The Problem With Ecumenism and Interfaith Coalitions
Ecumenical movements within the Church and those who propagate them should be considered with caution. One prominent propagator of such movements is the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC). The ERLC has been known to make questionable dives into the waters of faith-based alliances with organizations that hold to completely different sets of doctrinal beliefs than do Bible-believing Southern Baptists. It has rightly been criticized by concerned Christians for doing so. Unfortunately, critics of the ERLC and similar organizations are often accused of slandering people of faith, causing division, rejecting diversity, or even spreading hate. Questions, not unlike the trap questions asked of Jesus by Jewish leaders during the first century, are thrown at the critics of ecumenism in attempts to discredit their concerned stances. Many times, these questions are nothing more than straw-men tactics that shown no real concern the specific issue at hand. When responding to such questions, critics of unhealthy ecumenism should strive to respond with sound logic and thoughtful biblical exegesis. Consider the following admonishments from the Apostle Paul in light of notable activities of the ERLC.
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? … – 2 Cor: 14-16
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. – Eph. 5:11
Recently, the ERLC formed a “faith-based” coalition against what they refer to as “predatory payday lending.” Last week the Pulpit & Pen published an article taking a strong stance against this alliance, making it clear that such an alliance compromised the Gospel. While many are waking up to the troubling alliances often formed by the ERLC, there are still many more who are blind to the ERLC’s potential damage to the witness of the local churches which financially support it and the convention that oversees it. Some may see the motives of the ERLC as genuine and the outcome of its actions benign. On the surface, it may appear to be that way, but if one really steps back and takes a look at the deeper issues involved, he will have little option but to see that the ERLC does compromise on the gospel. Upon coming to this realization and speaking out about it, one will be face with questions such as:
Is it wrong for Baptists and Catholics to work together cleaning up after 9/11?
Would it be wrong to agree with an atheist on a solution to a problem?
As noted above, such arguments, in general, are straw-men, different from the arguments made against ecumenical alliances.
The difference between spiritual endeavors and a common, secular “working together” must be understood.” The phrase, “unequally yoked,” in 2 Cor. 14 is “ἑτεροζυγέω,” transliterated “heterozygeō.” It is actually a compound of the two words “ἕτερος” (“heteros”), and “ζυγός” (“zygos”). It was metaphorically used to represent the unequal combining together of working animals, such as a donkey and an ox, to a plow. Because of their differences, these animals would have difficulty accomplishing the task. Paul is primarily speaking to the Church in this letter and he is literally commanding it members not to enter into enter into a formal working partnership, or alliance with unbelievers–specifically those that would cause them to compromise their witness.
Now, here is where the question lies. What is it that causes a compromise of the Gospel and how is it different from the generic “working together” to solve a problem? Ezekiel 3:19 provides insight:
But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.
So what does that have to do with the question at hand? Consider a recent example. In 2014, President of the ERLC, Russell Moore, and Saddleback mega-church pastor Rick Warren went to the Vatican to meet the pope and participate in a conference which affirmed the biblical view of marriage (that it is between a man and a woman). On the surface, this sounds like a noble cause for Christ, but on a deeper level, what was the outcome of this alliance?
Jesus commissioned the Church to go and make disciples–calling people to repentance and faith in Christ (Matthew 28:19). Moore and Warren silently made an agreement with the pope to not talk about their differences. What would have happened if Russell Moore or Warren were to make the trip to Rome and started publicly calling Roman Catholics and the pope to repent of their idolatry? They would have been asked to leave and not participate. However, they chose to put their differences aside and work together to accomplish something less important.
The lasting damage this has done to the witness of the true church is considerable. Some would argue that perhaps they witnessed to some individuals while they were there and while this would be laudable if it were true, it’s a moot point. The public impression that they gave the world was that the sanctity of marriage was a more important cause than any doctrinal differences between them and the Roman Catholic Church. This is not an acceptable impression. Ephesians 5:11 says:
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
There may be those uneducated Christians who think that Roman Catholicism is just another denomination. Leaders such as Moore and Warren certainly know better. The exploits of the Roman Catholicism Church are, at their core, works of darkness. If Christ’s true church is allied with the false church that is the Roman Catholic Church, how can it expose its wicked deeds?
The same concept is true of the most recent ecumenical alliance between Russell Moore and and certain groups that deny the inerrancy of scripture. This alliance came together to stand against “predatory lending” and advocated governmental solutions to curb the practice. Even if such action by the government is a wise course of action (I do not think that big-government solution is), the partnership hurts the witness of the bible-believing Christian Church. Again, Russell Moore doesn’t call any of the leaders of these scripture-rejecting groups to repentance because he has silently made an agreement with them to only talk about the thing they agree on–the danger of predatory lending. Moore has also subtly but publicly agreed with them that they are a “Christian” coalition. Once again, if he were to publicly proclaim that, for example, many of the people involved in PICO National Network held to a false gospel that led to Hell, he would be chastised by the group, and asked to separate from it.
Okay, so what about Baptists and Catholics working together to help victims of Hurricane Katrina or a Baptist doctor working with a Muslim nurse? Well, in this case, the answer is “it depends.” In most cases, by default, these are not “gopsel” endeavors. As a general rule, one doesn’t see Baptists and Catholics working on disaster relief forming a formal alliance, building a website, and co-signing partnership documents in these cases which would compromise the Gospel. Further, one doesn’t see faith-based alliances that that presuppose only those who profess Christianity can be involved.
Non-Gospel Solutions to Sin Problems
The Bible clearly teaches that evil acts are sin and the only true solution to sin is the Gospel. The role of the Church is to equip the saints to go out into the world and make disciples (Eph 4:12). When an alliance with unbelievers is formed to find a solution to a certain problem, the gospel is automatically ignored as the solution. How can Russell Moore’s “Lend Justly” coalition provide the Gospel as a solution when the different groups hold to different gospels? The only option is to come together for a man-centered solution.
The Church has five main functions according to Scripture; these functions are worship, discipleship, ministry, fellowship, and evangelism. The ERLC, as an extension and representative of the Church, is consistently engaging in political activism–seeking man-centered solutions to sin problems. This idea is nowhere to be found in Scripture, and political activism is definitely not a function of the Church. While having moral laws in place that restrict evil is most certainly a good thing, it’s the Gospel and the conversion of people to Christianity that ultimately changes hearts towards the morality of God.
Bad Company Ruins Morals
Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” – 1 Cor. 15:33
The old axioms “Birds of a feather flock together” and “If you lay down with dogs you get fleas” are true. It’s a natural psychological phenomenon to mimic one’s friends. The church’s primary dealing with unbelievers should be to witness to them. It’s members should never allow themselves to become comfortable around people in their sin. Proverbs 13:20 says:
Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge.
If Christians are consistently around people who deny Jesus, or deny the true Gospel (i.e. the pope), and they aren’t making any headway with them by witnessing to them, it’s time to move on and find new company (Matthew 7:6). Further, if Christians have chosen not to proclaim the Gospel to the lost, by forming an alliance, or otherwise, then they have have also chosen to disobey Scripture. To be certain, if one were to ask Dr. Moore about the nature of the Gospel, he would likely know how to expound upon it in a biblical way. He knows the gospel. However, there is a difference between knowing and showing. The fact is that Moore knows the Gospel but essentially refuses to boldly proclaim it within the ERLC’s ecumenical alliances.
But Jesus Mixed With Unbelievers?
Jesus mixed with unbelievers and he did so regularly. Yet, the Bible never shows Christ or the Apostles forming alliances or coalitions with unbelievers. Some have argued that Jesus chose to ally with Judas to serve his purposes. But, while Judas was certainly chosen as a disciple of Christ, one could hardly make the argument that he was an ally. Further, Christ, being fully God, knew fully well that Judas would betray him, therefore, his purposes were served without allying with him. One could hardly argue that this is what the ERLC is doing.
While Jesus regularly sat with unbelievers and spoke to them, his purpose was to witness to them. Jesus called people to repentance.
The reader should ask himself this question. “Do I really believe that the Bible is the infallible, inspired and true Word of God and not just a book containing some spiritual metaphors that I can pick and choose from when it suits me?” If one is a Christian, then he must take the Word of God as truth. The Word of God has clearly forbidden partnership between believers and unbelievers. Jesus commissioned the Church to go and make disciples. Undoubtedly it cannot do that by devaluing the primacy and sufficiency of the Gospel. God calls the church to be separate from the world and not to walk with it. Romans 12:2 says:
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Christians are to live “in the world,” but not to be “of the world.” As this is the plea of God, for those who don’t will reap destruction.
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; – Revelation 18:4
[Contributed by Jeff Maples]
Editor’s Note: JD recently preached a sermon on this topic, “The Temple of God and Idols.” You can listen here.