Should You Attend An Ecumenical Service? (Part 2)

An old friend wrote recently to ask whether it is appropriate for a confessional Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) pastor or congregation to participate in an ecumenical service. In Part One of this series, we discussed our terms. Now we continue the question: should I attend?

Should I Go?

What, however, if the service is being conducted by ostensibly evangelical churches? This might be an even more difficult question still. In this case, one has been invited by those who purportedly believe the Word of God, who love the Christ of Scripture, who have a love for the lost, and who reject Rome and the errors of the mainline. Surely, we should be able to gather with our evangelical brothers in sisters in an ecumenical service?

Perhaps. The Belgic has a second category of congregations: sects. We confess: “We believe that we ought to discern diligently and very carefully, by the Word of God, what is the true church—for all sects in the world today claim for themselves the name of ‘the church’…[b]ut we are speaking of distinguishing the body and fellowship of the true church from all sects that call themselves ‘the church.'” Whom did de Bres and the churches have in view here? In the same period de Bres wrote against Rome, he also wrote against the Anabaptists. In that large work, he used the same language there as in the Confession to describe the Anabaptists and others. The category of “sect” is a little broader than the Anabaptists, but it certainly included them. This is the way the Reformed in that period spoke of them. Indeed, de Bres’ survey of the sixteenth-century Anabaptists seems quite familiar to us. Much of what he said of them is applicable to what we speak and think of today as “Evangelical” theology, piety, and practice.

This category of analysis, sect, is somewhat neglected but helps us here. Not every gathering of evangelical pastors and churches is necessarily a gathering of sects, but it might be. Again, the three marks give a test: is the gospel of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone preached purely in these congregations? Let us imagine that these are old-school, old-fashioned evangelicals who still believe the Reformation solas. So far, so good, but are the the sacraments administered purely? This is a more difficult test. The Reformed churches were very critical of the sects for their corruption of the sacraments:

For that reason we detest the error of the Anabaptists who are not content with a single baptism once received and also condemn the baptism of the children of believers. We believe our children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as little children were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises made to our children. And truly, Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the little children of believers than he did for adults. Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, just as the Lord commanded in the law that by offering a lamb for them the sacrament of the suffering and death of Christ would be granted them shortly after their birth. This was the sacrament of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, baptism does for our children what circumcision did for the Jewish people. That is why Paul calls baptism the “circumcision of Christ.” (Art. 34)

There are something like 13 million Southern Baptists. They all agree with the Anabaptists on this question. Further, of the remaining 47 million (or so) evangelicals, the vast majority of them also agree with the Anabaptists on this question. Though there are exceptions, most American evangelicals, if they still think about such things, regard people baptized as infants as unbaptized persons. Formally, we are outside of the visible church. This presents a significant problem when gathering together for the purpose of worship. On the one hand, the Baptists (and the Baptistic evangelicals) have rejected the consensus of the ecumenical church and, on the other hand, they want to gather with putatively unbaptized persons for the purposes of worship. This is a very odd circumstance indeed. Ironically, formally at least, on this point confessional Reformed Christians have more in common with those mainline Protestants who have not repudiated infant baptism and who still regard us as baptized persons.

To further complicate matters, in art. 18 we also “…confess, against the heresy of the Anabaptists who deny that Christ assumed human flesh from his mother.” There are not a few evangelicals who agree with the Anabaptists on this denial of ecumenical Christian orthodoxy.

What Do Conscience, Wisdom And Liberty Permit?

Finally, there are subjective standards to consider, among them conscience, wisdom, and liberty. Under these rubrics good people will disagree. My conscience would probably not permit me to gather with a group of mainline churches for an ecumenical service. The fundamental differences are too great. Machen was correct—Christianity is one religion and Protestant liberalism is another. This is not to say that there are not Christians among the Protestant liberals. There certainly are, but when we consider the church as an institution and their theology, piety, and practice, the difficulties are, for me, insurmountable. They have too often and too extensively denied the ecumenical Christian faith. They have tolerated too much error and too often and impenitently persecuted those in her fold who sought to retain the orthodox Christian faith. Further, wisdom seems to say that, as a pastor, it would send the wrong message to my flock were I to attend such a meeting. I would be happy to gather with mainline pastors in a colloquium or for coffee. Again, the distinction provided in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 is very useful.

Yet, there are those whom I love and respect, who would come to a different conclusion. They would gather with Protestant liberals for an ecumenical worship service and think Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians regarding meat offered to idols helps us. It is not my business to judge them on this. I am not the Lord of their conscience.

The question of when or whether to gather for worship in an “evangelical” ecumenical service will produce even more diversity of responses. To be be perfectly frank, there are Baptists with whom I am happy to worship. Yes, they corrupt the sacrament of Baptism, but they preach the gospel purely and, by their lights, they seek to practice discipline. That view is not entirely consistent, but I have more in common with them than I do with infant baptizing Federal Visionists. To be sure, there are Baptist congregations with whom I would not gather for worship, but I have Baptist friends who agree with us about the continuity of the covenant of grace and who have no good reason not to baptize infants. It seems to me these are BINOs (Baptist In Name Only). My attendance to such a gathering would not jeopardize the safety or welfare of my flock.

Yet, there are confessional Reformed folk who might gather with Protestant mainliners but who would refuse to gather with Baptistic evangelicals. Again, this is a matter of conscience, wisdom, and liberty.

Confessional Reformed Christians are pilgrims in an increasingly strange land in North America. Navigating the weirdness that is American religion (both mainline and evangelical) is like walking through an imperfectly marked minefield. Occasionally, someone is going to step on a mine and bad things are going to result, and yet, cross the minefield we must. We do it prayerfully, using the equipment we have from God’s Word as confessed by the churches, asking for wisdom, listening to conscience, and respecting the Christian liberty of our brothers and sisters to disagree with us where the matter is not explicitly confessed by the churches.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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2 comments

  1. Ephesians 5:11 Have no fellowship with the deeds of darkness but rather expose them.
    Romans 16:17 Now I beseech you, Brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which you have learned; and avoid them.

    I regard these verses when I think about other churches, religions etc. , especially after having been in a few very questionable evangelical churches for years. As I continued to learn the truth by the grace of God, I left them behind and would consider it an affront to God’s mercy and grace extended to me in leaving the false doctrines. You cannot mix darkness and light. Worship is the wrong place , in my opinion, to try to come together in differences of doctrine.

  2. You addressed principly those in the Mainline and Evangelical, specifically Baptist(ic), denominations, setting the Roman church aside. I presume the same would true with even with those confessional denominations that adhere closely to their historic creeds or confessions. I am thinking of Anglicans (39 articles and the 1660 BCP), Lutherans (Luther’s Catechisms), and Baptists (mostly Second London Confession, but also those parts of the Westminster Standards with which they agree). I would presume in those situations, it would really depend on the principle focus of the service. Obviously, if there were a desire to include a communion/Lord’s Supper/Eucharistic element, there are variances within the four traditions on what it represents that may cause one to decide not to participate. Particularly, within those arising from the English-Scottish Reformation, you may see inconsistencies even within the same traditions, despite what a tradition may classically hold to, whereas as within historic Lutheranism, it appears to be more consistent.

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