference Scripture. And then when it does, the Scripture reference is wrong (John 16:21 instead of John 17:21). It doesn’t look like either the editor, or the author, was too concerned to root ecclesiology in the Scripture.
I fear being tendentious but I could cite numerous examples from other books on ecumenism. A book printed in 2010 book spends many pages exegeting U2 songs to teach ecumenism, but virtually none on Scripture.Steve Harmon, Ecumenism Means You, Too, 72-86 The author praises the band members as fine examples of Christians even while he admits they don’t go to church. If these are the people ecumenical Christians ought to learn from then shouldn’t we all admit that we all “haven’t found what we’re looking for…,” and stop writing books?
If U2 is an authority on ecumenism and they don’t even go to church, the only thing Christians can learn from them is to do likewise.
And wasn’t it Bono who famously said,
“Christians are hard to tolerate. I don’t know how Jesus does it.”
If that gets a laugh from you instead of embarrassment then you can be sure what you don’t want is Christian unity. What you really want is a body of Christ that is approved by this world’s values. That, my ecumenical friend, can never happen:
“If you were of the world, the world would love its own;
but because you are not of the world, but I chose
you out of the world, because of this
the world hates you”
Then there is just the hypocrisy. Another recent and more studious book hopes to build ecumenism on the foundation of the Nicene Creed. This sounds promising until you realize the book never explains why the Nicene Creed is the right tool for ecumenical endeavor. It’s either so obvious we’re supposed to “just know” or the contributors to the volume don’t know themselves. This is ironic since the book’s Foreword claims the “why question” is the all important question. We are simply told the Nicene Creed is the ecumenical tool, par excellence. We just never find out why.
Anyway, how’s this for ecumenism based on Nicene theology – one of its contributors writes,
“Mainline Christians live uneasily amidst the rubble of the
old doctrine of penal substitution… the teaching
we have on the whole rejected… ”Robert Jensen, in Nicene Christianity, 88.
Great. If old doctrines lie rejected in the rubble created by the Mainlines, and the Mainlines are the soul of ecumenism, then why should the Nicene Creed be accepted? Shouldn’t the Nicene Creed, itself “old doctrine,” lie in this man’s rubble?
What’s more, many Christians like myself claim the doctrine of penal substitution to be the very essence of the gospel by which a sinner stands justified before God. If we are the heterodox for holding to old doctrine, what does that make this generations of rejecters? Even a Pope can reject ancient doctrine, in this case, Anselm:
“Is it not an unworthy concept of God to imagine for oneself a God
who demands the slaughter of his son to pacify his wrath?
Such a concept of God has nothing to do with the
idea of God to be found in the New Testament
and it is an unworthy concept of God…
the system developed by Anselm.”Pope Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, 291
Most ecumenicists are looking for a glue to create a world-wide communion made not only of reductionism but dismissal of a wrath-appeasing atonement. That is, they seek a minimal set of claims all churches can accept in order to become one while overthrowing the gospel. Can the Orthodox accept the filioque and the Baptist accept the Pope? Not without somebody repenting. Yet no ecumenist is asking for any repentance, as in: “repent from your church.” Or, forsake you sins and trust in the Christ who bore the Father’s wrath.” The result is lots of Ecumenists who love Monday to Saturday conferences but can’t come together for sin-repenting Christian worship on Sunday. So sad, because that’s the only kind of unity the Bible holds out for all Christians living in the same region.
Ecumenists love floating ideas for reunion, but without demanding repentance, ecumenism baptizes sin. One Reformed ecumenist claims denominations are the result of sin, yet maintains they are part of a future single church on earth:
“If God is pleased to bring about reunion of his one, true church, I tend to think that it will be a step-by-step process. Most likely, denominations will first merge with those denominations that are most like themselves. Then those larger, more diverse denominations will merge with others most like themselves and so on, doubtless with many roadblocks along the way.”John Frame, Evangelical Reunion, 132. Frame equates denominations to Jeroboam’s schism of Israel, p. 24. In my opinion Frame strikes out before he even gets up to hit when he speaks of “one, true church” since the Bible never speaks of a “true church” or a “false church.” Please read Replacing the True with the Obedient.”
But nowhere, ever, does God build believers into greater unity or honor His Son by adopting sin. He may overrule sin, but He doesn’t build His work with it.
Where to Go, But the Bible?
Ratzinger, later elected Pope Benedict XVI, wrote:
“It is a universal tenet among Christians that Sacred Scripture is the
basic standard of the Christian faith, the central authority
through which Christ Himself exercises authority
over the Church and within her.”Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics, 74.
Of course for Ratzinger “the Church” means his ecclesial institution but his point is essentially right. We start with Scripture.
I just wish he amended his words to read “the basic and complete standard of the Christian faith” but in so doing he might deny more than his Catholicism would allow. If we build ecclesiastical authority only on the Bible’s “basics,” who is left to demand our repentance from our “advanced” ecclesiastical traditions? If the Bible is just the basics and our church’s history is the more developed stuff, then we really are beyond repentance to a common standard and hence cannot attain Christian unity.
How Does the
World Know Christ?
In John 17 Jesus prays that His followers will make an important visible representation to the world. Through their unity the world will know, says Jesus, “that you sent me” (John 17:21). Jesus’ point is not merely for unbelievers to know He was sent, but that Christians represent His obedience to His Father by their visible unity. What good is it for the world to know that Christians are spiritually united in the Trinity? They can’t see it or known it, so that can’t be Jesus’ point.
Instead, Jesus wants the world to see a real and visible unity in order that the people’s of this disobedient and fallen world to know that Jesus was perfectly obedient Son to the Father. Our unity with each other is to make concrete for the world something they can’t know because they don’t have faith: Christ’s unity with the Father. Therefore, the number one word when it comes to unity is obedience, not unity. We are to be unified but it must be a unity that responds to God with obedience, not compromise. If next Sunday, all the Christians where you live gave up their own church and worshipped Christ together in one church under the Word of God, then the world would see the obedient unity of those who hear His word and obey it. Anything less than that is compromise. No obedience? No unity.
Then in John 17:23, Jesus adds love to obedience: “that the world may know that You sent Me, and loved them, even as You have loved Me.” Christian unity is built on a love that manifests obedience. Jesus said, “if you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Loving obedience to the Word of Christ is the right and proper foundation for all ecumenical efforts.
Therefore when our Lord says, “I will build My Church” He is speaking about the fruit of His obedience as the “sent One.” Jesus loved the Father and displayed that love in His obedience, even to the cross. We who exist in local churches are meant to display the fruit of His obedience not merely by being churches, but by being obedient in obedient churches. That’s the only way the world, that no longer sees Him but sees us, will come to know He was sent by the Father.
When we are disobedient in disobedient churches the world sees a disobedient Christ, which is to say, it doesn’t see Christ at all, for there is no such thing as a disobedient Son of God. The world just sees religious people claiming to represent Christ, but since those people are disobedient to Christ, the world sees hypocrisy.
If your passion is that the world see “the sent One” then ecclesiastical repentance is costly, but exceedingly small in light of His love for us. As it is now and always has been, costly obedience is necessary if we are to visibly show the world Christ’s own costly obedience in going to the cross and rising from the dead.
What is Church Obedience?
The Lord established churches to be represent both godly relational and institutional goals. Both of these goals are met in the appointment of elders who indeed meet all the qualifications of 1 Tim. 3:1-7 and Titus 1:6-9. Why do elders need to meet all these qualifications? Because they display mature obedience to Christ, and because God says so.
For example, elders are to be “husbands of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2). Since that refers to a sexually pure man, it also of necessity means that all women, no matter how gifted, are unqualified for the elder office. A church can either obey 1 Tim. 3:2 or not. If a church appoints women to the elder office it is being disobedient.
Now, if that church desires to show the world that the Father sent the Son, believing the Son was obedient to Him all the way to the cross, then that church will repent of that appointment, doing so out of love for God, those women, and the world around them. If it does not it loses it lampstand (Rev. 2:5).
Such churches do not show the world that the Father sent an obedient Son, but a disobedient Son. They can’t repent, for they have institutionalized disobedience. Nor can they merge together with obedient churches lest they infect them with a disease that kills to the second death.
This is why the call for biblical ecumenism needs to be attached to a call to repentance. Apart from repentance churches are sub-Christian.
Consider the proposal by Fries and Rahner, who when proposing a plan for unity among churches wrote, “Nothing may be rejected decisively and confessionally in one partner church which is binding dogma in another partner church.”Heinrich Fries and Karl Rahner, https://wipfandstock.com/store/Unity_of_the_Churches_An_Actual_Possibility, p. 7.
When this was written in 1983 it was met with popular acclaim, but since then some of the ecclesial institutions the writers addressed in 1983 have changed their binding dogma. Twenty years later the Episcopal Church appointed a homosexual bishop and has since demonstrated this decision is essential to their institutional self-identity. Since then others have followed. The Fries and Rahner thesis, itself a variation of a reductionist approach to ecclesiastical coalition building, failed even before it began.
Why? It located authority in malleable tradition rather than unchanging Scripture, itself an act of disobedience.
In less than 20 years or about .001% of church history their ecumenical proposal would have gone up in flames. No wonder many think the ecumenical ship sailed long ago.
Kärkkäinen overlooks this massive failure (among others) when he heaps rather staggering praise on ecumenism:
“No other movement in the history of the Christian church, perhaps
with the exception of the Reformation, has shaped the thinking
and practice of Christendom as much as the
modern movement for Christian unity.”Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology, pp. 7-8.
Even if that were true, and that’s an “if” the size of an ocean, it would take hundreds of years of a yet-unknown future to make that assessment responsibly. No separate streams of Christendom have merged, have they? What could this renowned scholar be so infatuated by? Ecumencial conferences, white papers, and books do not church unity make.
OK. So what does? Obedience to the Word of God.
How Does a Church
Express Institutional Obedience?
Obedient churches appoint elders to rule over them since such men are mature in godliness and because it expresses submission to the church’s one foundation – the writings of the NT. Eldership, that is, a plurality of qualified men ruling the church, is exactly what Scripture teaches in both Precept and Example (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5, Heb. 13:17).
If your church does not have a plurality of such men who fit all the qualifications, then it expresses obedience by merging and submitting its self-identity to a church nearby that does have such men ruling it. Your church forsakes its own church identity of disobedience by merging and submitting to a church marked by obedience. In this way the church makes visible the obedient Son who was sent by the Father.
- Is your church marked by obedience or disobedience? Read further.
- Is your church’s identity drawn from Jesus Christ or from men? Read further.
- Is your local church ruled by a plurality of elder-qualified men or by another form of governance? Read further.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Paul Minear, ed., The Nature of the Unity We Seek, a report on the North American Conference on Faith and Order in 1957|
|2.||↑||Annual Review of 2102, p. 8.|
|3.||↑||Clarence Tucker Craig, The One Church, 27|
|4.||↑||The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice lists several member ecclesiastical institutions who are also members of the WCC, http://www.rcrc.org/about/members.cfm|
|5.||↑||G. R. Evans, The Church and the Churches, 3.|
|6.||↑||Typical of ecumenical confusion is this: “And so it is unimportant that the word ekklesia appears only twice in all of the Gospels. Of course Jesus did not use it…” So who is the authority now? Clarence Tucker Craig, The One Church in the Light of the New Testament, 20.|
|7.||↑||Steve Harmon, Ecumenism Means You, Too, 72-86|
|8.||↑||Robert Jensen, in Nicene Christianity, 88.|
|9.||↑||Pope Benedict XVI, Introduction to Christianity, 291|
|10.||↑||John Frame, Evangelical Reunion, 132. Frame equates denominations to Jeroboam’s schism of Israel, p. 24. In my opinion Frame strikes out before he even gets up to hit when he speaks of “one, true church” since the Bible never speaks of a “true church” or a “false church.” Please read Replacing the True with the Obedient.”|
|11.||↑||Joseph Ratzinger, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics, 74.|
|12.||↑||Heinrich Fries and Karl Rahner, https://wipfandstock.com/store/Unity_of_the_Churches_An_Actual_Possibility, p. 7.|
|13.||↑||Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, An Introduction to Ecclesiology, pp. 7-8.|