“in seeking unity …
let us not neglect uniqueness …”
G. C. BERKOUWER
When we in our day consider the place of the Church of Jesus Christ in the world, we are inevitably impelled to focus attention on the question of our symposium, whether there are special accents in the New Testament which in the struggle of the Church in our day are being forgotten or neglected. It is plain that we must always be kept aware of such a possibility. In this short article I wish to approach the problem from the angle of a concrete and acute danger, namely that men today in the midst of the strong pressure toward unity of the Church do not pay sufficient attention to the relation between the “unity” and the “uniqueness” of the Church. In these two words we do not in any sense have a dilemma, between which we are forced to choose. But the danger lies herein, that in seeking unity with all our might, we do not give sufficient attention to the “uniqueness” of the Church. And it is clear that the neglect of this uniqueness of the Church threatens and makes an issue of the drive for unity.
That there can be no question of a dilemma is made clear immediately by the fact that in the New Testament strong emphasis is placed upon the unity of the Church. In the high-priestly prayer of Christ in John 17 such unity is central. This unity is even seen in the light of the unity of Christ and the Father, that they “may be one as we are one” (John 17:11; 22) and the prayer of Christ goes out to the Father, “that they all may be one … that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21). This unity therefore stands in the light of the analogy of the unity between the Father and the Son and in connection with the believing of the world. But also in other places this unity is central: One faith, one Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all who call on him (Eph. 4:4 f), the unity of belief (Eph. 4:13), the whole body (Eph. 4:16). It is the koinonia, the fellowship of all similar to the period following Pentecost, persevering in the communion and in the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42). This unity is essential and central, because it mirrors in the world the unity and the love prevailing between the Father and the Son. It is never secondary, but belongs to the being and the reality of the Church on earth. Whoever is satisfied with the partitionment of the Church in a broken-up world and who explains everything in the light of psychological, sociological and other factors, has not understood the sense of the New Testament. All variations in the New Testament Church fall within the circle of the one body of Christ: together with all the redeemed … (Eph. 3:18)
Whoever then also on the ground of the New Testament cries out from the heart to seek for unity, and who with Calvin would travel to the ocean’s end to do something for unity, does nothing more than what obviously belongs to the being of the Church and what must appear as an immanent dynamic of the reality of the body of Christ.
It is exactly in this connection that a grave danger arises. We live in a tom and fragmented world and everywhere we hear a cry for unity and togetherness. To achieve unity, no doubt we can expect, so it is argued, that a certain measure of compromise will have to be entered into—the possibilities having been considered—but that certainly, somehow in this compromise unity and fellowship will become visible. Many are under the impression that there is only one alternative left to us: unity or destruction.
In the middle of this cry for unity and integration, amidst a threatened and anxious world, we hear also the cry for the unity of the Church. Must it not set itself up as an example to the world to demonstrate what is real unity and fellowship? The answer to this question can be sounded so positively that people want to push through to unity in every possible manner, because the time is short. Unity becomes a watchword in relation to the tearing apart of the world and involved with our weakness over against the forces that threaten us, so that men want to force a human construction of unity: now or never!
In this understandable drive toward unity it is possible that unity becomes separated from the uniqueness of the Church. We come into a parallel between the unity of the world and the unity of the Church. Men will thereby come to compromise in favor of unity, and the term acquires only numerical meaning. Men separate “unity” from “uniqueness” and through this fall into the danger of losing what belongs to the message of the New Testament, that this unity concerns the unity of this Church, of the body of Christ, wherein there can be no discussion of compromise but only of fellowship in faith and love. Whoever seeks this unity let him consider the being of the Church, her foundation, her hope and expectation, her calling in the world, her single-voiced witness, wherein the world may not for one instant be in doubt concerning the content of the witness of the Church. The unity of the Church means not that there is only one Church, but that this Church is one, this Church of Jesus Christ.
There are many unities in the world, but the unity of the Church is completely unique, absolutely perfect through her tie to the Head of the Church, and only out of this uniqueness can the Church fulfill her great calling in the world. The whole struggle for ecumenicity is centered around the connection between the unity and uniqueness of the Church. This uniqueness is not a fabricated uniqueness, but it is reality out of the center, out of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the Church knows nothing else than Jesus Christ and him crucified. The “togetherness” of fellowship is determined entirely by the gathering together of the love of Christ. That is also the great task in the Church of our times, that she is not called to unity in general, but that she is called to this unity, this responsibility; that the world may believe.…
An introverted church—even though it be unified—is fruitless in the world. It is in its unity not directed toward the world, but only toward itself. In the New Testament we see plainly that the Church that is conscious of its unity and of its uniqueness directs itself naturally toward the world. She who has been called out of darkness to the marvellous light, witnesses of this light to the world. She herself knows of the grace which has had to conquer many dark depths and therefore she testifies out of her mysteries to the overwhelming power of the gospel of grace in the world. If the Church loses this uniqueness, she is also no more an offense to the world, no more as a flock of sheep in the middle of the wolves, according to the Word of Christ. The Church will never be attacked by the world because of her “unity” but above all and ever again because of her unique witness that is not according to men and that will always be a sign which shall be spoken against (Luke 2:34).
In this “uniqueness” there is no concern for special qualities of people or of believers who wish to be “different” from others! But it concerns that uniqueness of the Church that belongs to her being and wherein the old man—in the world and also in the Church!—is denied for his preservation. And there is nothing that the world needs more than the signs of the unity and the uniqueness of the Church. The uniqueness shall then be strengthened out of a single-voiced witness and so there shall come the fulfilment of the prophecy of Zechariah (8:23): “in those days it shall come to pass that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, we will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you.”
So then is the unity in the uniqueness a powerful witness in the world. That the world may believe in the mystery of the coming of Jesus Christ and in the unique witness concerning him, the light will then break, also over a broken world. In her word and in her works then shall the Church of Jesus Christ be a living example to the world as to what the unity of the Father and the Son means over against the lack of unity which is diabolical and is from him who confuses all things and sets forth the works of darkness—until the coming of the peace that shall redeem the world, which Isaiah saw coming in the future and wherein unity shall have come to full reality, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Out of the knowledge of the Lord shall the demon of division find his end in destruction, and of this the Church in her unity and in her unique message is the great sign for the world.
“the empire-changing force
that rocked the world”
A remarkable compound of circumstances offers the Church its supreme opportunity. Man’s need for redemption is no greater, but it is more apparent. In an era of cosmic frustration accentuated by the monotonous failure and futility of man’s schemes, thoughtful men reluctantly admit the bankruptcy of human ingenuity. Quiet desperation holds the world in shock while its very survival is threatened by the consummate progress of man’s genius and the only peace is a “truce of terror,” an “immoral deadlock.” Men do not need Christ more, but they are probably more aware (and less articulate) of their need than ever before.
Meanwhile two contradictions beg to be resolved. One, unprecedented church membership and religious interest accompanied by a phenomenal increase in secularism and crime; two, elaborate discussion of ecumenicity accompanied by increased institutionalism. What will bridge the gap between authentic Christianity and mere religious interest and between ecumenicity and institutionalism? The answer is an infusion of the vigorous, empire-changing force that rocked the world to its foundations in the first century.
Thoughtful reading in Acts engenders nostalgia for the flourishing faith of the New Testament Church. Is it possible to recapture the climate of Acts 2:46–47? “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
Dr. Luke reported that the Apostolic Church “continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). It is neither accidental nor incidental that this is a matter of sacred record. One feels intuitively that this brief statement preserved by the Spirit is the clue to New Testament faith. This simple program generated the spontaneity, love and holiness—the power that turned the world upside down. This was the distilled essence of discipleship.
The deepest, highest, broadest expression of authentic Christianity is implicit in “fellowship.” It was the heart and core of unity in the first century—the key to a dynamic witness (“Lo how they love one another”). Fellowship is the inescapable sign of the Spirit’s rule in hearts and conversely, its absence may be taken as evidence that the Spirit is “grieved” or “quenched.” Whatever traditions have been added in the accumulative process of centuries, no subsequent program could be a worthy substitute. Fellowship is the hall-mark of authenticity!
Picture the unreserved excitement of a first-century Christian community as they breathlessly gathered to hear the latest word from Peter or Paul. Think of the questions, the prodding of the messenger, the earnest discussion, the joy, the prayer that would ensue. Imagine how they would reminisce, how the “eye-witnesses” would be urged to recount their experiences with Jesus. They never tired hearing these unspeakably precious accounts. And as persecution bore in, driving them underground, how hungrily they would grasp every opportunity to be together to share priceless memories or the latest apostolic word.
Here lay the secret of the unity, the power, the witness of the Church. No difficulty, suffering or threat would be allowed to deprive them of fellowship. It was paramount, not because a council decided it should be done, but because this was the way the Spirit of God moved them. It was not the result of formal deliberation by “officials” but the spontaneous effect of the Spirit magnetizing them with a love that transcended everything and bound them, with all their differences, in unbroken togetherness.
“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). This makes fellowship unique—infinitely more than merely getting together for its own sake. It is vertical as well as horizontal, divine as well as human. The one condition is togetherness in his name. His presence is not limtied to holy places or practices or particular organizations. Wherever two or three gather in his name he is there. It is the tendency to regiment his presence to “properly ordained” institutions that is partially responsible for the rift in his Church—one reason we hear more about ecumenicity and see less of it than perhaps in any former generation.
Mere institutionalism is the foe of fellowship, of ecumenicity, of the Christian witness. God is a God of order and his work should be conducted “decently and in order.” This will involve organization, but the Holy Spirit is the Administrator of the divine order and he will not sanction organization that divides brethren. Institutionalism is competitive and defensive, provoking the feeling that what prospers one work does so at the expense of others, making it impossible for Christians to rejoice in any and all work that is done effectively for Christ. Unless a work is under “acceptable auspices” (what is the criterion for this?) no matter how fruitful it may be, it is suspect, coming under the censure of traditional institutions. And this is as true of the so-called independents as of the denominations today. Until ecumenicity includes “all who in every place call on the name of the Lord” it remains a caricature.
There is justification for optimism however. The Billy Graham Crusades draw together clergy and laity without reference to institutional lines. Not all groups are included by any means, but those not included bear the responsibility for their exclusion. Even more encouraging is the spontaneous birth of fellowship groups all over America. It is not an organized movement. The groups are independent of each other, in fact not particularly aware of each other, but they bear striking likeness to the New Testament fellowship. They cannot be labeled and are not the so-called “come-outer” or splinter type. They are not pre-occupied with criticism of the denominations. Actually the members are usually loyal to their own churches and represent almost every denomination. Counting on the presence of Christ, they meet to study the Bible, share Christian experience and pray. The more familiar one becomes with these groups the more he feels their affinity with the spontaneous, dynamic faith recorded in Acts.
Furthermore, one of the brightest hopes that the revival of religious interest may explode into genuine spiritual awakening, is their earnest concern with the “Apostles’ doctrine.” Abysmal ignorance of the Bible is probably the greatest single reason why the current religious revival has not been truly Christian. An awakened interest in religion cannot be kindled into true spiritual revival except it be nourished on the Word of God!
The Church has come a long way in two millenniums, but she has not outgrown her need of fellowship. Details may be added, but fellowship ought to be at the heart of the program. Neglect it, and it will break out spontaneously wherever the Spirit finds receptive, hungry hearts. If not allowed to happen within rigid framework of institutionalized order, it will spawn without in homes, offices, plants and schools. If the organized church is wise, she will not disregard this movement or criticize it. She will learn from it, encourage it, embrace it, promote it.
Without repudiating any of the great traditions that bind us to the Church in every age, let us not lose the greatest tradition uniting us with those of the first century whose blood became the seed of the Church in all subsequent generations. “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
“voluntary and not regimented,
spiritual and not mechanical”
W. BOYD HUNT
Of the figures of speech Paul uses for the Church, none has so captivated the twentieth-century mind as the metaphor of the body. Doubtless this is due in part to the widespread influence of philosophies of organism, associated with such names as Bergson and Whitehead. But whatever the reason, others of Paul’s metaphors, such as building and bride, have received but scant attention. Even Paul’s basic concept of the Church as a fellowship in the Holy Spirit has had by comparison a negligible influence.
To be sure, the detailed investigation of the rich variations and subtle nuances in Paul’s references to the Church as a body is a rewarding study. Entire volumes have been devoted to the subject, such as Ernest Best’s remarkable contribution, One Body in Christ. For the present, however, technical distinctions must be laid aside, and it must suffice to take body as simply synonymous with Church. The theme of this symposium, “The Body Christ Heads,” is then understood to raise the question of the nature of the Church in current thought in the light of the biblical revelation.
In general, contemporary opinions as to the nature of the Church fall into two types. Some writers stress the Church as the inclusive agency of salvation. Others stress the fellowship of responsible believers as an exclusive community of saints.
According to the one type the Church is visible and universal and stands in organic relation to Christ. At times the Church is even identified with the actual ressurrection body of Christ. More often, however, interpreters are less mystical and prefer instead to speak of the Church as the continuing incarnation (an atonement?) of Christ. Invariably this type of thinking is sacramental: the life of the head of the body is mediated to the members in some special way through the clergy; infants are baptized into membership in the body; life in the body is sustained by participation in the Lord’s Supper.
According to the other type the Church in the present order is a local and voluntary fellowship of baptized believers, banded together in the Holy Spirit to find and to do the will of Christ their head. While in the earlier view a centralized organization of the universal, visible body of believers is not only conceivable but is the actual end sought, in this view each local church is independent and democratic, looking immediately to Christ for direction. Any general organization is for promotional and cooperative purposes only. Larger bodies are in no sense ecclesiastical in nature or function. Though sometimes called the sect type, this is really the least sectarian. Its adherents have been the last to persecute nonconformists.
Once these two types become clearly defined, the means each adopts to further its conception of the Church in the present order is self-evident. One tries to accomplish this end by organizational and sacramental means, the other by spiritual and ethical. In the latter view, the oneness of believers in Christ is actual in God’s sight, but this actuality finds visible expression only as Christ, as the Saviour and Lord of the body, brings believers together voluntarily and spontaneously in the Holy Spirit. Organizational manipulations are rejected as attempted shortcuts for the long arduous road to a unity morally conditioned.
When we ask which of these two types is the true one, the answer is obvious if the New Testament is held to be the final authority. But strangely enough this is seldom the case. J. Robert Nelson in The Realm of Redemption, an invaluable study of contemporary ecclesiological thought, reminds us that few of today’s church leaders look to the New Testament for the model of church form and order. Nelson himself wonders why anyone would think a first-century pattern could be relevant to the changed conditions of the twentieth century.
But is all we find in the New Testament simply a product of the first century? Or is this a unique inspiration raising the New Testament to a dimension of contemporaneousness and constituting it in principle an enduring authority, even in matters of form and order?
It is possible, of course, to appeal to the New Testament in such a way as to beg the real question. This is done when the authority of Scripture is invoked as though its message lent itself to infallible interpretation, which it never quite does. The New Testament is always more than its interpretations. The message abides, but creeds, confessions and theologies are subject to continuous revision. The essential quality of biblical revelation is that of the one who inspired it—Spirit.
But if the New Testament as illumined by the Holy Spirit in experience is taken as the final authority, then whatever contradicts this norm must be rejected. Thus we are confronted by such questions as: Where in the New Testament is a visible, universal, organized Church? Where in the New Testament is anything but a functional distinction between the clergy and laity? Where in the New Testament is infant baptism? Where in the New Testament is salvation a sacramental matter involving an organic relation to the Church instead of a personal commitment to Jesus Christ?
If the Church in the New Testament is primarily a spiritual fellowship of baptized believers, if organization is functional and not essential to salvation, if the cohesiveness of believers is voluntary, cooperative, democratic and ultimately local, if believers are answerable directly to the Lord Jesus Christ both as individuals and as the fellowship of the local church—then should not this be the pattern for today? How can we justify, other than by the appeal to the superiority of tradition over Scripture, departures from this norm?
No one, it is hoped, would deny that believers everywhere have an obligation to oneness. In God’s sight they are already one in Christ, in whom there is neither bond nor free, male nor female, white nor black. Such distinctions have been made forever irrelevant in the fellowship of the Spirit. But in experience this oneness is a spiritual cohesiveness deeply moral in quality. It is the expression of maturity of life in the Spirit. It cannot be realized on any other basis.
The New Testament materials are instructive here. Often the early Christians voluntarily disagreed, much the same as different denominations disagree today, nor did this disagreement destroy their obligation to oneness. To the extent that the particular believers involved were spiritually mature, to that extent we may assume they disagreed in love, preferring rather to agree. But each was convinced that he must be true to his own understanding of the mind of Christ. Actually this was the only way the body of Christ could be genuinely built up in experience, since in this present order no man’s understanding is infallible and therefore each needs the check and balance of the other. Apart from the unique quality of inspiration entering into the production of the New Testament itself, no Christian or group of Christians, even in the apostolic age, had a guaranteed corner on God. Even Peter had to be corrected by Paul.
Take for instance the new church at Antioch (Acts, chaps. 11 and 13). Antioch was impelled directly by the Spirit to launch the first missionary journey under Barnabas and Saul. Later, when the original church at Jerusalem objected, messengers from Antioch were sent to seek to justify its departure from Jerusalem’s pattern. Acts (chap. 15) shows that a measure of accord between the two churches was reached, but there is little evidence that Jerusalem ever shared with Antioch in the Gentile mission movement. Yet notice that in the providence of God Antioch did not wait on Jerusalem. Obedience to the Spirit was more priceless than unity at the awful cost of compromise.
Of course this trust in the local congregation under the Holy Spirit is a radical thing, just as the believer’s liberty in the Holy Spirit is a radical thing—requiring that each is competent to interpret the Bible for himself. But it is glorious in its potentiality. Surely it is self-evident that the higher organizational unity is voluntary and not regimented, spiritual and not mechanical, cooperative (from the bottom up) and not ecclesiastically imposed (from the top down). What greater challenge could there be than the realization of the cohesiveness issuing spontaneously and freely from spiritual maturity? A unitedness achieved by any lesser means must surely be less than the best.
So then ye are no more strangers and sojourners, but ye are fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, being built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the chief corner stone; in whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit (Eph. 2:19–22 ASV).
“the apostolic emphasis
… is unity of doctrine”
J. THEODORE MUELLER
Perhaps no more perplexing problem faces Christendom today than that of church union. Not all denominations pursue this objective from the same point of view or for the same reason. As Prof. Martin Franzmann points out in Religion in Life (Spring, 1957), some approach the problem of unity from the viewpoint of “a club, loosely organized and broadly inclusive,” while others seek unity as a “standard about which men may rally” (p. 213). Thus the matter of unity, though one of “basic simplicity,” becomes one of “practical complexity and difficulty” (p. 207). Nevertheless, all concerned Christians desire to see the Church united in both its Christian profession and its practical application of that profession to life.
The question suggests the consideration of New Testament emphases that are vital for Christian union. We find some of these summed up in a practical, hortatory way in the second and third chapters of Revelation, where the Holy Spirit speaks to the churches in clear and soul-searching words. Christians may do well to consider these emphases in their study of the unity question.
There is in these two dynamic chapters no stress whatever on outward church organization as it is being urged in many areas of Christendom today. The seven representative churches of Asia, humanly speaking, were greatly in need of such organization, for they were troubled by spiritual foes in many ways. But nowhere does the Holy Spirit suggest any group organization of these churches as a means of offense or defense. Every congregation is addressed as an independent unit and is exhorted both to preserve the doctrine delivered to it by the apostolic proclamation and to reject all errors opposing that doctrine. That, too, is the method of St. Paul, who consistently admonishes the local churches to preserve the apostolic doctrine and practice together with their sister churches. “We have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16). “As in all churches of the saints, let your women keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. 14:34). The apostolic emphasis is always on unity of doctrine and practice, but never on external church organization. Church organizations, of course, are not forbidden, but they presuppose unity in faith and life.
Again and again there resounds in the letters addressed to the seven churches in Asia the meaningful refrain: “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” The Church is to hear and to obey the divine Word. It is not to argue or to deny it. Much less is it to surrender the divine truth to errorists or to change the Gospel of Christ into a human philosophy by which the cross of Christ is emptied of its saving content (1 Cor. 1:18). Today the Spirit speaks to the churches only in the Holy Scriptures, for “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). The churches are to teach till the end of time all things that Christ has commanded them (Matt. 28:20). Unless Christians are ready to abide by God’s inspired Word as set forth in the Holy Scriptures, listening to it as authoritatively binding upon conscience, church unity in its New Testament sense cannot be accomplished.
To the troubled church in Smyrna the divine Spirit says: “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (2:11). The church in Smyrna faced persecution, tribulation and poverty; it was, therefore, admonished to be faithful to the Lord, “the first and the last, which was dead and is alive” (v. 8). To the loyal church at Philadelphia the Spirit says: “Hold that fast which thou hast, that no man take thy crown” (3:11). It is only if the churches are faithful to him that is “holy and true and has the key of David,” who “openeth and no man shutteth; who shutteth and no man openeth,” that they can be truly united in Christ, the divine-human Redeemer of the world. Outside the Christ of the Bible and his Word there is no unity that is pleasing to God. “Hear ye him” (Matt. 17:5).
The Holy Spirit in Revelation 2 and 3 praises and rebukes. He praises the churches that hate the deeds of the Nicolaitanes (2:6) and do not deny Christ’s name (3:8), but faithfully keep the Word of his patience (3:10). He rebukes the congregations that hold the doctrine of Balaam (2:14) and suffer the woman Jezebel and her fornication (2:20, 21). Wherever anti-Christian spirits and errors are tolerated there can be no church unity in the sense of the Spirit of God. The Church must say an absolute yes to every Word of Christ as taught in the Holy Scriptures. In the same breath it must say a decisive and final no to everything that is anti-Christian in doctrine and practice. That is the prerequisite of true church union. There may be lawful cooperation among differing denominations in externals, though also here a caution is in place. But unless the churches fully agree in matters of doctrine and practice they are not truly united in the sense of that unity which the Lord demands. It is true, there is the spiritual unity of the “communion of saints,” that is, of all true believers in Christ. But this Christ-centered unity of the Una Sancta should lead all Christians to an ever greater agreement in doctrine and life. They should always strive for it in obedience to the divine Word. It is God’s will that “ye all speak the same thing, and there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). Where that unity cannot be achieved, true believers, bound by their honest convictions, will follow the course of denominational separation, though never failing to speak the truth in love that all may grow up into him in all things, which is the Head, even Christ (Eph. 4:25).
The church to which the Holy Spirit in Revelation administered the severest reproof was that of Laodicea. It was a church that was neither hot nor cold and so egregiously indifferent to truth and error. It neither insisted upon adherence to the divine truth, nor did it rebuke those who taught error. Since it was lukewarm, it was so offensive to the Lord that he threatened to spew it out of his mouth. Has this condemnation perhaps befallen large areas of the Church today? Is not perhaps the lukewarmness, the spiritual indifference to truth and error in large parts of present-day Christendom, the impelling cause of the high pressure methods exerted upon all denominations to bring them within church organizations where truth and error are being taught side by side? That, we believe, should be a matter of conscientious consideration to all who love the Word of God. Let them carefully study God’s inspired letters to the seven churches and heed the emphases of his Holy Spirit for the Church’s salvation.
FRED P. CORSON
Bishop, The Methodist Church
Let the Church know the world it is to serve, but let the Church go forth to serve in the consciousness of its own nature, its authority, its mission and its power.… Wesley found his doctrine of the Church in the Bible. Cutting through human traditions he saw the Church of the first century as “a congregation of faithful men in which the pure word is preached and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinances.” … The Church misjudges its constituency when it assumes that standards of truth are no longer looked for nor responded to. The Church defeats itself when it exchanges its divine revelation for a materialistic relativism and seeks to be heard by its facility in spiritualizing current opinion. Where there have been recent notable stirrings of religious interest they have been produced by proclamation of truth and not by a forum on its alternatives and relative merits.… We must revive the language of revealed truth. Granting man the power to decide, the Church must open for him the Book which Protestantism holds as the rule and guide to man’s faith and practice.—In “The Episcopal Address” of the Bishops of the Methodist Church to the General Conference, 1956.
ARTHUR J. MOORE
Bishop, The Methodist Church
It is evident that for preachers and people alike the urgency of soul which characterized our fathers must be recovered. We must speak again of the ghastly reality of sin, the atonement of Christ, of justification by faith, of the eternal profit of goodness, and of the everlasting loss to those who will not have Christ. Our gospel must be suited to the anguish of these times. But we will not help the seeking man to find God by underestimating his need for redemption or by declaring that the cross is only an example of how a good man could bear pain. Here is our chance to renew the springs of religious life and thereby to lift the level of moral and spiritual life perceptibly higher than it has been.—In Together, May, 1957.
“the Bible … is authoritative
for the evangelical”
HAROLD JOHN OCKENGA
I am a Congregationalism a pastor of a Congregational church and a member of the Suffolk West Association of Congregational and Christian Churches. I believe in the Congregational form of church government, which grants autonomy to the local congregations but unites these congregations in fellowship in associations of churches, local, national and international. Congregationalism has demonstrated its genius for unity with diversity of conviction and practice. Now, in the name of unity all this is being destroyed.
On June 25, 1957, the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church formed the United Church of Christ. The constitution for the new church, a statement of faith, and the coordination of boards and agencies of the two churches will be worked out in detail by committees appointed by the Uniting General Synod. The result will be an authoritarian church with new government, creed, central control of boards, agencies, institutions and congregations, but no doctrinal harmony. In an association where the vast preponderance of ministers are liberal, such centralized control will be unendurable for an evangelical minister and for an evangelical church. In the name of unity another division must eventuate. At least Park Street Church and its pastors will remain Congregational and evangelical.
Does this mean that I have no passion for the unity of the body of Christ, no desire for fellowship with the saints, no concern for obedience to the headship of Christ? Exactly the opposite is true! But I refuse to sell my integrity and liberty for a man-made unity. This underscores the challenge to Christians to restudy the New Testament, to discover and adopt the biblical basis or principles of unity.
At the outset an evangelical Christian will derive his source of instruction on unity from propositional revelation which presents the minimal prerequisites for the fellowship of believers. This biblical revelation is creedal concerning God, man, sin, redemption, judgment and life. An evangelical is committed to this body of biblical propositions as the irreducible minimum of doctrinal requirements for fellowship. The Bible, not some exigency, is authoritative for the evangelical. What then does the Bible teach?
The Bible teaches that the Church is one: one body in which there are many members (1 Cor. 12:12; Eph. 4:16); one bride betrothed to Jesus Christ in mystical union (Eph. 5:24–27); one house which is the temple of God (Eph. 2:21, 22; 1 Peter 2:4–8); one communion in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 12:13). Into this organism enters every repentant, believing soul who is “born of God,” “born of the Spirit,” “born of the Word,” “born again.” Immediately there begins a sharing of life, of status, of destiny by all such. The relationship is primarily to Christ the head, the bridegroom, the cornerstone, the elder brother, the baptizer with the Spirit, but also it is to every person holding like relationship and position. Inescapably correlative to the former is the latter. Hence, all Christians are united in Christ.
Christ is the only redeemer of God’s elect. “He loved the church and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify it and cleanse it, with the washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:25, 26). There is a unity of the saved of all ages, whether Adam, Abraham, David, Paul or you. The only way to God is through Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). To whatsoever form of the Gospel (Gal. 3:8) men may respond they are brought to God through Christ and a relationship to him (Rom. 3:25, 26). Hence, they are united to one another by the covenant of redemption and are called “the children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7, 29).
Christ prayed for the oneness of these redeemed (John 17:21). The prayer itself states the nature of the unity as spiritual: “As thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee.” Such unity had not yet occurred in the history of redemption. Christ had promised to build his Church (Matt. 16:18). At Pentecost he founded his Church by baptizing the living believers into his spiritual body, the Church (1 Cor. 12:13; Acts 2:1–4). The redeemed of pre-Pentecostal eras were united in this body as a result of Calvary, thus becoming one. The high-priestly prayer of Christ for unity was answered at Pentecost—and at Calvary.
For Calvary alone was the ground or basis of Christian unity. By that sufficient and efficacious sacrifice the sins which were covered by Old Testament sacrifices were taken away (Rom. 3:26; Heb. 9:12–14). From this evangelicals demand faith in the death of Christ for our sins and the resurrection of Christ for our justification (1 Cor. 15:1–3) as the prerequisite of spiritual unity in the body of Christ. That Christ died is an historical fact. That Christ “died for our sins” is doctrine, and is also a fact. The acceptance of such doctrine is essential to salvation (1 Cor. 15:2) and to participation in the body of Christ. The evangelical declares that this spiritual unity already exists and that the manifestation of that unity depends upon the right exegesis of the Bible and obedience to its authority. Let Christians restudy the Word on questions that divide, with a predisposition to obedience regardless of how that obedience may cut across vested interests, personal affiliations or organizational lines. A realignment of Christian forces must be made today. Old lines of warfare and conflict are infiltrated and vacillating. The new unity will be of those committed to the biblical Christ as Lord and head of the Church. This will mean expression by division from those who preach “another gospel which is not another” and who worship “another Christ.”
If Christ is the head of the Church, we Christians must seek to think about the Church as he thought, to feel about the Church as he felt and to act concerning the Church as he acted. Christ loved the Church. Does deep, passionate, moving love of the one Church impel us? Christ gave himself for the Church. Will we deny ourselves, sacrifice for and serve the Church, even until death? Christ cleansed and purified the Church. Are we actively engaged in promoting the purity of the Church?
Let us translate this into the figure of a symphony. For too long we have resembled the pre-concert individualistic tuning of our instruments in discordant confusion. Too long each has been singing his own little song, forgetting about the other fellow. The world audience is tiring of this confusion and has no pleasure in it. Is it not time for the Great Conductor to tap his baton, for silence to ensue, and then for all emotion, life and action to be directed in glorious harmony under his leadership? In the proportion that we acknowledge his mystical presence and headship, we Christians will have unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace.
“outward conformity common
… in a totalitarian age”
W. STANFORD REID
Probably that which is most characteristic of midcentury Protestantism is its stress upon the importance of ecclesiastical unity. Denominational divisions are frequently referred to as “the shame of the Church,” and every effort is made to bring about a “New Testament unity.” There is, however, also another emphasis in the New Testament, and that is on the “pluriformity” of the Church, a concept which arises out of its doctrine of unity. The trouble today is often that because one’s interpretation of the Church’s unity is in error, one forgets also its pluriformity.
To the New Testament the basic principle of Christian unity is Christ himself. The stress is at all times and everywhere upon the centrality of his divine-human person and his fulfillment of the office of Prophet, Priest and King. The Lord Jesus repeatedly stated that he was the heart of his own teaching, so that faith in and love towards him meant unity with him. This doctrine was likewise stressed by the Apostles in their teaching. The fundamental requirement for anyone to be a Christian was that he should believe in and serve Christ (Acts 8:37; 16:37; Rom. 4:24, 25; Gal. 2:16).
Such faith and love towards Christ meant that the Christian was effectually bound to him as part of his mystical body, the Church (1 Cor. 12). He is so bound by the inworking power and activity of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love who joins together all the people of God (1 Cor. 12:13, 14). Thus all Christians have the unity of one fellowship with the Father (1 John 1:3). This is summed up in Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “one hope and one Spirit, as you are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all who is over all, and through all, and in you all” (4:4 f).
Such would appear to be the unity for which Christ prayed his great high-priestly prayer recorded in John 17. He did not assume that the Son would be absorbed into the Father, nor did he ask that all Christians would be absorbed into one undifferentiated mass. Rather he prayed that the unity of Christians might be similar to that of the Father and the Son. Thus the oneness desired both by the Lord and his Apostles was that which comes from an agreement of heart and mind, and which manifests itself in true fellowship. That is why John could declare, “hereby we know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14). Christian unity then, according to the New Testament, is not a matter primarily of organization but of the “communion of the saints.”
Such a concept of unity prevented any attempt to establish a rigid uniformity. The New Testament continually reiterates that men are both different, possessing various gifts and capacities (1 Cor. 12), and that they are also sinners. Both uniformity and perfection, therefore, are impossible of attainment in this world. Consequently there does not seem to have been a striving for that outward conformity which is so common in our own totalitarian age.
The “modern” monolithic attitude appeared once during Christ’s ministry when his disciples complained of the man who was casting out demons in the Lord’s name, but was not following with them. Christ’s reply was that they were not to forbid him for, since he spoke in Christ’s name he must be a follower, although he was not of the apostolic group. In this connection Dean Alford’s comment is very much to the point:
“… all those who, notwithstanding outward differences of communion and government, believe in and preach Jesus Christ without bitterly and uncharitably opposing each other, are hereby declared to be helpers forward of each other’s work” (The Greek Testament, 6th ed., 1868, on Mk. 9:38 f).
Such liberal point of view seems to have been carried on by the Apostles who had apparently learned their lesson from their earlier experience. This comes out clearly in their dealings with the differences between the Jewish and Gentile sections of the Church. The Jewish Christians apparently demanded that the Gentiles must conform to all the law of Moses. But to this the Apostles, as can be seen in Acts 15 and Galatians 1 and 2, opposed the freedom of the Gospel. They insisted that the primary criterion of an individual’s Christianity was unity with Christ by faith and obedience. When that had been established, the members of the Church were to treat each other with charity, allowing each other to follow the dictates of conscience enlightened by the Spirit speaking through the Scriptures. Thus they did not require the Jews to give up all their ceremonies, nor did they require the Gentiles to conform to Jewish ritual.
From this it would appear that the Apostolic approach was much more liberal than that of many Christians since their day, because more truly dependent upon the Spirit of God. It was the Spirit who was to give unity, not the legislation or compulsion of man. “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Cor. 3:17). It is only in this liberty that ecclesiastical pluriformity, and therefore, true Christian unity, may advance.
“… organic rather than organizational”
SAMUEL M. SHOEMAKER
There seems to me no better way to approach this all-important question than to consult J. B. Phillips’ preface to his translation of the Acts called The Young Church in Action. He appears to understand in a remarkable way the flavor and power of the early Church. Consider these two sentences: “… these early Christians were led by the Spirit to the main task of bringing people to God through Christ and were not permitted to enjoy fascinating sidetracks,” and, “… members of the fellowship of the early Church appear to have been the necessary agents between men seeking God and God himself.”
This evangelistic passion must have been their second enthusiasm. Their first enthusiasm surely was the great fact and event of the Person in whom they lived, Jesus Christ crucified and risen. This was the all-embracing reality which overshadowed everything else. Even our deepest experiences of him today seem pale by comparison, too much modified by our present outlook, our own temperaments, or the brands of Christianity to which we have been exposed. We seem unable to recapture the pristine glory of that early age.
When we look for reasons for this, we can only come up with the thought that the difference between them and us lies in their self-forgetful and intense awareness that they had been redeemed by Jesus, and that he was alive in their midst. This represents for us, not a “neglected emphasis,” for evangelical Christianity is always proclaiming him and his divineness and his resurrection and his continued presence; but we seem to see here rather something given and supernatural which no human “emphasis” can possibly recall. Perhaps we have too much faith in the “truth” proclaimed, and too little faith in him and his energizing Holy Spirit. The “experience” of Christ and the Holy Spirit was what made them different, yet we cannot pursue this “experience” for itself. We can only receive and proclaim the truth and pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our innermost hearts to be the motive force of all our living, changing us and our procedures all the time.
Yet it soon became their “main task” to “bring people to God through Christ.” I suspect they needed no evangelistic urging to do this, and that they could no more keep from doing it than a spring can keep from pouring forth water. I wonder whether any suggestion of techniques for doing this was ever given them, though I have always suspected that such a story as our Lord’s dealing with the woman at the well may have been recalled to them by him precisely for teaching purposes. (Whence came that story anyway, if not directly from him? It seems dubious that the woman would have rehearsed it all in detail.) Their witness must have been really a witness of the whole Christian community, “forced through the channels of a single heart,” as Myers says. Their oneness in Christ was a given and organic thing.
What did they say when they witnessed? Did it all concern him and his risen-ness, or did they recount also the wonderful things that had happened, e.g to St. Paul, or mix their direct witness to their risen Lord with some of the story of what had happened to themselves through him? If so, they gave us, I think, a lead on the way we need to witness today. It has always been necessary to witness more about events than about ideas—the great event of Christ, and the lesser but to each of us tremendous event of Christ’s coming to us.
Dr. Phillips speaks also of the “days before (the Church) ever became fat and short of breath through prosperity, or muscle-bound by over-organization.” The Church was then a group of close-knit friends in Christ, meeting in somebody’s house for their prayers and holy communion, having to make their living in the same world as pagans, but actually centered in Christ and in “the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” What must it have been like for one of them to meet another for the first time and realize the amazing bond that already bound them? There can have been no “church work” as we understand it, only much carrying of one another’s burdens and much concern for incoming new believers. Worship, fellowship, and direct spiritual service—nothing else—what wonder they had such power! And can we expect to recapture anything of what they knew unless we realize that the real core of the Church is not a set of interlocking organizations, but a great many interpersonal relationships, people bound together in what they do because they are first bound together in him in whom they believe? The early Church was organic rather than organizational. Someone calls our contemporary religion “committeeized Christianity.” Of course we have to have some organization and we hope the organic will permeate the organizational. But it will not, I fear, unless we do more to put it first. People are terribly rifted and lonely in our churches. We must find better ways to create personal and small-group relationships and spend more of our time “bringing people to God through Christ.”
Much is said today of worship and much experimentation of a liturgical kind is going on. This may serve good ends if it is matched by personal dedication and group interpersonal exchange. There must have been an intentness and simplicity about the worship of the early Church that contrasts sharply with our stately, pompous, often sentimental and unreal efforts at worship. One imagines them “lost in wonder, love and praise” for their Lord. Unless a deeper experience of our Lord, a costlier dedication of ourselves to him, and a truer insight into the nature of Christian fellowship and some beginnings of experience of it go into our worship—and unless we come away from it more really burdened for the total need of mankind with specific responsibility accepted by ourselves—it is difficult to see how our worship can ever approach what worship must have been in that early company, so reverent (as we must imagine) in its Holy Communion, so free in its congregational expression of joyous faith!
But I think we must say two things about our natural tendency to look back to the early Church for inspiration: First, I doubt whether it was always and in all things as unified, sanctified and powerful as we think it to have been; and second, the Holy Spirit is alive today. He has never been withdrawn from his Church. He might even have far greater and better things for us than he had for them at the first, if only we would wait on him, pray to him, try to keep in step with him in his present revelation to us. Whitsunday as one day, with appropriate theological and liturgical reminders, is no substitute for a Church that lives in the Holy Spirit as a fish lives in water, or as we live in air. I do not believe any of us knows the real need of the world or of the Church, nor how it is to be met; but Christ knows both. It is my own belief that if we all imbibed the truth and sought with all our hearts the experience that is set forth in Chapter 4 of Bishop Newbegin’s The Household of God, the chapter called “The Community of the Holy Spirit,” we might put ourselves in the way of the fresh “opening” and awakening that he may will for us, if only he can get us quiet and obedient and loving and forgiving enough to receive it.
JAMES S. STEWART
Professor of New Testament, University of Edinburgh
“The fact is, belief in missions and belief in Christ stand and fall together. To say ‘I believe that God so loved the world that in Christ He gave everything He had, gave His very self’, to use such words not lightly or conventionally but in spirit and in truth, means that the one who uses them binds himself irrevocably to make self-giving the controlling principle of life: and this is the very essence of mission. To put it otherwise, the concern for world evangelisation is not something tacked on to a man’s personal Christianity, which he may take or leave as he chooses: it is rooted indefeasibly in the character of the God who has come to us in Jesus … To accept Christ is to enlist under a missionary banner.”—In Thine is the Kingdom, p. 14 (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957).
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