Originally published as an editorial for "Reformed Polemics." (Jan. 17, 1998). Published here by permission of the author.

We live in an ecumenical age. Unity has become the topic of the day. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of christendom. In response to many divisions and schisms in the churches there is now an urgent appeal for greater unity among Christians, particularly among those of Reformed persuasion. Appeals for unity have been voiced at international conferences (ICRC), ecclesiastical assemblies, Reformation rallies, unity symposiums, church union gatherings, etc. When we hear these appeals for unity, and note a desire to strive for unity among Christians we could consider this to be a good development.

We must, however, judge this striving for unity by the Word of God. Many of the incentives to unity proposed today cannot stand the scrutiny of Scripture. For that reason there is the need to test the spirits of the age and compare them with what the Word tells us should form the basis of Christian unity.

In a booklet entitled 'The Basis of Christian Unity', Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones has some important and relevant things to say to the church in our day. He states that unity must never be isolated or regarded in and of itself and it must never be the foremost consideration. This is stated so clearly in Acts 2:42 where fellowship follows doctrine;

"They continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (KJV).

That is a precise order in which things are placed; also in John 17 and Ephesians 4. The present tendency to discount and to depreciate doctrine in the interest of unity is simply a denial and violation of plain New Testament teaching. We must never start with the church or with an institution, but rather with the truth, which alone creates unity. Failure to realize this point was the main trouble with the Jews at the time when our Lord was in this world. The fatal assumption was that because they were Jews they would be guaranteed salvation. They believed that membership of the nation meant that they were truly children of God. The same mistake of starting with the institution rather than with the truth was also made before the Great Reformation. Luther refused to be bound by that mighty institution, the Roman Catholic church, with her century long history. Having been liberated by the truth of justification by faith he saw clearly that truth must always come first. It must come before institution and traditions. Everything must be judged by the Word of truth.

The starting point in considering the question of unity must always be regeneration and belief of the truth. Nothing else produces unity, and it is impossible apart from this. An appearance or a facade based on anything else is clearly a fraud and a lie. People are not "one" nor in a state of unity when they disagree about the fundamentals of faith. To give the impression that they are "one" simply because of a common outward organization is misleading. To do anything which supports or encourages such an impression or appearance a unity is dishonest and sinful. Truth and untruth cannot be reconciled, and the difference between them cannot be patched over. Error is always to be exposed and denounced for truth's sake.

Furthermore, unity must neither be thought of primarily in numerical terms. Nothing is so opposed to the biblical teaching as the modern idea that numbers and a powerful organization are the things that count. Such thinking is the very opposite of the great biblical doctrine of the "remnant".

Finally, Dr. Lloyd-Jones states that the ultimate question facing us these days is whether our faith is in men and their power to organize, or in the truth of God in Christ Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. Are we primarily concerned about the size of the Church or the purity of the Church? Such purity must of course be in evidence both in doctrine and in life-style. God's Word must remain the norm for our ecumenical thinking and acting. We must know what we believe and tenaciously hold on to the truth. If we compromise that truth in our desire for Christian unity then what remains is neither truth nor unity.

Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones is not the only one who has expressed concern about "the present tendency to discount and to depreciate doctrine in the interest of unity." Francis Schaeffer warned nearly thirty years ago in The God Who Is There, that "the church is following the irrationality of secular philosophy... Many are discarding doctrine in favor of personal experience. Others are willing to disregard crucial biblical distinctives in order to achieve external unity among all professing Christians." (a)

J.F. MacArthur expressed similar sentiments. He writes: "True unity is rooted in truth. Jesus prayed:

'Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth... For their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word; that they may all be one.' (John 17:17-21, emphasis added).

The unity for which He prayed is preceded by and grows out of sanctification in the truth. Fellowship that ignores or glosses over the crucial doctrines of the faith is not Christian unity; it is ungodly compromise.

Anyone today who is bold enough to suggest that someone else's ideas or doctrines are unsound or unbiblical is dismissed at once as contentious, divisive, unloving, or unchristian. It is al right to espouse any view you wish, but it is not all right to criticize another persons views - no matter how patently unbiblical those views may be... Even to suggest that a sorting between lies and truth is necessary is viewed by many as perilously intolerant. There is a notion abroad that any dispute over doctrine is inherently evil. Concern for orthodoxy is regarded as incompatible with Christian unity. Doctrine itself is labeled divisive and those who make doctrine an issue are branded uncharitable. No one is permitted to criticize anyone else's beliefs, no matter how unbiblical those beliefs seem to be... In the name of unity, such matters of doctrine are expressly not supposed to be contested." (b)

The words penned by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Francis Schaeffer, and John F. MacArthur are, of course, very meaningful for the Reformed churches. As Reformed churches we stand, generally speaking, on the same confessional basis, yet it is apparent that also within the Reformed churches there is increasingly more tolerance to deviations from the Reformed confession of Scripture. And we know that when tolerance is valued over truth, the cause of truth always suffers. "A lasting union can only be achieved if it is built on a solid confessional basis. This requires a statement of unequivocal allegiance to Scripture, the confessions, and a stated willingness to abide by a common Reformed church order." (c)

"Lasting union can only be achieved if there is a sincere and active commitment to true ecumenicity. True ecumenicity represents the desire for and pursuit of full ecclesiastical unity with all Reformed believers according to the prayer of Christ in John 17:22. The pursuit of true ecumenicity must be seen not as a option, but as a duty and obligation given by God Himself... The ultimate key to lasting union is true obedience to the norms of Scripture and to the call of Christ. This is required of the church at all times, and therefore all believers must be persistent in serving the cause of unity in the truth and truth in unity." (d)

Dr. Lloyd-Jones echoed these sentiments when he said: "God's Word must remain the norm for our ecumenical thinking and acting. We must know what we believe and tenaciously hold on to the truth. If we compromise that truth in our desire for Christian unity then what remains is neither truth nor unity." Therefore there is the constant need to test the spirits of the age and compare them with what the Word of God tells us should form the basis of Christian unity. There is the perpetual requirement for a return to discernment. We must "incline our hearts to understanding" and our minds to the unchanging Word of God; to the truth that endures forever. Let us then manifest our unity in Christ with a unanimous and faithful confession of the truth.

Ron Dykstra

a) b) Reckless Faith, John F. MacArthur

c) d) The Challenge of Church Union, Rev. J. De Jong, The Burlington Reformed Study Centre.

Ron Dykstra

Professing member of the

Willoughby Heights Canadian Reformed Church

Langley, B.C.