The recent North American Conference on Faith and Order at Oberlin brought together in “historic harmony” representatives of most major Protestant bodies. Theologians of many denominations found themselves in remarkable agreement as to essentials, especially the Person and Work of Christ.

Cause For Concern

Some observers, however, have pondered the results of the conference with apprehension. To these there is cause for concern in the spectacle of Oberlin’s “unity.” They are not alarmed by the possibility that men of divergent views may find it possible to achieve unanimity. They are, however, alarmed by the far-reaching implications of the fact that men of widely separated faiths could find it so easy to achieve unanimity.

It may be—one observer mused—that Oberlin demonstrated as a fact what we have long suspected: not that our denominations have come closer together but that some of our theologians have discovered that they can agree and at one and the same time profess loyalty to traditions that clearly disagree.

We seem to be entering a new era, one in which the old issues that once divided us no longer tend to keep us apart, not because they have been resolved, but because they have paled into relative insignificance in the face of new issues more important. The old walls of separation apparently are crumbling … from lack of attention. Not that we no longer care about the difference between Congregationalism and episcopacy, but rather that we are confronted by the urgency of issues about which we care more.

At Oberlin it was demonstrated, not that lines of demarcation have disappeared in Christendom, but that new lines of demarcation are being drawn crossing denominational boundaries, dividing men of like faiths and uniting men of unlike faiths. Oberlin did not bring Presbyterians and Episcopalians together against Methodists. Oberlin brought some Presbyterians and some Episcopalians together, while other Presbyterians and Episcopalians stayed home and took a dim view of the whole proceedings. And some Methodists shouted amen to the brethren at Oberlin while others shouted amen to the brethren who stayed home. The significance of this realignment is the most important thing in Christendom today.

Most significant of all about the new realignment is the fact that everybody is now saying the same thing: “We must turn to the living Christ for an adequate theology for our day.”

We no longer live in a time when differences in affirmations of faith divided men who called themselves Christians. We are entering an era in which all men may conceivably make the same affirmation of faith, but with meanings that are poles apart. Today men are finding it possible to swear allegiance to the “living Christ” from the standpoint of a faith far removed from that of other men who with equal fervor also swear allegiance to the “living Christ.” And this fact is causing upheavals in the Christian world.

Article continues below

Evidence of the above exists in abundance.

New Alignments

Witness some of the alliances that have recently been consummated, or defeated. The United Church of South India brought together widely separated concepts of theology and polity. The Fellowship of Fundamentalist Churches has also brought together widely separated concepts of theology and polity: churches that immerse have exchanged ministers with churches that sprinkle. But no one in his right mind would predict unanimity should the Bishop of the Church of South India sit down in conference with the President of the Fellowship of Fundamentalist Churches.

Not long ago in the United States, Presbyterians of the North and Presbyterians of the South failed to unite despite their common heritage and an active promotional campaign. But only the careless student concluded that the major issues were sectionalism and racism. For the Presbyterians of the North have many congregations in the South and the Presbyterians of the South are beginning actively to consider enlarging their boundaries and reaching out into the North and the West. No. The issues defeating the union were theological—and among brethren who hold to the same Westminster standards.

Once upon a time the doctrine of Predestination separated Presbyterians from their Methodist brethren. Today you can hear Presbyterian professors of theology denying that man’s will is captive or his depravity total, while Methodist professors here and there affirm fervently their belief that God has more to do with the steps man takes unto salvation than man.

Language No Longer Meaningful

Neither Christ nor Calvary can any longer be held to be the ground or basis of Christian unity. Today you must know what Christ and which Calvary. Neo-orthodoxy has taken the last significant step back into full theological agreement with the historic Gospel by affirming that the liberal Jesus must be replaced with the living Christ. But Neo-orthodoxy says, in the next breath, that it does not mean the Christ of 17th Century orthodoxy. The issue, then, is not whether Christ will be the only answer, but whether you mean this or that when you affirm that Christ is the only answer.

Article continues below

The issue is not whether the Bible will be held to be the Word of God, for all are earnestly affirming the modern validity of that historic terminology. The issue is rather what is meant when you say that the Bible is the Word of God.

The problem of unity is not what to do with believers who remain at odds with other believers over the historical Jesus, but what to do when Unbelief proclaims the Lordship of the living Christ.

No greater time of danger has come upon the Christian Church than the present. For today Faith cannot be distinguished from Doubt by the language it uses or the confession it makes. Unbelief once kept itself aloof from the household of faith. Today it wants to come into the house, take a place at the table and crawl into bed with the children … without becoming a member of the family.

This is the situation which has driven Christians of every faith to a re-alignment of their loyalties. A new evangelical ecumenism is rising to meet the vapid ecumenism of radical theology.

Distinctions Must Be Preserved

Unfortunately the new alignments are taking place against a background of increasing suspicion and mistrust. Very likely this may not be avoided. When opposing armies become hard to tell apart by the uniform they wear, increasing alertness is indicated. There comes a time when some “shibboleth” may be the only way to distinguish a man of Ephraim from a friend. Thus, instead of fading into disuse, such tests as the so-called five points of fundamentalism may loom in increasing importance. But even here the possibility of confusion remains. Not long ago a prominent clergyman wrote that he believed the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. But not—he carefully said—in a physical sense.

Recently I heard, in a sermon delivered by a famous minister, a word which illustrated the urgency of the crisis facing the Church today. This man is considered one of the more evangelical preachers of my own denomination. He was preaching on Christian family life and he was rooting the origin of the Christian concern for the family in the Old Testament experiences of the people of God. He painted a vivid picture of Moses’ awful responsibility in the wilderness and he spoke of the laws which were given at Sinai. In the course of his sermon he said, with a sweep of his hand:

Article continues below

“There was Moses, sitting on the mountain, with that vast encampment of people spread out below him, patiently chipping into the rock the commandments which he felt that God was speaking to his heart.…”

I felt numb. The preacher passed over to the New Testament and concluded with warm words about the living Christ. But what can “living Christ” mean to a man who stumbles at the thought that God actually met Moses on the mountain?

G. Aiken Taylor is Minister of First Presbyterian Church, Alexandria, Louisiana. A Calvin scholar, he holds the Ph.D. degree from Duke University. He is author of A Sober Faith and St. Luke’s Life of Jesus, and numerous magazine articles.

We Quote:


Minister, Brick Presbyterian Church, New York City

The Churches of the Reformation do not officially deny the right of private judgment, but in practice they are approaching the Roman position and affirming that the Church has authority over social and political problems.

Where once they stood for liberty of conscience, these Free Churches today are stressing “group thinking” and the “collective mind”. Pronouncements and resolutions on social and political problems, purporting to represent the “group mind” of the Church, are used to compel the individual Christian to conform. Sometimes we are told that these pronouncements carry “authority” to compel the individual Christian to conform.

The pronouncements are on all manner of subjects. Is it foreign affairs? The government of the United States is told how to conduct its diplomacy. Christians are told what they should think about the United Nations. Is it domestic politics? The individual Church member is told whether he can approve Federal appropriations for education or Federal appropriations for housing; he is told what should be his attitude toward public schools and private schools. A short time ago one of our Church bodies had before it a resolution to tell the President of the United States when he should speak and what he should say in his speech. There is hardly a meeting of a Church body in which some representative of an “action committee” does not bring in a resolution and ask that “the prophetic voice of the Church be heard on (whatever he considers) the social and political crisis of this hour.” The Free Christian Churches in the name of group action are asserting authority over almost everything except religion.

Article continues below

There are a number of things to be said about this. The first is that it is a tragic thing that our Free Churches learn so little from the past. One of the sad days for Protestant Christianity was the day when the Churches made Prohibition the major Christian issue of the hour. In their prophetic capacity they wrote Prohibition into the legislation and the Constitution of the country. And the result? After fifteen years of experiment, Prohibition was withdrawn, one hundred years of progress in temperance was lost, alcohol was given a secure place in American social life.

The second thing to be said is that these pronouncements are not the voice of the Church. If they were the voice of the Church, they would have to be debated in every Session, in every Board of Deacons, in every congregation, debated back and forth until they actually expressed the judgment of the responsible courts of the Church. This, however, is not what happens. The pronouncements represent the political maneuvering of a hard core of committee-entrenched individuals who use a majority vote of a council to promote their social prejudices. These persons work at this task year in and year out. Some of them are part of the paid secretariat of the Church. Delegates and Commissioners to Church bodies rotate, but these permanent office holders are there year after year writing their “prophetic” resolutions.

Another thing to be said is that such action is not prophetic action. Prophecy does not count noses or operate through majority votes. The prophets of the Old Testament were lonely men. Amos, the Prophet of social justice, asked that he be not called a prophet. He did not want his name associated with the schools of mass prophecy. The same was true of Jeremiah. The men who were defeating righteousness were the organized prophets who set their truth in place of God’s Truth. The true Prophet said—I stand here alone and I speak alone because God commanded me to speak.

But the final critic of these pronouncements is Church law. The words of our Confession in regard to Synods and Councils are: “All synods or councils since the Apostles’ times … may err and many have erred; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice.” “Synods and councils are to handle or conclude nothing but that which is ecclesiastical: and are not to intermeddle with civil affairs which concern the commonwealth.”

Article continues below

One can understand the Pope of Rome claiming authority over social and political problems; he does not believe in the right of private judgment. What is tragic is to have the churches that do believe in religious liberty attempting to play Pope to their own people.

We should remember that the law of our Free Churches still protects the right of private judgment. Our councils and assemblies, being made up of all kinds of men with varying capacities for judgment, probably will continue to be the victims of political pressures. You should know, however, that these pronouncements carry no authority and you are not obligated to obey them.…

I remind you that the right of private judgment is a solemn responsibility exercised under God.

Frequently our Roman brethren speak as though the Reformation stood for religious laissez faire, meaning religious anarchy. They assume that the right of private judgment means that one may think what he wishes and worship as he pleases.

To assert this is to indicate complete ignorance of the teaching of the Reformers. In his statement on the freedom of the Christian man, Luther pointed out that the individual Christian is at one and the same time the most free and the most bound of all men; he is free from the authority of men, but he is bound by the revelation of the Bible and the truth of God’s Word. He is bound by the voice of God speaking to his own conscience.

Our Confession of Faith teaches a similar doctrine: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to His Word.” The Christian is free. He does not stand in intellectual or moral bondage to any man, to any council, Presbytery, hierarchy or priesthood. Nevertheless the Scriptures are to be studied and the will of God is to be obeyed. The Christian stands responsible before the most august court of all, the court of the Living God. “He is constantly referred beyond the Church to the Lord of the Church and summoned, as a free man, to make his solemn answer to the rightful Lord of his life.” When Martin Luther set the Western world free from the commandments of men he bound it to the Law of God.

There is a scene in Luther’s life which no liberty loving Christian should ever forget. A lone man, isolated and seemingly forsaken, stood before the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and representatives of the Roman Church. On a table before them were the man’s writings. Had he written them? He had. The writings had been condemned by the Roman Church: Did he still believe what he had written? He did. He knew the penalty for heresy? He did. Would he retract and recant? The man paused before he answered and then spoke in measured word. “I cannot submit my faith either to the Pope or to the councils because they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or by clear reasoning, since my conscience is thus bound by the Word of God, I cannot and will not retract; for it is unsafe and injurious to act against one’s conscience. Here I stand; I can do no other. May God help me. Amen!”

Article continues below

“Amen” and “Amen” and yet again, “Amen”. And let all of the Church courts, councils, presbyteries and assemblies of our Free Churches re-echo that Amen. In such sturdy independence is the foundation of political and religious liberty. To attempt to substitute for such independence the servile group mind and the standardized social thinking of our time is, in the words of the late General Smuts of South Africa, “the greatest human menace” to religious, and all other liberties.—In a sermon on “Reaffirming the Reformation.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.