I’d like to write a few words on Christian unity which ties in with my previous post on the dangers of ecumenical accommodation and compromise. In John 17:20-23, Jesus’ prays for the unity of all believers. So, is our current reality of thousands of Christian denominations a circumstance of open defiance to our Lord’s will? We can’t accurately answer that question without taking a brief look at the history of Christianity.
The early Christian local churches were united in their shared faith in Jesus Christ. However, once Christianity was adopted as the state religion of the Roman Empire the church became increasingly institutionalized. Personal, saving faith in Jesus devolved into legalism and ritualism controlled by an increasingly powerful and authoritarian church hierarchy. The Reformers of the 16th century sought to return the church to the faith and practices of the New Testament church. Successive Reformers continued to remove vestiges of Roman legalism and ritualism. Praise the Lord for the Reformers! If not for them we’d still all be under the heel of an apostate, authoritarian, state church.
So what we now have are thousands of Protestant denominations and an ever-growing number of independent, non-denominational churches. Most of the older denominations have lapsed into modernism and no longer preach the Gospel. But there are still many evangelical churches that are faithful to God’s Word. They all have their own doctrinal distinctives and I’m absolutely fine with that. Our beliefs about secondary issues are not going to line up perfectly. There are some fellowships I would not feel comfortable in because of those differences. That’s not going to change. But we are all brothers and sisters in Christ if we share belief in salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone and have accepted Him as our Savior. Despite our secondary differences, we can charitably reach out to each other as members of the same Body. I believe that’s what John 17:20-23 is talking about. As I did before, I apologize to my Christian brothers and sisters for being uncharitable about our secondary differences in some of my earlier posts.
In contrast, today’s ecumenical push is led by a religious institution, Roman Catholicism, which differs from Biblical Christianity not only in secondary issues but in the primary issue of salvation as well. The Catholic church teaches salvation by sacramental grace and merit. Catholicism gives lip service to grace and faith but it’s ultimately up to each Catholic to merit their salvation by obeying the Ten Commandments – an absolute impossibility as every genuine believer knows. The Roman Catholic church has not been secretive about its ultimate aim to one day recover the “Separated Brethren.”
Protestant ecumenists who march solely to the drumbeat of John 17:20-23 would say I’m being overzealously doctrinaire. Don’t Catholics also name the name of Jesus and profess to love the Lord? Don’t they speak about grace and faith. “Close enough,” ecumenists say. But the difference between the Gospel of grace and the Catholic gospel of works is the difference between being saved or not. By acknowledging religious legalists as genuine members of the Body of Christ, ecumenists muddy the Gospel of grace and do a disservice to both the saved and the lost.