2. The Ecumenical Awakening - Part 1

The Unfinished Reformation

An Analysis

Neil Girrard
Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
Isa. 5:20 π Dan. 12:9 π Mt. 5:13-14 π Mt. 13:30 π Mt. 18:3 π Mt. 24:9 π Mt. 24:10; 2nd π Mt. 24:12 π Mt. 25:40 π Mt. 25:45 π Lk. 5:37-39 π Lk. 10:21 π Lk. 14:21 π Lk. 15:4 π Jn. 7:17 π Jn. 8:44 π Jn. 14:23-24 π Jn. 15:5 π Jn. 16:8 π Jn. 16:13 π Jn. 17:20-21 π Rom. 16:17 π 1 Cor. 2:16 π 1 Cor. 12:10 π 2 Cor. 6:14 π Gal. 3:3 π Gal. 5:13 π Gal. 5:19-21 π Gal. 5:21 π Eph. 5:21 π Eph. 6:12 π Phlp. 3:7 π 2 Ths. 2:3 π 1 Tim. 2:1-2 π 2 Tim. 2:15 π 2 Tim. 3:17 π Jas. 1:21 π 2 Pet. 1:4 π 2 Pet. 1:20 π 2 Pet. 1:21 π 1 Jn. 2:24
Greek Words Mentioned in This Article
Heresies, sectshairesis – [139] π Divisions, Dissensionsdichostasia – [1370] π Idolatryeidololatreia – [1495] π Selfish Ambitionseritheia – [2052] π Contentionseris – [2054]

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from The Unfinished Reformation” by Charles Clayton Morrison (Harper Bros., New York, 1953)

The ecumenical movement, particularly in some of its earlier moments, was built on noble aspirations and motives. Morrison wrote,

“This movement is concerned with the general problem presented by the multiplicity of separate and independent churches into which the historical Christian Church has been differentiated. It has arisen from the widespread conviction among Christians of many names that these divisions in the church are unnecessary, unworthy, deplorable and actually sinful.” (p. 1)

As a start, this is excellent! There are many denominations, especially the so-called non-denominational ones, who can’t even get this far! And let us recall that this message, which most today can’t even acknowledge, was being discussed in 1951!

But it is also here that the ecumenical movement misses its first clue. The concern over the divisiveness and sinfulness of denominationalism arose “from the widespread conviction among Christians of many names.” Jesus said, “And when [the Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.” ( Jn. 16:8 - emphasis added) This thing began as a work of the Holy Spirit and rather than seek the Lord’s methods of bringing this burden into temporal reality, as was discussed in the previous section of this series, the ecumenical movement presupposes that the existing sinful denominations and their “churches” will be useful, acceptable wineskins for a new, purer work of the Holy Spirit. (see Lk. 5:37-39 ) What was begun in the Spirit, the ecumenical movement, forcing this spiritually-initiated conviction through their existing “church” paradigm and looking to the methodologies of men, has attempted to consummate through the flesh. (see Gal. 3:3; top )

That this movement has roots sunk deep into the flesh is also seen in Morrison’s comment that

“It is with the denominations in this top [92% of all Protestant membership at the time] bracket that the ecumenical movement is realistically concerned.” (p. 3)

What about the other 8% - several thousands of people – are they not worthy of consideration and effort too? Jesus’ primary concern was never about the multitudes but about the ones and twos, the leasts ( Mt. 25:40 , 45 ), the hundredth sheep ( Lk. 15:4 ), the little children ( Mt. 18:3 , Lk. 10:21 ) and the poor, crippled, blind and lame. ( Lk. 14:21; top ) The modern “church” “gospel” caters to the mixed multitude, the 99, the famous, the greatest, the wealthy contributors and “tithers.” This emphasis on the greatest amount of people affected – rather than on all who call on the name of Christ (the focus God has) – betrays some of the real roots of the ecumenical movement.

Spawning Ground for Division

Perhaps one of the most significant contributions Morrison makes in this book is his penetrating analysis of American Protestantism.

“Our American soil has seemed to provide an ideal spawning ground for the proliferation of sectarian churches beyond anything known elsewhere in Christendom.” (p. 4)

His three explanations of how this has come to be are perhaps one of the best parts of his book and is well worth considering the depth of his thoughts.

1. The principle of religious liberty guaranteed by our Constitution tended to be carried over from the political sphere to the sphere of religion, that is, from the state to the church. This psychological transference was more or less unconscious. The neutrality and impartiality of the American state toward all forms of religion subtly predisposed Protestant people to assume that the creation of a new denomination was not only legally irreproachable but could be religiously approved. “This is a free country, isn’t it?” became the colloquial justification by which the withdrawal of a disaffected group to form a new denomination was appreciably relieved of any moral or religious reproach. James Madison who, more than any other statesman, was responsible for the First Amendment, had said, “The more independent religious bodies, the more secure would the government be from church influence.” The Protestant mind easily, though fallaciously, tended to assume that if this multiplication of denominations was good for the government it was also good for religion. Sectarian diversity was therefore accepted as an ecclesiastical virtue and any Christian inhibition on further division was not seriously felt. (p. 4-5)

Let us dissect this before we move on to the other two explanations. The principle of religious liberty, which freed the American believers from the religious tyrants of the Old World, has indeed become the very means of a different kind of enslavement. This is nothing new. Paul wrote, “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” ( Gal. 5:13 ) Liberty – the right and ability of every man to choose for himself the ways of God – is what we are called to. But with that freedom also comes the ability and opportunity to choose the desires of the flesh. This is also the devil and the demonic’s opportunity, using lies and deception, to trick us into practicing things that, in truth, indulge the flesh and oppose the Spirit. This is the essence of the counterfeit “church.” Because lawlessness (doing what is right in one’s own eyes) abounds – especially in “church” circles as each individual chooses which denomination he prefers and then follows its own peculiar creeds, doctrines and “theology” – the love of many (especially for those outside their denominational box but also inside it too) has grown cold (see Mt. 24:12; top ) and, instead of serving one another in love, it is the flesh, the devil and the demonic which are served.

In Paul’s list of the works of the flesh ( Gal. 5:19-21; top ), we find at least five that are routinely practiced in most (if not all) “churches”: idolatry, contentions, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies.

As we consider the meanings of these words, let us also recall that they are included in the list of “works of the flesh” which, Paul warned, “those who practice these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” ( Gal. 5:21; top )

James Madison

At the risk of stepping away from the main point we are examining from Morrison’s analysis, let us examine his usage of James Madison as a support for his conclusions. Morrison attributes to Madison something of a Machiavellian streak that doesn’t seem to bear up under further research. Morrison wrote:

“James Madison… said, ‘The more independent religious bodies, the more secure would the government be from church influence.’” (p. 5)

This exact quote has become very difficult, perhaps impossible, to find except in Morrison’s book. Madison is recorded elsewhere as saying:

“Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects, which pervades America and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.” (Virginia convention on ratifying the Constitution, June 1778)


“In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.” (Federalist Papers Number 51)

To truly judge Madison’s intent, however, we must consider these further quotes:

“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not.

Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” (“A Memorial and Remonstrance,” addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1785)

Madison is not, as many do today, arguing for the separation of state and morality. He is arguing for separation of “church” and state because the “church” of his day was generally more corrupt than the state! As he said elsewhere, “The number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state” and “Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government.” The “church” of his day and especially that of the Old World included greedy, corrupt, power-hungry, dictatorial clergy who took the vast amounts of money they extorted from the people (often with threats of fiery divine judgment!) and secretly controlled the governments of men. Being free of the “church’s” influence is indeed a very good thing even as, as we are now witnessing, relieving the government of the effect of the salt and light of the genuine ekklesia walking in harmony with Christ and God (see Mt. 5:13-14 , Jn. 15:5; top ) only enables evil to reign in the very halls of the government.

James Madison was a politician in a time when that meant something more than it does today. But that a politician can recognize that a multiplicity of “church” divisions limits the influence exerted on the government should show us something of the two opposing kingdoms in operation. The U.S. government which, when all is said and done, is just another kingdom of this world, benefits when the people of Christ are scattered and divided. This fact alone should speak volumes for those who have ears to hear. What is good for the government’s interests may or may not be beneficial to the people of Christ. We would do well to simply remember Paul’s instructions to pray (hard!) for all men in power ( 1 Tim. 2:1-2 ) even as we move toward a season when all nations will hate, persecute and even execute the true followers of Christ. ( Mt. 24:9; top )

Calling Evil Evil

“Sectarian diversity,” Morrison wrote, far from being seen as a sinful, divisive work of the flesh, “was therefore accepted as an ecclesiastical virtue…” (p. 5) Isaiah wrote, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” ( Isa. 5:20; top ) The simple calling of an evil (denominationalism) good enabled men to ignore the voice of the Holy Spirit. “…and any Christian inhibition on further division,” Morrison wrote, “was not seriously felt.”

A few more quotes from Morrison on this point (though he included them in his second explanation and we will see them again shortly) are well worth adding here.

“…the whole history of Protestant denominationalism…appears as a long series of schismatic chain reactions – one schism producing other schisms and they in turn producing others… The denominational system was generally regarded as established, as a normal expression of Protestantism… There was no conceivable limit to the number of denominational churches which could legitimately arise. The creation of one more denomination could hardly be conceived as violating any fundamental Christian principle.” (p. 5-6)

Jesus said, “I do not pray for these [My current disciples now] alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” ( Jn. 17:20-21 ) Morrison’s critique of denominalization included a denouncement of its “shameful embarrassment to the missionary expansion of Christianity.” (p.28) The oneness or unity of the body of Christ is the means by which God evangelizes (or announces the reality of His salvation and the scope of His kingdom to) the unbelieving world. Denominationalism is the antithesis of the unity of the body of Christ – a concept Morrison addressed later in this chapter and which we will examine in the next section in this series. Let it suffice to say that denominationalism is the “church’s” (and those genuine believers caught up in its various deceptions) cooperation with the devil and the demonic’s efforts to limit, inhibit and even destroy the oneness of the body of Christ. True unity will never be realized while sinful divisions are allowed to remain. Until our unity is based – both individually and corporately – on our personal, careful obedience to the King, Christ Jesus, any visible practice of outward unity will only be another deception, the work of the devil. ( Jn. 8:44; top )

Hypocrisy’s Triumph

Morrison’s second explanation as to why America is a spawning ground for sectarian denominationalism is:

2. A denomination from whose membership a disaffected group threatened to secede was in no position to present an effective religious reason why it should not do so. The parent denomination itself had originated in essentially the same kind of situation as that which it now confronted in the threatened secession of its own children. With what consistency, therefore, could the parent now chide her children for doing what she herself had done a century or two centuries or three centuries ago?

When we view the whole history of Protestant denominationalism, it appears as a long series of schismatic chain reactions – one schism producing other schisms and they in turn producing others, in a process which continued up to, let us say, the late nineteenth century. Prophets of church unity periodically appeared throughout this history who endeavored to arrest this chain reaction, but their valiant efforts were futile. The denominational system was generally regarded as established, as a normal expression of Protestantism.

The individualism of the time and of the country provided a favorable environment for the proliferation of denominations. It also provided an unfavorable environment for Protestantism to think in terms of the church catholic. The church, as church, had virtually passed out of the Protestant mind which was now preoccupied with the churches. The church catholic had become the church invisible, a transcendental or spiritual entity, not a historical and empirical entity. There was no conceivable limit to the number of denominational churches which could legitimately arise. The creation of one more denomination by secession from an existing denomination could hardly be conceived as violating any fundamental Christian principle. Indeed, it was implicitly assumed and often explicitly argued that the rivalries among the denominations would stimulate and intensify the spiritual life of all the churches, to the benefit of Christianity as a whole. This result would follow in much the same manner as laissez-faire competition in the economic order was supposed to produce a net result of harmony and the maximum welfare of all. (p. 5-6)

As we have already seen, there is great overlap in these two explanations. The second follows hard on the heels of the first. Once one has bought into the lie that denominationalism is not a sin, it would be grossly hypocritical to accuse others of sinning by committing denominationalism. And this is the underlying current of deception that pervades all of “churchianity.”

But let us examine some of these quotes in more detail. Morrison wrote,

“Prophets of church unity…” – later he will give these names: “Dury, Calixtus, Comenius, Ussher, Stillingfleet, Grotius, Baxter, Leibnitz and many others” (p. 15) – “…periodically appeared through this history who endeavored to arrest this chain reaction, but their valiant efforts were futile.” (p. 5)

Of course their valiant efforts were futile. That prophets of “church” unity should fail is no surprise because the “church” is built on flawed and dysfunctional foundations, presuppositions and premises! Further, the understandings and revelations as to how and why the wheat and the tares are able to mature simultaneously in such close proximity to one another (see Mt. 13:30 ) have been sealed until the time of the end. ( Dan. 12:9 ), a time it would seem is looming directly ahead of us. Those previous prophets lacked the vision, the understanding and the proper tools to bring about universal, catholic (using the term in its original meaning, not its Romish distortion) unity and could only be a foreshadow to the prophets who, in the time of the end being granted a fuller understanding, will stand up and correctly and completely say, “This is that which was written of long ago.” Morrison’s “prophets of church unity” (names known largely only to church historians and theologians) saw dimly because it was not time to bring about the unity of the ekklesia – a time that would require men to choose whether to be of the counterfeit “church” (which far from demonstrating unity will hate and betray one another – Mt. 24:10; top ) or to be the genuine ekklesia that will walk in the unity found only in complete submission to Christ.

Where To Start?

Morrison’s third explanation is:

3. Another factor explaining the uninhibited spawning of so many denominations on American soil may be found in the psychology of the frontier. Until modern times, the American people have always lived on the frontier. Geographically, it was an ever-moving frontier, and behind its advancing border there was going on a progressive consolidation and stabilization of political, cultural and religious institutions. But even so, the frontier psychology remained after the frontier had passed on. This was the dominant characteristic of the American spirit, not only in the newer west but in the older east. It took the form of a lusty independence, a distinct feeling of having broken with the past. In this New World the people now confronted not only the opportunity but the necessity of fashioning new institutions with only a dim reference to the past and to the Old World. Thus the continuities of history were appreciably severed and the sense of loyalty to a heritage whose values should be conserved was dimmed. This spirit of self-sufficiency and independence pervaded the whole political, cultural and social life of the people. It also pervaded their religious life.

Naturally, the concept of the church catholic, the universal church of history, could hardly be assimilated by a mentality conditioned by such an environment. It would seem vague, unempirical and irrelevant. The church, as church, was indeed a reality, but hardly a historical reality. It was an invisible and transcendental reality. The denomination had taken its place. The denomination was the empirical ecclesiastical reality. The country was populated from the beginning by denominational dissenters who had broken with the historic church in the mother countries. In the New World their sense of denominational independence was reinforced and stimulated by their consciousness that a great ocean separated them from the milieu in which their ecclesiastical independence had been achieved. They were now on their own, completely detached from any disciplinary restraints. For them, the Bible completely supplanted history, tradition, heritage, catholicity. The right of private interpretation was the principle upon which they had won their independence. Over against this private right there was no adequate counterweight of discipline to inhibit defection and secession from an existing denomination. In the intense controversies over the meaning of Scripture, new denominations arose, all justified by their private interpretation of the Bible. Thus the soil and atmosphere of American freedom encouraged the anarchic proliferation of denominationalism. (p. 6-7)

Psychology, the study of the mind and, literally, of the soul, is the bottom-line in Morrison’s explanation here. “The psychology of the frontier” is his term for it but then he calls it “the dominant characteristic of the American spirit [that] took the form of a lusty independence… This spirit of self-sufficiency and independence pervaded the whole political, cultural and social life of the people. It also pervaded their religious life.” (p. 6 – emphasis added) The study of the mind and soul will never be able to explain the depths of the spiritual realms, especially the realities of the spiritual beings against whom we are to wrestle. (see Eph. 6:12 ) The mindset, attitudes and behaviors exhibited by the Americans on the frontier may indeed be psychologically analyzed – but that analysis will only provide us clues that point dimly and in part to what spiritual activity (either divine or demonic) was exercising influence upon the people in that time and in that place. The discerning of spirits remains a gift from the Holy Spirit ( 1 Cor. 12:10; top ) and will never be accessible to the merely-intellectual observer of trends and behaviors.

Let us examine more carefully Morrison’s assertions about these frontier Americans:

The country was populated from the beginning by denominational dissenters who had broken with the historic church in the mother countries. (p. 6)

The Reformers broke away from the Catholic sect because they understood that the Catholics had drifted far from obedience to the Scriptures and the Spirit of God. One only need say the word “Inquisition” to recognize this fact. These that Morrison calls denominational dissenters (which some certainly were that) were also fleeing for their lives from the persecution that arose from simply seeking to live one’s own convictions. Breaking from a historical sect and heresy is precisely what the Scriptures command us to do. ( Rom. 16:17 , etc.; top) Seeking to get away from those who would kill you because your version of Christianity differs from theirs seems to be a wise thing to do. But does this constitute breaking with the universal, catholic ekklesia? Certainly, the mindset of independence can promote lawlessness (doing what is right in one’s own eyes) but it can also produce a greater insight into the trans-temporal nature of the whole universal, catholic body of Christ.

“The denomination had taken [the] place [of the historical church].” (p. 6)

Painting with broad-strokes, we have the original followers of Christ of the first century (characterized by home fellowships, equal relations between brothers and simple interaction with the Spirit of Christ) transplanted by the second and third century infiltration of paganism (a time characterized by “church” buildings, clergy and laity divisions, legalistic formulas, dogmas and creeds and increasing absorption of paganistic ideas). With the Reformation, the Reformers rejected many paganistic ideas and false doctrines, returning to the notions of faith. But the other things the people had picked up in the second and third centuries were never exposed or forsaken. Now, in the latter half of the second millennium, the denomination settles into a place that most people assume to be the rightful place of the ekklesia. At the end of that millennium, this has devolved into the apostasy, the falling away from the faith which Jesus and Paul foretold. ( Mt. 24:10 , 2 Ths. 2:3; top ) This over-arching, broad-stroke picture was not available to Morrison in his day.

“They were now on their own, completely detached from any disciplinary restraints.” (p. 7)

Disciplinary restraints are required to maintain loyalty to an institution, a thing not to be found anywhere in the pages of Scripture. Jesus said, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word… He who does not love Me does not keep My words…” ( Jn. 14:23-24 ) The one who does not love and obey Christ and God has bigger problems looming on his horizon than any “disciplinary restraints” mere men might impose. Again the “church” paradigm rests on the interactions of men and virtually excludes God entirely and certainly does not see Him as the basis upon which corporate obedience to the principles and precepts of true Christianity (the secondary benefit which results from corporate and individual obedience to the Person of Christ) will be realized. That is, the one who regularly and routinely obeys the Head of the body as an individual will have no difficulty coming into harmony and cooperation with (and even submission to – see Eph. 5:21 ) others who do the same. The conflict arises when individuals practice carnality, lawlessness and sin in the name of Christ and then expect all others to join in (or at least tolerate) their preferred unrighteousness. Righteousness (what is right in God’s eyes) still has no commonality with lawlessness (what is right in the individual’s eyes) just as light has no interaction and relationship with darkness. ( 2 Cor. 6:14; top )

“For them the Bible completely supplanted history, tradition, heritage, catholicity.” (p.7)

And well it should! The Bible is the source by which “the man of God” (a category that originally included every believer who attained to spiritual maturity) “may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” ( 2 Tim. 3:17 - emphasis added) It is through His precious promises, which are recorded in the Bible, that we partake of the divine nature and escape the corruption of this world (see 2 Pet. 1:4 ) – not through “history, tradition, heritage and catholicity.” The one who holds onto the word implanted in his soul – the spiritual word that interacts with the spoken and written words of God recorded in the Scriptures – will live. ( Jas. 1:21 , 1 Jn. 2:24; top )

“The right of private interpretation was the principle upon which they had won their independence… In the intense controversies over the meanings of Scripture, new denominations arose, all justified by their private interpretation of the Bible.” (p. 7)

Morrison is alluding to Peter’s statement that “no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation.” ( 2 Pet. 1:20; top )

Let us examine carefully the slippery slope Morrison has stepped onto – if our eyes are able to see this fallacy, we are not far from the kingdom of God. Let us recall that Morrison himself described “the whole history of Protestant denominationalism…as a long series of schismatic chain reactions…” (p. 5) and the 16th century Reformers as men “out to rescue the historic church from the clutch of an alien regime…” (p. 23) And let us further recognize that “private interpretation” refers to any understanding about any Scripture gleaned apart from the illumination and guidance of the Holy Spirit (see 2 Pet. 1:21 for this context) who alone guides us into all truth. ( Jn. 16:13 ) After this long history of schismatic chain reactions started with a rejection of a widely-accepted, powerful sect that was, in truth, in the clutch of an alien regime, we are now faced with the (humanly speaking) impossible task of determining for ourselves which man’s supposed “private interpretation” was indeed truly a private interpretation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit and which other man’s supposed “private interpretation” was, in actuality, an instance where the Holy Spirit was guiding that man or group out of the previous group’s truly private interpretations and into a greater light of truth. There is no solution to this endless conundrum except to have the mind of Christ ( 1 Cor. 2:16 ) and to rightly divide the word of truth through the work and assistance of the Holy Spirit. ( 2 Tim. 2:15; top )

It still remains true that only the one who desires God’s will above his own has the ability to discern whether another man speaks with the authority of God or from some other source. (see Jn. 7:17 ) And few denominations indeed are willing to lay aside their traditions, practices, bylaws, institutions, heritage, history and power-base to find out just how much of these cherished things should be counted as dung for the sake of Christ (see Phlp. 3:7; top ) and how little has been the work of God in comparison to the work of the flesh and the demonic.

Let he who has ears hear.

1. Introduction π 3. The Ecumenical Awakening – Part 2
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