Archive: Evangelicals Believe in Ecumenism

By Dale Bittinger, Pastor
First United Methodist Church, Rockwood, Tennessee
Chairman, Good News Board of Directors

The immediate reaction to the statement found in our title will be varied. Ultra liberals will disagree and accuse evangelicals of disrupting the ecumenical movement through insistence on holding on to an “archaic theology.” Some evangelicals, concerned about the brand of ecumenism that gains the headlines today, will inwardly groan, even gnash their teeth. For these the word should be irk-u-menism not ecumenism.

These feelings and emotions have little bearing on the fact that there is an authentically Biblical ecumenism. Evangelicals are proudly loyal to Christian unity rooted in the scriptures. We recognize that when hatred, suspicion, and the like creep into the Body of Christ, the life of the body is threatened. No one needs to convince us that berating fellow Christians is wrong.

No honest evangelical will deny that many of the divisions within the Church have been scandalous and ridiculous. Some have sprung from childish and selfish motivation. However, we refuse to agree that all division and diversity is sinful or disgraceful. Moreover, we strongly assert that much of the cleavage has come about as a reaction to the distortion or denial of the historic Christian faith. Many groups have been raised up of God to preserve the evangelical message. If God blesses these churches, we cannot condemn them. Further, we declare that the real divisive scandal rests with those who attack the scriptures, water down the Christian message, misrepresent the nature and task of the Church, and lower Biblical moral standards.

So, we again repeat the statement, “evangelicals believe in ecumenism.” Now let’s look at the rallying points which we consider to be the irreducible minimum for Christ-like oneness. From these essentials – we cannot – we dare not retreat.

(1.)  Evangelicals believe in an ecumenism built on biblical authority rather than theological consensus.

Many of those active in the movement toward church union do not believe that the Bible is inspired any more than any other good book. So, a Bible without authority necessitates a quest for theological consensus or agreement. These philosophical theologians reason as follows: Every religious thinker in his best moments has some intuition or intimation of religious truth. Ideas discovered in this way have a certain kind of authority. So, every theological idea, whether of the beatnik variety or not, must be considered. Through discussion and controversy, a compatible theology is being evolved. This theology will be forever relative and emerging. Agreement with the Bible is not considered a valid part of this process. So, such phrases as “trends in modem theology” have come into being. For many, then, the quest for oneness is centered in a consensus theology hammered out through intellectual struggle rather than divine revelation.

On the other hand, in John 17, Jesus’ prayer for oneness was preceded by prayer for sanctification through the Word. This sequence was not accidental. There was also a declaration that His Word was truth. He further prayed for those who would believe on Him through the Word of His disciples. This reference was to the Epistles and the Gospels. From these verses, we have a right to conclude that Christian unity must be preceded by a belief in the truth of the scriptures. No movement which denies or distorts the Word is authentically ecumenical.

(2.)  Evangelicals believe in an ecumenism whose unity is derived from the “being of God” rather than from ecclesiastical structure.

The key to the oneness for which Jesus prayed in John 17 can be found in the phrase, “As we are one.” How were Jesus and the Father one? They were one in being. In verse 21 Jesus plainly states that the Father is in Him and He is in the Father. He then declares that his followers are to be one, “in us,” meaning in the Father and the Son. So, it follows that our unity must be in the being of God.

Two corollaries emerge from this fact of unity in the being of God. First, only a divine Christ could share in the “Being of God” as described in John 17. A merely human Christ could not provide any lasting spiritual cohesion. Second, a dynamic conversion experience is necessary for a sinful man to be initiated into the holy being of God. One cannot be simply “structured in.” At this point, one learns from modern medical science that an organ transplanted into the human body must be made compatible or be rejected. The New Birth is the compatibility process for transplantation into the Body of Christ or Being of God. Only those who have believed into Christ have a common purpose derived from mutual commitment to our Lord.

Paul continues this idea of unity in the Being of God in I Corinthians 12. Verse 4 talks of a diversity of gifts with the same Spirit. Verse 5 talks of a diversity of administrations with the same Lord. Verse 6 talks of a diversity of operations but the same God working in all. Verse 14 states that the body is not one member but many. The underlying principle in all these verses is that the unity of the body is in the life of the body and not the structure.

An amusing illustration of the folly of believing in unity without life once took place in an entomological laboratory. A group of students, eager to fool their professor, constructed a bug from parts of a variety of insects. The teacher was requested to identify the species. Pupils were inwardly rejoicing at the anticipated success of their ruse. However, their smugness was soon shattered by the voice of the old man. “My friends,” he said, “that is a humbug.” Could it be that there are some humbugs being constructed in ecclesiastical laboratories?

It must be observed, however, that Paul did not reject the idea of structural unity. He simply relegated it to a secondary status. So, we follow in the steps of our Lord and His great apostle in teaching that inner life in the being of God, not outer conformity, is the primary well-spring of Christian unity.

(3.)  Evangelicals believe in an ecumenism that springs from the urgency of proclaiming the New Testament Gospel to our age.

The evangelistic task should draw the followers of Christ together. Mutuality of mission should result in unity. Nevertheless, the twentieth century Church has been sharply divided over the goals and methods of evangelism. We of the evangelical theological bent are suspicious of some efforts at unity because we cannot accept the substitution of non-biblically oriented ecclesiastical propaganda for the New Testament kerygma (good news of redemption in Christ). We are disturbed when such things as race relations, birth control, war and peace, and poverty relief are seen as the heart of the message of the Church. We stand aghast when civil rights marches, political lobbying, legislative agitation, and the like are given priority over the proclamation of the redemptive message of salvation from sin. For us, no movement toward unity can countenance the changing of society through pronouncements and agitation as of more importance than the changing of individuals through faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. We believe that no constructive social change can be expected until individuals, who make up society, are transformed as individuals, through surrender to Christ and the receiving of His Spirit.

The evangelical ecumenist feels that Acts 1:8 spells out true evangelism: “Ye shall receive power after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you and ye shall be witnesses of me.” From this we see that the evangelistic enterprise is the presentation of the story of Jesus in such a convincing way, through the power of the Holy Spirit, that men are convicted of their sin and turn to Jesus Christ for salvation. Changed men will change society. No other conception of the task of the Church can have ecumenical cohesiveness.

(4.)  Evangelicals believe in an ecumenism which derives its power from the Holy Spirit rather than from the impingement of numerical strength.

The “merging mania” with its accompanying belief that growth in numbers brings growth in power and prestige is foreign to the scriptures. The present world system may share this belief, but such is not the teaching of our Lord. He said, “Ye are not of the world even as I am not of the world.” The Bible also quotes God as saying that His means of operation is not by secular might or power but by the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. God’s Book also drives home the fact that God has never needed majority to carry on His work. Such incidents as Gideon and his 300 reveal that God does not need to create a monopoly to achieve His will.

Our government has recognized that man cannot be trusted with exclusive control in the commercial world. Pre-Reformation Church history has shown that men can also misuse an ecclesiastical monopoly. So, God’s people pray not so much for numerical strength as for spiritual power. Through the power of the Holy Spirit we will not only be welded together in oneness, we will also have a saving influence on our age.

In summary, let me say that we need one faith more than one organization. We need unity in Christ more than union of churches. True union will come not from voting or desiring it but from a common loyalty to Christ and His Word, and a common experience of Christ as Savior. So, we aspire not so much for one denomination as for one mind – the mind of Christ. We seek one Spirit – the Holy Spirit. We hold to one faith as revealed in the scriptures. We do not seek to build a super church, but we seek to lift up a super-Christ. In the words of Paul, our aim is that Christ may be all in all.

There are three contenders for supremacy in the Church: Christ, man, and Satan. God grant that Christ may prevail.


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