That this subject of “Biblical Ecumenicity” is of considerable importance to the Church can hardly be denied. Its importance is to be found, in the first place, in the fact that no other kind of church news so captures the imagination of church members as the various types of ecumenical endeavor. If the history of the church in the world can be described in any given age by its outstanding characteristics, this age would undoubtedly be called “The Age of Ecumenicity.” For in one respect or another no denomination is immune from the march towards church unity. And all of this brings us sharply before the question: What must we do about it? Not simply, what must be our evaluation of the ecumenical movement? But, what responsibility do we have as a part of the church to join in this quest for unity?
In the second place, the importance of this movement is to be found in the desire of those most intensely involved to bring the whole church under one ecclesiastical roof. This is the stated goal of the leaders of ecumenicity. They will not rest until the fractured and fragmented body of Christendom is united and the wounds in the body of Christ healed. This goal, in many of their public statements, is set forth as the most urgent calling of the church today. The following aptly expresses this goal:
The other aspect of ecumenism is a drive for Christian unity which envisages bringing all churches, including the Roman Catholic, under one ecclesiastical tent. Here ecumenism reveals its geographical overtones as referring to a worldwide or all-embracing unity of ecclesiastical structure. This is the main direction ecumenism is taking today, the significant direction. Ecumenists are no longer content with Christian unity as a kind of vapid togetherness among creeds. They want to get at the business of merging churches. Ecumenism among Protestants, (as, for example, the proposals advanced by Eugene Carson Blake, formerly stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., and now executive secretary of the World Council of Churches), means the structural joining of various denominations—eventually all denomin3tions. Protestant-Catholic ecumenism is c concerned with the extension of this process in the creation of a vast ecclesiastical structure in which all Christians and their churches would eventually be joined. (G. Stanley Lowell, “The Ecumenical Mirage,” p. 12)
No longer can schism and separatism be tolerated. No longer will the church be permitted to present anything but a united front to the world. This, it can readily be seen, touches upon our own life and calling. We shall have to face the question of what we are going to do when the pressures of ecumenicity become irresistibly strong. We shall have to decide before these days come whether we are going to join these movements or face the grim prospect of being denied the right of existence.
The subject on which I am to speak is “Biblical Ecumenicism.” There are two points which must be made in connection with this subject. In the first place, the phrase “biblical ecumenicism” is really a contradiction in terms. “Ecumenicism” is an “ism”; and an “ism” is always contrary to Scripture. This is not to deny that much of the ecumenical movement today is indeed ecumenicism; but we are talking tonight about Biblical ecumenicism. This is something else. And so, for the sake of accuracy, it would be better to make our subject Biblical ecumenicity, by doing which we already take a stand against the various “isms” found in the ecumenical world.
Secondly, the fact of the matter is that the Bible has very little to say specifically about the calling of the church under circumstances such as we find today. There are no passages in Scripture which speak explicitly concerning ecumenical endeavors. Nevertheless, the whole subject of ecumenicity revolves around the more basic subject of the unity of the church. Concerning this the Scriptures have a great deal to say. It is important then that we understand what Scripture means by the unity of the church, so that we can properly evaluate modern day ecumenicity in the light of this Scriptural truth and find our own proper place and role in today’s ecclesiastical world.
Finally, by way of introduction, we ought also to notice that the ecumenical movement takes on many different forms. There are movements which are attempting to unite all the religions of the world into one vast organization. This includes not only Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, but also Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. There are, secondly, organizations which are unions of different denominations in which each individual denomination, while cooperating with other denominations, retains its own denominational identity. These range all the way from the more liberal organizations, such as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches, to conservative movements, such as the International Council of Christian Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. There are, thirdly, movements towards institutional merger in which various denominations come together into one larger denomination. These types of ecumenicity also range from the liberal movements, such as the Conversations on Church Union, to more conservative mergers, such as the one now being proposed between the Southern Presbyterians and the Reformed Church of America.
It will of course be impossible to evaluate individually all these individual movements tonight. We shall have to lay down the general principles and leave the evaluation to your sanctified judgment.
Bearing these things in mind, I call your attention to:
I. WHAT THE SCRIPTURES TEACH
II. AN EVALUATION OF MODERN ECUMENICTY
III. OUR CALLING
I. WHAT THE SCRIPTURES TEACH
While the term “ecumenical” comes from a Greek word which is used several times in Scripture, its Scriptural use is of very little use to us in the current discussion. The term is used throughout Scripture as meaning “the whole inhabited earth.” In this sense it is used without any reference to the church.
However, as applying to the unity of the church, the term was used in the sense of the church occupying the whole inhabited earth from very early times. The early church, especially from the Fourth Century on, spoke of an ecumenical church which held ecumenical councils. This was then the Christian Church which was to be found throughout the entire known world and which was both catholic and one. Only when this entire Church was represented at a council meeting could that council be called “ecumenical.”
These connotations of the word have been retained today. In the strictest sense of the word, ecumenical means a one-world church. There may be many aspects of the ecumenical movement which are not world-wide, but even these are considered hesitant steps towards the creation of a one-world church.
For many centuries after Pentecost there was only one church to be found in the world. There were, of course, many off-shoots from this one church; but they were considered sectarian and heretical movements divorced from the life of the true church. The one church that existed was what became the Roman Catholic Church. This was the only important denomination until the time of the great schism in 1054 when the Church was split into the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church—a split which continues till today.
This situation continued until the time of the Protestant Reformation. It was in the years following the Reformation that the church was apparently hopelessly fragmented. There were not only national branches of one particular stream of the Reformation, but there were also countless denominations differing from each other in fundamental respects.
It is, this denominational situation which has, in the minds of many, destroyed the unity of the church and necessitated the ecumenical movement. Not only within the sphere of Protestantism itself must all the breaches be bridge; but also the wounds of the Reformation—the break between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism must be healed. Hence, the goal of the ecumenical movement is to restore the unity of the church.
But the question which must be answered is: What is the unity of the church?
But to answer this question involves us in yet another question: What is the church?
We cannot enter into this question in detail, but certain important points have got to be made—points which are as often as not forgotten in modern ecumenical thought.
First of all, and fundamentally; the Scriptures emphasize throughout that the church is the handiwork of God through Jesus Christ. There are many figures which Scripture uses to describe the church: it is the body of Christ, the temple of the living God, a royal priesthood; an elect nation, etc. But always it is also emphasized that the church is created by God Himself. Our Heidelberg Catechism, e.g., defines the church in these words:
What believest thou concerning the “holy catholic church” church of Christ?
That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and forever shall remain; a living member thereof.
This has several important implications.
In the first place, the church is the object of eternal election. God chose His church from before the foundation of the world, and only those so chosen by sovereign determination belong to that church.
In the second place, the church is the redeemed body of Christ. For His church Christ died, because in His death He made atonement for sin. The church is a church only because it is built upon the blood of the cross.
Thirdly, that church is formed in time by the power of irresistible grace. God calls His people irresistibly out of darkness into light, out of the fellowship of the world into the communion of the body of Christ. Those who are chosen eternally and redeemed are those who are called into existence as a church in history.
Fourthly, this church, elect, redeemed and saved shall some day be brought into glory. There shall not one elect be missing from that host before the throne. There shall not be any for whom Christ shed His blood who shall not be gathered there.
This has several important implications also.
The unity of the church is principally a unity of divine election, of glorious redemption, of irresistible grace. The church as such, is one. As a spiritual body it is a unity. Every Sunday we confess together: “I believe one holy catholic church.” On the one hand, this means that the unity of the church is a work of God. It is not the object of man’s efforts. It is not something attained by human effort. It is God Himself Who establishes the church as a unity. And, on the other hand, this means that no work of man can possibly destroy that unity. No earthly powers, no denominational fracturing can destroy the essential unity of the church of Jesus Christ.
All this implies that the true unity of the church is a unity which is in Jesus Christ, and that the unity which the church has in Jesus Christ is a unity affected by the Spirit. This is the teaching of all Scripture. I call your attention to a couple of passages which demonstrate this. There is, first of all, that beautiful passage in I Corinthians 12 in which the unity of the church is defined in terms of a body. While this is discussed in great detail by the apostle, the recurrent theme is: “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ.” (I Cor. 12:12.) The same is true of Ephesians 4:3-13. In the first verses of this section we read: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” And then there is that oft-quoted text in John 17:21: “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.”
But it is evident that this unity consists in many things. The deepest principle of that unity is Christ Himself. The whole church exists in Christ and out of Christ. Her life comes from Christ. Her inheritance is given to her of Christ. Her existence in the world is dependent upon Christ. All she is and has is only because she belongs to Christ.
Yet the point is precisely that inasmuch as Christ is the deepest principle of her unity, this unity comes down to one essential point: unity in the truth.
This is to be expected, for Christ is the full revelation of the truth—the truth as it is in God and as it shines in the face of Jesus Christ. This is also emphasized in the texts which we quoted above.
In that beautiful passage of I Corinthians 12, the apostle introduces his discussion of the unity of the body of Christ with the important words: “Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of Christ calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” The same is true of the passage in John 17. Indeed the Lord speaks of the unity of the church; but He emphasizes that this unity is always and only in the truth, just because it is in Christ: “And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word. . . . And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” And Paul sums up the true idea of unity in Ephesians 4 when he concludes with the words: “Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive.”
From all of this it is evident that the unity of the church in Christ is a unity of the truth. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. And it must be understood that this truth is exactly the truth of Christ as it is recorded in the infallibly inspired Scriptures. Only in this truth can there be unity. Apart from this truth there is no unity at all—except perhaps the unity of the lie. In this truth the whole church of all ages, beginning in Paradise and continuing to the present, finds its unity. In this truth the church in every land and gathered from every nation finds its unity. In this truth the church is one in her Lord and Savior. Thus, this truth, as it is expressed in the creeds of the church, “The Forms of Unity,” is the basis for all unity also today.
I have been speaking up till now of the church in her spiritual character as the body of Christ. But this church which is the body of Christ also comes to manifestation in the midst of the world in an institutional form. And in this institutional form the unity of the church is also expressed.
This takes place, first of all, in the local congregation. Each local congregation is a complete manifestation of the whole body of Christ. That is, it is this to the extent that it maintains the confession of the truth of Scripture, that it faithfully preaches this truth from her pulpit, that it lives out of the communion of the saints according to this truth. This unity of a congregation, therefore, is evident in her confession which she makes through the preaching, the administration of the, sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline.
But this same unity, expressed in a congregation, also comes to manifestation in denominational life when several congregations join together for a common purpose. But still the principle of that denominational unity must be in Christ and in the truth of Christ. Only then will a denomination reveal the unity of the body of Christ. And it is at this point that we enter into the area of ecumenicity.
II. AN EVALUATION OF MODERN ECUMENICITY IN THE LIGHT OF SCRIPTURE
It is not too difficult to characterize the modern ecumenical movement. Sufficient has been written about it and by those who are in the vanguard of the movement to judge what the chief characteristics are.
It is clear, first of all, that the first impetus for modern ecumenicity came on the mission field. In the mission work of the church, the church was embarrassed by the fact that different denominations worked in the same mission fields teaching different doctrines and therefore competing with each other. Because of this embarrassment the first ecumenical organizations were mission organizations—denominations cooperating in the work of spreading the gospel to the unchurched.
But the ecumenical movement has not stopped there. Especially in the larger ecumenical movements the work of missions has be n broadened to include what the leaders in this field like to speak of as “service.” It is said that the church is in the world, placed there by God, to be of service to humanity. And this has determined the direction of much of modern-day ecumenicity. And so the present ecumenical movement is strongly colored by the call to serve. This is characteristic especially of such organizations as the W.C.C. and the N.C.C. This is the reason why these organizations and others like them have entered so forcefully into the areas of race relations, national and international politics, social problems of poverty, crime, etc., the opposition to war.
But with this emphasis there has been a corresponding de-emphasis on doctrine. This manifests itself in several ways. Sometimes doctrine is simply considered irrelevant. The Executive Committee, for example, of the World and Life Movement which preceded the W.C.C. pointedly observed in an official policy paper: “Doctrine divides; service unites.” Or, again, the doctrinal bases upon which cooperation and church merger are founded have been so broad that almost any denomination can meet the requirements. This is true of the W.C.C. which has such a broad doctrinal basis that even the Russian Orthodox Church can belong to this organization and Roman Catholics can ponder seriously the value of joining. And this same thing is true of the so-called COCU talks. Doctrine is simply considered irrelevant. When even an outspoken heretic of the caliber of Bishop Pike can be found in an ecumenical movement embracing the United Presbyterian Church, then one wonders whether doctrine means anything at all. And yet, at the same time, it must be understood that these movements deemphasize doctrine so completely because they are of the opinion that doctrine is relative, subject to change, adaptable to each new generation. And all because the Scriptures are no longer the absolute standard of all truth!
But with this characteristic comes also another. If indeed doctrine is unimportant, if service is the real calling of the church, one can readily see that the direction in which the church is heading is the direction of postmillennialism. They seek a kingdom here upon earth, a universal church which rules in a world united in peace and prosperity. And it is precisely for this reason that the modern church world is heading rapidly in the direction of becoming the false prophet mentioned in the book of Revelation. There is absolutely no question about it but that the church shall presently join forces with the world-power and become, through her vain apostasy, the right arm of the Antichrist.
G. Stanley Lowell speaks of this in his book quoted above:
(The ecumenical movement) envisages a gigantic religio-political consensus for doing good. They seek involvement. The church of Christ, they tell us, cannot stand aloof; it must be ‘involved’ in this, in that, in everything. These are men who seek involvement with everything because they themselves have nothing. They spread the church to every secular endeavor because they have lost its spiritual dimension. All they can do is to seek absorption in the temporal because they have lost their grip on the Eternal. The ecumenical leadership seeks an alliance with the state because its functions have become no different from those of the state. These leaders want the church to undertake everything because they have lost the one distinctive thing for which the church exists. They have lost the gospel. They have substituted for it an ecumenical mush concocted of a little bit of everything and adding up to nothing.
We need not hesitate to condemn this form of ecumenicity on the basis of Scripture. It is apparent that the approach is fundamentally wrong. If the unity of the church is principally the unity of the truth as it is in Christ, then the truth of Scripture is all important. Then unity can be gained only by growing in the truth. Any movement which ignores the truth or plays it down is simply a counterfeit movement, a fake ecumenicity, a unity of the lie. True unity can only be gained by increasing in the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. That is, taking the truth of the confession of the church in the past by which we stand with those who are now made perfect in the unity of Christ, we go on to develop this truth on the basis of Scripture, ever growing and increasing in Jesus Christ.
Thus the calling of the church is never to engage in social action. Her calling is to preach the gospel, to defend the faith, to bring the glad tidings of the kingdom. If she refuses to do this and turns instead to social action, she sells her birthright for a mess of pottage. She is no longer even a church; much less does she have the right to claim to be seeking the unity of the church. The post-millennialism and universalism of the ecumenical movement is in direct conflict with Scripture; it is a movement aiding and abetting the cause of Antichrist, is a movement with which the church cannot cooperate.
But what about the more conservative organizations and mergers? I have in mind such organizations as the I.C.C.C., the R.E.S., and mergers among conservative bodies.
Even these bodies have not entirely escaped the serious errors to be found in the more liberal ecumenical movements. The I.C.C.C., e.g., is not at all reluctant to engage in battles in the political arena and to strive, although from a different viewpoint, for the kind of government it happens to espouse, But of far greater concern is the fact that while this organization claims to be conservative, it nevertheless also is willing to take under its wing denominations differing radically on fundamental points of doctrine. And the entire organization makes no provision for any kind of discussion of these differences, evidently considering them of little or no account.
The same thing is true of the Reformed Ecumenical Synod. While I am firmly convinced that there is surely room for such an organization, as it is composed in its present form it is very reluctant to discuss questions of doctrine which divide the denominations which are members. It refuses to deal seriously with the threat of modernism and Arminianism. As these evils of modernism and Arminianism threaten more and more the Reformed community in, for example, the Gereformeerde Kerken in the Netherlands and the Christian Reformed Church in our own country, it would seem that unity in the truth demands far more of such an organization than it has up to now produced.
Besides, it is more than passing strange that the R.E.S. is apparently not ecumenical enough to include our Protestant Reformed Churches. And this gives me an opportunity to point out that we are, in the sense in which I have described it, thoroughly Reformed and thoroughly ecumenical. That is, we are always ready to discuss questions of doctrine which divide us from other denominations as long as these questions are discussed on the basis of Scripture.
But if this is not done, these movements fail to bring about the true unity of Christ within even the Reformed church world.
III. WHAT IS OUR CALLING?
If we turn now to the question of our calling, it becomes quite obvious that our calling is, first of all, negative.
There appears to be no question about it that the ecumenical movement will gain continued impetus. Scripture itself is clear on this point. This means that there will be increased speed in bringing all Protestantism together not only, but also all denominations found in the world. Already Protestantism is courting Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholicism addresses Protestantism as “our brethren.” Sooner or later even all the splinter groups and competing organizations will have to fall into line. Certainly, to the extent that their basis is not securely established in the truth of Scripture, they lack the power to resist the siren calls that sound from the leaders in the movement.
Our calling is, therefore, to condemn all this false ecumenicity unceasingly and unwearyingly as a perversion of the true unity which the church has in Christ. And we must be sure that our condemnation of it is also expressed in our refusal to have anything to do with it.
Now yet we have the choice of participating or refusing to participate. But presently the many requests which now come to us to join will become imperious demands. There will be a time when we shall not be given any choice at all. To refuse to jump into the swelling tides and ride with the rushing currents will be to invite ridicule, scorn, and even overt persecution. But even then we cannot shrink from our position, lest we lose our heritage.
This is equally true of what goes today under the name of “dialogue.” The very word presupposes that all who engage in dialogue are to some extent right and to some extent wrong. The purpose of dialogue is to find common ground and a basis for union in compromise. But I would warn you that all compromise in the truth is a devil’s compromise! And you may be sure that the devil does not concede anything which is important to him!
But this does not alter the fact that we also have a positive calling. Basically and fundamentally this calling is to grow and increase in the truth of the Word of God. This must be done on the basis of the Confessions which bind us securely in unity with the church of the past—the church now in glory. Shall we deny the unity we have with saints made perfect by sneeringly destroying the faith they loved and for which they bled and died? God forbid!
Secondly, our calling is to seek this truth with others who also maintain this historical faith of the Church. Discussion on the basis of Scripture and the Confessions is not simply desirable, but also mandatory. We are prepared to engage in such discussions at any time. And we are prepared to join any organization which will accomplish this all-important task. But yet it must be remembered that such discussion must be fearless and frank discussion of things which now divide us.
Our goal must certainly therefore be to express the spiritual unity which we have with all the believing elect in an institutional unity of the church as it appears in the world. Perhaps we shall not attain this on this side the grave except in that day when the false church rules supreme and the people of God can find no ecclesiastical roof at all. But such must nevertheless be our goal. Our prayers too must be that all God’s people may be one in Christ to the glory of God.