What is the Ecumenical Agenda?

A summary of what is Ecumenism as outlined in 'Beware of the Ecumenical Agenda: A response to more Calvinistic than Calvin' by Dr Poh Boon Sing.

Poh Boon Sing

3/11/20244 min read

The word ‘Ecumenism’ comes from the Greek word ‘oikoumene’, meaning ‘the whole inhabited world’. When used in the Christian context, it refers to the gathering or union of many churches. - In the early centuries after the apostles, a number of ecumenical councils were held which produced the Creeds, e.g. the Apostles’ Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Nicene Creed. Today, the word ‘ecumenism’ carries a largely negative connotation, meaning to have unity at the expense of truth, to compromise with errors, and to be genial and generous to those who differ from oneself.

I. The background to Ecumenism

1. The rise of Modernism (theological liberalism): Modernism, or Theological Liberalism, began in Germany with the teaching of Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Modernism undermined the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture by introducing critical studies of the Scripture texts. C. H. Spurgeon (1834-1892) fought against Modernism in the Downgrade Controversy of 1887, but it continued to spread on both sides of the Atlantic.

2. The Evangelical-Liberal Clash (1910-1930): The evangelicals in the United States of America united to counter Modernism in what has been called the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy (or Evangelical-Liberal Clash). A series of books, called ‘The Fundamentals’, were written by various conservative writers and sent out to pastors and seminary students, to counter the claims of Modernism.

3. After the Evangelical-Liberal Clash (1930-1960): When the spread of Modernism was contained but not stopped, the evangelicals broke into three camps, viz. the Fundamentalist camp, the Reformed camp, and the Neo-evangelical camp. At that time, Pentecostalism arose as a fourth group, which merged with the charismatic renewal of the 1960’s to form the charismatic movement.

4. The rise of the charismatic movement (1960- ): The charismatic movement spread like while fire, transcending denominational barriers. Christians began talking about unity over the shared experience of ‘Spirit baptism’ and the restoration of extraordinary gifts. At the same time, there was a recovery of interest in the Reformed faith which continues to today, while enthusiasm in the charismatic movement has declined, with many charismatics adopting the Doctrines of Grace (the Five Points of Calvinism). The Neo-evangelicals have quietly been promoting the ecumenical agenda by infiltrating theological faculties of universities and seminaries. The basic message of the ecumenical agenda is that Christians should be united regardless of theological differences, in order to present a common front as we face the unbelieving world.

5. It is helpful to know the characteristics of the various camps, or constituencies:

- Fundamentalist: Tendency to be over-literal in Bible interpretation, practises aggressive separation, holds tenaciously to dispensational premillennialism, cessationist, and lacks patience with those who do not hold to the King James Version of the Bible.

- Reformed: Adheres to the Five Sola’s of the Reformation, the Five Points of Calvinism, covenant theology, cessationism. Confessional, upholds the primacy of preaching, and the Regulative Principle of worship. - Neo-evangelical: Tendency to be ecumenical-minded, emphasises social concerns, noncessationist. Open to contemporary worship, church-growth approach to missions, and Postmodernist in outlook (seeker-sensitive, progressing with the times, etc.).

- Charismatic: Historically, not evangelical. In spirit and doctrine, not conservative. Instead, Postmodernist in outlook. Emphasises subjective experiences at the expense of propositional truths. Non-cessationist, practises contemporary worship.

II. Why is it important for us to know about Ecumenism?

1. What is the ecumenical agenda? It is the attempt to promote visible expressions of unity among Christians at the expense of truth. This is done through dialogues, joint statements, writings, participation in social concerns, forming ecumenical bodies, and teaching in institutions. In all these, it is necessary to overlook doctrinal differences, show intellectual respectability, and portray a genial and accommodating spirit. On the negative side, there is an attempt to disparage those who appear to stand in their way, namely the Fundamentalists and the Reformed.

2. To neutralise, or weaken, the challenge posed by the Reformed constituency, its theology is attacked by insinuating that it has strayed from that of John Calvin due to influence by humanistic philosophy and logic. The claim is that Reformed people are ‘more Calvinistic than Calvin’.

3. Why is ecumenism dangerous? In the process of interacting with liberals, charismatics, and Roman Catholics, many evangelical leaders have softened their stand on the sole authority of Scripture, the gospel of ‘justification by faith alone’, and radical discipleship. Instead of influencing others for good, a number of them have been influenced to become liberal. By fraternising with those who deny the essentials of the Christian faith, the ecumenists are disobeying the teaching of Scripture to practise separation from sins, heresies, and worldliness (Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Cor. 6:14-18; Eph. 5:11; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14; James 4:4; Jude 3-4).

III, How should we respond to the ecumenical agenda?

1. Fellowship (communion) between individual Christians and between local churches exists through faith in Jesus Christ, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and in obedience to the truth (John 17:20-26; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; 1 Pet. 2:9-10). Communion is abstract and spiritual in nature, while union is practical and visible, involving membership and commitment in an organisation, namely, the local church (Matt. 18:17-18; Eph. 2:19-22; 3:21; Rev. 1:9-20).

2. Separation from sin, wrong teaching, and worldliness is taught in Scripture ((Rom. 16:17-18; 2 Cor. 6:14-18; 2 John 10-11). Those who are adamant in error within the local church must be dealt with by corrective discipline (1 Cor. 5:4-5; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14; Tit. 3:10-11). purveyors of errors must be confronted and contended against (2 John 10-11; Jude 3-4), depending on our standing in the circumstances and in relation to the persons concerned (cf. Rom. 14:10-13; 1 Cor. 5:12-13; Gal. 6:1-5).

3. Fellowship between Christians and churches must be based on the truth:

(i) the irreducible minimum of believing in the trinitarian God, the sole authority of Scripture in all matters of faith and practice, and the gospel of ’salvation by grace, through faith, in Jesus Christ alone’;

(ii) the possibility of a greater degree of fellowship on the personal level compared to fellowship on the level of the church; and

(iii) selective fellowship based on the degree of truth held in common.

We must beware of the ‘ecumenical agenda’ of the Neo-evangelicals, do not get involved in ecumenism, focus on serving God in God’s way, viz. through the local church, having fellowship with others based on the truth.

For more information:

A Bible Study conducted on the Ecumenical Agenda on 17 January 2024

The book 'Beware of the Ecumenical Agenda: A response to More Calvinistic than Calvin' can be found in Good News Bookstore or Shopee.