Monday, February 23, 2009

The threat of ecumenism

On a recent blog one brother wrote, "I think anything organized with participation by different religious groups or individuals of different religious groups is ecumenical." Is anything organized with participation by different religious groups ecumenical? Does presence and organization define ecumenical? What part does intent play?

What is ecumenical? According to The Merriam Webster Dictionary, ecumenical means "promoting or tending toward worldwide Christian unity." The Random House Unabridged Dictionary gives a further refinement of it as "of or pertaining to a movement (ecumenical movement), esp. among Protestant groups since the 1800s, aimed at achieving universal Christian unity and church union through international interdenominational organizations that cooperate on matters of mutual concern." According to American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, this could also include "promoting worldwide unity among religions through greater cooperation and improved understanding." So ecumenism might be something as innocuous as promoting Christian unity, or as dangerous as uniting the world’s religions in one organization.

In dealing with the concept of ecumenism, perhaps it’s hard for Baptists to strike a happy medium. One sees something scurrying out from every rock he turns over, and every stick looks like a snake. Another needs prescription glasses so badly he couldn’t see ecumenical compromise if it were staring him in the face. There is a real threat of ecumenism as some attempt to unite the denominations by abandoning the faith once delivered to the saints. "Let’s ignore the Bible & truth and just be one big happy family." Then there is a trivialization of ecumenism which fears a Baptist and a person of another denomination standing in close proximity are engaged in "an ecumenical movement". The challenge is to walk the path in the center, without falling into the ditch on the right or left; to pursue unity of the faith and love of the brethren without dispensing the Scripture and its truth.

The threat of ecumenism – the attempt to falsely unite
Christian unity is not wrong. The modern ecumenical manner of achieving it is. The ecumenical movement seeks to break down denominational barriers and just worship together as "Christians". The movement is alive and well. A worldwide promoter among Christian denominations is the World Council of Churches, whose aim is to proclaim the oneness of the church of Jesus Christ and to call the churches to the goal of visible unity. By methods such as dialogue, study documents, common prayer and worship, churches from the Anglican Church to the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church to the Waldensian Church (yes, you read that correctly) unite in the WCC and seek for unity. Again, unity is not wrong. But abandoning the faith once delivered to the saints is! It seems clear to me that the methodology of the WCC, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, and all such movements do not hold a high view of the Scriptures or the once-delivered faith.

The trivialization of ecumenism – seeing ecumenism under every rock
Like Chicken Little who believes the sky is falling or the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf, the “ecumenist-behind-every-non-denominational-gathering” mentality trivializes real ecumenism. When the sky really is falling and when the wolf really comes, no one believes us because we have lost our credibility.

There are some gatherings that are not ecumenical that attract various brands of Christians. One obvious example is pro-life rallies. Because of agreement on the sanctity of life, these rallies attract Baptists, Protestants, Catholics, Jews and others. But the intent is not to unite all these people in one denomination. The intent is to unite in a social and political way to rally support for the sanctity of life. Is working in a Rescue Mission "ecumenical"? Many churches seem to work together to supply food and service for the homeless, etc., without compromising any of their standards or seeking organizational union.

Realize also that something does not have to be ecumenical to be wrong. Some Baptists I know seem to struggle to find the proper way to frame an argument against certain things they believe are unscriptural and/or inadvisable. If they can’t define it clearly some other way, they frame it under the specter of ecumenism. Surely everyone will shy away from it then! Yet something can be wrong for reasons other than ecumenism. False worship can be just that, without any ecumenical trappings. For example, a friend might want you to attend church and worship with him. He has no intention of ecumenism. He intends rather to convert you to his belief.

The challenge – the pursuit of unity and love without disposing of scripture and truth
Unity is a command, a privilege, and a goal. The pursuit of unity is not an evil, but rather a good. The pursuit and proclamation of unity on a false basis is an evil. Is it too simple to ask that we simply be Christians?

With the multitudinous clamoring voices claiming to be Christianity, many declare unity impossible. But the Jerusalem church exhibits the possibility of unity. The divine voice pronounces they were "with one accord in prayer and supplication" and "of one heart and of one soul." We might say that the accord has been broken and cannot be recovered. Nay, rather amidst the discord in Corinth, Paul beseeched his brethren in the name of the Lord Jesus, "that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment."

"With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; [Endeavour] to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," remembering "they that worship [God] must worship him in spirit and in truth."


Anonymous said...

I fought against the WCC and ecumenism in the early days under the leadership of Carl Macintyre, a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey, and aligned with TT. Shields and Jarvis Street Baptist Church. See, we didn't separate from denominations, we separated from the liberal views of the WCC.

Does this mean we disfellowshipped with evangelical believers? Not so, we even had Anglican preachers in the pulpit at times.

As you have said, we cannot break fellowship with all believers or we end up lending credence to the WCC concept of unity.



R. L. Vaughn said...

Jim, would you expand on what you mean in your last sentence where you say "we cannot break fellowship with all believers or we end up lending credence to the WCC concept of unity"?


Anonymous said...

Fellowship,,,fellowship in Christ. We take our stand against the modernism of the day, but never exclude our fellowship in the name of Christ, though we differ on some theological beliefs.

The WCC would have all come together regardless. The one worldwide church, as opposed to churches.

A few years back, the Southern Baptist were connected loosely with the WCC through the Baptist organization that linked with them. I didn't disfellowship with my fellow baptists because of that, yet I still spoke against that union.



R. L. Vaughn said...

Jim, thanks for the explanation. I think some of what you are saying is similar to what I mentioned in the previous post about levels of fellowship. Do you agree with that concept? For example, there is some level in which I may have human fellowship with another human being based on our common humanity, but that person would be excluded from family fellowship if not family, and the family member who is not born again would be excluded from spiritual fellowship of believers. But perhaps I went further than you in the last level of ecclesial fellowship where we might have spiritual fellowship with a fellow believer but not be able to have church fellowship because of differing beliefs on the church.

Anonymous said...

I prolly don't go as far as you. Remember, I also taught in a liberal school of theology. I faced a lot of opposition to that, but I never once compromised my theology. At that school I was called a fundamentalist. My Baptist colleagues called me a liberal, and virtually shunned me.

I guess growing up Church of England tainted me. When I went home for holidays each year, I preached in Anglican Churches. At that time, they were all evangelical. I looked at it the same as following a Presbyterian minister who was also soundly evangelical.

To some on the BB I am a liberal, hypocrite! I am quite used to labels. I kow who I am in Christ and the word, and that is all that matters. I will fellowship with any believer.