True Ecumenicity - Dr. K.Deddens

In Memoriam

The following is taken with permission, from Clarion Vol. 35, No. 3, and 4 (1989)


The word ecumene is used about fifteen times in the New Testament and means "the whole world." Some examples are ". . . all the world should be enrolled' (Luke 2:1); the devil showed Jesus Christ "all the kingdoms of the world' (Luke 4:5); according to the Acts of the Apostles, Artemis was worshiped by "all Asia and the world" (Acts 19:27); in Revelation 12:9 Satan is called "the deceiver of the whole world." Striking are the examples of the connection between mission and ecumene, as Matthew 24:14, ". . . this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world," and Romans 10:18, "Their voice has gone out to all the earth, and their words to the end of the world." Again and again for "world" or "the whole world' the word ecumene is used. The root of this word is oikos, which means house. So ecumene actually means "the inhabited world, the world where people are living."

Thinking ecumenically should not be left to the world or to apostate communities, for it is a matter which no less concerns the true church. The church has a mandate which concerns the whole world, the whole inhabited world, for the whole world is the church's mission field. In fact, we speak this ecumenical language each and every Sunday in our public worship services. The late Prof. Dr. K. Schilder pointed to this fact in a speech addressed in 1951 to the League of Young Women's Societies in the Netherlands:

All of you speak "ecumenical language," every Sunday. Then you confess, with the church of all places: I believe a holy, catholic, christian church. And "catholic" has the same meaning as "ecumenical." The "ecumene" means "the entire inhabited world"; therefore "ecumenical" means: "pertaining to the entire cultural world' or "concerning the entire human race." In your Book of Praise you can find an ecumenical heirloom, the Nicene Creed, which dates back to the so-called first Ecumenical Councilof 325. There the Arians were condemned as well as the Cathari (or Novatians); who could, so it says, not join the ecumenical church if they did not agree with the dogmas (that's what it says - of the universal and catholic church. Stipulations were also made concerning the so-called baptism of heretics. [1]

We, too, speak an ecumenical language. But that means also that we have to keep in mind "the entire inhabited world' as far as the church is concerned, and to strive for unity with those who have the same faith as we have.

Striving for unity

Is striving for unity good? It definitely is. Christ Himself prayed in His moving high-priestly prayer, "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me" (John 17:20, 21). Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, which sometimes is called "the epistle of the church," exhorts his readers to be "eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:3-6).

Unity of faith

Whoever seeks the unity of the church and strives for unity among God's people, desires a good thing. However, what character does this unity bear and what is meant by it?

When Christ spoke about unity in His high-priestly prayer He did not only mean an outward unity, but He founded that unity in the unity which exists between the Father and the Son: the closest and firmest communion that there is.

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they should be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, he also pointed to the one Lord and the one faith that bound them together. When the Heidelberg Catechism speaks about the one holy catholic church, we read that the Son of God gathers for Himself a church in the unity of the true faith, and that bond is expressed in the creeds, which are also called the "ecumenical symbols," and in the Reformed confessions.

Reality and caricature

So the point is to clearly and plainly separate reality from caricature. Like the true ecumene in essence has nothing to do with today's ecumenical movement, the true unity is equally far remote from the false striving for unity that is pursued today.

The present-day ecumenical movement wants to force a unity which is not founded in the unity of faith, but which shows, with a minimum of foundation, a maximum of joining hands. But sooner or later such a building must fall. He who pays hardly any attention to the foundation, but who wants to let a colossal skyscraper arise, should not be astonished when it appears after a short time that such a building cannot possibly last.

Then one does not get the reality, but a caricature. And a caricature is an exaggeration or magnification of some most characteristic forms, traits or qualities. But these characteristics of ecumenism are exactly its weaknesses. Whoever reads the last book of the Bible sees Satan, in the figure of anti-Christ, busy in creating the anti-church, through which the great mass is fascinated, says Revelation chapter 13. Does not Paul say that Christ will slay the man of sin with the breath of His mouth? (2 Thessalonians 2:8).

In this light we should therefore look at present-day ecumenism. We should judge this striving and this movement by the Scriptures. That also means: we should not become introverted and strange. But we should propagate antithetically the true ecumene and the true unity, and in this distinguish clearly between reality and caricature.


It is very important, therefore, to maintain the scriptural idea of antithesis when we are thinking about the ecumene. I quote again the speech of Dr. K. Schilder:

No wonder that the Bible is full of the ecumenical proclamation of the Great Ecumenical Drama. Ecumenical is not a new term but a very old one. The Jews already had transcribed the Greek word "oikoumene" in their rabbinical scriptures untranslated, in Hebrew letters. Luke starts the Christmas message with the ecumene: Caesar Augustus wants the ecumene registered for the Roman Empire, the Beast of Daniel, and of Revelation; but from a stable in Bethlehem, at that very moment the Great Son of David starts to "register' the ecumene for himself, and for the God of-David.

Ecumene is then the inhabited world, viewed as the operative area of world politics. The Beast grasps at the latter: but the Spirit has been ahead of him for centuries, when He had David anointed as king of the birthplace of theocracy, i.e., as king of Israel's ecumenically directed community, keeping the ecumenical seas of the world pure. Jesse's living-room, where David was anointed, and the stable of Bethlehem, from where the Son of David starts His world regiment, are the stages of God's Ecumenical Movement, a movement as old as the world ruled by God's Covenant. Emperor Nero, who in the Revelation of John is an image of the ecumenical antichrist, is called Ecumenical Daemon in Greek emperor's titles, just as Emperor Claudius is called Ecumenical Benefactor, or Saviour.

"Ecumenical" here has become a matter of world politics and world culture. Therefore Scripture commands ecumenical preaching (Matt. 24:14). Over against the Satanical temptation of ecumenical world power, Christ places the "it is written"; He wants to become the Ecumenical SaviourJudge only through obedience (Luke 4:5). Christ predicts an ecumenical temptation in the last days (Rev. 3:10), and catastrophe (Luke 21:26); and thus the prophet Agabus predicts an ecumenical famine (Acts 11:28). In that, he is an ally of John on Patmos who, at the opening of the third seal, sees the black horse of famine dash across the world (Rev. 8:5, 6). All this is the beginning of the ecumenical judgement (Acts 17:31).

In short: the Bible continually, from Genesis to Revelation, speaks about the one great ecumenical Drama. On the one side is the ecumenical preaching (Rom. 10:18, Ps. 19:4); on the other side is the ecumenical error, the ecumenical temptation under leadership of the antichrist, God's great adversary, with his "catholic," i.e., universal, propaganda service, with his ecumenical contraspeech against the Speech of God and against all his sayings ....

That is why the church will find her first task forever in the proclaiming of that centuries-old antithesis. She does not tolerate a breakthrough with false slogans of unity between those parties who have believed the biblical antithesis, or at least have acknowledged it, but she wants a breakthrough, with the sharp weapon of that biblical antithesis, among all groups and all movements, also the ecumenical church movement without creeds, also the ecumenical youth movement, which have denied and ridiculed the biblical idea of antithesis, and cursed it as the greatest folly and fragmenting force. [2]

God's Word is the norm

It is very clear that God's Word is the norm for our ecumenical thinking and acting. We agree completely with what was written by the Dutch Committee for Churches Abroad:

Speaking of ecumenical calling we are dealing with a calling which, as coming from God, is obeyed only in the way of paying close attention to the divine rules prescribed for its execution. It is this norm which shapes its course and defines the limits which must be observed in the pursuit of its goal. Any other way of dealing with this calling is self-willed and fraught with danger to the church of Christ.

So we are left with the question: what is this norm?

A significant indication with regard to the nature of true ecumenicity is to be found in the truth that ecumenicity deals with and aims at unity in Christ. It is this unity which is both its starting point and its goal. Ecumenical endeavour is not what it claims to be if h does not engage in making visible the relationship which exists in Christ between such as believe in Him. According to Scripture the unity in Christ is primarily a given unity. It is the gift of the exalted Saviour to the people which the Lord has made Himself to a peculiar treasure.

This unity is a spiritual unity, given with and in the calling with which they, who have been given to Christ by the Father, are called. However, they who have been brought together in Him must also obediently come together in Him. They should endeavour to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, for there is one body and one Spirit. - The tact that the unity in Christ is a given one does not exclude that there is a command to strive for it. The gift is at the same time an order.

Furthermore, the very fact, that the unity of the believers is a given unity, is an indication of the norm which must be observed in dealing with the ecumenical calling. Christ is the life, but He is also the way and the truth. In being the life He is the source and power of the bond which links all believers to Him and at the same time interlinks them one to another. In Him, being the way, the true believers find the way to their unity in Him. In addition to all this the unity in Christ is a unity in Him as the truth. So it is quite evident from Scripture that the unity in Christ is made manifest in a unanimous and faithful confession of the truth. [3]

Not all unity is scriptural

The conclusion is evident that not all unity of churches is scriptural. I quote again the brochure For the Sake of True Ecumenicity:

He, who in the name of unity wishes to maintain the teacher of error in the congregation, violates the unity in Christ. Likewise he, who exerts himself to reach unity with teachers of false doctrine, is making efforts for a unity which is not agreeable to the Lord, though he may do so claiming devotedness to ecumenical vocation. An unfaithful teacher proclaims another gospel, which is no gospel, and the apostle Paul writes concerning such a man: "let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:6-9; 5:10).

Essentially we find here the same as what is said with regard to the high priest Eli and the curse he brought upon his own house and upon Israel, when with words only he tried to correct his ungodly sons, Hophni and Phinehas, but did not take measures to purify the service of the tabernacle from what defiled it. Did not the Lord say then: "Wherefore honourest thou thy sons above Me?" And also: "Those that honour Me I will honour, and they that despise Me shall be lightly esteemed" ! (I Sam. 2:29, 30).

Ail Christians, however, who exert themselves to attain the binding of all to the truth of Christ, strive for the true unity in Him. They indeed build upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, of which Christ Himself is the chief cornerstone. In the light of all this scriptural evidence the rule for complying with the ecumenical calling is the biblical mandate of unanimous and honest acceptance of the Lord's holy and infallible Word (Eph. 2:20). [4]

Confessional standards

We have to say also that the confessions of the church are very important in connection with true ecumenicity. Prof. K. Schilder pointed already to the "ecumenical creeds." In the brochure of the Dutch Committee we read about the confessional standards:

In the continuing struggle to keep their congregations in the unity of Christ the Reformed churches of various countries have obtained their confessional standards. They have received these standards as a gift from the hand of God, for it was He, who enlightened them through the working of the Holy Spirit to recapitulate in thankfulness and obedience what they first had found in Scripture. Subsequently these standards served them as an agreement of fellowship in the Lord and Saviour.

These Reformed churches continued to accept and defend their standards as being fully in conformity with the truth revealed unto us by God in His Word.

This attitude toward their confessional writings will strongly influence the manner in which Reformed churches meet the ecumenical calling. They are not permitted to forget their allegiance to their standards when contacts are made with churches abroad. If, more or less, they would forget, then not only no justice is done to what in their own congregations is maintained as divine truth, but also, sooner or later within these churches the loyalty to their standards will be endangered.

Any confessional standard, which is no longer always and everywhere dealt with in all seriousness, is by that very fact undermined and drained of its vitality and power of being a binding consensus.

It is for this reason that ecumenical fellowship is possible only when co-operating churches can honestly declare with regard to each other's confessional standards, that they are in conformity with the Word of God. In no other way can form be given to the obedience to the first rule of true ecumenicity, that it shall serve unity in truth.

There is, however, more to be said here. The churches, co-operating in ecumenical fellowship, must also have the mutual confidence that they all sincerely maintain their standards and live up to them. In all these churches there must be an unreserved and reliable subscription to the standards. They have to make sure that in all these churches there is faithful doctrinal discipline, in order that the unity of faith be maintained against error and also that the flock of Christ be protected.

From all these considerations it follows that if any of the cooperating churches might become deficient with regard to doctrine or doctrinal discipline the other churches shall give attention to their first obligation: to induce this church to return immediately to the first love and the first works. No partiality shall be shown in doing so. It is not important whether or not the church concerned has a large membership or a glorious and impressive past. The only thing that matters is that the unfaithful church stands in the need of correction and reformation.

If such a destitute church then does not return to sound doctrine and the use of doctrinal discipline, the other churches shall see to it that is done what they are bound to do. They shaft not yield but remove that church from their fellowship. Sound doctrine is always incompatible with a lying tongue. Where falsehood in doctrine is tolerated the Lord of all truth is dishonoured and the congregation is destroyed. What communion has light with darkness? (2 Cor. 6:14). [5]

"Let the church be one"

Not only in the Scriptures and in the confessions of the church is true ecumenicity apparent, but it is also stressed in the course of the history of the church .

In the Didaché or "The teaching Of the Lord through the twelve apostles to the gentiles," a very old document already known to the church fathers and at least going back to the second century, this prayer is found in connection with the Lord's Supper: "As this piece (of bread) was scattered over the hills and then was brought together and made one, so let your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom. For yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever. " [6]

We have a rhymed version of this part of the Didaché in our Book of Praise, namely, in Hymn 46:

"As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, Was in the broken bread made one,

So from all lands Thy Church be gathered Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son." [7]

Reformation times

From the very beginning the Reformers of the 16th century emphasized the unity of the church. Already in 1518 Luther spoke in favour of a general council of the church, with the one principle that the Holy Scriptures would be the decisive norm. He asked for such a "free, general, Christian council." By "free" he meant independent of papal control, and by "Christian" he understood that judgements were to be based on the principle of the Scriptures alone and that laymen were to be enfranchised. In 1520, after the ban of the pope, he renewed his appeal for a general council. But when finally a general council was held, starting in 1545 at Trent, it was only a papal council ....

"As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,

Was in the broken bread made one,

So from all lands Thy Church be gathered

Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son."

Also Calvin was in favour of a general council, but he strongly stressed the difference between true and false councils. The condition for a true general council is that Christ would be presiding it:

Now it is Christ's right to preside over all councils and to have no man share His dignity. But I say that He presides only when the whole assembly is governed by His Word and Spirit. [8]

In the following paragraph Calvin continues:

Christ will be in the midst of a council only if it is gathered together in His name. As a consequence, it will benefit our adversaries but little to mention councils of bishops a thousand times over; nor will they persuade us to believe what they contend - that councils are governed by the Holy Spirit - before they convince us that these have been gathered in Christ's name. Ungodly and evil bishops can just as much conspire against Christ as good and honest ones can come together in His name. We have clear proof of this fact in a great many decrees that have come forth from such councils ....

I now reply with but one word: Christ promises nothing except to those who are gathered in His name. Let us therefore define what that means. I deny that they are gathered in His name who, casting aside God's commandment that forbids anything to be added or taken away from His Word (Deut. 4:2; cf. Deut. 12:32; Prov. 30:6; Rev. 22:18-19), ordain anything according to their own decision; who, not content with the oracles of Scripture, that is, the sole rule of perfect wisdom, concoct some novelty out of their own heads. Surely, since Christ promised that He would be present not in all councils whatsoever but laid down a special mark by which a true and lawful one might be distinguished from the rest, it behooves us never to neglect this distinction. This is the covenant which God of old made with the Levitical priests, that they should teach from His own lips (Mal. 2:7). He required this always of the prophets; we see that this rule was also imposed upon the apostles. Those who violate this covenant God deems worthy neither of the honour of the priesthood nor of any authority. [9]

Calvin strived for the unity of the church with all his power. In a letter to Thomas Cranmer he wrote in 1552:

. . . would that it were attainable to bring together into some place, from various Churches, men eminent for their learning, and that after having carefully discussed the main points of belief one by one, they should, from their united judgements, hand down to posterity the true doctrine of Scripture. This other thing also is to be ranked among the chief evils of our time, viz., that the Churches are so divided, that human fellowship is scarcely now in any repute amongst us, far less that Christian intercourse which all make a profession of, but few sincerely practise. If men of learning conduct themselves with more reserve than is seemly, the very heaviest blame attaches to the leaders themselves, who, either engrossed in their own sinful pursuits, are indifferent to the safety and entire piety of the Church, or who, individually satisfied with their own private peace, have no regard for others. Thus it is that the members of the Church being severed, the body lies bleeding. So much does this concern me, that, could I be of any service, I would not grudge to cross even ten seas, if need were, on account of it. [10]

More than once Calvin wrote movingly about the divisions of the church. He called them the "horrible mutilations of Christ's body," [11] and the Geneva Catechism made it quite plain that this body ought to be "one." [12]

In 1560 the well-known Catharina de Medici undertook the initiative towards a kind of national council in France. It was called "The Colloquy of Poissy" and Théodore de Béze delivered an excellent defense of the Reformed faith, but the result was disappointing and not long afterwards the Romish caused a massacre among the Reformed.

Besides the attempt of Thomas Cranmer in the same year that Calvin wrote his letter to him (1552), three other attempts for an international, ecumenical synod were made. Dr. H.H. Kuyper pointed to these attempts in his farewell lecture in 1937, entitled De Katholiciteit der Gereformeerde Kerken (The Catholicity of the Reformed Churches). There was in the first place the attempt of Queen Elisabeth in 1577, and, in connection with it, the Convention of Frankfurt with as its fruit the Harmonia Confessionum (mainly the work of De Béze). In the second place H.H. Kuyper mentioned the design of Pierre du Moulin, who raised the matter at the Synod of Tonneins in 1614 and who visited England with a view to promoting the unity of the churches. He was appointed as one of the delegates of the French Reformed churches to the Synod of Dort 1618/19. However, the delegates from France could not attend this synod in Holland, because the French king prohibited them to leave France. Nevertheless, the Synod of Alais, 1620, accepted the Canons of Dort.

Ecumenical Synod of
Dort 1618/19

This brings us to the Synod of Dort 1618/19. This synod is called a national synod, but the actual work of drawing up and finishing the Canons of Dort bore an international character. There were twenty-six delegates from abroad: delegates from England (among them even a bishop) and from Germany and Switzerland; from the Palatinate, Hessen, Basel, Bern, Emden, Nassau, Bremen, Schaffhausen, Zürich, and Geneva. These foreign delegates did not function as ornaments, but had a great influence in the deliberations and upon the formulation of the decisions. They participated in the synod no less than the delegates from the Netherlands. Therefore, in this respect the Synod of Dort can be called international and ecumenical. The background of these delegates was not the same; they did not all have the same confessions, although they were of a Reformed-Presbyterian character. Nevertheless, they all worked together in the formulation of our third form of unity!

"The people of the Secession were not narrow-minded;

they had good insight into true ecumenicity. "


Presbyterian Scotland

After the Synod of Dort 1618/19 a period of silence followed; no national synods were held in the Netherlands, let alone international synods. However, the Presbyterian churches of Scotland, England, and Ireland paid attention to the matter of international and ecumenical synods or councils. This had already been done in the Scots Confession of Faith of 1560. In Article 20 this confession says that "generall counsalles" are to be revered and embraced, unless they "pretend to forge unto us new artickles of our faith.... or to make constitutionis repugning to the worde of God." [13] This was also done in the Second Book of Discipline, drawn up by Andrew Melville, in which an ecumenical synod was mentioned in so many words. Also the Westminster Assembly paid attention to it in the Form of Presbyterial Church Government of 1645.

In the nineteenth century it was again Scotland which took up the matter. The Presbyterians hoped to present an alliance of churches in the Evangelical Alliance of 1846. But that alliance had a different, more personal character. Besides, they were much involved in the Alliance of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches which met also with the approval of the Seceded Churches of the Netherlands. So, in the 19th century as well the Free Church of Scotland had a world-wide view!

Secession churches

Scotland saw the Disruption of 1843 (the beginning of the Free Church of Scotland), while nine years earlier the the Secession started in the Netherlands.

The churches of the Secession of 1834 had the same world-wide view. The Act of Secession of 1834 showed the true ecumenical intention by saying that "the undersigned want to unite themselves with any assembly based on God's infallible Word in whatever place God has established it." The people of the Secession were not narrow-minded; they had good insight into true ecumenicity. I quote what Dr. J. Faber said in his speech The Significance of the Secession of 1834 in the light of our confession of the Holy Catholic Church:

In the beginning period before the establishing of the school in Kampen they sent young men to Geneva to attend lectures of Merle d'Aubigné and Malan, men of the Swiss Reveil. The

Synod of Leiden, 1857, sought ecclesiastical fellowship with the Free Church of Scotland and with the Reformed confessors in the Republic of Transvaal, And who does not know that in 1858 the Rev. Dirk Postma was sent to South Africa to be instrumental in the reformation of the church in that part of the world? The existence and the life of the so-called Dopper churches in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church, is connected with the Secession of 1834. Deputies of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland visited Kampen, and Brummelkamp and Van Velzen were delegated to Scotland. Already at the Synod of Hoogeveen in 1860 the churches of the Secession received official delegates of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Brummelkamp Jr. writes that the seceded church of the Netherlands then and later owed much to its correspondence with the Scottish brethren who already possessed a rich experience.

In 1868 three Christelijke Gereformeerde ministers attended the International Theological Conference in Wezel. In 1877 Brummelkamp and Van Velzen participated in the Pan Presbyterian Council. This Council intended to establish a communion or fellowship between Presbyterial churches.

In 1875 Lucas Lindeboom wrote a brochure entitled The Christian Reformed Church: something about its situation, calling and future. Lindeboom, later professor in Kampen, was still minister in Zaandam. He wrote about contact with other churches. The Synod of Groningen had expressed sympathy with the Reformed Church in France. Lindeboom now urged that more fellowship should be entertained with the churches in Scotland, South Africa and America. [14]

It is remarkable that especially in the circles of the Secession which stressed the sharp distinction between true and false church, true ecumenicity was discovered and experienced!


[1] K. Schilder, Your Ecumenical Task, Launceston, Tasmania, 1975, p. 2.

[2] ibid., p. 5ff.

[3] For the Sake of True Ecumenicity The Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, 1982, p. 4.

[4] ibid., p. 5ff.

[5] ibid., p. 6ff.

[6] The Didache, A Church Manual, The library of Christian Classics, Vol. I: Early Christian Fathers, Philadelphia, 1953, p. 175.

[7] Book of Praise, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1984, p. 388, cf. p. 435.

[8] J. Calvin, Institutes IV, 9. 1.

[9] bid., IV, 9, 2.

[10] Cf. R. Schwarz, Johannes Calvins Lebenswerk in seinen Briefen I, Tübingen, 1909, p. 441 ff.

[11] D. Nugent, Ecumenism in the Age of the Reformation: The Colloquy of Poissy, Cambridge, Mass., 1974, p. 2.

[12] Ibid.

[13] W. Niesel, Bekenntnisschriften und Kirchenordnungen der nach Gottes Wort reformierten Kirche, Zürich, 1938, p. 105ff.

[14] J. Faber, in: Secession and Liberation for Today, London, Ontario, p. 14 ff.