Loves Covers a Multitude of (Theological) Sins: Doctrine and Ecumenism

As regular readers here well know, I care a lot about Christian ecumenism (or, I would prefer to label it, “catholicity”).  I also care a good deal more than most about doctrine.  These two are often thought to be in conflict, but I don’t think they need to be.  In preparation for a discussion I will lead with some of the people of my church, I drew up a list of assertions explaining my position about why “catholicity” is obligatory, and possible without sacrificing doctrine.  Any of these can be expanded, and I would welcome feedback on anything that seems to lack clarity, charity, or verity.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

He also said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:12-13)

  • What made the commandment “new” was imitation of Christ’s self-sacrificial love.
  • This love should characterize all Christians.
  • When Jesus said “one another,” he did not include all people, but specifically Christians.
  • When Jesus said “one another,” he did not intend to restrict that love only to members of one congregation, one denomination, or even only Protestants, but all Christians.
  • Only God knows precisely who are in fact spiritual Christians (2 Timothy 2:9).
  • The Lord’s saying, “by their fruits you shall know them” (Matt 7:16,20), applies primarily to recognizing false prophets, not all Christians.
  • The only doctrinal standard necessary for salvation is given by Paul as, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)
  • Only God can judge the hearts; we are limited to assessing what people say.
  • If “Lord” is understood to refer to the divine name (YHWH, translated “Lord” in the Greek Old Testament), this is a statement that Jesus is the same God as the Father is, which would exclude the doctrinal positions of Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Muslims, Oneness Pentecostals, Swedenborgians, and Unitarians.
  • The official doctrinal standards of Anglicans, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, evangelicals, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, most Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and Seventh-Day Adventists all affirm the Lordship and resurrection of Jesus.
  • To the degree that Christians in the groups listed in the immediately preceding bullet point believe the doctrinal standards of their denominations, they satisfy Romans 10:9.
  • Therefore Christ commands us to love, at very least, faithful Anglicans, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, evangelicals, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and Seventh-Day Adventists, as Christ does.
  • This love entails, firstly, a willingness to die on behalf of these other Christians, and how much more, then, also a desire for them to succeed in all endeavors which glorify Christ (such as evangelism, challenging injustice and materialism, feeding the hungry).
  • This love does not entail organizational merging, doctrinal apathy, or any side abandoning its own Christian heritage (although details may need correction).
  • Such “ecumenical love” should prompt us to cooperate in serving our Lord and to celebrate together the truths and transformation of the Christian life, as we are able.
  • Paul’s admonition “that all of you agree” (1 Cor. 1:10) does not mean avoiding discussions of theological divergences, but discussing them reasonably without quarrels to attain to “the same mind and the same judgment,” and avoiding divisions by mutual recognition of other Christians as Christians.
  • Paul’s admonition suggests that Christians should emphasize agreements over disputes.
  • Correct doctrine is important for our Christian life and growth in godliness, but not for our justification, and therefore not (in detail) for recognizing fellow Christians.


  1. I think a large portion of the denominational divide is maintained by a lack of understanding of why a particular distinctive practice is observed. For example, some offer communion at every service. Others do so less frequently. To the average worshiper, this is a difference in practice without understanding the principle. I come from a background in which the doctrine was less important than the experience. Doctrine is avoided, left to be haggled by the lonely and spiritually arid. Now that I am older, I understand it is doctrine that makes the experience vital.
    Nevertheless, when practice alone becomes the line in the sand to fight over, then error is not far behind.
    Ideally, a faithful Christian must know what they believe from scripture and why they believe it. It is only then she or he can truly understand what the other believes and why they believe it. In any case, lasting agreement is not possible if clarity of every side in any divisive issue is not doggedly pursued.

    1. I entirely agree that we must pursue a clear understanding of the issues that divide Christians! That is why I emphasized here, if only briefly, that Paul’s admonition to the Christians does not forbid theological discussion, and that correct doctrine is indeed important for Christian growth. But I’ve seen too many doctrinaire Christians (and, recently, a doctrinaire Jehovah’s Witness) who say that if you do not believe correctly, then you are not really a Christian at all. That, I think, is a major mistake, and tantamount to the gnostic heresy that we are saved by knowledge rather than by grace.

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