I believe one holy catholic and apostolic church. That confession is found in the Nicene Creed, the first ecumenical creed adopted by the church. The church of Jesus Christ is one, and it is ecumenical. The root meaning of the word ecumenical is universal. The one church is Christ’s church, and He gathers His church out of all the nations. The true church of Christ on this earth constantly seeks to manifest that oneness. That is proper ecumenicity.
The sixteenth century Reformation of Luther and Calvin is generally not known for having an ecumenical spirit. On the contrary, two of the most common charges against the reformers were that they were heretics and that they were schismatics. In his Papal Bull threatening Luther with excommunication, Pope Leo described Luther as the wild boar in the vineyard of God (a reference to Ps. 80:13). Similarly, Cardinal Sadoleto, in his letter seeking to draw Geneva back to Rome, alleged that the reformers were guilty of “great seditions and schisms.”
On the surface of it, history might seems to bear out this serious charge. The Reformation led quickly to four groups out of Rome—Lutherans, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist. Each of these would divide, even splinter, into countless subgroups. The result is that today outside of Rome are thousands of denominations and independent churches around the world.
Nonetheless, all these thousands of churches exist because they have not followed the true ecumenical spirit of the Reformation. The reformers highly esteemed ecclesiastical unity, and they worked very hard for it. And their goal was a unity founded on the truth of God.
History demonstrates that the Reformation’s standards for ecclesiastical unity are very different from Rome’s. Rome’s position was, and is, this: unity is found only in submission to the pope. Submit to the pope, and you maintain the unity of the church. Refuse to submit, and you are schismatic. It is that simple.
Do you think that an exaggeration? It is not. About 240 years before the Reformation began, “The Doctor,” Thomas Aquinas, wrote on the question of schism as follows:
Now the unity of the Church consists in two things; namely, in the mutual connection or communion of the members of the Church, and again in the subordination of all the members of the Church to the one head, according to
“Puffed up by the sense of his flesh, and not holding the Head, from which the whole body, by joints and bands, being supplied with nourishment and compacted, groweth unto the increase of God.” Now this Head is Christ Himself….
So far, Aquinas is on the right track—the unity of the church is in Christ. But then comes his conclusion.
Now this Head is Christ Himself, Whose viceregent in the Church is the Sovereign Pontiff. Wherefore schismatics are those who refuse to submit to the Sovereign Pontiff, and to hold communion with those members of the Church who acknowledge his supremacy.¹ (Emphasis mine, RJD.)
That became the accepted view of unity in the church of the Middle Ages. Approximately one hundred years before Luther wrote the Ninety- Five Theses, the medieval church was badly divided. The schism was caused by the fact that two different men claimed to be the pope, and both had some legitimacy to their claim. Eventually this expanded to three popes. The church was in a fix, with no easy solution in sight. The Frenchman Jean Gerson was one notable theologian who searched for a solution. In a treatise entitled On the Unity of the Church, Gerson proposed that a church council could settle the matter and heal the schism. But he was adamant that the unity of the church could only be restored when the church again had but one pope. In this treatise, the last ten of the twelve considerations begin the same way: “The unity of the Church in one undoubted vicar of Christ….”
Thus Rome’s longstanding contention was that Church unity depends on submission to the pope. Rome has never changed on that.
Today, ecumenical activity has reached a fever pitch, also among churches in the Reformed camp. This drive for unity is too often at the expense of the truth. Churches seem perfectly content to give up longstanding differences of doctrine for the sake of forging yet another ecclesiastical relationship. Not every effort involves such compromise, obviously. But the basis for unity too often is a small body of vague, universally held doctrines such as the Trinity, while important differences on vital doctrines of theology are ignored. In the worst cases, the unity is built overtly on false doctrine, and the truth is thrown to the wind.
That might seem to be very different from Rome’s position, but it is not. Apostate Rome has always been willing to allow diversity of doctrine and life within her walls, so long as the doctrine or practice did not threaten the papacy. In the Middle Ages, she allowed mystics to teach that each believer is like one drop, some day to be lost in the ocean, God. Rome tolerated, at the same time, the most vigorous scholasticism, with its endless wrangling and pointless discussions that led theologians into the absurd. And she put up with the biting satire of an Erasmus, who openly ridiculed the ignorance and sins of the clergy.
All this was tolerated by Rome, so long as the members were willing to submit to the pope and not threaten the hierarchy of mother church. Essential to that hierarchy is the false teaching that the priest stands between the believer and God, and dispenses grace and salvation to the members. All the churches today who are flirting with Rome, who imagine that true unity of the church of Jesus Christ includes Rome, are warned that Rome has not changed. Unity is still only in submission to the pope. Indeed Rome will put up with astounding diversity, so that she is willing to talk with Anglicans, Buddhists, Lutherans, Muslims, and the Christian Reformed Church. This kind of “ecumenism” results in the unified church of the Antichrist. All sorts of diversity will be allowed. Simply submit to the head.
But Rome could not abide Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and all the reformers. For their doctrine, faithful to Scripture, pulled down the whole Romish system. That tearing down began with Luther’s discovery of justification by faith alone. If God imputes His righteousness directly to the believer only by faith in Christ, then the church is not the repository of salvation, and the priest does not stand between God and man. The rest of Rome’s false doctrines would crumble as well.
Unwilling to tolerate the truth, Rome cast out those who preached it, and put to death those who held fast to it. And the reformers would not abide the false doctrine of Rome.
But the reformers were concerned for, even zealous for, the unity of the church of Jesus Christ. So much so, that they were willing to sit down with priests and bishops of Rome, to discuss their differences, if perchance reunion were possible.
In 1530, some thirteen years after the Reformation began, the Lutherans came to Augsburg to meet with the representatives of Rome. Admittedly, there were political pressures involved—the Emperor called this conference. Admittedly, Luther was not optimistic, and in fact fretted from afar (with good reason) that Melanchthon would compromise the truth. Still, Luther assisted Melanchthon in drawing up a statement of doctrines for the conference, a document that eventually became the Augsburg Confession of the Lutheran churches. And, even though Luther was excommunicated by Rome, and banned by the Emperor, so that he could not attend, the preface to the Augsburg Confession stated:
If, however, our lords, friends, and associates who represent the electors, princes, and estates of the other party do not comply with the procedure intended by Your Imperial Majesty’s summons, if no amicable and charitable negotiations take place between us, and if no results are attained, nevertheless we on our part shall not omit doing anything, in so far as God and conscience allow, that may serve the cause of Christian unity.
But their consciences were bound by the Word of God, and thus would not allow them to compromise with the truth. For that reason, all efforts at reunion with Rome failed. The reformers would have nothing of a superficial unity whereby the essential doctrines would be compromised and an institutional unity forged. They demanded true unity—unity built on the truth of God’s Word. The reformers understood that Jesus Christ is the unity of the church. The church is one body, Christ’s body, and though it have many members, the body is not divided. In his work, also written to Emperor Charles V (On the Necessity of Reforming the Church), John Calvin answers the false charge of schism leveled against the reformers by Rome with that understanding.
Let our opponents, then, in the first instance, draw near to Christ, and then let them convict us of schism, in daring to dissent from them in doctrine. But, since I have made it plain that Christ is banished from their society, and the doctrine of his gospel exterminated, their charge against us simply amounts to this, that we adhere to Christ in preference to them. For what man, pray, will believe that those who refuse to be led away from Christ and his truth, in order to deliver themselves into the power of men, are thereby schismatics, and deserters from the communion of the Church?
Christ is the central unity of the church. Christ, who is the truth of God.
The ecclesiastical spirit of the Reformation is evident from the conferences held between Lutherans and the Swiss Reformed, and among the Swiss Reformed themselves. In the days before telephone, email, or even the regular post, the reformers had an amazing amount of contact with others all over Europe. They wrote thousands upon thousands of letters, encouraging each other to faithfulness as well as discussing the truth. They wrote treatises and books to spread the truth. They wrote confessions that churches other than their own could and did adopt.
And their efforts were not a failure by any means. True, God prevented the Lutherans from becoming one with the Reformed. The Swiss Reformed did not become one with the Church of England. And there are yet today thousands of churches and denominations. Partly the cause is geographic separation. Part of the cause is departure from the truth. The lie divides, and Satan works hard to spread his lies.
Yet, the reformers’ zeal for unity in the truth meant that people came to church, and worshiped in a congregation that was united—not by fear, nor by false doctrine, but by the truth. The ecumenical spirit of true unity starts in the local congregation— that local manifestation of the body of Christ. And the churches of the Reformation came together, and the believers worshiped God in spirit and in truth.
In addition, the Genevan saints could know that the French Reformed adopted the confession that John Calvin wrote. And the Reformed believers of both Geneva and France could know that the Reformed churches of the Netherlands had a confession very much like the French confession of Calvin. And the Presbyterian Calvinists in England and Scotland were holding fast to the same truth taught in the academy in Geneva, and in the University in Utrecht. Unity in the truth.
The days in which we live are characterized by apostasy and false ecumenism. It is discouraging to behold. A faithful Reformed or Presbyterian church or denomination is tempted to draw into itself and give up hope of ever having unity in the truth with others. That, however, would be contrary to the command of Christ given to the Ephesians and to us that they (we) must be “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” (Eph. 4:3-6). Those who, like the reformers, love Christ, love also His church. And they have the same ecumenical spirit.
¹ Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Second Part of the Second Part; Treatise on Theological Virtues, Question 39; Article 1.