Necessary Gospel Division and Its Implications for Ecumenical Work

[Note: The following is bound to offend most. Read with caution. Pray with discernment. But most of all pray for me, a sinner.]

It is taken as a given that the divisions among Christian churches is a scandal and a blasphemy. This is unquestionably true. It is also taken as a given that the reunion of all Christians in one visible body is a good explicitly tied to which is a more effective evangelism. This, too, is unquestionably true.

On the basis of these fundamental truths, then, is raised the ecumenical edifice. The rationale is something like this: We must work to eliminate division between our various bodies and to foster unity at every opportunity. So ecumenical groups such as the World Council of Churches, and the U.S. National Council of Churches work hard to remove the barriers circumscribing fellowship. Other groups, such as pro-life Catholic and Evangelical organizations, work hard to join together in common causes based on clear Gospel and Church teaching. But primarily, ecumenical work is seen as the coming together on matters of belief and worship, discipline and polity, such that denominations otherwise formally divided from one another can come more closely to share in ministerial, liturgical, and, ultimately, Eucharistic fellowship. To accomplish this, of course, the primary and non-negotiables of belief must be staked out and common ground achieved.

This last is not only misguided, but a mistake. Contrary to common present-day mores, unity is not about feeling close, or doing and saying the same things at the same times with one another. Rather, unity has to do with dying to self and thorough-going obedience to Christ. Indeed, the Gospel necessarily creates division. The Gospel necessarily destroys any peace that is not built on the exclusive claims of Christ on us.

Matthew puts it primarily in filial terms:

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34 (NKJV))

Luke gives even more violent imagery:

“Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division.” (Luke 12:51 (NKJV))

The Gospel necessarily creates divisions. Thus, due to the very nature of the Gospel itself, ecumenical work among Christians is bound to fail. Not because the Lord wishes division, nor because God is not powerful enough to save, but because the ecclesial principles of the various Christian bodies are diametrically and hopelessly opposed to each other, and to the biblical and patristic dogma of the Church.

Modern ecumenism seeks to take foundational doctrinal positions and boil them down to a common level of accommodation. What is it, in the final analysis, that everyone can say Yes to? But not only do we do not have the right to so alter Gospel teaching, the basis of Church unity is not doctrinal and canonical agreement. Church unity is predicated upon the reality of what the Church is: Christ’s Body. If we are members of that Body, we are one with another. If we are members of that Body, we gather with Christ. Christ did not come to bring accommodation. Unity within Christ’s Body is already a reality. The question is: Are we part of that reality?

Modern ecumenism must fail because it misunderstands both the Gospel and the Church. It misunderstands the Gospel because it thinks both that we humans have the capacity to say what are the boundaries of that Gospel and that we humans have the capacity to assign various weights to certain Gospel doctrines, emphasizing one over the other. It misunderstands the Church because it thinks that Church unity is predicated upon human effort, both to preserve it and to reinstitute it when it fails.

But in point of fact, we have no say over the Gospel boundaries. We can only receive the Gospel that has been given us, whole and entire, without revision. Nor do we have it within ourselves to judge which Gospel doctrines are more important than others. It is not to us latter-day Christians that the promise of the Spirit leading us into all truth was given, but to the Church built on the Apostles. For us to alter the foundation is in effect to build another Church. If the Gospel says the bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ, who are we to alter this for the sake of institutional unity?

Furthermore, the Church is not subject to our ministrations. The Church is a reality with which we have to do. It does not answer to us. We answer to it. We no more have the right to set the boundaries of the Church than we do those of the Gospel. It is not we latter-day Christians who are called the pillar and ground of the Truth, but the Church. If the Church so delimits the ministry of the Eucharist so as to exclude the ministration of women, who are we to set that aside so as to achieve some institutional unity?

Modern ecumenical work does not think much of the Orthodox Church who refuses to join their ranks. Many Christians bristle at the thought that God would have only one Church among all the churches, and that they, themselves, not being in that Church, are outside it. But Orthodox are only doing that which they must do: preserve the Gospel entire, and maintain the Apostolic foundations upon which the Church rests. In a Christian world rife with the promise of denominational utopia with calls for feel-good peace and unity, the Orthodox, for all their other failings, at least have the humility to know that they have no authority to change or alter what they have received from their forebears, who themselves received it from theirs, and so on back the long ages.

5 thoughts on “Necessary Gospel Division and Its Implications for Ecumenical Work

  1. I could not agree with you more…except that the Orthodox are deep in the WCC, in fact, they are hosting this year’s gathering.


    And, as someone doing the work of ecumenism, I am sorry to see that your experience of it has been so limited and, I dunno, lopsided?

  2. Um, Tripp, didn’t you mean to say: I could not disagree with you more? Cuz, if you meant what you said, I think I need to look for the defibrillator.

    I may not characterize the Orthodox as “deep” in the WCC, though they certainly have been working with them for decades. The Orthodox, however, are not members of the WCC; they are only of observer status.

  3. Um, I agree with you. Totally.

    As usual, I take it in a different direction, but yeah…ecumenism is about losing yourself to the greater tradition, to reconcile to God the brokeness of the Church. We have much to answer for.

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