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“The Ecumenical Movement-A Brief Assessment”

According to William Rusch, a Lutheran pastor serving as Adjunct Professor at Yale Divinity School and New York Theological Seminary, the ecumenical movement has as its goal “the visible unity of divided churches.”[1] This is a laudable goal, to be sure.  However, such a goal is untenable, for the simple reason that we live in a fallen world.

Current ecumenical efforts have shown (i.e. ELCA, Joint Declaration of Justification by Faith[2], etc.) that in order to “show” such a “visible unity,” the method must be one of compromise and the “appearance” of a unity that does not truly exist.  Genuine unity has to do with doctrine.  It is not the work of man.  It is the work of God.  It expresses itself, not in a diverse array of confessions and statements, but in the united confession of Christ according to His Word.  Where such confession remains nonexistent, regardless of “intentions,” true unity does not yet exist and cannot demonstrate itself.

To report that “substantial agreement,” “common understanding,” and “common views” exist between various church bodies[3] that are in dialogue does not yet indicate visible unity.  It shows that much work still needs to be done.

Defining terms, so crucial in the sciences, is also necessary here.  Also necessary is not only the agreement of the definition of a particular word or phrase, but agreement in its particular usage, and also as it relates to the whole.

Take for example the article of justification.  What is it (definition)?[4] Is this the central article of the Christian faith by which the Church stands or falls,[5] or is it just one article among many?  If it is just one article among many, how important is it?  If the article of justification is only “more” important than others, how is it “connected” with the others, if at all?

Such dialogue may indeed take place, but it appears to be of little concern in many current discussions.  What is of greater desire, it seems, is to look like “one big church,” regardless of what is sacrificed for the sake of a “visible unity.”

Does this mean that ecumenical efforts are truly out of place and have no importance for today’s Christendom?  From the above it might appear so.  Yet it would be premature to jump to that conclusion.  True ecumenical endeavor has as its root the desire of Christians to gather together in unity (a God-given desire, by the way!), but in the genuine unity of true doctrine and true communion with one another.  Thus, wherever there is already agreement in the true doctrine, there already is genuine unity.[6]

In a fallen world, can such agreement in the true doctrine really exist?  Only as sinners (and church bodies) turn away from their own thoughts and opinions and believe the Christ of Scripture, even the very words of the Bible.  Until then, current ecumenical efforts are in vain, even should all claim to have reached the goal of “visible unity.”  Should that “goal” be reached, yet not with unity in the one true faith according to Holy Scripture, it is a sham unity, and a kind of unity with which God is not pleased (1 Corinthians 1:10; Romans 16:17-18; Ephesians 4:1-6).


[1] William Rusch, “Harvesting the Fruits of Ecumenical Dialogue,” Lutheran Forum, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Winter 2010): 51-53.

[2] Some would certainly debate that any “agreement” has really been found, except to “agree to disagree.”

[3] Rusch, 52.

[4] Augsburg Confession IV: It is also taught among us that we cannot obtain forgiveness of sin and righteousness before God by our own merits, works, or satisfactions, but that we receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, 2 when we believe that Christ suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us. 3 For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3:21-26 and 4:5 (Tappert ed.).

[5] Augsburg XXVIII: The chief article of the Gospel must be maintained, namely, that we obtain the grace of God through faith in Christ without our merits; we do not merit it by services of God instituted by men (Tappert ed.).

[6] Augsburg Confession VII: It is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word (Tappert ed.).

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