Those who have striven for many years for the cause of true evangelical ecumenism can easily be overwhelmed with a sense of weariness, sometimes bordering on cynicism. There seems to be so little enthusiasm for the project.
Few seem to feel the force of the New Testament imperatives — or are even aware of the strategic importance in God’s plan of fostering the visible unity of his people.
It is far easier to separate from those from whom we should separate, than to unite with those with whom we should unite. Nevertheless, for some of us the dream won’t go away.
The sense of compulsion I felt in entering the pastoral ministry was fuelled by an obsession with the life and times of C. H. Spurgeon. I trawled the second-hand bookshops until I possessed a copy of all the biographies — and I read a sermon every night.
I was particularly affected by the events and pressures surrounding the ‘Downgrade controversy’, which so clearly contributed to the great man’s early death.
Some take a grim satisfaction in separating from error. For Spurgeon, the necessity broke his heart. His longings for a better future still move me today.
At the height of the Downgrade tragedy, he wrote: ‘There are thousands who are of one mind in the Lord; let them break through all the separating lines of sect, and show their unity in Christ, both by prayer and action’.
‘It might be possible to make an informal alliance among all who hold the Christianity of their fathers.’
‘Oh, that the day would come when, in a larger communion than any sect can offer, all those who are one in Christ Jesus may be able to blend in manifest unity!’ (all quotations from The Sword and the Trowel, 1887).
Poole-Connor and Lloyd-Jones
In the century of false ecumenism that followed, this was the continuing dream of men like E. J. Poole-Connor, who founded the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, and Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Many will recall the famous plea made by ‘the Doctor’ in 1966 for Evangelicals scattered throughout the denominations to come together ‘as a fellowship or association of Evangelical churches’ for the sake of the gospel.
From that time on, the Doctor both promoted and used the British Evangelical Council as a vehicle to pursue this agenda.
The high point was reached in the autumn of 1967, when 2,500 people attended a rally, sponsored by the BEC at Westminster Chapel, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the publication of Luther’s 95 theses.
But, again, sadly, the dream began to fade. The great plea was not widely heeded, and the BEC, founded in 1952 as an alliance of churches and church groupings opposed to false ecumenism, reacted negatively.
I do not mean in any way to deny that the BEC remained rock-solid in its defence of biblical truth during those desperate days — when the World Council of Churches and its British counterpart threatened to sweep Evangelicalism out of existence.
Great courage was shown. Much good was achieved. Nor would I wish to decry the achievements of subsequent years.
But I do believe the BEC never fully recognised the role that history was offering it, and that ‘the Doctor’ hoped it might fulfil.
So where is the BEC now? In the very different world of the twenty-first century, another opportunity has been presented to it. At a highly significant conference last year, the BEC Executive Council indicated an openness to radical reform.
Shortly afterwards, I was urged by a number of friends to consider the newly-created role of director. To my amazement, the council very graciously pledged me their unanimous backing if I would accept it.
Sensing God’s hand in all these developments, I have taken on a task that I regard as both a great privilege and a great responsibility.
Because it is Christ’s purpose to build his church through his churches, their united witness is essential. The aim of the new BEC is to become a catalyst in the formation and reformation of true gospel churches throughout the land.
To reflect the new approaches and initiatives we hope to put in place, we intend, God willing, to re-launch BEC with a new name next spring. The dream lives on — though we know that Satan will do all he can to discredit and destroy it.
In the meanwhile, the council is aware that many Evangelical Times readers worship in BEC-affiliated congregations. We covet your prayers, that the Lord might accompany reformation with revival.