Ecumenism is a term that must first be defined to be discussed. It has many modern nuances. The dictionary says that ecumenism is “the principles or practice of promoting cooperation or better understanding among differing religious faiths.” This has been extended to include more of a “unifying” meaning. The media has proposed that “the three great religions all worship the same god.” Even beyond this somewhat plausible concept–on the surface–is the suggestion that “there are many ways to God and all religions end there.” Let us look at several different dimensions of modern ecumenism.
First, Biblically, it is impossible to unify, or even cooperate with, non–Christian religions. The Old and New Testaments are full of examples strictly indicating that God is One and has only one way to a relationship with Him. See for example Exodus 33:2 where God Himself sends angels to cleanse the land of nations following false gods. Strict separation on the basis of the Person of God is Scriptural. Participating in worldview or cultural exchanges may have educational value, but any ecumenical endeavor is fruitless.
Second, while it is true that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity can trace their roots to a common ancestor–Abraham–it is impossible to say they worship the same god. While it is true that Genesis 21:20 demonstrates that the God of Abraham was the God of Ishmael, and later that Gentiles are grafted into the root of Israel (Rom. 11:17), it does not therefore follow that the modern Allah, Jehovah, and Christ are understood identically across their respective “religions.” In fact, Jesus recognized that the Pharisees did not really believe in Jehovah: “You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth” (John 8:44). In order to truly “unite,” or even cooperate with, these beliefs, one would need to water down critical truth to meaninglessness.
So, that brings us to the question of ecumenism within the christian denominations. I purposely use christian without capitalization. Many are christian by self–association. I believe that over 70% of Americans–in a recent poll–assert they are christian. These christians see themselves as being in the church (also intentionally uncapitalized). We will briefly explore below that true Christians are the Church. Within this issue ecumenism is less clear. It is like the issue of “liberty.” There are some Biblical principles; but, there is also an element of freedom.
One Biblical principle of separation is sin within the church. The well known passage is in 1 Cor. 5 where Paul deals with the son who is in a relationship with his step-mother and will not leave it. For the purity of the group and individual, Paul counseled expulsion out of the church. Paul also referred to other sins that, when practiced without remorse, would indicate unrepentance and, thus, separation from the Kingdom of God (cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-11–”Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God”). If an entire group of people, claiming to be a church, willingly espouse sin, then we must question their actual inclusion in the Church. Separation would be in order. There would be little point in cooperating ecumenically with such a group.
The Church is a group of special individuals who, by virtue of God’s decree, are “called out” (the meaning of the Greek world ecclesia is “called out”) from the world through salvation. The church is people–children of God, bride of Christ. The True Church is an organism, not an organization. However, the organism does have organization in its structure to facilitate its functioning–pastor, deacons, fellowship, worship, edification. The New Testament always refers to people–”the saints who are at...”–never the church which is at....It is only truly saved people being addressed. As the Church grew through the spread of the gospel, there were smaller groups of “called out” people in various cities who met together. Their theology was the same throughout the world.
If one believes in the wrong Jesus, or a wrong view of His work on earth, then that faith is non-saving. If one is not saved then they are not a part of the Church. (cf. John 2:23-5–”Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, beholding His signs which He was doing. But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to bear witness concerning man for He Himself knew what was in man.”) This amounts to idolatry and God is a Jealous God requiring strict separation.
As time elapsed from the first century, God allowed a lot of flexibility in the polity of local groups of believers in cities, but there was great communication on unifying doctrine. Major issues regarding the proper Biblical understanding of the Person and Work of Christ arose and were vigorously dialogued between cities. Councils were convened and significant theological issues were resolved on a strict Biblical basis. Dissenting leaders were removed from authority by the other leaders attending the council. Heresy was dealt with in the early church by separation. However, variety was allowed in practical issues not clearly delineated in the Scriptures.
The Person and Work of Christ directly bears on salvation. The saved and unsaved are naturally separated. The familiar passage in John 3:18 is clear, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” But, this is not a distinction to sustain separateness; in fact, it should foster a desire to close the gap. Jesus took his message directly to the needy. “Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’ “ (Luke 5:31-2). The Great Commission is given to the Church Universal–”All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20). This is the mission of the true Church to the world.
Ecumenism within the various denominations that hold a strong theology of the Person and Work of Christ would be meaningful as it is directed toward the growth of the Kingdom of God. Billy Graham is often criticized for working with a wide range of churches in a crusade city, and allowing representatives on the podium during meetings. Some of those present vary on some theological grounds; but, the purpose of the crusades is to further the Kingdom of God through the presentation of the gospel. Those participating churches agree on the fundamentals of God, Christ, sin, and salvation. By putting aside disagreements on important, but less fundamental issues, an ecumenical spirit of presenting the gospel to a maximum of people becomes possible. God blesses Graham’s evangelistic ministry. He is careful to allow converts to be locally placed in the churches that supported the crusade. By his organization working beforehand with local churches, supplying structure and material, while allowing a grass–roots volunteerism through genuine desire, he allows the Spirit to assemble those ecumenical parties that espouse the core theology represented by Dr. Graham. Biblical separatism is present in the ecumenical endeavor, but it occurred naturally, since those churches that do not hold to such theology do not usually participate. Dr. Graham wisely stands firm on Biblical Truth and a clear salvation message, while wisely eliminating other theological criteria from consideration.
The modern ecumenical movement is more an exercise in political correctness than a real desire to unite around God as He has revealed Himself. Separatism is far more Biblical than current “diversity” and “unity” movements would have us believe. True unity, as it relates to the true Church, is discussed by Paul in Ephesians 4:13-14: “the building up of the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting.” Christ desired unity in the Church “as You and I are One.” Thus, unity is not merely mutual agreement, but agreement with God’s Word and about Who God discloses Himself to be. This is true unity. The Church is united around The Truth; not united by finding a set of common beliefs and latitudes within which all feel comfortable.
It is around the core theological truths that the Church of redeemed sinners need to separate themselves from others. Such Biblical separatism is necessary. As John said “they went out from us but were not really of us” (1 John 2:19). Paul says, “Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’ “ (2 Tim. 2:17-19).
Separatism, as well as ecumenism, must be Biblically based and wisely applied. This is the balance of Christian liberty. One may legitimately be cooperative on some issues (e.g., pro–life) while separate in others (e.g., worship). The reason that evangelicals have stressed the integrity of the Scriptures is that it is the only source of objective revelation. The farther away from objective toward relative that one drifts, the more their understanding is man–made wisdom. Timothy is warned about this drift and its consequence: “But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:14-17).
DISCUSSION OF ACTS 11
The context of the Acts 10 and 11 passage is critical. The issue Peter is dealing with is progressive revelation by God concerning the growth of the Church. The Church at that time was primarily Jewish converts. They clearly understood that Jesus, a Jew, had come to complete the Scriptural prophecies associated with the Messiah. However, they did not clearly see the point God was making that He no longer was working through the narrower confines of the Nation Israel. These sincere early Christians were disturbed that Peter was ministering to Gentiles. They were not prejudice, just imperfectly understanding the scope of God’s Kingdom. Anticipating this misunderstanding–as well as educating Peter–God gave a vision of a mixture of clean and unclean foods in one encompassing blanket. The vision was not to emphasize “differences,” it was to emphasize that God had changed the “unholy” status of a previous class (cf. Acts 10:28) (and food also, cf. Acts 10:13, since Peter dined in the Gentile’s home, Acts 10:48). In God’s Kingdom, now that Christ had come to fulfill prophecy, there were no longer Jews and Gentiles. There was now one purpose of the New Covenant message, to have sinful men saved and thus enter the group of Saints–known as the Church. As soon as those concerned realized that God had given new revelation to Peter, they willingly changed their view and recognized that Gentiles were no longer a “separate category.” The main point of this passage in Acts is not some kind of ecumenism (Jews and Gentiles becoming unified); rather, it is new understanding of truth itself–there is only one Church, open to all, and salvation through the Gospel of Christ is the only means by which it grows.
Thus, I believe that Acts 11 is not a valid passage in reference to either separatism or ecumenism. God is revealing that the New Covenant is different from Old Testament Judaism. The Old Covenant was centripetal (people came to Israel to find God); while, the New Covenant is centrifugal (the Church proclaims God outward to the people). Christ has fulfilled the law, has done away with unclean and clean. (1 Corinthians 6:12–”All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything.”) There is only one truth because there is only one Word of God–Christ Himself. Exercising faith with a true understanding of one’s sinful nature, one’s desperate need for salvation, Who Christ is, what He has done, and what He is offering to sinful man, is the single focus of the Gospel to all the world. The Church is not concerned with who you were; the Church is concerned with your salvation. There are not multiple ways to salvation. There are not multiple ways to view God and Christ. There is one Mediator between God and man, the Man Jesus Christ. Just because someone says they are followers of Jesus, it is not necessarily so. John 2:23-25 (quoted above) is a sobering reminder by the Savior that it is not up to man to make up the way to heaven.
Jesus Himself says that peace and agreement are not His goal. “Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever shall deny Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household” (Matt. 10:32-36). God intends for there to be division concerning belief.