And the principal dogma of the ecumenical movement of the 20th century was that anyone who called themselves a Christian was to be regarded as a Christian. It didn’t matter if they were a theological liberal who denied the bodily resurrection of Christ or penal substitutionary atonement, or if they were a Roman Catholic who denied the Gospel of justification by faith alone. The important thing was that those who called themselves Christians, and held somewhat to a “Christian” view of morality, were able to unite together in order to show strength in numbers, and therefore to compete in the culture wars for larger societal influence. Whether it was religious liberty, the unborn child’s right to life, race relations, a free-market economy, or improving education—all good things!—winning the battle over these social issues became more important to these people than the doctrine that divided them. So they downplayed the importance of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith in order to partner together on these issues.
Again, this is always done in the name of seizing influence, which, it is always assumed, is absolutely necessary for successful evangelism and for revival. It’s a fundamentally man-centered concept of salvation, because it supposes that unbelievers will be more likely to convert to Christianity if they see how popular, influential, and culturally relevant it is. The fruitlessness of this kind of thinking was illustrated in a classic interaction between a pro-ecumenical minister and Martyn Lloyd-Jones. The man believed the ecumenical movement to be a sign of hope for the future. He said, “But surely, when so many churches are coming together in a World Council of Churches, revival must be on the way.” Do you recognize the unspoken assumption? “If we can have worldwide movements and such large gatherings in the name of Christ, surely unbelievers will want to join us!” And Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ reply was just brilliant. He said, “You seem to be arguing that if you succeed in bringing together a sufficient number of dead bodies they will come alive!” (G. N. M. Collins, “The Friend,” Chosen by God, 262–63).
Lloyd-Jones’ response reveals a different fundamental conviction about human nature and about what it means to be a Christian. Becoming a Christian isn’t joining a cultural movement. It’s not deciding to join a social club or some sort of fraternity. Becoming a Christian happens when a sinner who is spiritually dead is miraculously raised to spiritual life by God’s sovereign work of regeneration. A Christian is one whom God has made alive from the dead through the preaching of the one true Gospel of Christ. And those who are possessed of different fundamental convictions concerning the Gospel are not just “separated brethren;” they are the one spiritually alive and the other spiritually dead. And as Lloyd-Jones said, it doesn’t make a difference how many dead bodies you could gather into one place. What matters is whether God, by the Holy Spirit, breathes spiritual life into men and women by the preaching of the Gospel.
That is the test of whether Christianity is advancing in the world. Not how big our churches can get, but whether sinners were united to Christ by faith in the Gospel, and thus had found forgiveness of sins in Him. And if that’s what mattered, then it is the height of folly to downplay the importance of the doctrines of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the only way of salvation, in service of a substance-less “unity.” There can be no genuine unity between those who have been saved from their sins through the Gospel, and those who yet remain enemies of that Gospel—no matter what people are willing to call themselves. And so there can be no partnership in ministry between believers and unbelievers, because there is such a radical difference between them. And history has shown us that when we water down fundamental doctrinal distinctives for the sake of a bigger “tent,” we lose the Gospel—the Evangel itself. And if you lose the Gospel, there is no ground for genuine unity.
And it’s precisely this issue that Paul takes up in 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1:
“Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.’ 17Therefore, ‘Come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord. ‘And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. 18And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ Says the Lord Almighty. 7:1Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”
The apostolic instruction could not be clearer: because there is this radical, objective difference between believers and unbelievers at the most fundamental level, there can be no partnership between them in ministry.
The Idolatry of False Religion
Now, you can see this passage’s consistent emphasis on the theme of idolatry. Verse 16 asks, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” And the context of the Old Testament quotations to “Come out from their midst and be separate” and to “not touch what is unclean” (Isa 52:11) has to do with Israel’s separation from the idolatry of the pagan nations.
And Corinth is one of those pagan nations! When the Corinthian Christians came to Christ, they had to repudiate the Greco-Roman polytheistic system of idol worship. Like the Christians in the pagan city of Thessalonica, they had to “turn to God from idols to serve [the] living and true God” (1 Thess 1:9). And they did that. But their conversion to Christ didn’t remove them from a society where the worship of idols absolutely dominated everyday life. Holidays, festivals, celebrations—even the ideology and philosophy that dominated everyday conversation—was influenced by pagan temple worship. Idolatry was simply part of their culture, and as believers in Jesus, they had to do everything they could to guard against any syncretism, any blending of idolatrous worship with Christianity.
And the Apostle Paul knew that was a temptation for them, and so he addressed the issue of idolatry with the Corinthians in his previous letter to them. He devotes almost two entire chapters in 1 Corinthians (8 and 10) to instructing them how to live in a society dominated by idolatry without compromising commitment to Christ. And in those chapters he makes clear the absolute incompatibility between the worship of Christ and the worship of idols: “Do not be idolaters” (1 Cor 10:7); “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (1 Cor 10:14); “Or do you not know that . . . idolaters . . . will [not] inherit the kingdom of God?” (1 Cor 6:9–10).
The Demonic Nature of Idolatry
He explains why in 1 Corinthians 10:16–22. Even though idols don’t exist and are no true gods at all, it’s not that there’s no spiritual component to idolatry. “No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God” (1 Cor 10:20). You could imagine the Corinthians thinking, “Now Paul, you just said that an idol is nothing and sacrifices to idols are nothing. So we should be able to take part in those rituals, right? They aren’t true gods!” And Paul replies, “No. It’s true that they’re not true gods; there’s no such thing as any god but the true God. But those idols are demons.”
This is a startling point. Every false religion in the world is not just wrong. It is demonic. It is energized and powered by the kingdom of darkness that is ruled by Satan himself.
Paul says the gods of the pagans are demons. And, just as when we sit down at the Lord’s table to worship Christ we share in the body and blood of Christ, so also when idolaters sacrifice to their demonic gods they are partaking of fellowship with demons. And so Paul says, “I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons!” (1 Cor 10:20–21). In other words: You can’t participate in the worship of Christ while you continue to participate in the worship of demons. That’s just ridiculous! There is absolutely no fellowship or spiritual partnership between the people of God and the people of this world.
The Context of 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1
Now, that was Paul’s concern throughout the letter of First Corinthians. But in Second Corinthians there’s a bit of a different context. The Corinthians are still guarding themselves against the paganism of their surrounding culture, to be sure. But the pressing issue as Paul writes Second Corinthians isn’t so much the pressure of unbelieving paganism, but rather the corrupting doctrine of the Judaizing false apostles (2 Cor 11:13; cf. 11:4, 22). These were professing Christians who are claiming that faith in Christ was necessary, but not enough for salvation. If you’re really going to be saved, you also have to be circumcised, and observe the Mosaic ceremonies, too (cf. Acts 15:1).
And in order to make room for their false doctrine, these interlopers had done everything they could to undermine Paul’s integrity and credibility with the Corinthians—hurling accusation after accusation against him, and inciting a mutiny against Paul that prompted an unplanned, painful visit (cf. 2 Cor 2:1) as well as a tearful letter of severe reproof (cf. 2 Cor 2:4). And from 2 Corinthians, we learn that, through Paul’s severe letter, the majority the church saw these charlatans for what they were and reaffirmed their loyalty to Paul (2 Cor 2:5–11; 7:5–16). But there was still a significant minority who were deceived. So before visiting them again, Paul writes 2 Corinthians to affirm his love for the repentant majority, and to exhort the unrepentant minority to break fellowship with these false teachers and return to him and the unadulterated Gospel he preaches with their whole hearts.
And it’s worth mentioning that 2 Cor 6:14–7:1 comes sandwiched in between a twofold appeal for the Corinthians to open their hearts, be reconciled to Paul, and affirm their loyalty to the Gospel he preaches (2 Cor 6:11–13; 7:2–4). But because the heart of this relational crisis is a moral crisis, in between that twofold appeal for reconciliation, he calls them to separate from these false apostles.
Apostate “Christianity” is No Better than Paganism
Now, wait a minute. These false apostles are Judaizers. They’re professing Christians who were just saying that you needed to add a few religious ceremonial works to your faith in Christ for salvation. But this text is all about separating oneself from pagan idolatry. How does that work?
And that is the genius of this passage. Paul’s saying, “Do you remember my instruction from my previous letter concerning the necessity of your total break from the idolatry and the paganism of your culture? Do you remember how I explained how incongruous it is to be involved in a spiritual partnership with Christ and with demons? Well, my dear Corinthians, that’s not only true of the out-and-out heathen—of the pagan idolaters who deny Christ outright. It also applies even to professing Christian teachers who corrupt the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
“Because these false apostles teach you that salvation comes by faith in Christ plus religious ritualism, they preach another gospel which is really no gospel at all (Gal 1:6–9). And though they call Christ their God, He is another Jesus whom we have not preached (2 Cor 11:4), and therefore is nothing but a demon, right alongside the false gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon (1 Cor 10:20–21). They are idolaters! And just as much as you cannot have any spiritual partnership with the idols of the Gentiles, neither can you have any spiritual partnership with these heretics, who fashion a god into their own image and idolize a demon they call ‘Jesus.’ You must come out from them and be separate!”
What implications does this have for the philosophy and theology that undergirds the ecumenical movement?
It teaches us that simply calling yourself a Christian, or mentally assenting to the doctrine of the Trinity, or confessing faith in someone named “Jesus,” does not automatically make you a Christian.
It teaches us that there are people who will claim to “believe in Jesus,” who are nevertheless, as Paul calls them in this passage, unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14, 15).
It teaches us that there are people, like the Judaizers, who profess to be Christians but who are not Christians, because they’re not united to Christ through genuine faith in the Gospel—because they teach that faith alone in Christ’s work alone (though necessary) is not sufficient for salvation, but that we must add works of ceremonial and religious ritualism to “preserve and increase” our justification. The Judaizers required circumcision; today’s heretics require baptism, or penance, or door-knocking, or deeds of charity; but the Gospel of Christ is fatally undermined just the same.
And it teaches us, therefore, that if we compromise by making light of the fundamental doctrinal differences that do genuinely divide us, and if we unite together in ministry while we are not united in the Gospel—even in the name of combatting genuine social evils—we are guilty of the grossest kind of idolatry, and are no better than pagans.
Now, all of that (today and last Friday) was introduction. We’ll get to the text itself starting next week.