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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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And all the brethren who are with me.  To the churches of Galatia.

Galatians 1:2

In the ecumenical/universal creeds of Christendom, Christians everywhere confess faith in “the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints” (Apostles’ Creed) and “in one holy Christian and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed).

This same Church that Christians confess, on the one hand, consists only of those who have faith in Jesus Christ.  NonChristians and unbelievers are not members of this church.  They may be members of congregations and churchly organizations, but this kind of membership does not translate into membership into the communion of saints.  Not every member who attends church on Sunday morning or who retains membership in a congregation is Christian.

A Christian believes in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  A Christian repents of sin.  A Christian is sorry for the sins committed against God and neighbor.  Only those who, confessing their sins, believe God’s promises in Christ, are members of the one true Church.  This is so only because of Jesus, and not because of how much external change we can see or evaluate.  Membership in the holy Christian Church is one of faith, not sight.

The Holy Christian Church consists of the saints still living who “call upon the Name of the Lord” (Romans 10:9).  It also consists of those who have died having faith in the Lord.  These faithful are also members of the Holy Church (not the Roman Catholic church), again, not because of all the good that they did, but because of Jesus.  They looked to Him for salvation and not to themselves.  They sought to be rid of their sin and the godlessness within themselves and the world.  They looked toward their heavenly home, prepared for all who wait upon the Lord.

Such a confession of membership in the Holy Christian Church and the Communion of Saints is not at all meaningless.  The Christian is confident that such a church exists on account of God’s Word.  This confidence leads to firm and bold confession of Christ and His Holy Name.  And that the Christian remain in this heavenly fellowship, God has given His Word and the Holy Sacraments.  He has given His Word that we readily hear and receive it, not doubting, but firmly believing the promises given.  The Lord has also gives His own body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.

Luther

The Church is universal throughout the world, wherever the Gospel of God and the sacraments are present.  The Jews, the Turks, and the fanatics are not the church, because they oppose and deny these things (Luther’s Lectures on Galatians, LW 26, p25-26).

Prayer: Gracious God, you have brought us into fellowship with You through the blessed death of Your Son, Jesus Christ.  Give us faith in Your promises, that we not doubt, but confidently take You at Your Word.  Keep us in this faith, gladly hearing Your Word, remembering our baptism, and partaking of Christ’s body and blood, that we remain Your holy people and not be led astray by the temptations of our own hearts, the world, or the devil.  Amen.

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