Prof. Herman C. Hanko
The Importance of the Subject
From an ecclesiastical point of view, our modern age
has often been described as the Age of Ecumenicity. No other single
event in the church captures the headlines in the ecclesiastical press
and the imagination of church members as the movement towards church
unity. This movement has influenced every part of the church in one form
or another. No denomination or congregation has escaped. No one,
therefore, who is a part of the church and is interested in the welfare
of the church can escape the question: What responsibility do I have to
join this quest for unity?
This question cannot easily be escaped. For the most
part, those who are interested in and leaders of ecumenicity are
determined to bring the whole church throughout the world under one
ecclesiastical roof. This is their stated goal. They will not rest until
the fractured and fragmented body of Christendom is united, and the
wounds in the body of Christ healed. This is, in their words, the most
urgent calling in the church today. No longer can schism and separatism
be tolerated. No longer will it be permitted that the church present
anything else but a united front to the world. Thus our own life and
calling in the world becomes a question with respect to this important
movement. Shall we join with the ecumenicists? Shall we become a part of
the movement? Shall we endorse its goals, participate in its activities,
and lend our aid in realizing its objectives? But if this is impossible,
what then are we going to do when the pressures of ecumenism become
irresistibly strong? The alternative could very well be that any church
which dissents will be denied the right of existence. If this indeed
becomes the alternative, shall we have the courage to pay this price?
This pamphlet is written to help in some ways those
who seek to understand their calling with respect to ecumenicity in the
light of the Word of God.
Various Forms of Ecumenicity
The ecumenical movement has taken on many different
forms. There are attempts being made today to include all religions in
the world in one universal and world-wide syncretistic religion which
will embrace all men. The theory behind this movement is that no single
religion is able to discover all the truth; while each individual
religion has its own unique contribution to make. A union of all these
religions will produce one religion of universal value which will bind
all men in a common brotherhood under a universal god. Then the barriers
which now exist between Christianity (including both Protestantism and
Roman Catholicism as well as Orthodoxy), Buddhism, Judaism,
Mohammedanism and all the other "isms" can be torn down and a giant step
will be taken towards bringing peace on earth. It is astounding to what
extent this idea is being promoted and even put into practice in our
Another form of the ecumenical movement is the
formation of various organizations which are unions of denominations, in
which each denomination retains its own denominational structure but
cooperates with other denominations in various ecclesiastical
enterprises. These organizations range from the very liberal World
Council of Churches and National Council of Churches, to the more
conservative organizations such as the International Council of
Christian Churches and the Reformed Ecumenical Council. To a greater or
lesser degree these organizations also are heading in the direction of
There are also many movements toward institutional
unity in which distinct denominations merge their denominational
structures into one large church. These movements range from the more
liberal unions to be found in the Consultations On Church Unity (COCU)
to the merger of conservative denominations such as have taken place
among various branches of Presbyterianism.
We cannot evaluate each separate movement in this
pamphlet. Only the general principles can be laid down.
But, guided by these general principles, the
sanctified and enlightened member of the Body of Christ will be able to
evaluate for himself each movement.
The Unity of the Church
The title of this pamphlet is "Biblical Ecumenicity";
and, of course, the word "Biblical" shall have to be underlined. But
this presents us with a problem. The Bible has very little to say,
specifically, about the calling of the church to live in unity under the
circumstances in which we live today. You will not find any passages in
Scripture which speak explicitly about ecumenicity as we know it.
But this does not mean that we shall have to abandon
the Bible as our guide. Indeed, if such were the case, we should have no
guidelines at all to follow, for Scripture is our infallible and,
therefore, authoritative rule of all faith and life.
The whole question of ecumenicity revolves around the
deeper question of the unity of the church. Concerning this "unity" the
Scriptures have a great deal to say. And, understanding what the unity
of the church is, we can also evaluate ecumenicity as it manifests
itself, and find our own proper and Scriptural role in today's
The word "ecumenical" comes from a Greek word which
really means: "the whole inhabited earth." Thus, in the early history of
the Church, when the Church was faced with various heresies concerning
the truth of the trinity and the person and natures of Christ, the
Church called "ecumenical" councils to deal with these problems and
determine the truth of Scripture. This use of the word indicates that it
referred to the church from the viewpoint of her catholicity; that is,
that the church as it met in council meetings represented the entire
inhabited world. Only when there was represented the entire church, from
the whole known world, was the council considered ecumenical.
In the strictest sense of the word, this is still the
meaning. An ecumenical church would be a "one world church." There are
many aspects of the ecumenical movement which are not world-wide; but
even these are usually considered hesitant steps in the direction of a
For many centuries, from Pentecost on, there was only
one institutional church. There were, to be sure, many off-shoots from
this one church. But these were generally considered sectarian movements
really divorced from the mainstream of the church and destined to
disappear. This one institutional church was later to be known as the
Roman Catholic Church and continued in its position of supremacy until
1054 when the Western Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox
Church went separate ways. This situation continued until the time of
the Protestant Reformation. It was in the years following the Protestant
Reformation that the church become hopelessly fragmented. There were
different streams from the Reformation itself, such as the Lutheran and
Calvinistic stream. There were national branches of Lutheranism as well
as Reformed Churches. But there were also countless denominations
differing in quite fundamental respects within one particular nation. It
is this denominational fragmentation which has, in the minds of many,
destroyed the unity of the Church and necessitated the ecumenical
movement. Not only within the sphere of Protestantism, however, must the
breaches of schism be removed, but also between Protestantism and Roman
Catholicism and between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy must
ancient wounds be healed and unity restored.
What Is the Church?
While it is apparent that the central question of
ecumenicity is the question of the unity of the church, a deeper and
equally important question is: What is the church? Several important
aspects of the truth concerning the church have bearing on our subject.
First of all, the Scriptures emphasize that the
church is the creation of God. The Scriptures use many figures of speech
to describe the Church. It is called the body of Christ (I
Eph. 1:23, etc.), the temple of God (Eph.
2:20-22), a royal priesthood and an holy nation (I
Peter 2:9), a vine and its branches (John
15:1) and many other figures. But the emphasis throughout is the
fact that the Church is God's handiwork. The church is the creation of
God which He forms through Jesus Christ. The Heidelberg Catechism
expresses this truth in summarizing all that Scripture has to say on
What believest thou concerning the 'holy catholic
church' of Christ? That the Son of God from the beginning to the end
of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to himself by his
Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to
everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever
shall remain, a living member thereof.
That the church is God's creation implies several
very fundamental truths. It implies, in the first place, that the church
is the object of God's decree of eternal election. God chooses His
church from before the foundation of the world and sovereignly sets the
limits of it. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly
places in Christ: According as he hath chosen us in him before the
foundation of the world that we should be holy and without blame before
Secondly, this elected church of God is a church
chosen in Christ because it is redeemed in Christ. Christ died for her
on Calvary and purchased her with His own blood, making her His own
unique possession. "Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed
with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation
received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of
Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot: who verily was
foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in
these last times for you" (I
Thirdly, this church is formed in time by the power
of God's irresistible calling. He calls His people whom He has chosen
and for whom Christ died, out of darkness into light, out of the
fellowship of the world into the communion of the body of Christ.
"Giving thanks unto the Father . . . Who hath delivered us from the
power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear
It is this work of God which forms the church into a
unity. Every believer, who on Sunday, confesses the Apostolic Creed
says: "I believe an holy catholic church." This is a truth which
the believer confesses. The church is a unity. This unity is an actual
fact. It is a truth which the believer confesses by faith. It is a truth
which he believes characterizes the church at any time in the history of
the world. From this point of view, he does not wait for some future
manifestation of that unity. He believes that one church of God is a
unity now. And it is a unity because God makes it such. The true unity
of the church is God's work. No human efforts can destroy that unity. No
schisms can tear it to pieces. No denominational fracturing can make it
cease to exist. But for the same reason, no human efforts can create it.
It is God's work.
What Is the Unity of the Church?
It is on this basis that we can determine what the
true unity of the Church is.
Essentially, the unity of the church is a unity of
the body of Christ. And because it is a unity of the body of Christ, it
is a unity which is in Christ. Election is in Christ; atonement is in
Christ; the calling of the church is through Christ. The whole church
exists in Christ and lives out of Him. Her life comes from Christ. Her
inheritance is given to her by Christ. Her existence in the world is
dependent upon Christ. Her unity is the unity of Christ Himself.
The texts which speak of the unity of the church all
emphasize this. In that important 12th chapter of I Cor., where the
apostle describes the unity of the Church as the unity of one body, he
explicitly points to the fact that this unity is only in Christ. "For
as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that
one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ" (v. 12). The
same is true of every figure which Scripture uses to define the nature
of the church. Cf. e.g.,
John 17:19-23, etc.
But while this unity of the church in Christ means
many things, it means essentially that this unity is a unity of faith
and truth. The unity of the church in Christ is a unity of faith because
the believer is ingrafted into Christ by faith. By one faith, worked by
one Spirit, as it is in the hearts of all those who belong to the
church, is the unity of the church realized. And that faith is the
confession of the truth as it is in Christ, as Christ is the fullness of
the revelation of God. Thus true unity is the unity of the truth.
I Cor. 12 the apostle writes:
Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man
speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and
that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy
Ghost (v. 3).
How strongly the apostle emphasizes precisely
this truth in
Eph. 4:3-6, 11-15:
Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in
the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even
as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one
faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all who is above
all, and through all, and in you all. And he gave some,
apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and
some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the
saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of
the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the
faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a
perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness
of Christ: That we hence forth be no more children, tossed
to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine,
by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they
lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may
grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even
The same truth is
emphasized in that oft-misquoted passage from
And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also
might be sanctified through the truth. Neither pray I for these alone,
but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That
they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that
they also may be one in us (vv. 19-21).
Thus the unity of the church is a unity of faith in
Christ. And that faith in Christ is a unity of the confession of the
truth as it is contained in the Scriptures, the infallible record of the
revelation of God through Christ.
It is not correct to say that the unity of the truth
is the only expression of the unity of the Church of Christ Paul speaks
of the fact that this unity is also one hope of your calling and one
baptism. But it nevertheless remains a fact that at the basis of all the
unity of the church is a unity of faith in the truth. It is for this
reason that the church puts her confession of the truth in the form of
creeds, and calls these creeds "Forms of Unity." They are confessions
which the church makes to express her unity by means of her faith in the
truth of God's Word.
It is in this way that the basic unity of the body of
Christ comes to expression in the institutional life of the church. This
unity is manifested first of all in the local congregation. Each local
congregation is a complete manifestation of the body of Christ. With her
office bearers appointed by Christ to represent the rule of Christ, the
congregation manifests fully Christ's body. And this basic and essential
unity of a congregation is evident in her confession which she makes
through the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the
sacraments and the exercise of Christian discipline.
But this unity of the church, expressed as it is in
the local congregation, also comes to manifestation in denominational
life where several congregations join for common purposes. They join to
express, in mutual alliance, the unity which they have in Christ. They
join together to engage in the work which is assigned to them as the
church of Christ in the world - work which they cannot do as individual
congregations. Such work includes the training of ministers of the
gospel and the sending out of missionaries to bring the gospel to the
ends of the earth.
But in this denominational unity, the principle of
unity is the truth of Christ. Only when denominations are formed on the
basis of a mutual confession of the truth can there be any true unity.
And that truth is the truth of the historic confessions of the church.
For these confessions unite the church of today with the church of all
ages and make of all the church of Christ one holy catholic church.
Does Modern Ecumenicity Express This Unity?
We need only to characterize modern day ecumenicity
to demonstrate that it falls short in important respects from this
Scriptural unity of the church.
The impetus for modern ecumenicity has to be found in
the mission field historically. In the mission work of the church, the
church was embarrassed by the fact that different denominations worked
in the same places teaching different doctrines. The first ecumenical
organizations were mission organizations.
But this is no longer true today. The concept of
mission work has been excluded as an impelling force in ecumenicity, and
it has been replaced by what is called "service." The church, it is
said, is in the world for service. The original Executive Committee of
the Life and World Movement (a forerunner of the World Council of
Churches) sharply defined this when it said in an official policy paper:
"Doctrine divides; service unites."
This had determined the direction of much of modern
day ecumenicity. The calling to serve has been the unifying factor in
ecumenical movements. This is especially true of the more liberal
ecumenical movements such as the World Council of Churches and the
National Council of Churches. These organizations see the calling of the
Church to be to work in the areas of race relations, national and
international politics, social problems of poverty, crime, etc. One need
only read the latest decisions of these ecumenical bodies to see how far
they have substituted the gospel of Scripture for a social gospel with
the implied promise of a heaven here upon earth.
But with this emphasis on service has come a
corresponding de-emphasis on doctrine. In some instances, doctrine has
simply been pushed aside as being totally irrelevant. This is all but
true of the so-called COCU movement. In other instances, the doctrinal
basis of an organization is so broad that almost any church can become a
part of it without sacrificing doctrinal integrity. This is surely true
of the doctrinal basis of the World Council of Churches.
That the truth of Scripture becomes irrelevant and a
barrier to union in modern ecumenical thinking is not at all strange.
The goal is unity at any cost. The concern of ecumenical leaders is a
one-world church. Service is the all-important thing. "Doctrine divides;
And this notion is in turn based upon the premise
that doctrine is relative, subject to change, adaptable to every new
generation. Scripture is not the infallibly inspired rule of faith and
life. It is the history of religion, collating the best ideas of
religion in ages gone by. Today we need new expressions which will fit
our modern times, which have as their key point the calling to be of
service in the world.
With this characteristic of ecumenicity comes also
another. If service is the sole (or, at least, the chief) calling of the
church then also it is true that the church aims her life in the
direction of some sort of post-millennialism. With all the emphasis on a
social gospel, the emphasis also shifts from a return of Christ upon the
clouds of heaven to destroy this world, to a heaven here upon earth. The
goal is an earthly utopia where all the problems of life are solved and
where especially the techniques of modern science and the social
influences of the church have united all men in a general brotherhood of
man under a universal fatherhood of God. This kind of thinking has so
infected the ecumenical movement that, in the desire to build a
one-world church, the ecumenical movement has mired herself in the
politics and sociological issues of the day so deeply that it is beyond
A Basic Denial of Scriptural Unity
It is apparent that this is a fundamentally wrong
If the true unity of the church is basically a unity
in the truth, then the truth is all important. Only where Scripture is
the infallible rule of faith and life can true unity prevail. Only where
the historic confessions of the church remain the living confessions of
the people of God can true unity of the church be expressed. Unity can
be found only where the truth is maintained. Unity can be gained only by
steadily growing in the truth of Scripture.
The church must take the truth of the church in the
past and develop it on the basis of the Word of God. She must search the
Scriptures constantly, and plunge ever deeper in the glorious truths of
God's Word. Then there will be unity. Without it, there can never be any
unity whatsoever. To forge an outward institutional unity which is not
based upon the truth of Scripture is to make a counterfeit unity, a
cheap sham, a unity of the lie. It is to forge a church which is the
instrument of false religion and the lie of Satan, a church which will
some day serve as the right arm of Antichrist. The institutional unity
of the true church must always be an expression of the unity of the body
of Christ—a unity of one faith.
In connection with this, it is apparent too that the
calling of the church is not a social calling. This is an altogether
unscriptural and inappropriate emphasis. The Church's calling is to
preach the gospel so that all the elect members of the body of Christ,
chosen from before the world's beginning and redeemed in the blood of
Calvary, may be brought into the unity of the church. It is only when
the church does this that she will not sell her heavenly birthright for
a mess of postmillennial pottage. The post-millennialism and
universalism of so much of modern day ecumenicity is in direct conflict
with Scripture and destroys the church as the manifestation of Christ's
To the extent that any ecumenical movement is guilty
of under-emphasizing the truth of Scripture, it becomes a false
expression of unity.
If it is objected that this will inevitably leave the
church fragmented, then a couple of points need to be emphasized.
In the first place, it is not at all proved that
denominational unity and organic oneness, even of the churches who
confess the essentials of the truth, is a desirable thing. Surely this
is true when we consider the national character of each church. Even
though denominations in foreign lands are essentially one in the truth,
it is entirely possible that individual denominational identity can
better serve the purpose of the church of Christ in the world than
organic union. There is, no doubt, room for organizations such as the
Reformed Ecumenical Council. A loosely knitted organization in which
each individual Reformed and Presbyterian body retains its own
denominational unity but in which churches of like confession labour
together in common causes is surely a legitimate expression of the unity
of the body of Christ. But such organizations must deal seriously with
the threats of modernism and Arminianism which even now are rearing
their ugly heads in their midst, and must be at great pains to preserve
the truth, which is their only basis of unity.
Secondly, it must always be remembered that the
institution of the church must express the unity of the body of Christ.
And this body of Christ is the number of the elect and redeemed saints.
While the church on earth will never be perfect, it must not become
enamoured with the siren calls of universalism. When the truth is
preserved, the church will be an instrument to gather the elect of God.
But this gathering will never embrace the majority of mankind. The
church must not be surprised when, though many are called, few are
saved. Nor must the church be caught off-guard when apostasy arises.
This will continue to happen in all history. And apostasy must be dealt
with firmly and on the basis of Scripture. For it is a threat to the
unity of the church.
The ecumenical calling of the church is therefore
first of all a negative one. There is little doubt but that the
ecumenical movement will gain impetus as time goes on. There will be
increased speed in bringing all denominations under one roof.
Protestantism will achieve greater institutional unity in spite of the
fact that along the way are temporary set-backs. And presently (as is
already happening today) Protestantism will re-cross the chasm created
by the Reformation and run back into the arms of mother Rome. To a
greater or lesser degree, as time rolls on, splinter groups and
competing organizations will fall in line. A one-world Church will be
Our calling is to condemn such false unity
unceasingly and unwaveringly. We must condemn such false ecumenicity by
refusing to have a part in it. Now yet we have the choice of whether to
participate or not. But the time may very well come when the request to
join will become a demand. The demand will be so imperious that to
refuse will invite persecution and will result in being denied the right
of existence. But even then the church must not shrink back. She must
treasure her unity in the truth of Christ more precious than silver or
gold—more precious than life itself. She must be ever wary of
compromise, ever on the alert against all who would rob her of her only
basis of unity. She must remain faithful to the end that no one take her
Secondly, the church has a positive calling. That
calling is first of all to grow and increase in the Word of God. Only
when believers mutually love the Word of God, humbly bow before it,
earnestly desire to grow in the knowledge of God in Christ as it is
given in Scripture will unity become a positive reality. Where the love
for the truth has grown cold in the press of modern materialism, where
the searching for the truth which characterized the Bereans has
atrophied, where the confessions of the church have become dead, there
the church becomes easy prey for false doctrine and false unity. Where
the truth is preached in purity and the saints are eager to grow in
grace, there unity will come to expression.
Then, secondly, the saints must seek this truth with
others who also maintain the historic position of the church. The
confessions must serve as the basis of unity. Non-essentials need not
stand in the way. But the confessions are all-important. Where
confessions agree, there must unity prevail. Thus the church need never
fear discussion amongst denominations if only discussion is on the basis
of Scripture and the confessions, if only the discussion is fearless,
frank and forthright, if only the saints mutually are willing to bow
before the Word of God. The things which divide us cannot then be
barriers to union.
And indeed, the goal is institutional unity. How
close we shall come to this in this world of sin is hard to know. It is
even a question whether it is the Lord's will that such unity be
complete on this side of the grave. But the true child of God may rest
assured that his faith in one holy catholic church is not a misguided
faith, an empty faith, a faith in a delusion. The church of Christ is
one, and shall remain one, though all the forces of hell seek to destroy
her. And that church shall be preserved until the final unity of the
church is achieved in the tabernacle of God.