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In a passionate prayer before His agony on the cross, Jesus asked the Father for unity among the members of the church to be founded after His death. “Neither pray I for these alone,” He said, “but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us” (John 17:20, 21, KJV, emphasis added).

However earnest the prayer, even the most cursory look at history reveals that whatever adjectives used to describe the church, “united” wouldn’t be one. Though at least they aren’t still killing each other, as has often been the case in the past, Christians are far from being the unified body that Jesus prayed for. A list of the hundreds of denominations alone more than testifies to just how fragmented the Christian church remains almost two thousand years after Jesus’ prayer that His followers be “one in us.”

Over the past few decades, however, some powerful trends have arisen in Christianity seeking to reverse these fractures and to make Jesus’ prayer for unity become real. Known as the “ecumenical movement,” these attempts have come from various quarters and have met with different levels of success. Perhaps of all the movements toward unity, none have been more dramatic, and surprising, than what’s been happening between Roman Catholics and certain Protestants, including Lutherans. Catholics and Lutherans have signed some rather amazing statements of professed unity, something that even 30 years ago would have been deemed all but impossible.

What’s one to make of these trends? Shouldn’t all Christians be eagerly involved in this thrust toward unity, toward helping fulfill a prayer of their own Lord? Could these movements, particularly between Roman Catholics and Protestants, actually be the answer to Christ’s prayer? Or, instead, could something else be going on that should make Christians a bit wary? How should we view these events?

The Early Days

It’s hard for people today to understand the animosity that poisoned Catholic-Protestant relations from the start of the Reformation, in the early 1500s. The vitriol and rhetoric of Protestants against Catholics, and vice versa, was the kind of talk people today expect between warring nations, not between professed Christians.

The talk, though, was nothing in contrast to the violence, such as in the execution of Dr. John Hooper in England (1555), who was burned at the stake. Fox’s Book of Martyrs described his last few moments in the fire: “But when he was black in the mouth, and his tongue so swollen that he could not speak, yet his lips went until they were shrunk to the gums; and he knocked his breast with his hands until one of his arms fell off, and then knocked still with the other, while the fat, water, and blood dripped out at his fingers’ ends. . . .” (p. 215). This atrocity was done, remember, by professing Christians to other professing Christians.

Of course, it wasn’t just Protestants versus Catholics. As the reformed churches broke away from Rome, many splintered into various sects and denominations that found themselves at loggerheads with each other. At a time when the idea of religious freedom was still centuries away, these splits often turned violent, such as when Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli—upset at the Anabaptists for urging total immersion for consenting adults at baptism (instead of the norm, infant sprinkling)—had them tied up, taken out on a lake, and drowned. Again, this was Christian against Christian violence.

Eventually, the ideals of religious freedom and toleration started to take hold in the Western psyche, and Christians learned to live with one another, despite the theological divides. That fact, along with the rise of secular democracies—which took political power away from the churches (and, hence, their ability to persecute)—created a new environment in which Christians found themselves living side by side with one another, even if they weren’t exactly fulfilling Christ’s words, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35, KJV).

Ecumenical Movements

No doubt, many were appalled at these divisions, and well-intentioned attempts at unity began. These efforts first started in the 1800s, with such groups as the Evangelical Alliance (1846), the Young Men’s Christian Association (1844), the Young Women’s Christian Association (1884), and the Christian Endeavor Society (1881), as well as the Federal Council of Churches of Christ (1908).

This “ecumenical movement,” as it was soon called, blossomed in the twentieth century with the World Council of Churches (WCC), founded in 1948 with about 147 churches from 44 countries. Today, the “WCC is a fellowship of churches, now 347 in more than 120countries on all continents and from virtually all Christian traditions” (www.wcc-coe.org/wcc).

Perhaps the most interesting trend in the ecumenical movement has taken place in the past 20 years. At first, most attempts at unity were between the various Protestant denominations. Few of them contemplated any serious discussions with their traditional foe, the Roman Catholic Church, which itself deemed Protestants as apostates. All that has now greatly changed, and there’s been a flurry of ecumenical discussions and dialogue between Rome and other Protestant bodies. This led to an encyclical by Pope John Paul II, Ut Unum Sin (1995), in which he reaffirmed the Roman Catholic’s commitment to ecumenism, stating that “together with all Christ’s disciples, the Catholic Church bases upon God’s plan her ecumenical commitment to gather all Christians into unity.”

Most surprisingly, unofficial statements of doctrinal unity were signed between Catholics and some leading conservative Protestants (those historically the most hostile to Rome) in the 1990s. What made these statements so unexpected is that they claimed common ground between Catholics and Protestants on, of all things, justification by faith alone—the teaching that first spawned the Protestant Reformation almost 500 years earlier. Now, amazingly enough, these groups are claiming unity on the very thing that first divided them!

Of all the moves toward doctrinal unity between Catholics and Protestants, the most dramatic was the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification,” signed in 1999 by dignitaries from the Vatican and from the Lutheran World Federation (which represents 58 million of the world’s 61.5 million Lutherans). The declaration states that, despite “remaining differences,” Roman Catholics and Lutherans have the same fundamental understanding of justification by faith, and that “the remaining differences in its explication are no longer the occasion for doctrinal condemnations.” And this document was just a precursor to a new one, now on the “apostolicity of the church” (i.e., the authority of the pope).

Thus, it would seem, on the surface, that Jesus’ prayer for unity, that “they also may be one in us” is, at last, being fulfilled.

Concerns

Or is it? Certainly all people should rejoice when ancient animosities, which so often turn ugly, even violent, are put aside and enemies are reconciled. At the same time, however, one needs also to be cautious.

Why?

History shows that churches with political power have proven themselves just as likely to persecute and oppress dissenters as have the secularists when given that same power. In one sense, the disunity of the church has helped keep it from gaining the kind of political strength that has proved ruinous in its hands in the past.

More than two centuries ago, James Madison wrote: “Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects, which pervades America and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest” (quoted in Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography, p. 166). Could today’s churches, once they are united, amass enough political power to become a threat again?

That’s not so far-fetched a fear. The book of Revelation warns about just such threat: a massive religiouspolitical power that will bring persecution and death to those who refuse to “worship the image of the beast” (Revelation 13:15, KJV). Though much speculation exists about exactly what all this means, the fact that “worship” plays a central role in the struggle proves that this end-time power is clearly a religious entity, and that issues of faith, worship, and obedience to God will be involved.

In fact, some students of Revelation, more than a century ago, predicted the kind of movement toward unity, particularly between Protestants and Catholics, that we’re seeing today. Thus, they see these trends, not as signs of Christ’s prayer for unity being answered but, on the contrary, as signs of final events unfolding, events that will lead to the persecution of God’s faithful people right before the second coming of Jesus.

Thus, all Christians—no doubt wanting Christ’s prayer for unity to be fulfilled in their day—would be wise to heed some other words of Christ as they watch these various ecumenical trends unfold: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16, KJV).

Ecumenism: Uniting the Churches

by Clifford Goldstein
  
From the May 2008 Signs  

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