In this fallen world, we have to anticipate what happens whenever a covenant is broken. When men and women marry, they exchange vows in public, promising to forsake all others. Why is this necessary? The answer is that we are a race of sinners, and we cannot assume that people will do what they say they will. And so we exchange vows, seeking to put the matter beyond dispute, as the author of Hebrews says.
When someone is baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they are ushered into an objective, visible, covenant membership. Regardless of the state of their heart, regardless of any hypocrisy, regardless of whether or not they mean it, such a person is now a visible saint, a Christian. God has made a statement concerning this person, and the one baptized has an obligation to say amen to God’s statement through how he lives his life.
But a glance around at the nominal contemporary church shows that many do not understand this. They contradict what God said at their baptism through various heresies, immoralities, and compromises. This certainly does not unsettle the heavens – let God be true and every man a liar – but it does create a problem. Unfortunately, the problem has not been addressed biblically by those Christians who see the problem.
In the church, we have covenant communion with one another. We have communion with the saints who have gone before us to be with the Lord in heaven. We are all one, just as the loaf broken in communion is one loaf. This is a great consolation, as it should be, as we are seeking fellowship with other saints. But what are we to make of flagrant rebellion against God’s Word from within the church? Surely such rebels are not part of this communion, are they? What are we to make of the blemishes at our love feasts (Jude 12)? What are we to make of liberal bishops, who deny the virgin birth and resurrection, or modern evangelicals, who deny that God knows the future, or extreme charismatics, who claim that God regularly adds to His Word through them?
To answer the questions, we must begin with understanding the reality of the objective covenant. Whenever someone is baptized, something really happens that puts them into communion with all other visible saints. This does not guarantee they will be faithful to that communion, but they must be a participant of the communion in order to be able to betray it. An American can betray his country, but a Canadian cannot betray the United States in the same way. A man who is married to a woman can betray her, but a man who never met her cannot do so.
We vary between two extremes. The first extreme is to say that people who are guilty of such things are not Christians at all, in any sense, and so we rid the body of Christ of them. Unfortunately, by doing this, we also have lost the very concept of a visible body of Christ. We find ourselves saying that a man who betrayed Christ never met Him. In other words, we say that all adulterers were never really married. But of course this means that they are not really adulterers.
The other (most moderate!) course is that we acknowledge they are in fact Christians, and let the ecumenical games begin! But this is just as silly. It is to maintain that if someone is a husband, then adultery is impossible, and we can only speak encouragingly to one another.
When it comes to the “ecumenical question” we appear to have divided between two positions. The first we should accept all kinds of heretical “Christians” with all friendliness. The other is that we should reject their heresies, along with any title to the name Christian. In other words, we have two positions: the first is that husbands cannot commit adultery, and the second is that adulterers are not husbands, and hence not adulterers. What never seems to occur to anyone is the duty of fighting our fellow Christians to the last ditch – as Athanasius did with Arius.
When a husband has been chronically unfaithful to his wife, to say that he remains a husband is not to approve of his infidelity. It is the basis of disapproval. Perhaps his wife should divorce him, but, until she does, he is a husband. No one would look at the pattern of his adulteries, and then say, “Oh, well, at least he is married.” The fact that he is married compounds the sin, and in no way lessens it. In the same way, for an overt unbeliever to deny the deity of Jesus Christ is a great sin. But it is a worse sin for a baptized believer to do so, and for an ordained minister to reject the gospel in this way is far worse still. Such treachery should make us angrier; the fact that additional covenantal vows were broken ameliorates nothing.
Branches in Christ that bear much fruit are pruned and blessed. Do they have communion with those branches that bear no fruit, and which will be cut off and burned? They do not have a common future, but they do have a common present place on the same vine. To change the image slightly, together they partake of the root and fatness of the olive tree. And this means that true ecumenical dialogue with unfaithful Christians should consist of solemn covenantal warnings.