I have sometimes been asked why I cannot join in with local ecumenical groups that flow out of the national "Churches Together in England" ecumenical movement.
The beauty of unity
God blesses unity, "How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!" declares Psalm 133, going on to explain that where unity exists "there the Lord bestows his blessing, even life for evermore."
Paul exhorts us to strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4), to work hard at it, against the attacks of Satan upon it.
Jesus prayed for unity (John 17).
So unity is important! And for that reason there is a prayer meeting every Thursday lunch time for Bible believing, Gospel holding Christian leaders in the town. It's a great joy to belong to it and though it cuts into my sermon-writing day, I make room for it, most Thursdays, no some Thursdays!
So why can't I belong to the ecumenical movement?
Is it pride or truth?
Of course to the casual observer this refusal to join in with an ecumenical grouping might look like sectarian pride: we are better than you. If it was pride, it would be not only condemnable but contemptible. God hates pride and will indeed bring down the proud. We are called to be "completely humble" (Ephesians 4:2) and acknowledge our partial understanding of truth and our mistakes and our sinfulness (1 John 1:8).
No, the reason we cannot join the ecumenical movement is not pride, it's truth.
Unity must be based on truth
All real Christian unity must be based on truth. When Paul encourages us to strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3) he goes on to explain that it is based on truths: "one body, one Spirit... one hope...one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father who is over all and through all and in all." True Christian unity can only take place between believers who hold to the same core Gospel truths. We can disagree on many issues, but we can't disagree on the core Gospel truths without denying the Gospel itself.
These core truths are revealed in Scripture in three ways: (1) they are repeated so often that to deny them is to deny the plain meaning of Scripture - example, that God is the Creator of all things. (2) They are explicitly said to be of first importance - example, what Paul says about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 and John says about Jesus Christ in 1 John 4. (3) They are Gospel truths - i.e. truths the denial of which undoes the Gospel and damns the holder - example, justification by faith in Christ alone, see Galatians 1:1-9 (if you believe our works in the end contribute to salvation, you are eternally lost, according to Paul).
If you added these core Bible truths together, you'd end up with something like the Apostles' Creed, which was indeed put together to gather together the core truths of Christianity in an age of confusion:
1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:
3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:
4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died and was buried.
5. The third day he rose again from the dead:
6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:
7. He shall come to judge the quick and the dead:
8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:
9. I believe in the holy catholic church (the universal body of believers in time and space): the communion of saints:
10. The forgiveness of sins:
1l. The resurrection of the body:
12. And the life everlasting. Amen.
As good a summary of the Christian Faith as the Apostles' Creed is, there is something missing because it came about quite early in church history. It misses out "justification by faith alone" - the Gospel truth rediscovered in the Reformation, that sinners are put right with God, not by good works but by faith in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). This is not a secondary truth it is a primary truth according to the letter to the Galatians, and indeed the central truth of the Gospel. So we might add a post-reformation line to the Apostles Creed:
13. Sinners are put right with God by faith in Christ alone, not by any religious or moral works that we have or can do.
Another change we might need to the Apostles Creed is a tightening up of numbers 4 and 10 because in recent years there has been a creeping denial of the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. False teachers have recently been teaching that Jesus was not being punished for our sins when he suffered on the cross.
The association of churches we belong to, the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, has put together a good statement of faith (see below), which in effect updates the Apostle's Creed in the light of history.
We are very happy to have fellowship with any Christians who hold to Gospel truths, and as I say, it is a great joy in Worcester to meet Thursday lunchtime with Gospel-believing Christians from across the Bible believing churches in the town who believe and teach these truths.
So what's wrong with "Churches Together in England"?
So why won't we join in with ecumenical Churches Together in England? The simple answer is that it is an association that does not make truth it's primary unifying basis:
(1) CTIE's basis of faith is far too small and elastic: Here it is from their website, word for word:
"This is the statement of belief for Churches Together in England, and is applicable at all levels, from CTE Presidents to local groups of Churches Together. Churches Together in England unites in pilgrimage those churches in England which, acknowledging God’s revelation in Christ, confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures, and, in obedience to God’s will and in the power of the Holy Spirit commit themselves:
• to seek a deepening of their communion with Christ and with one another in the Church, which is his body; and
• to fulfil their mission to proclaim the Gospel by common witness and service in the world
to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit."
There is some good here, such as the insistence that the Lord Jesus Christ is God, but otherwise the statement is lacking in detail.
The statement does not insist you believe in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It does not insist you believe that we are put right with God by faith in Christ alone. It does not insist that the death of Jesus Christ was an atoning sacrifice for sins.
Someone could join Churches Together in England who believes (i) that we are saved by our good or religious works, (ii) Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead, (iii) Jesus was not crucified to take away our sins.
These three alone are fatal Gospel omissions.
The apostle Paul calls any "gospel" that adds or subtracts from the Gospel, a "perversion" and "no gospel at all" (Galatians 1). The Gospel which saves us is far too precious to water it down in this way.
(2) CTIE makes the assumption that if a building says "church" on the front sign it's a true Christian church. Just because a group of people meet at a building which belongs to some historic 'christian' tradition doesn't mean that company of people constituents a true Christian church. It is quite possible for any congregation or denomination to drift very far from the truth of the Gospel.
The result of (1) and (2) is that ecumenical groupings afford far too few safeguards to serious error and Gospel denial.
We gladly join with all Christians who hold to the core truths of the Gospel, but there are not enough safeguards in the ecumenical movement to have confidence that churches in their circles are true Gospel Churches.
And the Gospel, which is the power of God, is far too precious to have it undermined by questionable associations.
The FIEC statement of Faith we hold to
1. GodThere is one God, who exists eternally in three distinct but equal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God is unchangeable in his holiness, justice, wisdom and love. He is the almighty Creator; Saviour and Judge who sustains and governs all things according to his sovereign will for his own glory.
2. The BibleGod has revealed himself in the Bible, which consists of the Old and New Testaments alone. Every word was inspired by God through human authors, so that the Bible as originally given is in its entirety the Word of God, without error and fully reliable in fact and doctrine. The Bible alone speaks with final authority and is always sufficient for all matters of belief and practice.
3. The Human RaceAll men and women, being created in the image of God, have inherent and equal dignity and worth. Their greatest purpose is to obey, worship and love God. As a result of the fall of our first parents, every aspect of human nature has been corrupted and all men and women are without spiritual life, guilty sinners and hostile to God. Every person is therefore under the just condemnation of God and needs to be born again, forgiven and reconciled to God in order to know and please him.
4. The Lord Jesus ChristThe Lord Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, and lived a sinless life in obedience to the Father. He taught with authority and all his words are true. On the cross he died in the place of sinners, bearing God’s punishment for their sin, redeeming them by his blood. He rose from the dead and in his resurrection body ascended into heaven where he is exalted as Lord of all. He intercedes for his people in the presence of the Father.
5. SalvationSalvation is entirely a work of God’s grace and cannot be earned or deserved. It has been accomplished by the Lord Jesus Christ and is offered to all in the gospel. God in his love forgives sinners whom he calls, granting them repentance and faith. All who believe in Christ are justified by faith alone, adopted into the family of God and receive eternal life.
6. The Holy SpiritThe Holy Spirit has been sent from heaven to glorify Christ and to apply his work of salvation. He convicts sinners, imparts spiritual life and gives a true understanding of the Scriptures. He indwells all believers, brings assurance of salvation and produces increasing likeness to Christ. He builds up the Church and empowers its members for worship, service and mission.
7. The ChurchThe universal Church is the body of which Christ is the head and to which all who are saved belong. It is made visible in local churches, which are congregations of believers who are committed to each other for the worship of God, the preaching of the Word, the administering of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper; for pastoral care and discipline, and for evangelism. The unity of the body of Christ is expressed within and between churches by mutual love, care and encouragement. True fellowship between churches exists only where they are faithful to the gospel.
8. Baptism and the Lord’s SupperBaptism and the Lord’s Supper have been given to the churches by Christ as visible signs of the gospel. Baptism is a symbol of union with Christ and entry into his Church but does not impart spiritual life. The Lord’s Supper is a commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice offered once for all and involves no change in the bread and wine. All its blessings are received by faith.
9. The FutureThe Lord Jesus Christ will return in glory. He will raise the dead and judge the world in righteousness. The wicked will be sent to eternal punishment and the righteous will be welcomed into a life of eternal joy in fellowship with God. God will make all things new and will be glorified forever.