After 150 years, the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) stand at the crossroads of the future and frankly face a “Decade of Decision.” More than 9,000 delegates gathered at Denver August 28-September 2 to hear their leaders report, appraise and forecast and to vote on recommendations which may well change the course of Disciples’ history.
The 110th assembly of the International Convention was recognizing the 150th anniversary of Thomas Campbell’s historic “Declaration and Address”—a document which said that “the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally and constitutionally one.” It proposed the New Testament, apart from human creeds, as a “perfect constitution for the worship, discipline and government of the New Testament Church, and as a perfect rule for the particular duties of its members.” Thus the Disciples of Christ became the earliest ecumenical movement in America, calling upon all Christians to unite on the Bible alone as a rule of faith and practice.
Much of the program at Denver was concerned with some 25 agencies which report to the International Convention. So dominant are the affairs of these corporations that it is often facetiously remarked that “the tail wags the dog.” The mammoth United Christian Missionary Society presented a 17,000-page report at Denver, dealing with a wide scope of services—world missions, religious education, social welfare, home missions and evangelism. At one time it was proposed that the society be inclusive of all the interests of the churches, but that goal has not yet been realized. For more than 30 years the program of the society has been dominated by liberal leadership. It receives little or no support from Bible-centered churches. President A. Dale Fiers made it clear that the UCMS Division of World Mission “faces a revolutionary situation … in many areas” and that it is wholeheartedly committed to the ecumenical world mission program. In a number of fields the society is merging its work with “younger union churches.”
Social issues received much attention in resolutions perfunctorily adopted by the convention. Nuclear testing was opposed, racial integration approved, restrictions on use of alcoholic beverages urged, and marriage counselling was strongly advised as a church duty. The action of the Cleveland World Order Study Conference relative to recognition of Communist China did not come before the assembly, but delegates did voice support of National Council of Churches policy that churches have a right to speak up on such issues.
As convention agencies face the ensuing 10 years they share in development of a new cooperative program labelled the “Decade of Decision.” It is pitched at a high spiritual level and moves away “from pre-occupation with selfish concerns to a firmer theology concerned with the idea of God and what He is doing—a quest to discover the ways of God and follow in them.” It has little to say of the historic plea for “the restoration of the New Testament Church” and much to say about the ecumenical world mission of the church. The “Decade of Decision” provides a planning program in building new churches, educating more ministers, expanding the missionary enterprise, entering new fields of social service, enlarging publication services, enhancing men’s work, intensifying religious education and raising the level of giving in the churches. Each agency has been asked to suggest major undertakings for the 10-year period and budget askings. These will be compiled into a unified program. Churches will be asked to increase annual contributions from 33 to 87 millions and to spend 100 millions in new church construction. As Dr. Wayne Bell put it, “The destiny of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) will be decided during the 1960s.”
While Disciples at Denver thought of their “Decade of Decision” largely in terms of program and promotion, there is a far deeper significance. Within these 10 years they must face such issues as (1) brotherhood restructure, (2) cooperative strategy, (3) internal unity and congregational freedom, (4) merger with the United Church of Christ, (5) missionary and educational policy, and (6) the nature of their continuing mission.
Resolution No. 34 passed by the convention provides for a committee to produce a plan of organizational restructure. Hitherto the International Convention has offered its services to any worthy agency engaged in missionary, educational or benevolent work. Current proposals would eliminate all agencies that do not accept centralized control. Disciples must decide whether they wish to continue a free people or accept domination of a centralized ecclesiasticism.
Resolution No. 52 faces the issue of cooperative strategy. A committee of 15 is to decide what should be done with “recalcitrant brethren”—ministers listed in the convention Year Book who do not give full support to “official agencies.”
There are encouraging voluntary movements toward greater internal unity among Disciples. Scores of conversations between ministers and laymen cooperating with the convention and independent enterprises are taking place across America. These could heal wounds of old controversies and could unite forces long alienated.
The Disciples’ Council on Christian Unity is maintaining discussions which could eventually lead to merger with the United Church of Christ. This calls for another major decision during the decade. Disciples sat in on the United Church synod in Oberlin in July, but little was said about merger proceedings in Denver. There is strong opposition in a majority of churches and even in some “official agencies.”
Missionary and education policies of convention agencies are undergoing radical changes. The traditional Scriptural ground of evangelistic missions is slowly being abandoned for the newly-conceived “ecumenical world mission” program. Disciples are encouraging the merger of the International Missionary Council with the World Council of Churches and are now little concerned in maintaining the distinctive Christian Church testimony on foreign fields. Disciples must decide whether this policy is acceptable and whether adherence to it will be made a test of fellowship. Almost all the older institutions of higher education have accepted the terms of liberal scholarship and are enjoying material prosperity but some 3,000 ministerial students are now being trained in independent orthodox schools not reporting to the convention.
Finally, what will Disciples decide about the nature of their continuing mission? Will they consider their function as an ecumenical movement to be one of a “disappearing brotherhood” in the WCC and the “Coming Great Church,” or will they continue to insist that the only true united church must be a restoration of the Church of the New Testament in doctrine, ordinances and life?
A summary of events at Denver would not be complete without reference to the breath of evangelical fresh air which came in pre-convention sessions of the National Evangelistic Association. Here there was a real emphasis on the Gospel and the seeking and saving of the lost. Addresses of Dr. Lin Cartwright, former editor of the Christian Evangelist, on the content and intent of the Gospel were especially refreshing and inspiring. What the future of the NEA may be under the new constitution adopted at Denver is problematical. Its old-time freedom may be limited as it becomes more closely related to the UCMS.
A $3,237,298 contract was awarded last month for construction of the controversial Air Force Academy chapel at Colorado Springs, Colorado. Work is scheduled to begin immediately.
Design of the chapel is essentially the same as that unveiled more than three years ago (for architect’s sketch, see September 15, 1958 issue of CHRISTIANITY TODAY). Since that time its contemporary style has been the topic of widespread debate. Start of construction has been delayed repeatedly.
The chapel may take as long as two years to complete.
For new missionaries planning service in Latin America, the Orientation Center and Language School at San Jose, Costa Rica, is a common introduction to Spanish culture. Some 34 boards and agencies use the school, operated by the Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. For 13 of its 15 years, the school has had as directors Dr. and Mrs. Otho LaPorte, who flew back to their native United States this month upon retirement from a lifetime of missionary service.
The LaPortes, who labored in the Philippines prior to World War II, say they had a vision for a Latin American language-orientation center while interned by the Japanese. They had even decided that Medellin, Colombia, would be the ideal location, and, returning home after liberation, learned that their board had already established such a school in Medellin and wanted them to take over!
Approximately 1500 missionaries have been initiated under the LaPortes, whose name translated from French connotes “the door.” Their duties in San Jose, where the school moved in 1950, will be assumed by the Rev. and Mrs. A. D. Coble, also Presbyterian missionaries.
People: Words And Events
Deaths: Haldor Lillenas, 74, noted Gospel song writer, at Aspen, Colorado … Dr. William Lindsay Young, 66, former moderator of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A., in Los Angeles … Dr. William S. Abernethy, 86, former president of the American Baptist Convention and pastor to President Harding, in Washington, D. C.… Bishop John L. Stauffer, 70, former president of Eastern Mennonite College, in Harrisonburg, Virginia … Elizabeth A. Smart, 70, national legislative director of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, in Washington, D. C.
Appointments: As president of Grand Rapids Baptist Theological Seminary and Bible Institute, Dr. W. Wilbert Welch … as executive administrator at Gordon College, pending appointment of a president, Hudson T. Armerding … as Swedish Lutheran Bishop of Linköping, Dean K. F. Askmark … as professor of church administration and director of field work for Golden Gate Baptist Seminary, Dr. Elmer L. Gray.
Elections: As sixth copresident of the World Council of Churches (after the WCC Central Committee changed rules to permit a presidential election between assemblies), Archbishop lakovos, head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America … to the WCC Executive Committee, Archbishop Gunnar Hultgren, Primate of the State Lutheran Church of Sweden … as national chaplain of the American Legion, Rabbi Robert 1. Kahn … as president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Otto Graham … as general foreign secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society, Rev. E. G. T. Madge … as general secretary of the Baptist Union of Sweden, the Rev. Simon Oberg … as president of the Dutch Lutheran Church, Dr. C. Riemers.
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