We’ve taken a backwards look at the long slide from orthodox Christianity to Roman sacramentalism to Protestantism to liberalism to fundamentalism to the new evangelicalism. The twentieth century was destined to birth another movement as the child of her departure from the authority of the Bible.
If professing Christians in major denominations in the West were no longer willing to discern truth from error in the areas of their differences, then it only made sense to accent only the points of formal agreement -- a kind of lowest-common-denominator unity. Thus the ecumenical movement -- an organized attempt to bring about the cooperation and unity of all believers in Jesus Christ -- uttered its first cries. It’s been growing up since and has already had its next generation of children. More about that in later blogs.
The thirst for Christian unity
Of course there is much to be gained by true unity and much to be lost through schism. It's a happy day when very different people can dine at the same table and work together whole-heartedly in the same field. After all, Jesus prayed that His followers would be one so that the world would believe that the Father had sent Him (John 17:21). But this prayer never suggested unity should be at the expense of truth. In fact, the unity of the Father and the Son must be the measure of Christian unity, for the first and second persons of the triune Godhead were of one mind and one will on all things. Jesus’ ascension into heaven and sending of the Spirit to place all believers in Jesus into the Body of Christ assured the unity of Christians at a basic level (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). No sacrament can create this oneness, only the Holy Spirit Himself. At the local level this unity must be championed and protected by humble, loving, patient relationships (Ephesians 4:1-3). God’s people in the local church are to strive more and more to be of one mind (Philippians 1:27) by selfless living (Romans 15:1-6).
Beginnings before WW I
But what of organizational unity at an inter-church and inter-denominational level? This is what the ecumenical movement has pursued for over a century. Launched in 1910 at the International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh under the leadership of American Methodist John R. Mott, the ecumenical movement sought at first to unite all Protestant missionary agencies behind an attempt to solve social, economic and political problems in the world.
Organizational forms after WW II
The movement developed in other ways, producing the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948, when the Edinburgh Conference’s Conference on Life and Work (1925) and Conference on Faith and Order (1927) merged into a new organization encompassing 144 denominations from 44 countries. The WCC convened many General Assemblies, including one in New Delhi, where the confessional basis was adopted: “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of Churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Savior according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfil together their common calling to the glory of one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”.
The Roman church has never joined the WCC, although the Russian Orthodox Church did in 1961. Nor have conservative evangelical denominations, who have expressed dissatisfaction with the WCC’s ambiguous doctrinal foundation, its indifference to evangelism and its frequent support for violent rebel movements in the Third World.
In recent years the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches have participated in ecumenical dialogue with the WCC in an attempt to create visible unity within Christendom. More recently the WCC has worked to promote dialogue among all world religions, insisting upon religious tolerance and the common ethical or existential/mystical values of all faiths. International entities like the United Nations have increasingly called for religious dialogue to promote understanding and a search for a common ethical core -- or at least shared religious experience of some kind. The hope expressed by sacramental churches that they would be able to celebrate communion together without hindrances has been slowed in recent years by the trend to recognize women as priests and bishops in some Protestant denominations, as well as to accept homosexuals as members of the clergy.
So where is CCC in regard to ecumenical action?
Since this federation model of ecumenical dialogue aggressively denies the absolute authority of the Bible and the uniqueness of the gospel message, CCC has chosen not to participate in local inter-faith discussion groups. Instead we seek to join hands in ministry with other local churches in our region and in Europe generally, on condition that we can authentically be of one mind doctrinally and practically.
This cooperation model, rather than the federation approach, makes for more genuine and healthy expressions of unity. We are intent on evangelism and making disciples in obedience to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) but believe that ecumenical dialogue is not the context in which this may be done effectively and with freedom and integrity.
Church health, the benchmark of real unity
Maintaining the health of God’s people requires a process of confrontation in love. Just as the human body’s immune system identifies and seeks to eliminate what is not “self”, so in the local church we need to test all beliefs and practices that threaten the soundness of the body. When identified, these beliefs and practices must be addressed through the processes of church discipline and problem solving taught by Jesus and the apostles in the gospels and letters to the churches (Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 16:17-19; 1 Corinthians 5:9-13; Galatians 6:1-5; Philippians 3:15-16;1 Thessalonians 5:21-22; 2 Thessalonians 3:11-15; 1 Timothy 4:6-7; 5:19-20; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; 3:5; 4:1-2; Titus 1:10-11; James 3:13-18; 5:19-20; 2 Peter 3:11, 17-18; 1 John 2:15-17; 2 John 10-11; 3 John 9-11; Jude 3, 17-23). It would be worthwhile to take these passages one at a time to unpack their implications, but that will have to be at another time . . .