Ecumenical Polemics

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This morning Trinity Reformed Church and Christ Church held a joint service, which we do every year on Reformation Sunday. Peter Leithart preached from Galatians 2 and 3, on Trinitarian justification, and while he was preaching, several of the premises he laid out on the way to his conclusion had an additional benefit of helping me veer off to another conclusion as well. It helped me articulate to myself the solution to a vexing problem for everyone who wants to be valiant-for-truth without becoming a sectarian hatchet face. So to speak.

This application is mine, not Peter’s, but it appears to me to be necessitated by what he set out from the text.

Paul confronted Peter, not because Peter was going around teaching self-salvation by moral endeavor, and not because he had become a semi-Pelagian, but because he had withdrawn table fellowship from the converted Gentiles. This was, in effect, a functional denial of justification by faith alone, even though Peter would not have denied that doctrine verbally. Therefore to refuse to share table fellowship with those whom God has already accepted is a functional rejection of what the Spirit is doing in the world, and is why practitioners of closed communion (even for the sake of protecting the doctrine of sola fide, actually especially for the sake of defending sola fide) have fallen into a variation of the error Peter fell into.

“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Gal. 3:27-29).


The problem is that those who see that justification by faith alone is the great ecumenical doctrine (e.g. N.T. Wright) sometimes fail to see the other players in this drama. Not only do we have the Gentiles, whom the Judaizers are trying to exclude, but we also have the Judaizers themselves, and people badgered by the Judaizers, men like the apostle Peter. We can say that in Christ we do not have Jew or Greek. But can we say that in Christ we no longer have Judaizer and non-Judaizer? No, because just a few verses earlier in this book Paul has tagged them as false brothers (Gal. 2:4). And Peter, who was a true brother, is nevertheless slammed by Paul in public for his compromise with those false brothers.

Because they fail to see these other players, men like Wright neglect to ask, when they are advancing the great ecumenical doctrine of justification, whether the Roman Catholic College of Cardinals is more like a group of recently converted first century Gentiles, or more like the Judaizers. Well, for my money, they are a lot more like the Judaizers. And there is the heart of a very practical problem.

So rightly understood, a healthy understanding of this stretch of Galatians gives us a basis for ecumenical polemics. Would Paul have refused to eat with Peter? No, of course not. But he wouldn’t have gone off to eat with him, if that meant Paul had to exclude the Gentiles as well. And even though he would not exclude Peter from table fellowship, if Peter came to him, this fellowship did not prevent him from telling Peter, in front of everybody, exactly what he thought about what was going on. And it would have prevented him from cooperating with Peter’s attempted withdrawal from the Gentiles.

So closed communion conservatives miss the point that closed communion cannot defend the openness of salvation. But open communion ecumenists miss the point that to give any leeway to those who exclude is just a more complicated way of abandoning the openness of communion.

So let me finish with a test question. We have communion every week at Christ Church. Suppose one Lord’s Day a Roman Catholic priest comes through Moscow on vacation. He seeks me out before the service, says he has heard stuff about us and came through to “check it out.” He also wonders if we would have any problem if he took communion with us. So there it is. What would I tell him? In light of the principles mentioned above, discuss among yourselves.

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