AN INTRODUCTION TO ECUMENISM
“Why can’t we all just get along?”
“We Christians need to join hands and work together.”
“We need to stop being divided and start being unified!”
“We need to look past our differences for the sake of unity.”
“Why are there so many denominations?”
I’m sure you’ve heard many of these types of statements. The cultural trend in modern American Evangelicalism has been to join together with other denominations and religious institutions to further the cause of the Church, particularly in areas of morality and social justice. We are seeing a lot of faith communities seeking to rebuild bridges that were burnt down long ago.
The greatest and most evident example of this in my mind is between the Vatican and Evangelicals of the seeker friendly movement. Many are holding hands with the pope, namely a very prominent American Evangelical preacher who has come to the fore-front on this issue, Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church. Pastor Rick was captured on the news saying the words “our pope” when discussing Pope Francis.
This is extremely frightening because the differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are astounding and are at the very center of the true and holy gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This joining hands should send up alarms for anyone who is discerning the spiritual climate of our times and who are practicing the biblical principle of being on guard against the deceptive ways of this world.
Pope Francis has said much about this spirit of false unity.
“It is precisely the young who today implore us to make progress towards full communion. I think for example of the many Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant youth who come together at meetings organized by the Taizé community. They do this not because they ignore the differences which still separate us, but because they are able to see beyond them; they are able to see beyond them, to embrace what is essential and what already unites us which is much holiness.”
So what is this new movement that has gone beyond the perimeters of Christian unity?
Initially this seems like a wonderful idea. Why wouldn’t we want to be unified? Why wouldn’t we seek togetherness? Why wouldn’t we want to have the oneness and unity that God’s Word so often speaks of? It is commanded in scripture that we be one, so seeking to do so cannot be wrong in and of itself can it?
“endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were 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 He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ;”
My concern is that this push for church unity is simply an excuse for compromise.
Our deceitful hearts feel that we are doing the right and Christ-like thing, but when we put aside our convictions for the sake of togetherness we deceive and confuse people who are seeking the truth and expose ourself to false teachings that could lead us away from the true faith.
Paul obviously calls Christians to seek to preserve unity and oneness but how do we go about doing this? Do we strive to unify all organizations that go by the name “Christian?” Should we then join hands with the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses? Are all the divisions we see in denominationalism a sign that this promised unity will never come to pass? Did the apostle desire that the Church be world-wide, hierarchal and governed by one man?
To answer these questions we really have to define two things.
1. The biblical understanding and definition of “church.”
2. The biblical guidelines and instructions for unity.
WHAT IS THE “CHURCH?”
The greek word used for “church” is ekklesia which renders most simply as “the called out ones.” When we see this definition come to light we begin to understand the proper context of ‘church’ in the eyes of God and through our understanding and interpretation of scripture.
The church, at its core, are all those who have been set apart and called out of the world by the grace of God.
The church is not an institution or an organization or a governmental structure, but consists of all those who have been chosen by God from among all the nations of the world before the beginning of time. We can know this because in his letter to the church in Ephesus, the same letter in which Paul addresses the topic of Christian unity in great length, he makes this statement.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”
Notice there at the end the connection between God’s sovereign election and the unity of all things. This is to say that true unity is only found in the ekklesia, the called out ones, the ones who make up the true Church, the Bride of Christ. And this distinction overcomes all divisions of nationality, race, social or cultural background, and yes even denominational differences.
The catch is that we, as fallible and finite human beings, have not been given the ability and insight as to know who the elect are. So how do we know when it is proper to join hands in Christian unity, to put resources together in order to further the kingdom, to meet together in Christian fellowship?
Let’s answer that question by going to God’s Word.
BIBLICAL UNITY DEFINED
When we go to God’s Word over and over again we find that the dividing line in whether to be unified or whether to be separated with other believers is THE GOSPEL.
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,“
And this is where it can get tricky because we are warned about different gospels in the holy scriptures. Paul addressed this issue himself in his letter to the Galatians.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
Note that there are different gospels, but only one of them is the true gospel. Only one of them is the gospel proclaimed by Moses and the Prophets, preached by Jesus Christ, passed down through His apostles and written down in God’s holy and inerrant Word. And if we join hands with any organization or church denomination or believers who preach a different gospel we are endangering ourselves to fall victim to false teaching and heresy that could lead us away from the true faith, and we’re throwing our lot in with those who are seeking to destroy the Church from the inside out.
Can you see how this could make it confusing for someone who God has sovereignly called out of the world? How it would be difficult for them to seek out and find those who are preaching, teaching and proclaiming the true gospel if those very same people were joining forces with other churches and denominations that were preaching, teaching and proclaiming a false gospel? How would they differentiate? How would they make a distinction?
And that my friends is why today the lines have blurred so much that most Protestants couldn’t tell you the difference between them and Roman Catholicism. And the reason for this dangerous dilemma is simply this. A lack of deep, truth-filled, consistent and exegetical preaching and teaching of God’s Word.
If someone does not know what the true gospel is then they will join hands in ignorance with others who preach a gospel contrary to the Bible. This is a serious issue that should be addressed from the pulpit and from within our churches. There are distinctions that are essential to keep and not compromise on.
We cannot forsake the truth’s of scripture to emphasis a false sense of togetherness and unity that ultimately disgraces God.
The church are all those who have been saved by God’s grace and join together in their worship of God and gratitude toward God for the cross of Jesus Christ. This includes people from among all forms of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. God shows no partiality in His electing love. So the true nature of Christian unity is one that is spiritual, a truth that is transcendent and not fully realized in this lifetime. One that will have it’s fullness and it’s completion at the end of time itself.
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
So in this lifetime the way we are instructed to seek out Christian unity is to come together under the banner of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel is in one sense a message that we hear and understand. The apostle Paul gives the best explanation of the information that is to be presented in the good news of Christ.
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,”
(This allows for disagreements on secondary doctrinal issues that don’t directly affect the nature of the gospel and salvation.)
But the gospel is not only something that we hear and understand it is something we respond to. To define that I leave here a quote from Dr. R.C. Sproul who gives a wonderful and concise presentation.
“The Bible makes it clear that we are justified not by our works, not by our efforts, not by our deeds, but by faith–and by faith alone. The only way you can receive the benefit of Christ’s life and death is by putting your trust in Him–and in Him alone. You do that, you’re declared just by God, you’re adopted into His family, you’re forgiven of all of your sins, and you have begun your pilgrimage for eternity.”
Any church or any Pastor or any denomination or any organization that does not stay within the biblical perimeters of this gospel (the message that is preached and the response that is commanded) we are instructed by God’s Word and with apostolic authority to not join hands with, to not fellowship with and to not work together with.
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty.”
This calls for a great amount of wisdom and discernment in our dealings within the Christian sub-culture, and this would namely be my hope in writing this article.
My hope is that we would see our need for greater discernment in the Church when it comes to the issue of Christian unity.
I pray that this article will enlighten many to these issues and encourage a deeper study into the matter. I know that this will simply bring more questions to mind and raise issues that were not answered, but my intention was to do an introduction on a rising movement that is extremely dangerous and has the potential to mislead millions.
This article is not to encourage more divisiveness in the Body of Christ but rather to encourage true unity as prescribed in God’s Word. May we come together under the banner of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and no longer compromise the truth to avoid stepping on the toes of those leading this new Evangelical movement.
You may ask “why can’t we all just get along?” My response is simply this. We can’t all get along because we are not all preaching the same gospel, and there is only one true gospel.
To God be the glory; great things He has done.
Cary Gephart (thepoetpastor)