Should You Attend An Ecumenical Service? (Part 1)

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. This is an interesting and challenging question. Let us start by defining our terms.

What Is It?

Our English word ecumenical comes to use from Greek (οἰκουμενικός). It means “universal.” In classical usage (per Liddell, Scott, Jones) it means, “of, from, or open to the whole world.” In ecclesiastical usage, the adjective ecumenical may refer to the modern “ecumenical movement,” which, as the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church tells us “may be dated from the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910,” which itself grew out of “the Evangelical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries” and “led immediately to the establishment of the International Missionary Council” and eventually to “the establishment of many national Councils of Churches (e.g. the Canadian Council of Churches, formed in 1944).” As an aside, this is a facet of the history of revival and revivalism to which advocates might want to pay greater attention.

The adjective ecumenical is also often used to refer to the “ecumenical faith” or “ecumenical practice” of the ancient church, typically the first five or six centuries. The doctrines of the two natures of Christ and the Trinity are ecumenical—they are universal doctrines taught in Holy Scripture and confessed by all Christian churches in the “rule of faith” (c. AD 180), in the ecumenical creeds, i.e., Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Athanasian Creed.

What then is meant by the phrase “ecumenical service”? To determine the sense in which this word is being used, it is essential to know the context. If the service is being organized by one or more of the mainline denominations—the old Protestant liberal denominations (PCUSA, EPCUSA, UMC, UCC, CC (DoC), ELCA, ABC)—then an invitation to participate brings with it one set of problems. The phrase “ecumenical service” is also, however, used by more theologically conservative and or evangelical churches and denominations.

Should I Go?

In order to answer this question, we must first answer some others. How should a decision like this be made? There are two kinds of factors to consider: objective and subjective. Are there objective (outside of me) reasons why I should not participate? How broad and/or how minimal are the standards for participation? Are non-Christians (e.g., Wiccans, Muslims, or Mormons) invited to participate? That would be an objective reason for a Christian not to participate. Christians may and should cooperate with non-Christians on secular projects in which they have a common creational interest, but when it comes to matters of worship, i.e., sacred matters, the Apostle Paul draws a bright line that we may not cross. In 1 Corinthians chapter 8, he argued that whether we participate in a secular meal with pagans (e.g., eat meat offered to idols) is a matter of conscience (to which we will return), but were we to be invited to a religious meal, were our hosts to say, “We have offered this food to the gods,” we may not participate: “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:14–16; ESV). Now, an invitation to an ecumenical worship service is an invitation to participate in a sacred ritual and thus we have an objective basis on which to decide this question.

What, however, if all the participants are Christians who profess allegiance, to some degree or other, to the Christian faith of the ecumenical creeds? This is more difficult, but those in the confessional Reformation traditions have resources that help us in such cases. In Belgic Confession art. 29, Reformed churches confess three marks of the true church: 1) the pure peaching of the Gospel; 2) the pure administration of the sacraments; 3) the use of church discipline. Were one to be invited to a gathering of mainline liberal and or Roman congregations, the marks would seem to guide us to decline politely. In Belgic art. 29, we confess that Rome is a “false church”:

As for the false church, it assigns more authority to itself and its ordinances than to the Word of God; it does not want to subject itself to the yoke of Christ; it does not administer the sacraments as Christ commanded in his Word; it rather adds to them or subtracts from them as it pleases; it bases itself on men, more than on Jesus Christ; it persecutes those who live holy lives according to the Word of God and who rebuke it for its faults, greed, and idolatry.

There can be little doubt what Guy de Bres, the principal author of the Confession, and the Reformed churches that adopted it, intended by this language. Just a few years before he produced the Confession, he also wrote an extensive critique of the Roman communion in which he surveyed and critiqued all these errors, which he attributed principally to Rome.

What if the service excludes Roman congregations? The marks help us here too. Are the so-called “seven sisters of the mainline” disciplined churches? Well, the United Methodists have exercised some degree of discipline in recent years, but in the case of the PCUSA, the ECUSA, and the UCC, the only folk they have disciplined in the last 70 years have been those who actually believe the historic Christian faith. The ELCA tolerate all manner of theological and practical error. Is the gospel preached purely? The UCC and the PCUSA still hold the old confessions, but the PCUSA also holds the Confession of 1967, which supersedes the old confessions and it is far from clear that the old confessions reflect the ministry of the mainline churches. Are the sacraments administered purely? It is not difficult to find examples of corruption here too. An invitation to participate in an ecumenical service held by mainline Protestants presents very serious challenges indeed.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

Part Two (to be published March 20, 2023)

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10 comments

  1. Perhaps if you are searching… what is your opinion on attending baptism in other (“false”) churches for friends or family members?

  2. I clearly recall all kinds of arguments breaking out within the LCMS after one of their congregation’s pastors attended an interfaith prayer service in Yankee Stadium following the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks. The pastor was subsequently suspended for his violations of that synod’s constitution and that act did not go over well with the “missional minded” factions in that denomination.

  3. I must be getting concrete in my old(er) age… For a layperson, will the same arguments apply to (simpler) attendance of a service likely to be ‘less than evangelical’? As opposed to an ordained man who is asked to actively participate in such a service?

  4. “Are non-Christians (e.g., Wiccans, Muslims, or Mormons) invited to participate?” Omission of Jews seems significant here, given that they are most frequently involved in or invited to Christian interfaith events versus Wiccans, Muslims, and Mormons. Are we Christians or Judeo-Christians? Does rabbinical Judaism get a free pass?

    I would be especially interested if the answer would be different about attending a Jewish passover meal, versus a Muslim iftar meal, Hindu puja/prasada etc. Is there the same loudly Reformed answer to the most tolerated instances of non-Christian idolatry?

    • Interesting comment. A Jewish Passover meal is a biblically sanctioned holiday, even though as Christians, we remember the ultimate blood sacrifice. The Muslim god is a false God. The Hindu god is a false God. Would you call the Jewish god a false god? I think that would be a mistake. I refer to the Western tradition as Judeau Christian, looking closely and forward to Romans 11.

    • Nathan,

      E.g. is a Latin abbreviation exempli gratia i.e., “for the sake of example” (Oxford American Dictionary). It signals that the items listed are suggestive but not exhaustive.

      My rule is 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 in which we are taught that we may participate in a secular meal (even though all the meat was offered to idols in the butcher shop) so long as it does not cause a Christian to apostatize (“stumble”) and return to paganism. We may not, however, participate in a sacred or religious meal, e.g., a meal in which the host announces, “This meat has been offered to the gods.” At that point it’s no longer a secular meal. Then I could not participate.

      Ecumenical, in this context, would be among Christians.

      I could attend a synagogue service and observe. I probably should do that. I could not actively participate in a synagogue service. There are obvious ambiguities here. There was a period in the apostolic history when Christians emerged from synagogues and formed Christian congregations. Paul and his companions were in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:13ff), Icononium (14:1ff), Corinth (18:1ff), Ephesus (18:19) etc. Now, Paul was there to preach Christ. It seems materially different to pray with non-Christian Jews as though Jesus is not the Messiah. We share the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures but we interpret them rather differently. In the NT the Jews are not regarded as pagans. We have a different relationship with non-Christian Jews than we have with Muslims et al. The Allah of the holy Qu’ran is not the Yahweh Elohim of the Hebrew Bible. The Qu’ran explicitly rejects Jesus as God the Son and the Messiah and denies his resurrection. The Hebrew Bible, of course, does not. We disagree with our Jewish friends about the significance of the Hebrew Bible but it is God’s Word to them and to us. They are outside of Christ but there is a case for accepting an invitation to a Passover Seder.

    • This can also be a prickly issue in a slightly different way that has gotten me into some trouble in the past, but I also follow rules similar to those RSC lists when it comes to celebrating the Lord’s Supper if it is offered during something like a wedding or a funeral at a mainline “christian” denomination of some type. In most of these cases it was some ELCA congregation where the pastorix or, if it was a larger assembly, by deaconesses, distributed the elements via intinction. I’ve refused to participate in those kinds of things.

      • That is a good rule of thumb. We would not attend a baptism in the Roman Catholic Church, iffy about funerals as well, especially if they are orthodox. Although the reformed churches generally except baptism from the Roman Catholic Church, attending such a baptism is against reformed confession/biblical teaching, as the Roman catholic baptism is a saving baptism, not a sign.

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