September 29, 2023

Mission agencies, including the one in which I serve, are increasingly drawn to work in partnership with other mission organizations and churches. As Missio Nexus’ tagline says, “The Great Commission is too big for anyone to accomplish alone and too important not to try to do together.” 

So we do not often hear calls to be careful about ecumenism.  (Wikipedia defines ecumenism as the “efforts by Christians of different church traditions to develop closer relationships and better understandings.”)

There may be many reasons for this. Our age seeks to avoid doctrinal controversy. Evangelicals in North America tend to minimize the importance of theology. We don’t like to draw lines. In The Gagging of God, D. A. Carson titled chapter 8 “On Drawing Lines, When Drawing Lines is Rude.”

The ecumenical movement represented by the World Council of Churches has its roots in the Edinburgh 1910 Missionary Conference. The desire for Church unity developed in the missionary context. Unfortunately it developed unity at the expense of truth. The development of the ecumenical movement in the 20th century is well documented by Arthur Johnston in World Evangelism and the Word of God (1974) and The Battle for World Evangelism (1978). Johnston clearly demonstrates the World Council of Churches abandoned central doctrines of biblical Christianity. Biblical terminology was still used, but emptied of doctrinal content.

But the impetus for ecumenism is not limited to the World Council of Churches. The Lausanne Movement represents an expression of evangelical ecumenism. Now we recognize that even among self-identified evangelicals, unity is not easily achieved. In May of this year, Luder Whitlock published Divided We Fall, which is a plea for evangelical ecumenism (see review, entitled “The Urgency of Evangelical Ecumenism” on The Gospel Coalition website). Whitlock’s argument “grounds biblical unity in Trinitarian and Christological doctrine” (see review above).

Yet the drift towards “holism” (that evangelism and social action are equal partners) and away from “prioritism” (that evangelism takes priority over social action) mirrors the trajectory of the ecumenical movement in the 20th century (see Controversies in Mission, 23-50). At times it seems to me that evangelical missionaries are being influenced by ecumenical missiologists without being aware of the doctrinal drift. In the World Council of Churches, evangelism was swallowed up by the concern for social action. Concern for social action does not necessarily lead to doctrinal drift, but historically, together with other factors, it led to the demise of evangelism in the WCC.  See also my previous post on “Learning from Mission History.”

Unity at the expense of doctrine results in a hollow unity. There is nothing to unite around. Doctrine gives definition to unity.  It is impossible to have a relationship with Christ without some understanding of who he is and what he accomplished for us. Al Mohler writes:

There is no faith relation with Christ free of doctrinal content. The knower must have some knowledge of the known, or no relation exists. That seemingly redundant and self-evident statement should underline the issue. Jesus Christ and our knowledge of Him are not in any sense coextensive. But one cannot have a relation to Him without knowledge, and that knowledge represents incipient doctrine. …

If one does not believe the truths concerning Christ revealed in Holy Scripture, one cannot have any authentic relationship with Him. Doctrine, we eagerly concede, does not in itself save. …But, on the other hand, one cannot truly worship Christ and seek to live as an authentic disciple and deny, denigrate, or neglect in any sense the biblical teaching concerning Him. -quoted in The Gagging of God, 353.

The World Council of Churches is dominated by liberal theology. Nearly 100 years ago, J. Gresham Machen pointed out in his book,  Christianity and Liberalism, that liberalism is a totally different religion from Christianity. He demonstrates that liberalism differs from Christianity in its view of God and man, Scripture, the person and work of Christ, and the meaning of salvation. Machen did not make this a personal attack and neither should we. He wrote:

We are not dealing here with delicate personal questions; we are not presuming to say whether such and such an individual man is a Christian or not. God only can decide such questions; no man can say with assurance whether the attitude of certain individual “liberals” toward Christ is saving faith or not. But one thing is perfectly plain – whether or not liberals are Christians, it is at any rate perfectly clear that liberalism is not Christianity. – Christianity and Liberalism, 160.

We do need to make a distinction between true and false teaching, even if that is considered rude. Al Mohler calls for theological triage that differentiates three different levels of theological issues when we engage theological differences:

First-level theological issues would include those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith. Included among these most crucial would be doctrines such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture. …

The set of second-order doctrines is distinguished from first-order set by the fact that believing Christians may disagree on second-order issues, though this disagreement will create significant boundaries between believers. …

Third-order issues are doctrines over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.

A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity

This theological triage suggestion would be helpful in any discussion concerning ecumenical movements. Mohler notes further:

The error of theological liberalism is evident in a basic disrespect for biblical authority and the church’s treasury of truth. The mark of true liberalism is the refusal to admit that first-order theological issues even exist. Liberals treat first-order doctrines as if they were merely third-order in importance, and doctrinal ambiguity is the inevitable result.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, tends toward the opposite error. The misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines. Thus, third-order issues are raised to a first-order importance, and Christians are wrongly and harmfully divided.  (ibid)

Mohler’s theological triage offers helpful guidelines in relating to ecumenical movements, both the World Council of Churches and forms of evangelical ecumenism such as the Lausanne Movement and the Gospel Coalition. There are first-level theological issues that essentially define Christianity. There can be no Christian unity where these are denied.

How do we identify what are first-level theological issues? Well, that is another debate, but I would suggest that at least for those in our mission organization, we should look first at our statement of faith, which I believe represents historic evangelicalism.  (For further study, see also my blog series on the SEND statement of faith).

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