Biblical Ecumenicity


There is a false ecumenism, which we condemn; but this pamphlet teaches true church unity.

The Importance of the Subject

From an ecclesiastical point of view, our modern age has often been described as the Age of Ecumenicity. No other single event in the church captures the headlines in the ecclesiastical press and the imagination of church members as the movement towards church unity. This movement has influenced every part of the church in one form or another. No denomination or congregation has escaped. No one, therefore, who is a part of the church and is interested in the welfare of the church can escape the question: What responsibility do I have to join this quest for unity?

This question cannot easily be escaped. For the most part, those who are interested in and leaders of ecumenicity are determined to bring the whole church throughout the world under one ecclesiastical roof. This is their stated goal. They will not rest until the fractured and fragmented body of Christendom is united, and the wounds in the body of Christ healed. This is, in their words, the most urgent calling in the church today. No longer can schism and separatism be tolerated. No longer will it be permitted that the church present anything else but a united front to the world. Thus our own life and calling in the world becomes a question with respect to this important movement. Shall we join with the ecumenicists? Shall we become a part of the movement? Shall we endorse its goals, participate in its activities, and lend our aid in realizing its objectives? But if this is impossible, what then are we going to do when the pressures of ecumenism become irresistibly strong? The alternative could very well be that any church which dissents will be denied the right of existence. If this indeed becomes the alternative, shall we have the courage to pay this price?

This pamphlet is written to help in some ways those who seek to understand their calling with respect to ecumenicity in the light of the Word of God.


Various Forms of Ecumenicity

The ecumenical movement has taken on many different forms. There are attempts being made today to include all religions in the world in one universal and world-wide syncretistic religion which will embrace all men. The theory behind this movement is that no single religion is able to discover all the truth; while each individual religion has its own unique contribution to make. A union of all these religions will produce one religion of universal value which will bind all men in a common brotherhood under a universal god. Then the barriers which now exist between Christianity (including both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as well as Orthodoxy), Buddhism, Judaism, Mohammedanism and all the other 'isms' can be torn down and a giant step will be taken towards bringing peace on earth. It is astounding to what extent this idea is being promoted and even put into practice in our day.

Another form of the ecumenical movement is the formation of various organizations which are unions of denominations, in which each denomination retains its own denominational structure but cooperates with other denominations in various ecclesiastical enterprises. These organizations range from the very liberal World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches, to the more conservative organizations such as the International Council of Christian Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council. To a greater or lesser degree these organizations also are heading in the direction of structural unity.

There are also many movements toward institutional unity in which distinct denominations merge their denominational structures into one large church. These movements range from the more liberal unions to be found in the Consultations On Church Unity (COCU) to the merger of conservative denominations such as have taken place among various branches of Presbyterianism.

We cannot evaluate each separate movement in this pamphlet. Only the general principles can be laid down.

But, guided by these general principles, the sanctified and enlightened member of the Body of Christ will be able to evaluate for himself each movement.


The Unity of the Church

The title of this pamphlet is 'Biblical Ecumenicity'; and, of course, the word 'Biblical' shall have to be underlined. But this presents us with a problem. The Bible has very little to say, specifically, about the calling of the church to live in unity under the circumstances in which we live today. You will not find any passages in Scripture which speak explicitly about ecumenicity as we know it.

But this does not mean that we shall have to abandon the Bible as our guide. Indeed, if such were the case, we should have no guidelines at all to follow, for Scripture is our infallible and, therefore, authoritative rule of all faith and life.

The whole question of ecumenicity revolves around the deeper question of the unity of the church. Concerning this 'unity' the Scriptures have a great deal to say. And, understanding what the unity of the church is, we can also evaluate ecumenicity as it manifests itself, and find our own proper and Scriptural role in today's ecclesiastical world.

The word 'ecumenical' comes from a Greek word which really means: 'the whole inhabited earth.' Thus, in the early history of the Church, when the Church was faced with various heresies concerning the truth of the trinity and the person and natures of Christ, the Church called 'ecumenical' councils to deal with these problems and determine the truth of Scripture. This use of the word indicates that it referred to the church from the viewpoint of her catholicity; that is, that the church as it met in council meetings represented the entire inhabited world. Only when there was represented the entire church, from the whole known world, was the council considered ecumenical.

In the strictest sense of the word, this is still the meaning. An ecumenical church would be a 'one world church.' There are many aspects of the ecumenical movement which are not world-wide; but even these are usually considered hesitant steps in the direction of a one-world church.

For many centuries, from Pentecost on, there was only one institutional church. There were, to be sure, many off-shoots from this one church. But these were generally considered sectarian movements really divorced from the mainstream of the church and destined to disappear. This one institutional church was later to be known as the Roman Catholic Church and continued in its position of supremacy until 1054 when the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church went separate ways. This situation continued until the time of the Protestant Reformation. It was in the years following the Protestant Reformation that the church become hopelessly fragmented. There were different streams from the Reformation itself, such as the Lutheran and Calvinistic stream. There were national branches of Lutheranism as well as Reformed Churches. But there were also countless denominations differing in quite fundamental respects within one particular nation. It is this denominational fragmentation which has, in the minds of many, destroyed the unity of the Church and necessitated the ecumenical movement. Not only within the sphere of Protestantism, however, must the breaches of schism be removed, but also between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism and between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy must ancient wounds be healed and unity restored.


What Is the Church?

While it is apparent that the central question of ecumenicity is the question of the unity of the church, a deeper and equally important question is: What is the church? Several important aspects of the truth concerning the church have bearing on our subject.

First of all, the Scriptures emphasize that the church is the creation of God. The Scriptures use many figures of speech to describe the Church. It is called the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:27, Eph. 1:23, etc.), the temple of God (Eph. 2:20-22), a royal priesthood and an holy nation (I Peter 2:9), a vine and its branches (John 15:1) and many other figures. But the emphasis throughout is the fact that the Church is God's handiwork. The church is the creation of God which He forms through Jesus Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism expresses this truth in summarizing all that Scripture has to say on this point:

What believest thou concerning the 'holy catholic church' of Christ? That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.

That the church is God's creation implies several very fundamental truths. It implies, in the first place, that the church is the object of God's decree of eternal election. God chooses His church from before the foundation of the world and sovereignly sets the limits of it. 'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before him' (Eph. 1:3, 4).

Secondly, this elected church of God is a church chosen in Christ because it is redeemed in Christ. Christ died for her on Calvary and purchased her with His own blood, making her His own unique possession. 'Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: who verily was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you' (I Peter 1:18-20).

Thirdly, this church is formed in time by the power of God's irresistible calling. He calls His people whom He has chosen and for whom Christ died, out of darkness into light, out of the fellowship of the world into the communion of the body of Christ. 'Giving thanks unto the Father . . . Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear son.' Col. 1:12-13.

It is this work of God which forms the church into a unity. Every believer, who on Sunday, confesses the Apostolic Creed says: 'I believe an holy catholic church.' This is a truth which the believer confesses. The church is a unity. This unity is an actual fact. It is a truth which the believer confesses by faith. It is a truth which he believes characterizes the church at any time in the history of the world. From this point of view, he does not wait for some future manifestation of that unity. He believes that one church of God is a unity now. And it is a unity because God makes it such. The true unity of the church is God's work. No human efforts can destroy that unity. No schisms can tear it to pieces. No denominational fracturing can make it cease to exist. But for the same reason, no human efforts can create it. It is God's work.


What Is the Unity of the Church?

It is on this basis that we can determine what the true unity of the Church is.

Essentially, the unity of the church is a unity of the body of Christ. And because it is a unity of the body of Christ, it is a unity which is in Christ. Election is in Christ; atonement is in Christ; the calling of the church is through Christ. The whole church exists in Christ and lives out of Him. Her life comes from Christ. Her inheritance is given to her by Christ. Her existence in the world is dependent upon Christ. Her unity is the unity of Christ Himself.

The texts which speak of the unity of the church all emphasize this. In that important 12th chapter of I Cor., where the apostle describes the unity of the Church as the unity of one body, he explicitly points to the fact that this unity is only in Christ. 'For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ' (v. 12). The same is true of every figure which Scripture uses to define the nature of the church. Cf. e.g., Eph. 4:3-13, John 17:19-23, etc.

But while this unity of the church in Christ means many things, it means essentially that this unity is a unity of faith and truth. The unity of the church in Christ is a unity of faith because the believer is ingrafted into Christ by faith. By one faith, worked by one Spirit, as it is in the hearts of all those who belong to the church, is the unity of the church realized. And that faith is the confession of the truth as it is in Christ, as Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God. Thus true unity is the unity of the truth.

In I Cor. 12 the apostle writes: 'Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost' (v. 3). How strongly the apostle emphasizes precisely this truth in Eph. 4:3-6, 11-15: 'Endeavouring 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. And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ: That we hence forth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.' The same truth is emphasized in that oft-misquoted passage from John 17: 'And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us (vv. 19-21).

Thus the unity of the church is a unity of faith in Christ. And that faith in Christ is a unity of the confession of the truth as it is contained in the Scriptures, the infallible record of the revelation of God through Christ.


Institutional Unity

It is not correct to say that the unity of the truth is the only expression of the unity of the Church of Christ Paul speaks of the fact that this unity is also one hope of your calling and one baptism. But it nevertheless remains a fact that at the basis of all the unity of the church is a unity of faith in the truth. It is for this reason that the church puts her confession of the truth in the form of creeds, and calls these creeds 'Forms of Unity.' They are confessions which the church makes to express her unity by means of her faith in the truth of God's Word.

It is in this way that the basic unity of the body of Christ comes to expression in the institutional life of the church. This unity is manifested first of all in the local congregation. Each local congregation is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ. With her office bearers appointed by Christ to represent the rule of Christ, the congregation manifests fully Christ's body. And this basic and essential unity of a congregation is evident in her confession which she makes through the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline.

But this unity of the church, expressed as it is in the local congregation, also comes to manifestation in denominational life where several congregations join for common purposes. They join to express, in mutual alliance, the unity which they have in Christ. They join together to engage in the work which is assigned to them as the church of Christ in the world - work which they cannot do as individual congregations. Such work includes the training of ministers of the gospel and the sending out of missionaries to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth.

But in this denominational unity, the principle of unity is the truth of Christ. Only when denominations are formed on the basis of a mutual confession of the truth can there be any true unity. And that truth is the truth of the historic confessions of the church. For these confessions unite the church of today with the church of all ages and make of all the church of Christ one holy catholic church.


Does Modern Ecumenicity Express This Unity?

We need only to characterize modern day ecumenicity to demonstrate that it falls short in important respects from this Scriptural unity of the church.

The impetus for modern ecumenicity has to be found in the mission field historically. In the mission work of the church, the church was embarrassed by the fact that different denominations worked in the same places teaching different doctrines. The first ecumenical organizations were mission organizations.

But this is no longer true today. The concept of mission work has been excluded as an impelling force in ecumenicity, and it has been replaced by what is called 'service.' The church, it is said, is in the world for service. The original Executive Committee of the Life and World Movement (a forerunner of the World Council of Churches) sharply defined this when it said in an official policy paper: 'Doctrine divides; service unites.'

This had determined the direction of much of modern day ecumenicity. The calling to serve has been the unifying factor in ecumenical movements. This is especially true of the more liberal ecumenical movements such as the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches. These organizations see the calling of the Church to be to work in the areas of race relations, national and international politics, social problems of poverty, crime, etc. One need only read the latest decisions of these ecumenical bodies to see how far they have substituted the gospel of Scripture for a social gospel with the implied promise of a heaven here upon earth.

But with this emphasis on service has come a corresponding de-emphasis on doctrine. In some instances, doctrine has simply been pushed aside as being totally irrelevant. This is all but true of the so-called COCU movement. In other instances, the doctrinal basis of an organization is so broad that almost any church can become a part of it without sacrificing doctrinal integrity. This is surely true of the doctrinal basis of the World Council of Churches.

That the truth of Scripture becomes irrelevant and a barrier to union in modern ecumenical thinking is not at all strange. The goal is unity at any cost. The concern of ecumenical leaders is a one-world church. Service is the all-important thing. 'Doctrine divides; service unites.'

And this notion is in turn based upon the premise that doctrine is relative, subject to change, adaptable to every new generation. Scripture is not the infallibly inspired rule of faith and life. It is the history of religion, collating the best ideas of religion in ages gone by. Today we need new expressions which will fit our modern times, which have as their key point the calling to be of service in the world.

With this characteristic of ecumenicity comes also another. If service is the sole (or, at least, the chief) calling of the church then also it is true that the church aims her life in the direction of some sort of post-millennialism. With all the emphasis on a social gospel, the emphasis also shifts from a return of Christ upon the clouds of heaven to destroy this world, to a heaven here upon earth. The goal is an earthly utopia where all the problems of life are solved and where especially the techniques of modern science and the social influences of the church have united all men in a general brotherhood of man under a universal fatherhood of God. This kind of thinking has so infected the ecumenical movement that, in the desire to build a one-world church, the ecumenical movement has mired herself in the politics and sociological issues of the day so deeply that it is beyond rescue.


A Basic Denial of Scriptural Unity

It is apparent that this is a fundamentally wrong approach.

If the true unity of the church is basically a unity in the truth, then the truth is all important. Only where Scripture is the infallible rule of faith and life can true unity prevail. Only where the historic confessions of the church remain the living confessions of the people of God can true unity of the church be expressed. Unity can be found only where the truth is maintained. Unity can be gained only by steadily growing in the truth of Scripture.

The church must take the truth of the church in the past and develop it on the basis of the Word of God. She must search the Scriptures constantly, and plunge ever deeper in the glorious truths of God's Word. Then there will be unity. Without it, there can never be any unity whatsoever. To forge an outward institutional unity which is not based upon the truth of Scripture is to make a counterfeit unity, a cheap sham, a unity of the lie. It is to forge a church which is the instrument of false religion and the lie of Satan, a church which will some day serve as the right arm of Antichrist. The institutional unity of the true church must always be an expression of the unity of the body of Christ—a unity of one faith.

In connection with this, it is apparent too that the calling of the church is not a social calling. This is an altogether unscriptural and inappropriate emphasis. The Church's calling is to preach the gospel so that all the elect members of the body of Christ, chosen from before the world's beginning and redeemed in the blood of Calvary, may be brought into the unity of the church. It is only when the church does this that she will not sell her heavenly birthright for a mess of postmillennial pottage. The post-millennialism and universalism of so much of modern day ecumenicity is in direct conflict with Scripture and destroys the church as the manifestation of Christ's body.

To the extent that any ecumenical movement is guilty of under-emphasizing the truth of Scripture, it becomes a false expression of unity.

If it is objected that this will inevitably leave the church fragmented, then a couple of points need to be emphasized.

In the first place, it is not at all proved that denominational unity and organic oneness, even of the churches who confess the essentials of the truth, is a desirable thing. Surely this is true when we consider the national character of each church. Even though denominations in foreign lands are essentially one in the truth, it is entirely possible that individual denominational identity can better serve the purpose of the church of Christ in the world than organic union. There is, no doubt, room for organizations such as the Reformed Ecumenical Council. A loosely knitted organization in which each individual Reformed and Presbyterian body retains its own denominational unity but in which churches of like confession labour together in common causes is surely a legitimate expression of the unity of the body of Christ. But such organizations must deal seriously with the threats of modernism and Arminianism which even now are rearing their ugly heads in their midst, and must be at great pains to preserve the truth, which is their only basis of unity.

Secondly, it must always be remembered that the institution of the church must express the unity of the body of Christ. And this body of Christ is the number of the elect and redeemed saints. While the church on earth will never be perfect, it must not become enamoured with the siren calls of universalism. When the truth is preserved, the church will be an instrument to gather the elect of God. But this gathering will never embrace the majority of mankind. The church must not be surprised when, though many are called, few are saved. Nor must the church be caught off-guard when apostasy arises. This will continue to happen in all history. And apostasy must be dealt with firmly and on the basis of Scripture. For it is a threat to the unity of the church.


Our Calling

The ecumenical calling of the church is therefore first of all a negative one. There is little doubt but that the ecumenical movement will gain impetus as time goes on. There will be increased speed in bringing all denominations under one roof. Protestantism will achieve greater institutional unity in spite of the fact that along the way are temporary set-backs. And presently (as is already happening today) Protestantism will re-cross the chasm created by the Reformation and run back into the arms of mother Rome. To a greater or lesser degree, as time rolls on, splinter groups and competing organizations will fall in line. A one-world Church will be reared.

Our calling is to condemn such false unity unceasingly and unwaveringly. We must condemn such false ecumenicity by refusing to have a part in it. Now yet we have the choice of whether to participate or not. But the time may very well come when the request to join will become a demand. The demand will be so imperious that to refuse will invite persecution and will result in being denied the right of existence. But even then the church must not shrink back. She must treasure her unity in the truth of Christ more precious than silver or gold—more precious than life itself. She must be ever wary of compromise, ever on the alert against all who would rob her of her only basis of unity. She must remain faithful to the end that no one take her crown.

Secondly, the church has a positive calling. That calling is first of all to grow and increase in the Word of God. Only when believers mutually love the Word of God, humbly bow before it, earnestly desire to grow in the knowledge of God in Christ as it is given in Scripture will unity become a positive reality. Where the love for the truth has grown cold in the press of modern materialism, where the searching for the truth which characterized the Bereans has atrophied, where the confessions of the church have become dead, there the church becomes easy prey for false doctrine and false unity. Where the truth is preached in purity and the saints are eager to grow in grace, there unity will come to expression.

Then, secondly, the saints must seek this truth with others who also maintain the historic position of the church. The confessions must serve as the basis of unity. Non-essentials need not stand in the way. But the confessions are all-important. Where confessions agree, there must unity prevail. Thus the church need never fear discussion amongst denominations if only discussion is on the basis of Scripture and the confessions, if only the discussion is fearless, frank and forthright, if only the saints mutually are willing to bow before the Word of God. The things which divide us cannot then be barriers to union.

And indeed, the goal is institutional unity. How close we shall come to this in this world of sin is hard to know. It is even a question whether it is the Lord's will that such unity be complete on this side of the grave. But the true child of God may rest assured that his faith in one holy catholic church is not a misguided faith, an empty faith, a faith in a delusion. The church of Christ is one, and shall remain one, though all the forces of hell seek to destroy her. And that church shall be preserved until the final unity of the church is achieved in the tabernacle of God.

Last modified on 20 February 2013
Hanko, Herman

Prof. Herman Hanko (Wife: Wilma)

Ordained: October 1955

Pastorates: Hope, Walker, MI - 1955; Doon, IA - 1963; Professor to the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1965

Emeritus: 2001


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