An interesting trend has manifest itself over the past century, and most specifically the past 50 to 75 years: the ecumenical trend. Various denominations who attacked one another with great vitriol and energy are now striving to work together and to manifest a form of unity. On the surface, this seems well and good: unity is a good thing, generally. Let us spend some time exploring this movement: what is it? Where did it come from? What does it involve, and what are its consequences? In the end, is it something with which God is pleased?
It is good to first consider what ecumenicalism is. According to WordReference, ecumenicalism is “the doctrine of the ecumenical movement that promotes cooperation and better understanding among different religious denominations, aimed at universal Christian unity”. This movement is made manifest in different ways. Perhaps the most obvious is represented by the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches, organizations created by the movement to facilitate these dialogues and forms of cooperation. The individual denominations involved also meet with one another for the same purposes and will also establish working relationships with one another.
The ecumenical movement sees its origins in the missionary society movement of the nineteenth century, when denominations would pool their resources to promote Christianity in other lands. The movement truly begins in 1910 with the meeting of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference, which eventually led to the creation of the organizations listed above. The trans-denominational nature of the missionary societies led to the tempering of hostile attitudes of denominations toward one another and fostered a desire for “reconciliation”.
Many modern denominations are involved in the ecumenical movement, including many Lutheran groups, many Calvinist groups, Anglicans/Episcopalians, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Roman Catholicism to an extent, and many more. Some Evangelical groups oppose the ecumenical movement, although others involved in that movement do participate.
The ecumenical movement holds to certain tenets. There is a desire to promote unity; those who promote this movement often appeal to John 17 and other passages that establish that Christians ought to be one. On the other hand, they also desire to “respect” the differences in doctrine and practice amongst the various groups participating in this movement. The movement calls for all members to hold to certain “essentials,” and whatever matters are not “essentials” allow for disagreement. The ecumenical movement, therefore, attempts to justify differences within Christianity with a veneer of unity.
The consequences of the movement are evident: if you disagree with the ecumenical movement, you will be considered as one fostering division or considered intolerant. Furthermore, the denominations involved feel as if they have done what they need to do in regards to promoting unity without actually having changed any of their practices.
Having established, then, the nature of the ecumenical movement, we must ask: is this the type of unity expected of Christians by God in the New Testament? What does the Bible say about the unity of Christians?
We must make it clear that there are some matters wherein diversity is either allowed or even expected. Racial, cultural, and ethnic diversity is not only acceptable but even desirable within the church (cf. Galatians 3:28). Furthermore, in Romans 14, Paul establishes that in matters of “food and drink” there is liberty, and brethren should not judge one another in these matters.
However, even in Romans 14 Paul establishes that matters of “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” are not up for variance (Romans 14:17). In Galatians 1:6-9, Paul establishes that “any other Gospel” than the one he preached was anathema, or accursed! Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 1:10, Paul encourages the brethren to be of the same mind and judgment.
What, then, of the claims of the ecumenical movement? Even the passage they cite to justify their idea– John 17– demonstrates that their concept of unity falls short. Indeed, Jesus would have all His followers be “one”…but “one” as the Father is in Him and He in the Father (John 17:21). The Scriptures demonstrate that the Father and Son are united in will and purpose (Matthew 26:42), and doubtless this is true in doctrine. The Father does not believe in predestination while the Son believes in free will, nor does the Father believe in “faith only” while the Son would require baptism. The type of unity in John 17 is not the unity described by the ecumenical movement.
In the end, the matter of “unity in doctrinal diversity” is the difficulty with the ecumenical movement. There is no Scripture that presents the “essentials” of the faith as they would expound them, and it is hard to understand how anyone could truly function together despite the vast differences in belief among the denominations involved. Denominations remain separated among party lines, much like Corinth in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13, and are thus not “one”.
The New Testament reveals the basis of unity for Christians: we are made one because we are unified in God (Ephesians 2:16, Colossians 1:20) and because we promote and obey the same Gospel (Romans 1:16-17, Galatians 1:6-9). This unity is not merely skin-deep but complete: we are one with each other and one in God, and this is only possible if we are all “walking in the Light” (1 John 1:6-7). We must be one in Christ indeed– that unity, however, must flow from being one in God and one in obedience to the truth. Let us follow God, then, and be one!