WHY I’M NOT AN ECUMENICAL
by Will Graham
Back in the sixties, the Roman Catholic Church published its official decree upon ecumenism under the title of Unitatis Redintegratio (UR) during the Second Vatican Council.
UR was so significant because it marked Catholicism’s entrance into the global ecumenical scene. Not only did the Vatican extend the right hand of fellowship to the Eastern Orthodox Churches but also to Protestants in the name of a common faith. Nevertheless, in spite of UR’s friendly tone, there are still severe shortcomings regarding its idea of what church unity is all about.
In this article, we hope to look at ten key doctrinal differences as to why we, as Evangelicals, cannot accept Rome’s ecumenical proposals.
1.- Peter is the head of the bishops
The decree argues that Jesus made Peter out to be the leader of the twelve apostles and that upon him Christ was to build his church. Peter was promised the “keys of the kingdom” and Christ “entrusted all His sheep to him to be confirmed in faith”. Church unity, then, revolves around “the apostles and their successors –the bishops with Peter’s successor at their head” (Article 2). “We believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, in order to establish the one Body of Christ on earth” (3).
This means that the papal office is the chief presupposition of Roman ecumenism. If Protestants do not recognize the power of the Pope over the universal church of Christ, we cannot enjoy the fullness of church unity. But rather than professing faith in the primacy of Peter over the church of the Lord, we confess that it is the Spirit of the Lord who presides in the church of Christ through the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper).
2.- The church depends upon apostolic succession
The successors of the twelve apostles are today’s bishops (2). Rome’s hierarchy depends upon apostolic succession. Why is this notion so important for Rome? The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church answers by saying: “In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors” (77).
Apostolic succession has to do with conserving the Gospel. But what happens when ordained bishops stop teaching according to the true Gospel of faith alone in Christ alone? That is why we Protestants do not accept apostolic succession. In its stead, we confess our belief in doctrinal succession or evangelical succession. A true minister is not one who has been ordained by the Vatican priestly hierarchy but one who preaches the Gospel in all of its purity. For the Evangelical, church unity can never be based upon a clerical system but upon the Gospel of the glory of God.
3.- Full unity is in Rome
Perhaps the most outstanding statement in UR is the following: “It is through the Roman Catholic Church alone, which is the all-embracing means of salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained” (3). How can Rome justify such an affirmation theologically? Because, “It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ” (3).
The primacy of Peter and apostolic succession are the two doctrinal reasons why Catholics believe that the fullness of saving means are in Rome. Without the Pope and the bishops, the church is ontologically deficient and incomplete. Since we Protestants do not believe that church unity centres on institutionalized hierarchy (i.e. the papal or sacerdotal systems), but on Gospel proclamation and the administration of the ordinances, we cannot accept this faulty Vatican judgment. We have the Gospel. We celebrate baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, we do indeed possess the totality of the means of salvation.
4.- ‘Separated brethren’ do not enjoy true unity
Throughout UR runs the presupposition that non-Catholics do not enjoy full church unity because the “all-embracing means of salvation” are in Rome. The decree does not even refer to Protestant churches as such, but to “ecclesial communities” (3, 4, 19 and 22).
Nevertheless, if real church unity is based upon the Gospel and the ordinances, every single local church can enjoy authentic unity (both spiritual and visible) at a congregational level. Furthermore, when a local church opens itself in fellowship towards other Gospel-based churches then congregations begin to get a sense of the wondrous beauty of church unity at a universal level as well.
5.- The justified Christian is the one who has been baptized
The decree draws on the leading Roman idea that a justified person is one who has been baptized in water. “All those justified by faith through baptism are incorporated into Christ” (3). This conviction can be found in the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church where it says, “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith” (1992).
We Protestants do not believe that justification is given by baptism as the ordinance itself is but a mere visible symbol of an interior reality. Justification is given exclusively through faith. As the Protestant Augsburg Confession puts it: “[Our churches] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favour, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake [...] This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight” (4).
One can be baptized in water without being justified; and one may also be justified without having been baptized in water. Justification does not depend upon water baptism but upon faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
6.- A change of heart as the root of ecumenism
UR’s seventh article is dedicated to theme of a change of heart being the main source of ecumenism. According to the Vatican, without inner change, “self-denial” and “love” there can be no desire for unity. “This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians, should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and can rightly be called spiritual ecumenism” (8)
The problem with these insights is that they are mixing categories (perhaps purposefully so). I have yet to meet an Evangelical who does not believe in the need of inner change, self-denial and love; but this by no means implies that we have to lower the Gospel banner. To deny or to hide the Gospel for the cause of ecclesiastical fellowship is not an act of love but of sin. It means spitting in the face of the blessed Son of God. At any rate, if Catholicism were really so deeply concerned about self-denial and love in the longing for ecumenical unity, why do not they get rid of their distinctive doctrines such as the primacy of Peter and apostolic succession? Would that not be a powerful act of love? But we all know that is not going to happen. They of course want us Protestants to compromise on what is the most essential element of all –the Gospel- but they, sadly, do not want to compromise on anything.
7.- Ecumenism first, theology second
In two different places the document appeals to ecumenical teaching. “Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole Church [...] whether it be exercised in daily Christian living or in theological and historical studies” (5). And again: “Instruction in sacred theology and other branches of knowledge, especially those of a historical nature, must also be presented from an ecumenical point of view” (10).
What this means is that theological training has to be given from an ecumenical angle. Why is that a problem? Because it means that both history and theology are made turned into bond-slaves of the tyrannical project of ecumenism! Unity at any cost! The doctrinal issues that divide the Vatican from Wittenberg are simply cast down for the sake of the common good. For the ecumenical, unity is more important than truth. Protestants, however, believe that the truth of the Gospel is more important than unity. In fact, true unity is established by the Gospel. So an ecumenical unity grounded on something other than the Gospel is unity in error.
8.- Trinitarian and Christological categories as ecumenical axes
As well as baptism in water, the Roman Catholic Church looks upon Protestants as “separated brethren” because we all confess the same faith in “God, one and three, in the incarnate Son of God our Redeemer and Lord” (12).
Now, whilst it is true that we do indeed accept the trinitarian content registered in the Apostolic Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed along with the Christological declarations in the Chalcedonian Creed, it should be pointed out that these creeds are not enough to establish a full Gospel unity. Beyond issues related with the Trinity and Christology, we Protestants also confess faith in a soteriology (doctrine of salvation) that is faithful to the New Testament witness, summed up in the adages: sola gratia, sola fides and solus christus.
Without these three saving ‘solas’ in the midst, there can be no real unity with Rome because even though we both hold to the aforementioned creeds, Catholics continue interpreting salvation in a way that is contrary to the Good News –grace plus the hierarchical and sacramental system of Rome; faith plus good works and human merit; Christ plus the intercession of the saints and the Virgin Mary- whereas Protestants read the creeds through the filter of the ‘solas’. As far as Protestantism is concerned, there can be no true church unity without the ‘solas’.
9.- The role of Mary
As in all the documents of the Second Vatican Council, Catholicism makes much of Mary, the mother of our Lord. The Vatican extols the Orthodox Church for its “beautiful hymns, to Mary ever Virgin” (15). But Rome is also aware of the fact that Mariological issues split Catholicism and Protestantism. “We are indeed aware that among them views are held considerably different from the doctrine of the Catholic Church even concerning [...] the role of Mary in the work of salvation” (20).
In this sense, the UR decree is completely right. Protestants do not believe what the Vatican teaches about Mary. In contrast to the Catechism, we Protestants deny that Mary is the mother of the church; that she was taken up to heaven in both body and soul; that she intercedes for us; that she exercises a “saving influence” upon us; that we may pray to her; that we may venerate her; that she was conceived without original sin and thus was sin-free all her life. In all of these matters, we believe that Catholicism is far off the mark. For Evangelicals, the Gospel is infinitely more important than the figure of Mary. How can Catholics honestly expect Protestants to take part in ecumenical prayer meetings where the name of the Virgin is openly evoked?
10.- The place of Tradition
The previous nine points of difference between Catholicism and Protestantism can be summed up in this tenth observation, that is, that Rome keeps putting the authority of church Tradition beside that of the Scriptures. The document announces that the separated brethren do not enjoy that unity “which the holy Scriptures and the revered Church of the Church proclaim” (3)
We as Protestants accept tradition, but never with a capital T. We believe tradition may be useful in the measure that it is faithful to the Scriptural texts. That is why we love reading the Reformers, the Puritans, Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones, etc. When the Reformers professed faith in sola scriptura –the material principle of the Reformation- they did not want to cast the past aside but to reread it through the prism of the Gospel. For example, in some doctrinal points the Reformers sided with Augustine whereas in others they completely passed him by. How come? Because they analyzed his writings on the basis of the Gospel! That is the mission for contemporary Protestants: to study everything in the light of the Word and to hold on to what is good.
Protestants cannot walk in an ecumenical direction because Catholicism continues to call our whole motto of faith and practice into question: sola scriptura.
For those ten reasons I am not an ecumenical. The Pope is not the head of the bishops. I don’t believe in apostolic succession. The fullness of unity is not in Rome but in any old church that preaches the Gospel purely and administers the ordinances. Justification is not by baptism but by faith. Unity is not more important than truth. A change of heart must not entail a denial of the Gospel. Ecumenical creeds are not enough to join us together in a common stand upon the New Testament Gospel. Mary is not who the Roman Catholic Church claims her to be. And last but not least, tradition must never usurp the supremacy that belongs to the Scriptures alone.