Luther Reformed

Nailing Down Church Unity

When Martin Luther published his opposition to a series of perceived abuses in the Roman Catholic Church 500 years ago, he inflicted what seemed to be a permanent wound on Christendom. Many now look to heal the injury. Is the ecumenical movement the path to godly unity?

We live in a society that prizes tolerance. Accepting people for who they are for the sake of peace has become the prevailing sense of the common good. It’s a way of thinking that seeks unity through acceptance and rejects distinction on nearly any front.

Perhaps we’ve arrived at this juncture, at least in part, as a reaction to the violence and hatred of the 20th century, punctuated as it was by the the abhorrent evil of the Holocaust, the purges of Stalin and Mao, and the rise of global terrorism. Hatred always divides people; so, on the flip side, it seems logical and reasonable that accepting anyone and anything on any terms produces unity. But does it?

The question applies to many aspects of life today, including religion. Half a millennium after the Protestant Reformation tore apart the Roman Catholic Church, the question of Christian unity is on many people’s minds. Given that the Christian world regards the Bible as its Holy Scriptures, it’s therefore worth asking whether the ecumenical path is biblically solid.

Driving Nails Into the Church

Five hundred years ago, in 1517, the German monk and theologian Martin Luther voiced his opposition to what he saw as abuses within the Roman Catholic Church. The prevailing image of the Reformation is of Luther nailing his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. While scholars suggest that the act of nailing up that document may be little more than legend, Luther did write a letter to his superiors on October 31, 1517, disputing the church’s practice of selling indulgences (full or partial cancelations of punishment imposed on confessed sinners). With the letter he included his famous 95-point list, which was meant to form the basis of a debate.

Luther’s aim was to refound Christian faith on the Bible. In an age when that book was accessible only to clerics who understood Latin, he believed in universal access. He also denounced such nonbiblical practices as monastic vows, celibacy and invoking saints as intercessors.

Excommunicated in 1521, Luther rejected the pope’s authority and advocated the priesthood of all believers. He held that only faith in God could bring salvation; priests didn’t hold a special position and therefore couldn’t stand between believers and God. His overthrow of authority introduced a democratic principle that spread quickly, thanks in part to the newly invented printing press.

By 1650, after long and violent fighting, Europe was divided between a more-or-less Protestant north and Catholic south. The Roman Empire, from which Roman Catholicism arose and with which it was inextricably linked, had become divided between East and West hundreds of years earlier. Now the Western church had split again, riven in two by Luther and his fellow reformers. Despite the yawning chasm, efforts have long been under way to close the gap. These tend to emphasize similarities and minimize sometimes radical differences in belief and practice.

Spearheading efforts at reunification is the World Council of Churches (WCC). Formed in 1948, it brings under its umbrella approximately 348 member churches from 110 countries. Together these diverse groups represent more than half a billion Christians around the world.

However, not all churches are members. For example, the Roman Catholic Church, representing well over a billion Christians, enjoys ties with the WCC but emphasizes its own outreach efforts, its leaders believing that all Christian groups should ideally accept the authority of Rome. In September 2017, Catholic Answers, “one of [America’s] largest lay-run apostolates of apologetics and evangelization,” hosted its national conference in San Diego under the title “The Reunion of all Christians.” The speaking schedule included sesssions such as “Get Your Friends Across the Tiber!” providing practical instruction on how to lead a Protestant friend or family member into the Roman Catholic Church.

The one Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church. . . . Full unity will come about when all share in the fullness of the means of salvation entrusted by Christ to his Church.”

Pope John Paul II, “That They May Be One” (papal encyclical on Christian unity, May 25, 1995)

Active cooperation between Catholic and Protestant churches is already very much in evidence, however. In anticipation of the anniversary of Protestantism’s rise, the leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran faiths signed a joint declaration in 2016, echoing the words of Pope John XXIII: “The things that unite us are greater than those that divide us.” Like John and other recent popes, Pope Francis emphasizes ecumenism. When he spoke to worshipers at the event in Lund, Sweden, he said that Catholics and Lutherans have “a new opportunity to accept a common path” and “repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built.” The event signaled the start of a year of focus on such efforts in the lead-up to the 500th anniversary and led to a report titled “From Conflict to Communion.” A joint effort of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, the report maintained that “in 2017, we must confess openly that we have been guilty before Christ of damaging the unity of the church.” It further suggested that the aim of the commemorative year was “the purification and healing of memories, and the restoration of Christian unity.”

Others are also keen to see the ecumenical approach reach out further. To that end we have World Religion Day, observed each January by churches around the world. It was inaugurated in 1950 by the Baha’i faith to highlight its belief in “the unity of religions, races and nations.” With so many wars in human history having been fought on religious grounds, it’s easy to see the reason for such efforts. After all, there can’t be any problem in everyone trying to emphasize what unites them rather than what separates them, can there?

Luther at the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner (1877)

Reconsidering Unity

The dictionary tells us that ecumenism is all about promoting unity among the world’s churches, but what does the Bible say? To put it another way, is God ecumenical?

The term ecumenism comes from the Greek oikoumene, “the whole inhabited world.” The word was used in New Testament times to signify the Roman Empire in the sense of the civilized world, and it appears in a number of places. One relates to end-time events as described by Jesus: “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world [oikoumene] as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). The New Testament also says that the being called Satan “deceives the whole world” [oikoumene] (Revelation 12:9). According to the Bible, then, the word relates to the wider world, specifically to the masses who were not part of the church Christ founded back in the first century. From this biblical usage, the word gradually evolved among Christians of the Roman world to mean “the unified Christian world.”

So what does the Bible say on the subject of Christian unity? What precisely was the practice and belief of the first-century church on these matters?

The apostle John makes it clear that by definition God is not in favor of unity at any cost: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine [the doctrine that the apostles had received directly from Jesus Christ], do not receive him into your house nor greet him” (2 John 1:10). Clearly, in the case of differing doctrines, it doesn’t say “Let’s get together and make something happen on the basis of our commonalities.” In fact, the New Testament is full of admonitions, making it plain that “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4–5). This oneness was not to be compromised by cobbling together or even tolerating different doctrines.

The reality is that the early Church “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” (Acts 2:42, emphasis added). Paul urged them to “note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). It was also Paul who instructed Timothy to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (1 Timothy 1:3). It would be hard to make a case for ecumenism, or unity on any terms, when the apostles themselves advocated avoidance of those who actively promoted doctrines that differed from what Jesus and the apostles taught and practiced.

I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

Galatians 1:6–7

As if to put the case beyond all doubt, in his letter to the Galatians Paul repeated twice the principle that “if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6–9). Rather, he said that “the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ” (verses 11–12).

Jesus Himself made it very plain that it is entirely possible to worship Him in an utterly useless way. Quoting Isaiah, He identified his audience as “hypocrites”: “In vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Matthew 15:7–9). While He was referring directly to the scribes and Pharisees of His day, the principle applies to any who reinterpret the Word of God (as delivered to us by Christ and His first-century followers) in accordance with human ideas, agendas and traditions. In truth, it is because so many have done precisely that, that today the Christian world is fragmented into thousands of denominations and sects.

If, in fact, all those churches have strayed to one degree or another from the original teachings of Jesus and the apostles, then from a biblical perspective the breach simply cannot be healed by ignoring the differences and focusing on whatever they have in common. Surely a better strategy for anyone seeking unity in the biblical sense would be to throw out human traditions and dogmas and return to what the Scriptures themselves teach. Isn’t it on that basis alone that godly unity can be achieved?