How Ecumenical Should we Be?
In his profound but unsettling book, The Principle of Protestantism, Philip Schaff (1819-1893) astutely identifies two particularly noxious diseases in his diagnosis of Protestantism in his time, diseases which in my estimation continue to plague us today – namely, rationalism and sectarianism. My concern in this article is of course with sectarianism, because to address the question, “How ecumenical should we be?” we must first understand how sectarian we've become.
Open your mouth and say, “ahhhhhh”
There's nothing uniquely Protestant or particularly recent or novel about the sin of sectarianism. The New Testament testifies to its prevalence in the church of Corinth, for example, where the allegiances of believers were divided among Paul, Apollos, Cephas and Christ. I suppose a case can be made that it first manifested itself in the heart of Cain who preferred not to have fellowship with Abel. The heart of the human problem – to borrow words often attributed to Winston Churchill – is the problem of the human heart, its sinful ambition and pride.
In the first few centuries of the Christian church the proliferation and influence of sects were mitigated by the moral, institutional and political superiority of the creedal church of Christ. We applaud the orthodoxy of the early church councils and the remarkably successful attempts of early bishops to keep the church united on the truth of the gospel. The post-conciliar -”catholic” church remained united, though sometimes we question whether this unity was more outwardly enforced than inwardly embraced.
All of this changed with the emergence of Protestantism. Once again there was a proliferation of sects, but their spread and influence were stemmed by the authority of the magisterial reformers, Luther and Calvin (think of the Libertines of Geneva), in particular. It's not until the rise of Puritanism in England that Protestantism seems incapable any longer of resisting the proliferation of sects. Especially in America, founded by the offspring of Puritanism, the number of Protestant denominations is more than embarrassing; it's atrocious.
How does one contract Puritanism?
One can hardly study the history of Puritanism without admiration for the character and earnestness of its revolutionaries and without sympathy for some items on its agenda. The greatest theologian ever produced by Puritanism, John Owen, is at times invaluable – as wise as he is wordy, and that's no small compliment.
The Puritan revolt against the Church of England – legitimate on some grounds, including the preaching of predestination – became a revolt (with many exceptions) against the institutional church such that among its progeny the plan of redemption, for example, was more about the rescue of individual souls than adding members to a formal community within the catholic Church of Christ. Christian unity therefore was generally regarded as something invisible and spiritual (and not public and institutional) and the responsibility to pursue unity was generally understood to be individual (and not ecclesiastical).
I therefore regard the American phenomenon of some charismatic individual with a silver tongue erecting overnight a chapel with no ties to any particular denomination, inviting one and all to hear the gospel and be baptized, and calling it “church” to be a tumor of this kind of ecclesiastical cancer. We seriously have to question why these poisonous weeds flourish in Protestant gardens.
The doctor himself was under the weather
The Protestant disease of sectarianism – spread especially by the progeny of Puritanism – is evident in the thinking of D. Martyn Lloyd Jones, the medical doctor-turned preacher at Westminster Chapel in London, England. I see the anachronism in calling D. Martyn Lloyd Jones a Puritan, though I also realize that he, probably more than anyone else, is responsible for the promotion of neo-Puritanism today.
The former assistant to the Queen's physician, Lloyd-Jones was an extraordinarily bright and gifted individual. I had the rare privilege of hearing Ian Murray deliver a stirring lecture on the preaching legacy of Lloyd Jones at a Banner of Truth Conference some years ago. The biographer of Lloyd-Jones, Murray had worked briefly as Lloyd Jones's assistant and was intimately familiar with his life and ministry, within which I find much to applaud.
Lloyd Jones fell prey, however, to the skeletal ecclesiology of the Puritans in which everything outward (including the sacraments) was devalued. Christian unity for Lloyd Jones was not so much an ecclesiastical responsibility, as it was spiritual reality among the regenerate. “The invisible Church,” Lloyd Jones would write, “is more important than the visible church.”
In terms of Christ's prayer in John 17, Lloyd Jones wrote,
“So we find here that the whole of our Lord's statement is not an exhortation to us to do anything, but is a prayer to His Father asking Him to preserve this unity that is already in existence. Moreover that unity is essentially spiritual, is produced by the operation of the Holy Spirit in the act of regeneration, and shows itself in a common belief and reception of the teaching concerning our Lord's Person and work. Any 'unity' which lacks these characteristics is not the unity of which our Lord speaks in John 17.”
Lloyd Jones's position that the unity Jesus prays for is something Christians already enjoy by virtue of the Spirit is impossible to maintain exegetically. It's clear from verse 23, for example, that this “spiritual” unity is still, in some sense, incomplete. Moreover, don't Jesus' prayers for us imply mandates for us? It's hard for me to imagine not striving for oneness when this is precisely what Jesus prayed for.
Take this pill and swallow
The way to begin reducing the cancer of Protestant sectarianism is to pursue ecclesiastical unity where we can (without compromising the truth), as best we can. In the immediate future, the cooperation of Reformed churches through existing organizations, such as NAPARC and the ICRC, should be strongly supported and encouraged. Hopefully and prayerfully, interaction on these levels will promote the ultimate objective of federations and denominations merging together.