Growing disenchantment with the ecumenical movement

Despite the continued progress of the ecumenical movement, all is not well. Both the radical militants and the traditionalists have voiced uneasiness about ecumenical trends.

Recent pronouncements of world and national church councils suggest that the concern for doctrinal purity and integrity has been supplanted by a preoccupation with solving the pressing problems in society. The Church must not hesitate to speak to the moral issues of our time, but its judgments should be primarily theological, not sociological or ideological.

It also appears that the earlier missionary orientation of ecumenism is being overshadowed by a search for organizational unity. The well-known ecumenist John Mackay, in this book Christian Reality and Appearance, deplores this latest style of ecumenism and urges that there be a renewed emphasis on mission. Ian Henderson sees the call for oneness as a demand for power and maintains that ecclesiastical imperialism rather than the Gospel is the motivating force in many ecumencial conversations (see his Power Without Glory).

The distinguished Roman Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown notes that in Catholic ecumenism a biblical theological basis is no longer as evident as it was during the second Vatican Council. The new tendency is “to make much less use of Scripture”; he also opposes the “widespread ethical relativism which questions the Bible’s relevance to moral standards today” and “the evolutionary approach in theology, whose optimism about human history strongly contrasts with … biblical pessimism” (The Christian Century, June 11, 1969, p. 816).

Although evangelicals are becoming more ecumenically minded, they continue to have deep reservations about ecumenism. In The Protest of a Troubled Protestant Harold Brown points to syncretism as the greatest current danger in the ecumenical movement. He does not mention that Dr. Visser’t Hooft, former general secretary of the World Council of Churches, in a very relevant and significant book entitled No Other Name, also expressed concern that the faith not be diluted by the synthesis of Christian and pagan outlooks. Brown recognizes the difference between ecumenical conversations within Christianity and interfaith contacts; yet “to the extent that ecumenism minimizes the importance of doctrine and the content of religious ceremonies, as is currently being done in ecumenical worship, it is laying the necessary groundwork for inter-faith worship, which is religion without doctrine, without meaning, and ultimately without God” (The Protest of a Troubled Protestant, p. 36).

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The Eastern Orthodox churches are also becoming increasingly disturbed about recent developments in the ecumenical movement. In a thirteen-page memo distributed by faculty members of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox seminary, the National Council of Churches was said to encourage “hasty mergers and the dilution of Christianity in secularism” (Newsweek, Feb. 9, 1970, p. 78). The memo also deplored the fact that the conciliar movement does not concern itself with the moral degradation in our society.

There is every reason to believe that ideological considerations have intruded into the faith-perspective of many ecumenical leaders. How else, for example, can one explain why James Baldwin, a hero of the New Left, was invited to address a plenary session at the Uppsala conference, but Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor who spent fourteen years in a Communist prison in Romania, though present at Uppsala, was not permitted to tell the delegates about the underground church behind the iron curtain? Instead of giving an unequivocal witness to the Gospel of Christ, some of the new ecumenical liturgies accentuate themes that are marked by liberal-radical commitments.

There is indeed a pressing need to rethink the goals and purposes of ecumenism. If the ecumenical movement is not to flounder in the morass of syncretism and institutionalism, it is imperative that biblically concerned Christians within the ecumenical movement make their voice heard.

Questionable Kinds Of Ecumenism

Among the questionable kinds of ecumenical activity today is secular ecumenism. If this term meant simply a united witness in the social area, we would have no objection, but for many people it appears to signify that the very basis of unity lies in common tasks in the world. Concerted effort in the social dimension should be regarded not as a ground but as a manifestation of Christian unity. Fruitful ecumenical relations must issue in action, but such action cannot long maintain itself unless it is motivated by mission and rooted in a living faith in Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical ecumenism also falls short of the mark. Here the emphasis is upon organic mergers and institutional consolidation. In Roman Catholicism this is reflected in a concern for hierarchy and sacraments. Some conservative Protestants seek a return to the creeds of the Reformation or of the early Church. A prescribed liturgy and a uniform polity are among the goals of the ecclesiastical ecumenists. The truth they are trying to preserve is that real unity does entail visible embodiment as well as spiritual kinship.

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Yet it is possible to have altar and pulpit fellowship as a sign of visible unity without structural unification. A world church may be in the providential plan of God, but this would be more a fruit than a goal of ecumenical endeavor. John Mackay has given this warning: “When Christian unity is equated with institutional oneness and episcopal control, and when both these are regarded as indispensable for real unity, let this not be forgotten: the most unified ecclesiastical structure in Christian history was the Hispanic Catholic Church, which was also the most spiritually sterile and the most disastrously fanatical” (Christian Reality and Appearance, p. 88).

Then there is the spiritualistic kind of ecumenism. In this case the basis for unity is seen to be a common religious experience or the inner light. Those who are inclined to spiritualism almost invariably have a docetic view of the Church. The real or “essential” church is equated with the invisible fellowship of believers, and the institutional church is a mask or cloak that hides more than it reveals the spiritual fellowship. Bonhoeffer in his Sanctorum Communio argues effectively against this position, for he shows that the Church can exist only in visible form. The charismatic revival that has penetrated Catholic as well as Protestant churches exemplifies a spiritualistic ecumenism: the ground of unity is seen as a renewal of the experience of Pentecost. To dispute this is not to deny the very solid contributions of the neo-Pentecostals to the missionary thrust of the Church in our time, but to insist that every movement and theology must be subjected to the critical scrutiny of the biblical Word.

Too often the spiritualists within the Church are inclined to doctrinal indifference and even syncretism, since what is sought is not a unity in truth but an experiential unity. To be sure, our unity is centered in a common faith in a single Lord, and this faith entails experience as well as trust. But the ground of our unity is in the object of faith, the Word of God—the person of Jesus Christ and the biblical witness to him.

Evangelical Ecumenism

True ecumenism will be both evangelical and catholic. It will try to maintain continuity with the tradition but at the same time seek the purification of this tradition in the light of the Word of God in the Bible. It will also be outreaching: its aim will be to include the whole world under the banner of Christ. Indeed, this aspect of ecumenism is closely related to the original meaning of ecumenical (oikumene)—worldwide.

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An evangelical and truly catholic ecumenism will seek not the unity of various religious traditions but instead their conversion to the Gospel of Christ. It will be the opposite of eclectic, for it acknowledges a definitive revelation of the truth in history. At the same time it will endeavor to bring the message of this revelation to all peoples. It will seek a common witness to Jesus Christ in word and deed, and this may entail organic union. But it will involve a visible unity under the cross of Christ, a unity that finds its embodiment in mission.

Evangelical ecumenism will be confessional, but not in the sense of calling for an uncritical submission to confessions of the past. On the contrary, those who are open to the Word of God today will boldly venture to forge new confessions that preserve the integrity of the faith in our age. A true confession, as Arthur Cochrane has aptly pointed out in The Church’s Confession Under Hitler, will negate and exclude as well as affirm. A confession of faith must embody a specific word of God that is directed against particular threats to the faith either within or outside the Church. Among these threats in our time are evolutionary naturalism, relativism, universalism, neo-mysticism, and racism.

One reason why Christians of an evangelical, biblical persuasion are wary of the Consultation on Church Union (COCU) is that it proposes organic merger without a prior agreement on doctrinal matters. A true church will seek to live on the basis of a confession of faith that gives it direction and purpose. To unite in the hope that some agreement will result at a future time is to put the cart before the horse.

Evangelical ecumenism also insists that there cannot be reunion in the true sense apart from inward spiritual renewal. The Vatican Council document “Decree on Ecumenism” reflects this truth: “There can be no ecumenism worthy of the name without a change of heart. For it is from newness of attitudes, from self-denial and unstinted love, that yearnings for unity take their rise and grow toward maturity” (II, 7).

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The spirit of evangelical ecumenism is present as much within Roman Catholicism as within mainline denominational Protestantism, and perhaps more so. No one has sounded the call to unity more forcefully than Hans Küng, but he constantly reminds us that unity does not necessarily mean union with centralized control. Küng opposes the vision of a monarchial, absolutist, centralized church that seems so often to preoccupy the conciliar movement. Those who stand in the tradition of evangelical and Reformed Protestantism could surely affirm with Küng: “The road to unity is not the return of one Church to another, or the exodus of one Church to join another, but a common crossroads, the conversion of all Churches to Christ and thus to one another” (The Church, p. 290).

At the same time other voices within Roman Catholicism appear to locate unity in the spirit of good will or in a common pursuit of truth. Many Catholic scholars seek as their ecumenical partners Protestant liberals who practically abandon the heritage of the Reformation. An evangelical ecumenist will insist that we cannot attain true unity without taking into account the achievements of the Reformation. A Catholic theologian as astute as Louis Bouyer has acknowledged that the Reformation preserved essential Catholic truths: the primal authority of Scripture, justification by grace, and faith alone (sola fide). Evangelical ecumenists will recognize the Protestant Reformation as a tragic necessity in the history of the Church, for although it sundered church unity, it also recovered for a time the biblical evangel, apart from which Christian unity is merely a façade.

Bonhoeffer’s Legacy

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is the spiritual mentor of many secular theologians, nevertheless contended that serious theology must be anchored in a concern for biblical and doctrinal truth. Though active in the ecumenical movement, he was at the same time sharply critical of trends that are very much apparent now. He observed in 1932: “The really disquieting problem of ecumenical work is not the relationship between organism and organization but that between truth and untruth in the preaching of the different churches” (No Rusty Swords, p. 157). He warned: “The Churches in the World Alliance have no common recognition of the truth. … We may not play with the truth, or else it will destroy us” (p. 172). A Roman Catholic scholar has observed: “To Bonhoeffer the ecumenical struggle was not a matter of ‘dialogue’ in the talkative, compliant sense, nor of an easy concession of doctrinal conflicts for a cheap unity; it was the search for integral Christian truth” (W. Kuhns, In Pursuit of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, p. 69).

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Bonhoeffer understood the essential task of the Church as the proclamation of the Gospel and the restoration of sinners. “The word of the Church is the call to conversion, the call to belief in the love of God in Christ” (Ethics, p. 357). He emphatically stated that the mission of the Church is not to solve the problems of the world, but at the same time he declared that the Church should relate to these problems and challenge them. He believed that fruitful ecumenical relations must issue in action, but that they must begin on the basis of the biblical proclamation. The word of truth must be applied to the world in which we live, but it must always remain the word of truth. Though he sought a concrete and compelling witness to the truth, his overriding concern was with the truth itself, the crucified and risen Christ.

Bonhoeffer was an authentic evangelical ecumenist, and this is why his writings have a catholic relevance. He avoided both a narrow evangelical sectarianism, which opposes dialogue with fellow Christians of other doctrinal persuasions, and a sub-Christian eclecticism that substitutes the universal quest for truth for the biblical imperative to witness to the truth. This is not to suggest, however, that we concur with all his conclusions, for sometimes he diverged from the scriptural norm, particularly in the belief expressed in his Ethics that all men are included in the kingdom of Christ.

A Prognosis

I hesitate to predict the future course of the ecumenical movement, but I can suggest one possibility on the basis of present trends. Instead of one church, there might very well be two churches emerging in the not too distant future. One of these will be hierarchical, monolithic, and syncretic, concerned with worldly power more than biblical truth. The other will be evangelical, spiritual, charismatic, and authentically catholic. The spiritual church will be a church under the Bible intent on bringing the world under the dominion of Christ; the worldly church will be a church that practically deifies its own tradition and external forms. The spiritual church will be missionary-minded: it will see its mission as going into the world and upholding Jesus Christ as the Saviour of the lost. The worldly church will seek to promote dialogues with the world religions as well as with Marxism and other forms of secular humanism, in order to discover a common unity. The spiritual church will be intolerant and exclusive in matters of faith, but its intolerance will be based upon the love of Jesus Christ that goes out to all men. The worldly church will seek to advance itself and therefore will be preoccupied with correct forms of ministry and polity. The spiritual or charismatic church will gladly die for the advancement of the Kingdom of God and the conversion of the lost. There will be a noticeable tension between the spiritual church and the secular culture, whereas the worldly church will tend to reflect and embody the values and goals of the culture.

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True ecumenism does not deny structural unity, but it does seek to bring all things in subjection to Jesus Christ and his Gospel. It does not even rule out the papacy, but, as Bonhoeffer has affirmed, “only a Pope who submitted unreservedly to the word of the Bible could be the shepherd of a united Christendom” (Ethics, p. 94). May error within the ecumenical movement be exposed, and may the truth of the Gospel be triumphant!

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