One of the most devastating attacks on the life and health of the church throughout all of church history has been what is known as the ecumenical movement—the downplaying of doctrine in order to foster partnership in ministry between (a) genuine Christians and (b) people who were willing to call themselves Christians but who rejected fundamental Christian doctrines.
In the latter half of the 19th century, theological liberalism fundamentally redefined what it meant to be a Christian. It had nothing to do, they said, with believing in doctrine. It didn’t matter if you believed in an inerrant Bible; the scholarship of the day had debunked that! It didn’t matter if you believed in the virgin birth and the deity of Christ; modern science disproved that! It didn’t matter if you embraced penal substitutionary atonement; blood sacrifice and a wrathful God are just primitive and obscene, and besides, man is not fundamentally sinful but basically good! What mattered was one’s experience of Christ, and whether we live like Christ. “And we don’t need doctrine to do that!” they said. “Doctrine divides!” Iain Murray wrote of that sentiment, “‘Christianity is life, not doctrine,’ was the great cry. The promise was that Christianity would advance wonderfully if it was no longer shackled by insistence on doctrines and orthodox beliefs” (“Divisive Unity,” 233).
The Emergence of the Social Gospel
The result of this kind of thinking was the social gospel of the early 20th century. If what it means to be a Christian has little to do with creeds and everything to do with deeds, then what makes someone a Christian is whether they’re laboring for the betterment of society—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, working for justice, and so on. And so across denominational lines, professing “Christians” were coming together to promote unity around a common mission, even if they didn’t share a common faith. In 1908, more than 30 denominations representing over 18 million American Protestants set their doctrinal differences aside and met in Philadelphia at what is called the Federal Council of Churches. Their great concern was not the Gospel, but how to address the social issues of the day: race relations, international justice, reducing armaments, education, and regulating the consumption of alcohol. This was the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement.
Now, in each of these denominations there were faithful Christians who recognized that—as much as social ills mattered—the body of Christ was not defined most fundamentally by a common social agenda, but by a common confession of faith in the Christ of Scripture. These faithful men, led by the great Presbyterian professor J. Gresham Machen, among others, understood that there were certain fundamental truths that no one claiming to be a Christian could deny. A Christ who is not fully God is a fundamentally different Christ than one who is fully God. A salvation that can be more-or-less earned through good morals and good deeds is a fundamentally different salvation than the one purchased freely on the cross by our wrath-bearing Substitute. A religion built upon the authority of man’s ideas is a fundamentally different religion than one built upon the authority of God as revealed in Scripture. And so these men—pejoratively labeled Fundamentalists—insisted that the doctrinal fundamentals of the Christian faith were non-negotiable, and that, if they were abandoned, it didn’t matter how many people-who-called-themselves-Christians you could gather into one place: there was no true unity.
Strength in Numbers?
The conflict between the Liberals and the so-called Fundamentalists raged on through the ensuing years. In 1948, the World Council of Churches convened in Amsterdam, and embraced as Christian anyone who merely said they believed that Jesus Christ was God and Savior. Delegates from 147 churches brought Protestants, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox persons together from all over the world. Once again, the goal was to show strength in numbers—to portray to the world that “Christianity” was visibly united, a cultural force—and to pool support for worldwide missions and social justice. In every case, these movements and councils lamented the division across doctrinal and denominational lines, and argued that if Christianity is to have any genuine influence in the world, we must be big. And so we must come together. A divided church is an offense to God and a cause of her ineffectiveness in the world, they said.
By the 1950s, the Billy Graham crusades had become an evangelistic phenomenon. Tens of thousands were flocking to hear this evangelist speak, and thousands were making professions of faith in Christ. Now this caught the attention of the liberal ecumenists, because Graham believed in all the fundamental doctrines that they rejected. He believed in the sinfulness of man, the need of a spiritual Savior from sin, and he called for conversions. And yet he was drawing crowds! When Graham began his first crusade in Britain in 1954, the liberal Anglicans denounced him. But by the end of the crusade several months later, they were sitting on the platform alongside him. The Archbishop of Canterbury even gave the benediction at the final meeting.
And it was all—as it always is—driven by numbers. One of the Anglican liberals said of partnering with Graham, “What does fundamentalist theology matter compared with gathering in the people we have all missed?” In other words, Who cares about the theology? Just get the people in the seats! And sadly enough, the uncrucified lust for influence worked in both directions. Iain Murray writes,
“But the truth was that [Graham] wanted the cooperation of these men for the aid that their reputations gave to his work, and for the way it could secure wider denominational support. Winning the mainline denominations remained the primary objective and that could not be done without the good will of the leaders. So both sides were motivated by an ulterior motive. On Graham’s side the motive was to get a wider hearing for the gospel, but in order to do this, he adopted an attitude towards false teachers that is not compatible with the New Testament” (“Divisive Unity,” 240).
Good Morals Do Not Reform Bad Company
And though the motive is almost always pure—that is, to influence the enemies of the Gospel to be swayed from their opinions and embrace the Gospel—when you blur the lines between belief and unbelief, it always works in the opposite direction. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’” You might think, “Oh, I’m just partnering with them so that I can minister to them and so that they can get saved!” But Paul says, “No, don’t be deceived! Good morals do not reform bad company; bad company corrupts good morals.”
And, sadly, that’s precisely what happened to Billy Graham. His biographer, William Martin, records Graham as saying, “The ecumenical movement has broadened my viewpoint.” “I don’t think the differences [between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism] are important as far as personal salvation is concerned.” And “I feel I belong to all the churches. I am equally at home in an Anglican or Baptist or a Brethren assembly or a Roman Catholic church” (“Divisive Unity,” 243). And in 1997, in a now-famous interview with Robert Schuller, Graham demonstrates the inevitable end of ecumenism when he says,
“I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, they are members of the body of Christ. . . . They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and going to be with us in heaven” (ibid, 243).
The force of the ecumenical battles could be felt throughout the 1960s, especially as they related to the widening gulf between Anglicanism and British Evangelicalism. Martyn Lloyd-Jones continually exhorted British Evangelicals to disassociate from an Anglican Church that had compromised with liberalism and Roman Catholicism, and to form an evangelical union of churches in its stead. He wrote, “We have evidence before our eyes that our staying amongst [the non-evangelicals] does not seem to be converting them to our view but rather to a lowering of the spiritual temperature of those who are staying amongst them and an increasing tendency to doctrinal accommodation and compromise” (ibid., 242). And as I said, that’s always what happens, because bad company corrupts good morals.
In the mid-60s, the Roman Catholic Church convened the Second Vatican Council, and the effects of the ecumenical movement could be felt throughout. Vatican II was in large measure an attempt to soften and liberalize Catholic dogma. As the years progressed, Anglicanism grew more and more polluted with theological compromise both in the direction of liberalism and Roman Catholicism.
Fighting to End the Reformation
But that’s not the end of the story. In March of 1994, the ecumenical movement breathed new life when 30 well-known evangelicals and influential Roman Catholics signed and published the document titled “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT). And in precisely the same spirit as the original social gospel compromisers, the authors and signatories of this document totally downplayed and diminished the fundamental doctrinal differences that separate evangelicals and Roman Catholics, so that we can stand “united” to promote a “Christian” view of society and social issues.
Rome had not budged on their insistence that the Roman Catholic Magisterium, and not Scripture alone, is the infallible authority for the church. They had not rescinded the anathemas of the Council of Trent, which condemn to hell anyone who believes that a man is justified by faith alone, apart from works. And yet in the name of “the right ordering of society,” and the assertion that “politics, law, and culture must be secured by moral truth,” these cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith were marginalized, as if they were not absolutely fundamental to salvation. And one can only grieve that several prominent evangelicals fixed their signatures to this document.
Religious freedom, abortion issues, parental choice in education, a free-market economy, pro-family legislation, and a responsible foreign policy were all good things. But they were not and are not ultimate. But these men made them ultimate. Uniting on these issues became more important than the Gospel. More important than the truth that we’re declared righteous by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Than the reality that Christ alone is the Head of the Church, the sole Mediator between God and men. That the sacrifice He offered as our Great High Priest is so sufficient that it does not need to be repeated each week in wine and wafers.
15 years later, in late 2009, a sort of “ECT II” was published in what is called The Manhattan Declaration. Focusing on the perceived need for co-belligerence on social issues like religious freedom and the right to life, the declaration begins this way: “We, as Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians, have gathered . . . to make the following declaration.” And so in the first sentence, the writers of the Manhattan Declaration deny that belief or unbelief in the very heart of the Gospel makes someone a Christian. You can be an “[Eastern] Orthodox Christian” while believing you’re saved through baptism; you can be a “Catholic Christian” while believing that Christ’s once-for-all sacrificial death is insufficient to secure your salvation. You don’t have to be Evangelical—that is, you don’t need the Evangel—to be a Christian!
It goes on, “We act together in obedience to the one true God . . . .” And yet it is absurd to suggest that it’s possible to obey the one true God while rejecting the one true Gospel. Paul says that even if he himself, or even an angel from heaven—no matter if he calls himself a Christian—preaches a gospel contrary to the Gospel preached in Scripture, “he is to be accursed” (Gal 1:8).
Ecumenical or Evangelical?
And so the story of the ecumenical movement is exactly the same. From the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, to the Manhattan Declaration in the present day, it’s the exact same story: Redefine Christianity so that faith in the Christ of Scripture and/or the Gospel of Scripture is unnecessary, so that you can partner with enemies of the Gospel who call themselves Christians, form a large group, and seize cultural influence. But Francis Schaeffer captured well the fundamental failure of the ecumenical movement when he wrote, “What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger if sufficient numbers under the name evangelical no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical?” (“Divisive Unity,” 243).
If you lose the Gospel, you have no true unity, because the mission of Christ’s Church is not to exercise dominion over society and culture, but to preach the Gospel to every creature—to proclaim the Gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins through faith alone in Christ alone—so that we relieve the eternal suffering that sinful men and women are condemned to face as the just penalty for their sins. And any time throughout all of church history when the professing church has forgotten that, and—however well-intentioned—has compromised to partner in ministry with those who do not share a common faith in the one and only Gospel of Jesus Christ—she has ceased to be the church, and has courted the judgment rather than the blessing of God.
The 19th-century Scottish minister Horatius Bonar didn’t have to live in the midst of 20th-century ecumenism to understand this. He wrote, “Fellowship between faith and unbelief must, sooner or later, be fatal to the former.” Iain Murray comments on this, saying,
“This is so, not because error is more powerful than truth, but because if we befriend the advocates of error, we will be deprived of the aid of the Spirit of truth. If we retain orthodoxy in word, we shall certainly lose its power. Wrong teaching about Christ and the gospel, according to Scripture, is deadly dangerous. Out of good motives we may seek to win influence for the gospel among those who are not its friends, but when we do so at the expense of truth, we shall not prosper in the sight of God” (ibid., 244).
There can be no partnership in ministry between the body of Christ who has been saved by the Gospel, and the enemies of that Gospel. No matter how many other good things they agree on, if you don’t have the Gospel, you don’t have Jesus. And if you don’t have Jesus, you simply cannot be united to those who do.
And this is precisely Paul’s point in 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1, a passage we’ll spend several posts looking into in the weeks to come.