Before discussing specific ecumenical endeavors, as the World Council of Churches, I want to consider our own position over against ecumenism in general. I had already touched upon this in a former article, but now I wish to elaborate a bit upon that. In particular, what must we say of the abundant Scriptural references used in support of the present-day movement? We must agree that it is our duty to bow before proper arguments from Scripture. But, do the ecumenists properly interpret those passages which they love to quote?
A second question arises, implied in the title of this article, “Is it possible to be both Reformed and Ecumenical?” The two terms might sound, contradictory to our ears. For though it is true that several Reformed churches on our own and on other continents have membership in the W.C.C., yet the thought lingers persistently in our hearts that Reformed principles can not be made to harmonize with the ecumenical movement of our day. The suggestion is made that one must be either . . . or—but not both: Reformed and Ecumenical.
Should We Oppose Ecumenism? The above question appears to be in a class with, “Should we oppose motherhood?” In either case, one is viewed as some sort of ogre if he answers-affirmatively. After all, ought not every sincere Christian seek the ultimate reunion of all churches? Should one in any way want to perpetuate splintered Protestantism? Is not the old slogan very true here: “In unity there is strength?” We might suggest that union of denominations would result in a compromise of the truth or, as it is sometimes expressed, union on the basis of the lowest common denominator. But the ecumenist denies that this would be the end result of proper ecumenism:
It is sometimes suggested that the ecumenical movement worships fellowship at the expense of truth, and there is no doubt that this is a real temptation in all ecumenical endeavor. But this cannot happen where the true nature of koinonia (fellowship, communion—V.B.) is remembered, for koinonia includes necessarily the common recognition that Christ has the first and the last word and that no church, no Christian can be expected to give up what he believes to have received from the Lord.¹
The question remains. Ought we to oppose ecumenism? If by the term “ecumenism” is meant that action and interaction of denominations in such organizations as the National Council of Churches and World Council of Churches, our answer must be an emphatic “Yes.” Good reasons, I believe, can be given for such a position. Nor ought we to be misled by, the many specious arguments, Scriptural arguments too; which are presented to support the idea of ecumenism. In this article I would present our answers to some of those arguments.
For those interested in a more detailed answer to the arguments of the ecumenist, I would recommend a worth-while little book entitled Ecumenism and the Evangelical, written by the Rev. J. Marcellus Kik, pastor of the Second Reformed Church of Little Falls, New Jersey. (The book is published by the Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co.; Box 185; Nutley, New Jersey. It can be purchased for $1.10.) The Rev. J.M. Kik is an avowed post-millennialist. He writes on page 143:
The writer belongs to the school that looks for a more glorious future for the church in time and history before the second coming of the Lord. Prophecy concerns itself with time and history and not with the consummate kingdom in its eternal form except for incidental reference. Many wonder how in a time of great distress, of flagrant sin, of secularism and unbelief within the church, how one can ever believe in the Coming Great Church. Isaiah lived in a time when Israel was apostate yet looked forward to the glorious days of the Messiah. The future should be determined not by contemporary events but from the Word of God. Many at this time are reading the pages of history to determine the future; far better that they read the book of the Lord of history.
The purpose of the article is not to debate concerning this post-millennial view. It should be obvious, however, that one’s view of the “millennium” necessarily affects his conception of the position of the Church of Christ at the end of time. The “postmillennialist” injects a falsely (according to my conviction) optimistic view of the latter-day Church on the earth as far as this relates to its size, power, and influence with men. I fear that many will be led to disillusionment as it becomes more and more evident that the Church’s future on earth is not one of great honor and glory, but of tribulation. But despite his post-millennial view, the author presents some very forceful, simple, and sound answers to the arguments of ecumenists whose ultimate goal is the union of all denominations. The denomination to which the Rev. J.M. Kik belongs (which is member both of the N.C.C. and the W.C.C.) would do well to heed the wise words of one of their own.
But, What Of John 17?
More often than any passage, the ecumenist quotesJohn 17 with special emphasis upon verse 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.” He insists that “the unity that reflects the union of the Father and the Son must become manifest on earth in the actual life of the Church, in its message and in its outward order, in the mutual relations of its members and its united action in the world.”² And any differences of doctrine or government which yet exist must be settled in the sphere of this unity.
Now we must admit that ideally the unity of John 17 ought to be seen in an outward unity of all Christians—as such unity will surely exist in heaven. Certainly the world, which sees only the outward, can recognize the work of God in His church by what it sees in the life of its members. And the child of God ought to desire that the unity of John 17 be manifest in a proper outward way too. However, having acknowledged this, we must be also spiritually realistic, Fact is, divisions are the fruit of sin. Fact is, that even the best of Christians remains polluted with sin as long as he is on earth. Fact is, that man’s understanding (of Scripture too) is too often influenced by what his flesh desires to believe. Our conclusion must be that any enforced union, despite these self-evident facts, will result in compromise and neglect of the truth. I conclude that though we ought to strive for the ideal of perfect unity as children of light, yet this will not be seen in all its glory until Christ returns to raise us in perfection to inherit the new heavens and earth.
What does John 17 teach? Briefly notice first, union must be based upon that perfect union between Christ and the Father. Christ prays that the Church may be one asthey are. This is, then, the standard according to which the propriety of any union of denominations can be measured.
Secondly, following from the above, union must be based upon the truth. The Father and Christ are united on the basis of the truth without any compromise. Union is not to find the truth, but because two agree asto the truth as do the Father and Son.
Thirdly, as Father and Son have one goal, the glory of God through the salvation of the church in the Cross of Christ alone, even so denominations can unite only as they also are agreed on this truth. John 17 emphasizes that Christ has accomplished the work He came to perform. Union is wrong when it joins those who differ concerning this work of Christ for His people.
Finally, do not forget that the union between Father and Son is spiritual—that is, it can not be seen with the physical eye. In this way, prays Jesus, the church also must be one. It is the spiritual bond of faith in Christ that unites the Head with the body. Though that union ought to become manifest outwardly, and to a limited degree it is (as can be seen in denominational life), it is not the outward which is first, but the spiritual. Outward union must be based on the reality of spiritual oneness, not vice versa.
There is the related claim that denominationalism is wrong. (Is Christ Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic?) Supposedly, denominationalism hinders the cause of missions; it arouses antagonisms; it causes division of efforts as well as duplication of work. Nevertheless, we can maintain that under present circumstances (that is, since we are sinners living in a wicked world) denominationalism has proved for the most part to be to the advantage of the church. Who would want to return to the pre-reformation church? I would mention only three definite advantages of denominationalism:
1. Principally, I believe, it has been useful as a means of preserving the truth. True, denominationalism is the result of divisions caused by error, lies, heresy. It is also true that in heaven there will be no denominationalism. But imagine what the situation would be if all those called “Christian” were to dwell under one ecclesiastical roof! The truth would soon be buried under an avalanche of heresy. Now those who hold to the same interpretation of the Word of God, can maintain and develop the truth together,—and together can oppose that which is the lie.
2. Denominationalism does away, to a large extent, with bureaucracy and hierarchy with their attendant evils, which necessarily would arise in one large united church.
3. Records show that the smaller denominations 3 contribute proportionately far more to the cause of missions and the support of the church than do larger denominations. Whatever the reasons for this might be, it ought to indicate that the size oaf a church organization does not in itself determine the zeal and support for the work of the kingdom.
The Unity We Seek
Unity we too must seek, but this unity is principally spiritual. Such Biblical oneness is sought only by one regenerated by the Spirit of God. He is led in newness of life. He shows a concern with the truths which God has revealed to us. He delights in studying and learning that truth recorded in the infallible Word of God. And he, experiencing his own blessed union to Jesus Christ his Lord, seeks fellowship and communion with those of like mind with him. The union of saints is first of all spiritual.
Yet this spiritual oneness ought to be seen in certain visible ways too. Not, I believe, a rush of denomination to unite with denomination; not even an urge to enter discussions “with a view to possible merger.” This “urge to merge” is not the answer to the prayer of Christ in John 17. The spiritual unity of the church can be manifested in a visible way first in discussions between Christians and denominations who show evidence in their confession and walk that they cleave to the same Savior as He is revealed in Scripture. These can discuss common problems which we confront today; they can discuss doctrinal differences too. The point is not first whether such discussions might lead to merger, but whether such would not spiritually benefit the participants, Secondly, there ought to be mutual encouragement of Christians who face sufferings and persecutions on the earth. Instances of this would be the “clothing drives” recently for the Jamaicans or the post-war assistance given to brethren in the Netherlands. Such evidence of oneness can grow. Thirdly, we ought to warn one another as denominations of errors which grow ever more rampant. This must be motivated not by a desire to criticize, but the desire to direct one another in the truth.
Today, more than ever before, such unity must be seen. The unity which is the goal of present-day ecumenism is a unity which will culminate in the church of the anti-Christ. I am convinced of that. It becomes ever more imperative, then, that those who yet love the truth, encourage one another in the faith, and together pray for the coming again of Christ, when the church will be one—spiritually and visibly.
¹ W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Pressure of our Common Calling, Doubleday, p. 75
² ibid., p. 83.