From the Federal Council of Churches in 1908, to the Manhattan Declaration in the present day, it’s the exact same story: Redefine Christianity so that faith in the Christ of Scripture and/or the Gospel of Scripture is unnecessary, so that you can partner with enemies of the Gospel who call themselves Christians, form a large group, and seize cultural influence. But Francis Schaeffer captured well the fundamental failure of the ecumenical movement when he wrote, “What is the use of evangelicalism seeming to get larger and larger if sufficient numbers under the name evangelical no longer hold to that which makes evangelicalism evangelical?”
One of the most devastating attacks on the life and health of the church throughout all of church history has been what is known as the ecumenical movement—the downplaying of doctrine in order to foster partnership in ministry between (a) genuine Christians and (b) people who were willing to call themselves Christians but who rejected fundamental Christian doctrines.
In the latter half of the 19th century, theological liberalism fundamentally redefined what it meant to be a Christian. It had nothing to do, they said, with believing in doctrine. It didn’t matter if you believed in an inerrant Bible; the scholarship of the day had debunked that! It didn’t matter if you believed in the virgin birth and the deity of Christ; modern science disproved that! It didn’t matter if you embraced penal substitutionary atonement; blood sacrifice and a wrathful God are just primitive and obscene, and besides, man is not fundamentally sinful but basically good! What mattered was one’s experience of Christ, and whether we live like Christ. “And we don’t need doctrine to do that!” they said. “Doctrine divides!” Iain Murray wrote of that sentiment, “‘Christianity is life, not doctrine,’ was the great cry. The promise was that Christianity would advance wonderfully if it was no longer shackled by insistence on doctrines and orthodox beliefs” (“Divisive Unity,” 233).
The Emergence of the Social Gospel
The result of this kind of thinking was the social gospel of the early 20th century. If what it means to be a Christian has little to do with creeds and everything to do with deeds, then what makes someone a Christian is whether they’re laboring for the betterment of society—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, working for justice, and so on. And so across denominational lines, professing “Christians” were coming together to promote unity around a common mission, even if they didn’t share a common faith. In 1908, more than 30 denominations representing over 18 million American Protestants set their doctrinal differences aside and met in Philadelphia at what is called the Federal Council of Churches. Their great concern was not the Gospel, but how to address the social issues of the day: race relations, international justice, reducing armaments, education, and regulating the consumption of alcohol. This was the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement.
Now, in each of these denominations there were faithful Christians who recognized that—as much as social ills mattered—the body of Christ was not defined most fundamentally by a common social agenda, but by a common confession of faith in the Christ of Scripture. These faithful men, led by the great Presbyterian professor J. Gresham Machen, among others, understood that there were certain fundamental truths that no one claiming to be a Christian could deny. A Christ who is not fully God is a fundamentally different Christ than one who isfully God. A salvation that can be more-or-less earned through good morals and good deeds is a fundamentally different salvation than the one purchased freely on the cross by our wrath-bearing Substitute. A religion built upon the authority of man’s ideas is a fundamentally different religion than one built upon the authority of God as revealed in Scripture. And so these men—pejoratively labeled Fundamentalists—insisted that the doctrinal fundamentals of the Christian faith were non-negotiable, and that, if they were abandoned, it didn’t matter how many people-who-called-themselves-Christians you could gather into one place: there was no true unity.
Strength in Numbers?
The conflict between the Liberals and the so-called Fundamentalists raged on through the ensuing years. In 1948, the World Council of Churches convened in Amsterdam, and embraced as Christian anyone who merely said they believed that Jesus Christ was God and Savior. Delegates from 147 churches brought Protestants, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox persons together from all over the world. Once again, the goal was to show strength in numbers—to portray to the world that “Christianity” was visibly united, a cultural force—and to pool support for worldwide missions and social justice. In every case, these movements and councils lamented the division across doctrinal and denominational lines, and argued that if Christianity is to have any genuine influence in the world, we must be big. And so we must come together. A divided church is an offense to God and a cause of her ineffectiveness in the world, they said.
By the 1950s, the Billy Graham crusades had become an evangelistic phenomenon. Tens of thousands were flocking to hear this evangelist speak, and thousands were making professions of faith in Christ. Now this caught the attention of the liberal ecumenists, because Graham believed in all the fundamental doctrines that they rejected. He believed in the sinfulness of man, the need of a spiritual Savior from sin, and he called for conversions. And yet he was drawing crowds! When Graham began his first crusade in Britain in 1954, the liberal Anglicans denounced him. But by the end of the crusade several months later, they were sitting on the platform alongside him. The Archbishop of Canterbury even gave the benediction at the final meeting.
And it was all—as it always is—driven by numbers. One of the Anglican liberals said of partnering with Graham, “What does fundamentalist theology matter compared with gathering in the people we have all missed?” In other words, Who cares about the theology? Just get the people in the seats! And sadly enough, the uncrucified lust for influence worked in both directions. Iain Murray writes,
“But the truth was that [Graham] wanted the cooperation of these men for the aid that their reputations gave to his work, and for the way it could secure wider denominational support. Winning the mainline denominations remained the primary objective and that could not be done without the good will of the leaders. So both sides were motivated by an ulterior motive. On Graham’s side the motive was to get a wider hearing for the gospel, but in order to do this, he adopted an attitude towards false teachers that is not compatible with the New Testament” (“Divisive Unity,” 240).
Good Morals Do Not Reform Bad Company
And though the motive is almost always pure—that is, to influence the enemies of the Gospel to be swayed from their opinions and embrace the Gospel—when you blur the lines between belief and unbelief, it always works in the opposite direction. 1 Corinthians 15:33 says, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’” You might think, “Oh, I’m just partnering with them so that I can minister to them and so that they can get saved!” But Paul says, “No, don’t be deceived! Good morals do not reform bad company; bad company corrupts good morals.”