Questions concerning ecumenical affiliations are among the most difficult for any minister to answer. There is a spectrum along which every minister falls regarding their involvement and interaction with ministers of other ecclesiastical fellowships. On one side of the spectrum, there are ministerial fellowships–in any given town–in which clergy of every group that could possibly be considered a part of “Christendom” meet together to talk about social issues in the community and how they can together make a difference. The members of said ministerial fellowship will talk about pastoral and developmental aspects of their churches. However, there is one Shibboleth. You can never talk about anything of doctrinal substance were deep disagreement abounds. On the other end of the spectrum, you find ministers who have adopted an isolationist approach and segregated themselves from the church universal in the name of doctrinal purity. Such ministers are leery of any approach made by a fellow minister in the area. When they are asked to consider participating in a joint worship service or outreach event, they sheepishly give an insincere verbal affirmation of agreement (or evasively change the subject), knowing full well that they would never run the risk of holding hands with another church–even another church of similar evangelical commitments. The former group fears losing unity–the latter, purity. So, the question with which we are constantly faced is, “How do we to avoid giving into doctrinal compromise (1 Tim. 1:10; 2 Tim. 4:3; Titus 1:9; 2:1) in the name of unity without schismatically rejecting the unity that Christ wants for His people throughout the world (John 17:11; 21-23) in the name of purity?” Here are five principles with which I have often attempted to discern when and how to be associated with other ministers and other churches:
1. Establish Doctrinal Boundaries. This is, of course, the starting point. “How can two walk together unless they are agreed” (Amos 3:3)? There is no more important question to answer when seeking ecumenical unity than the following: “What truths unite and what truths divide?” In fact, it was this question that lay at the foundation of Desiring God’s 2003 Conference for Pastors on “Good Fences, Bad Fences, and the Glory of Christ” (see esp. the panel discussion beginning at the 48:31 min. mark). Personally, I tend to find the Solas of the Reformation to be the best fence posts when seeking to answering this question. Protestantism (in the old and original “protesting Rome” sense of the title) was founded solidly on the five Solas of the Reformation. It is necessary that a man believe in salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, by the Scriptures alone to the glory of God alone if we are to have any sort of meaningly “fellowship” with one another. Otherwise, our fellowship is not in the truth of the Gospel but in some sort of affinity for community, organizational leadership, education or some other non-biblically defined activity or endeavor.
This does not mean that everyone who does not intellectually affirm the Solas of the Reformation are not saved. In the words of Sinclair Ferguson, “It is hard to draw the line between the confused head and the washed heart.”
2. Seek to Discern the Spirits of Men. Just because a pastor gives assent to the Solas of the Reformation doesn’t mean that he is a good or a godly man. The Scriptures are constantly calling us to discern the spirit of a man that is in him. In fact, there are many men who are robustly Reformed in their theology, but who are mean-spirited or proudly ambition in their hearts. We have to ask the question, “Is the pastor we are considering partnering with for the sake of mutual ministry a proud man, a heavy-handed man, a rash man, a greedy man, a selfish man or a foolish man? Those are just a few of the categories that we should consider prior to committing to “holding hands” with a pastor or session of another church (Proverbs 14:7; 22:24). This does not mean that we should be overly scrupulous or overly cautious when pursuing ecumenical affiliation–but it does mean that we should be seeking to discern the sort of man/men with whom we are seeking to partner. Otherwise, a casual and cautious–if any–friendship may be best. Nowhere in the Scriptures are we commanded to partner with just any church–no matter what they believe or who leads them–to labor for the spread of the Gospel. In fact, Diotrephes (3 John 9-10)–a minister who loved the preeminence and who rejected others–is a biblical example of a man who was said to be avoided.
3. Proactively Forge Friendships with other Ministers. The only way to know where a man is doctrinally and where he is spiritually means having to do the hard work of forging friendships with other ministers in their community. It means stepping out of your comfort zone and seeking to get to know other ministers and congregants. It means being proactive in wanting to see relationships formed for the sake of the Gospel and biblical fellowship, with other churches that are outside of your own ecclesiastical fellowship or denomination.
4. Start Theology Groups. One of the best ways to form ecumenical partnerships with other ministers and churches is to invite those ministers who you believe truly hold to the most important doctrinal commitment–and who are seeking godly living–to come together for a monthly fellowship in which you have lectures or in which you work through a theological book together. It doesn’t have to be something that everyone in the group agrees upon in its entirety. For instance, we have a monthly fellowship called the “Coastal Empire Reformed Fellowship” (CERF). It has been in existence for 25 years. Ministers from various PCA churches come together with independent Reformed, New Covenant Theology and Progressive Dispensationist churches. Soteriologically, all of the ministers who attend are Calvinistic or believe in sovereign grace in the work of redemption. One of the men from the group gives a talk on any given subject. We then interact on how ministry is going. Finally, we pray together and have a sweet time of fellowship over a meal. This has helped to knit our hearts together. I pray regularly from the pulpit for each and every one of the churches represented in this group.
5. Put Territorial Ambition to Death. While compromise is a great evil with which many are easily beset, so too is territorialism. We must eagerly seek to put territorial ambition to death. Ministers must never allow themselves to pastor by greed or fear. It is quite possible–and actually quite easy–for ministers to be greedy for “success” in growth and numbers. This is a great enemy to that sort of partnership with other ministers and churches that will most readily aid the advancement of the Kingdom of God. That Proverb holds true in this regard: “Greed takes away the life of its owner” (Prov. 1:19). Additionally the following Proverb can be applied to pastoral ministry: “There is one who gives away more than what is right, yet increases; and, one who withholds what is good and yet suffers lost.” Again, Diotrephes (3 John 9-10) is the example of a territorial and ministerially greedy man who fell under the condemnation of the Apostles. In no sense whatsoever, can territorialism and biblically ecumenical unity stand together.