The reading public of the continent has recently been blessed with a run of studies on the relationship between the Church and the sects. One of the questions that recurs in these studies is: What accounts for the rather spectacular rise and growth of the sects? Some writers have tried to analyze the background of the sects to determine whether they have arisen out of a failure of the churches to satisfy the spiritual needs of the people. The sects, it has been said, form the unpaid accounts chargeable to the churches. That is, the sects represent an obligation that the churches have failed to fulfill.
A German writer, Heinz Horst Schrey, has published a book recently in which he says that the Church must not face the sects in the role of the polemicist but in the role of the penitent. The subtitle of his book reads: The Sects as Question to the Church. The sects, Schrey says, are an indictment against the Church for not living in conformity with the Gospel she preaches. He asks whether the sects do not even express elements of the Gospel which the Church has left neglected or confused.
Do not the sects, asks Schrey, often display an enthusiasm that shames the coldness of the churches? Do they not often live in joyful expectation of the coming of the Lord, in contrast to the this-worldliness of the churches? Have not the churches too often found their abiding city here on earth? Is not the life of faith often stifled by the worldly organizations and machinery of the established churches? No, pleads Schrey, let us approach the sects not with polemics, but with penitence; let us not come to them in order to convert them, but let us convert ourselves. This, he insists, is the only honest attitude for the Church to assume in the face of the sects.
We shall have to admit, I think, an element of truth in all this. In one sense, the sects are an unpaid account chargeable to the churches. There is no reason for us to boast. When we observe the fellowship lived within the sects, we are forced to ask ourselves whether the Church really does manifest to the world that she is a community of saints. We must ask whether in the established churches we have followed the way of love that our Lord walked before us. The critique and the expressions of disappointment that come from sectarian groups against the Church are often sincere and just. There is profound reason for churches to take counsel with themselves, to examine their deepest loyalties, to inquire about the reality of their conformance to the Gospel and the sincerity of their lip-service to the law of love. And they may well examine their hearts to see whether they do long to see the Lord’s return.
When the Church fails to be a true light in the world, when her disunity is no longer a burning concern, when her prayers turn to routine mutterings, when her faith grows cold, she may expect many to look outside her walls for a more real spiritual life. One may respond to this by saying that the sects rarely do put a question to the Church, but more often level loud and severe criticisms and judgments against her. The sects sometimes accuse the churches of being party to the “great apostasy” and describe her in terms of the great Babylon of the Apocalypse. When the sects do this, they give up on the Church and are unwilling even to look for any good in her. We may grant, therefore, that the sects are often hypercritical of the churches but that their existence and expansion do summon the churches to self-criticism.
Yet, it seems to me that the attitudes which the Church may take toward them are not the exclusive alternatives—polemics or penitence. One finds in the sects more than a reaction to a failure of practice in the churches; one sees rather a critique of the confessions of the churches. The sects are critical of what the Church proclaims as the gospel of God, even as they are critical of the Church’s failure to practice the Gospel. It is a mistake to suppose that sects arise only by default in the Church’s life. The confusion and spiritual vacuum of our times invites people to turn in many directions. Some of the ways they take are contrary to the Gospel.
Jesus Christ warned that in the end false prophets, even “false Christs” would arise. It is a rare sect these days that parades a pseudo-Messiah as its leader, but in my own country recently a “prophet” has arisen whose disciples make him out to be divine, and his disciples are on the increase.
Such phenomena, though uncommon, remind one of Matthew 24. Our Lord’s word regarding the last days has not lost its meaning: “Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not” (Matt. 24:26). We do not know the forms that future dangers to the spirit will take. But we may be sure that the way of temptation will not he only in denial of religion. Pious prophets will be in the secret chambers or in the deserts wooing people in the name of Christ to forsake the Christ of Calvary. Paul tells us that the Antichrist will sit in the temple of God and that Satan shall be transformed into an angel of light. The area of religion will bear special watching.
I do not mean, of course, that all sects must be seen from this dangerous perspective. But we are not finished with the question of the sects when we have repented of our failure as churches. After we have faced the question of whether the church is still living as the Church of Christ, and when we have been willing to accept every criticism that arises from the Gospel, we shall also have to face up to the dangers implicit in new forms of religion. Confusion and religious apostasy have often led to the forming of new sectarian religions. This too we must face. In short, we must approach the sects with a combination of polemics and penitence. When the Church is willing to bow in humble penitence before the Lord in the face of her failures and at the same time be alert to threats from false and half-true religious movements, she is in a fair posture to point the way—not to the desert of a spectacular new religion or the secret chamber of a new prophet, but to Jesus Christ who remains the same Lord and Master forever.
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