With the current interest in ecumenism and church union, there is a growing emphasis on the Lord’s table and a revival of interest in liturgics. Much of this latter interest has been properly criticized as romantic, as concerned unduly with rubrics, chants, stained glass, choral and congregational responses, clerical garb and the like, and as irrelevant. The Lord’s Supper began as a simple meal in an upper room, and, in the early church, was closer to the church potluck supper than to the modern observance. On the other hand, it must be clearly understood that we are not tied to the original form of the Lord’s Supper, in which case an upper room would be required, but to the essential form and content, as given in 1 Corinthians 11:18–34. Concerning the basic form, the words of institution, there is general agreement.
But what then is the essential content of the Lord’s Supper? Here, for many persons, the old term “communion” is most expressive. It is the Christian bond of peace and unity, the outward token of an inward and outward communion in and with Christ. As such, the Lord’s Supper has become the symbol of the current aspirations for ecumenity. Christ’s Church, sorely divided into many fragments and splinters, must be again united so that, with an effective and united voice, she may witness to a troubled world. In terms of such thinking, every service of communion becomes an indictment of the Church for continuing in disunion.
The fallacy of such thinking, however, is that it makes central to the Lord’s table the human communion of many believers, the totality of human strength as essential to witness, and the centrality of unity to Christian faith and life. It inevitably obscures the essential meaning of the sacrament, the atonement and redemption effected for believers by Jesus Christ, their continuing preservation, sanctification and unity in and with him. That unity does have an important part in this picture is obvious. But to emphasize it unduly is to distort the entire picture, if not to destroy it. In ecumenical thinking, incredible latitude is permitted with regard to the doctrinal aspects; these need not be taken literally, but unity must be taken literally. Thus the ecumenical approach allows a latitudinarian interpretation of the deity of Christ, of his atonement, of security, sanctification, and other doctrines, but insists on a literal approach to unity. The opponents of unity insist on a literal subscription to dogmatic statements but insist on a spiritualizing and latitudinarian interpretation of unity.
Truth And Unity
Obviously, therefore, the concept of unity needs examination. It must be first of all noted that the modern ecumenical movement has no relationship to the councils of the early Church. There the emphasis was on truth above unity, and unity only on the grounds of truth. The enduring value of these councils, despite many disorders as well as doctrinal variations, consisted in their emphasis on truth as the only valid ground for union. This emphasis, however, gave way gradually to the Roman Catholic emphasis, which, from the Protestant point of view, is on unity above truth. The differences preceding the Vatican Council were subordinated to the principle of unity; the long history of theological differences, for example, between Dominicans and Franciscans, shows also their subordination to the opinion made dogmatically binding. To the Protestant, truth and unity have a transcendent reconciliation in Christ; to the Roman Catholic, believing in Christ’s continuing incarnation in the church and the apostolic authority of the See of Peter, truth and unity have an immanent reconciliation in the pope; and hence papal infallibility is not an exotic but natural development of this immanence. Since the principle of unity is present in the person of the Roman pontiff, the principle of unity cannot exist apart from him or be reserved to the church and its schools. Thus devout Roman Catholics can submit to doctrinal pronouncements previously unacceptable to them because doctrinal pronouncements “concerning faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church” are truly and authoritatively defined by the Roman pontiff alone “and not by virtue of the consent of the Church” (Vatican Council). To the evangelical Protestant, truth and unity are perfectly reconciled in Christ only, not immanently in any social order or church. The modern ecumenical emphasis is analogous to Rome in that unity is the means to truth and the very ground of truth. The Roman concept of unity is imposed from above. The modern Protestant ecumenical movement differs from the Roman approach only in seeking unity more democratically. It agrees with Rome in emphasizing peace and unity as more important than truth and as the real ground of truth in Christ.
Unity Does Not Stand Alone
In terms of such thinking, Athanasius, Luther, and Calvin were clearly wrong in insisting that truth is more important than peace and unity. They were wrong then in believing that Christians must be exposed to the turbulent and demanding claims of truth and in insisting, through the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, that all Christians, and all men, must be brought face to face with the truth in Jesus Christ, and with the whole counsel of God in his Word, that unity might grow out of a priesthood grounded and established in truth.
Here it must be pointed out that the very conception of truth and unity as well as truth versus unity is in a very important measure defective. First of all, it must be recognized that by its very nature truth is divisive. It compels a demarcation and a definition, a separation from error and evil. Truth must therefore always be underrated and obscured if a blanket unity is to be furthered. Second, unity in itself is no more a virtue than is sincerity. The sincerity of Hitler and the unity of the German people under him constituted no moral value or gain. Sincerity and unity possess moral validity only as they are attached to persons and causes having moral validity. If unity is sought on grounds which undervalue truth, then unity becomes to that same degree reprehensible. Third, it must be recognized, however, that truth in itself can be barren, if, indeed, it is possible for truth to so exist. A very important question must here be raised: can truth exist without grace? For a Christian, such a thing is inconceivable: truth and grace are different aspects of one revelation. “Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). Jesus Christ is the revelation of God’s truth and grace. Truth cannot exist without grace, and grace cannot exist apart from truth. Thus, the doctrinaire and belligerent attitude of some opponents of ecumenity is grounded neither in grace nor in truth but in a partisan spirit which is as defective as the barren insistence on union. The truly ecumenical insistence will not be on peace and unity but on truth and grace, and the only effective opposition to the defective ecumenity of our era is one which presents truth and grace. Fourth, it must be stated that there is a difference between unity and union. Union can exist without unity, and unity without union. Ecumenical thinking too often aims at union rather than unity, at an outward marriage, leading to a Protestant Rome, rather than a true marriage of minds and spirits. All such attempts only compound weaknesses and troubles and render sick churches more sick. On the other hand, it is not enough to emphasize unity without union. Where true unity exists, is there no obligation to union? Is it not indeed a form of irresponsibility to emphasize our unity and berate union?
Fifth, it is obvious that many churches today are far more interested in union than in unity. One of the ironic notes today is the growing destruction by ecumenity of its own parents. More of the modern ecumenical movement stems from various evangelical movements of the past century than is commonly recognized. Moody’s revivals, for example, cut across denominational lines and did more to foster interchurch relations than is generally conceded. Revivalism, with its “common denominator theology,” did much to correlate the theologies of the various churches. The Christian Endeavor movement, for many decades shaping the lives of the potential leaders of various denominations, trained them into a common denominator Christianity, albeit a conservative one, and emphasized interchurch unity. These movements and others like them were important in their major impact on American life in extending the frontiers of faith and life; they were also important in leveling the specifically Calvinist, Methodist, Baptist, Congregational, and other specifically theological and ecclesiological emphases in favor of a skeletal Christianity. As such they were a major ecumenical factor, whatever our opinion of their value.
But modern ecumenical leaders are at one and the same time active in promoting specifically denominational youth programs, church revival, and evangelism endeavors. They insist on union rather than unity, and on church loyalty rather than basic and fundamental doctrines. Clearly, church loyalty is a needed emphasis in the face of so much atomistic and individualistic thinking with regard to the Christian life. Without it, the church cannot be a church. But church loyalty is a dangerous concept unless subordinated to truth and grace, unless it is held in recognition of the freedom of the Christian believer and is truly a part of our obedience to the triune God. The Church and its leaders are never free of sin and every trifle cannot be made an occasion for revolt, but neither can the Church require obedience where it seeks to be the lawgiver as against God in his Word. Jesus Christ is King of the Church and its only lawgiver, and none other can bind the consciences of men. The Church can bind and loose only ministerially, not legislatively; only in Christ, not in its own authority; and loyalty must be ministerially, not legislatively, required.
Meaning Of Lord’s Table
Ecumenity, and the opposition to ecumenity, needs to be recalled to the true meaning of the Lord’s table, which indeed is the true bond of our unity and peace in Christ. According to Paul, those who failed to discern the Lord’s body (1 Cor. 11:29) were those who failed, first, to understand the nature of the sacrament, the meaning of the death, resurrection, atonement, sanctifying and preserving work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Second, they revealed their lack of knowledge of truth by their lack of grace and order in their supper observances, their gluttony and drunkenness, their disunity and contempt of their brothers, and their self-satisfaction with their worship. They thus failed to discern the Lord’s body in the supper, that is, in its meaning, and failed to discern the Lord’s body in his Church. Today, in both the proponents and opponents of ecumenity there is a similar failure. It may again be said or this generation, both Christians and churches, “For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (1 Cor. 11:30). The penalty for failure to discern the Lord’s body is still judgment (1 Cor. 11:29).
Robert Paul Roth has been Professor of New Testament Theology and Dean of the Graduate School at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S. C., since 1953. He holds the M.A. degree from University of Illinois, B.D. from Northwestern Lutheran Seminary, and Ph.D. from University of Chicago. He was formerly Professor in Luthergiri Seminary, India, and in Augustana College.
Not with mere stuttering repetition
Or useless aspirations dumbly spun
From wheels forever whirled on fitful winds
Over bleak gullies washed by turbid streams;
Nor egocentric flailing of dull flesh
Practised in the cloistered cell by night,
With wielded scourge and trickling blood and grief,
For extrication of essential guilt;
Nor bruised knees upward groping on the steep
Cross-studded sacramental stairs nor tear-
Groined cheeks to squatting idols bowed, with hope
From bloodless stone to gather certitude:
Neither these nor other agonies of heart
Preclude the grace that caused the veil to part.
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