A tide of concern rises as laymen seek to preserve their churches

One of the significant developments in American Protestantism this year is the emergence of groups of evangelical laymen seeking to preserve the historic standards of their denominations and to renew the evangelistic vitality of their churches.

In many mainline denominations, lay indignation over institutional involvement in political affairs has been running at high tide. Uneasiness over politically oriented ecumenism, theological looseness, and evangelistic neglect has sharpened criticism of the National Council of Churches. Denominational leaders who serve on interlocking commissions and share in that body’s objectionable pronouncements are also under fire. Some lay leaders openly complain that in some extremist positions taken by its commissions—such as urging a welcome for Red China in the U. N.—the NCC has gone so far afield and is so much involved in secular affairs that the Los Angeles Dodgers might be regarded as a less offensive symbol of Christian unity.

But the emergence of lay movements now marks a further step in the expressed discontent of many church members. Groups like the Presbyterian Lay Committee specifically look to laymen—in distinction from the clergy—as the brightest hope, if not the last remaining hope, of preserving some historic denominations from corrupting inroads. They are distressed over theological vagabondage, moral confusion, and ecclesiastical preoccupation with secular concerns. Such movements have not been founded on an anti-clerical bias. But they take full note of the fact that some denominational seminaries are rapidly becoming training centers for a new generation of ecumenical partisans. Many seminary graduates, moreover, now lack a solid grounding in evangelical perspectives, since their teachers encourage alteration of traditional church standards. Meanwhile, clergymen are often under direct or indirect pressures for conformity, since vigorous criticism of top-level policy is likely to invite penalties in placement and other opportunities.

What a growing number of laymen are watching is the attitude of the clergy toward efforts now under way to modify and moderate the doctrinal standards of their denominations. Once the historic standards are modified, these laymen conclude, it will be too late to rescue the denominations from modern revisionist tendencies. Hence laymen are now mobilizing by the thousands, no longer content with a “wait and see” attitude as denominational leaders press for confessional alteration. Such laymen are openly declaring their commitment to their churches in terms of the historic standards, and they indicate that the reconstruction of those belief will meet staunch resistance. They have been loyal to their denominations because they considered them loyal to the truth of God; denominational disloyalty to the truth of God will dissolve their loyalty to their denominations.

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In many respects the present controversy in the United Presbyterian Church assumes an importance far beyond the bounds of that one great denomination. For Presbyterianism in the United States has exercised a theological influence outside its own ecclesiastical borders. One thinks, for example, of the influence of Calvinistic doctrine on the Northern Baptist theologian A. H. Strong, and of the influence of Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield and J. Gresham Machen not only upon evangelical scholars in other mainstream denominations but in independent fundamentalist circles. Conservative Presbyterian scholarship supplied transdenominational bulwarks for evangelical thought, and the defection of Presbyterian theologians from historic church standards cannot but have a corrupting effect upon Christian doctrine in many circles.

Presbyterian laymen have watched with growing distress the progressive transformation of Princeton Theological Seminary into an ecumenical polyglot. While the seminary viewed its invitation to Emil Brunner to occupy the Charles Hodge chair of systematic theology as an effort to import to America some of the vitality of European neo-orthodoxy, critics on the conservative side saw it as a deplorable concession that could lead only to further confessional compromise. When merger of the old United Presbyterian Church with the Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A. was first projected, one argument that had wide appeal among church members was the pervasive influence for more conservative theology and for greater evangelistic zeal that United Presbyterians could exercise through the merger. Many lay leaders now realize that the actual outcome has quickly made a mockery of such merger hopes. United Presbyterians lost their strongly conservative seminary, evangelistic momentum has slowed, and church energies are now expended in debate over confessional revision and political involvement.

The restless laity are therefore mobilizing to revitalize interest in biblical concerns. They propose a massive effort to prevent the sacrifice of historic church standards by theological revisionists whose ecumenical interests seem to lie in the direction of the ecumenical merger of all churches in a monolithic power structure. As the laity see it, many denominational leaders are now working not for the growth of their churches but for their replacement. Not a few Presbyterian laymen consider the Blake-Pike plan for the merger of American denominations, for example, as a proposal one-sidedly engineered by already powerful churchmen who seek further control over the decisions and activities of the churches. This grasp for power such laymen link to the established tendency of denominational leaders to use their positions to exert pressure upon the government in the interest of political legislation. From his denominational office, in the name of his denomination, a pacifist can seek to alter political policy in the Viet Nam struggle or a socialist can promote the government’s expanding welfare activity, although his denomination is historically committed to the principle that such decisions are not properly ecclesiastical. In recent weeks, hundreds of Methodist laymen wrote letters declaring that the NCC Faith and Order Conference in urging the acceptance of Red China into the U.N. was not accurately reflecting their point of view.

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In the last analysis, the strength of any laymen’s movement will turn on the dedication of individuals who courageously register their points of view, rather than on organized protest. The weakness of ecclesiastical propagandists is that they often wield power and influence not truly reflective of their constituencies. Any lay protest, once organized, is regarded as schismatic and illegitimate, with a hurried appeal to the very church polity that ecumenists are undoing. But nonetheless it is moral force and individual conviction that must carry the day.

Actually, the clergy should be gratified at the lively interest of thoughtful laity in matters of theology and the churches. And there are forward-looking denominational and theological leaders who applaud this revival of lay concern for church affairs. Surely one of the causes of the present predicament of the Church was the indifference of laymen in the past to what their denominational leaders and ministers have been saying and doing. It must never be forgotten that no one group possesses the Church. Ministers are but under-shepherds, and the laity are a vital part of the priesthood of believers. Out of the present struggle within the Church there may well come ultimate good through the emergence of a really informed and responsible laity.

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Because ecumenical leaders persist in promoting politico-economic positions, often (to compound the error) on a naïve assumption that revolutionary forces are invariably benevolent, they have raised widening distrust. This concern by American laymen over ecclesiastical pronouncements contrasts with the situation in Europe, particularly on the Continent, where a woefully small number of church members attend services and where most laymen couldn’t care less about what the hierarchy does or the church says. But American laymen are active in their churches, and the independent and provocative course charted by ecumenists seems to many to pose a threat to the very nature of Christ’s Church.

That threat, as the laymen see it, is both theological and political. Ecumenical interest in union with Rome seems to imply sympathy for the medieval outlook whereby churchmen viewed the Church as infallible in all areas of human decision and the Church exercised control over all of life. The Protestant Reformers once freed men’s consciences from this interference of the Church in the area of personal liberty; now post-Protestant ecumenists are once again widening the Church’s encroachment. The trend encourages the suspicion of more and more laymen who privately wonder whether some denominational leaders are coveting a return to the power of the Roman Catholic Church, whose hierarchical pronouncements speak for its members.

Presbyterian concern focuses on two main features of the proposed Confession of 1967, which would reduce the Westminster Confession to a remarkable doctrine of past relevance and subordinate it to a confusing contemporary compromise. For one thing, the proposed new confession adopts a speculative theory of revelation and abandons the doctrine of biblical inspiration, thus undermining confidence in the Scriptures as the authoritative rule of faith and practice (see “What Scripture Says About Itself,” pp. 50 ff.). In the next place, the proposed confession inverts the position of the Westminster Confession on ecclesiastical involvement in secular affairs. The historic Presbyterian position is explicit: “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 unless by way of bumble petition in cases extraordinary; or by way of advice for satisfaction of conscience if they be thereunto required by the civil magistrate” (Ch. XXXIII, 4). With both the Bible as the rule of faith and practice and the Westminster Confession as the basic confessional standard of their church, the propounders of the Confession of 1967 are clearly at odds. In this displacement many Presbyterian laymen see the ultimate destruction and loss of their church. We think they are right.

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Beware That Smile

Having recently visited Hungary, the wife of a theological seminary professor who fled that country two decades ago says, “The ruthless Communists have been replaced by the smiling Communists and they are more dangerous.” This is especially true in connection with religious activities.

Our informants report that the Communist regime makes certain that the leadership of Christian organizations comprises only those persons who are preferred by the government and who will reflect the party line and carry out state objectives. Whenever a minister exhibits undue enthusiasm for evangelism, or otherwise makes himself persona non grata with the state, he is subject to discipline and censure at the hands of those whose appointment to ecclesiastical office ensures their being agents of the state.

Popular ministers of large churches in cities like Budapest have been “reassigned” to out-of-the-way country parishes where their influence is negligible. If they refuse to accept reassignment, they are forbidden to preach. All of this takes place under the new face of smiling Communists who welcome visitors with friendly handshakes. The new congeniality masks a continued implacable opposition to Jesus Christ and his Church. Communism still regards Christianity as its greatest enemy.

Nothing Can Hold It Back

If Martin Luther were alive today would he remain within the Roman Catholic Church? Lutheran Otto Dibelius, Evangelical Bishop of Berlin, recently asserted he would. It is futile to argue whether such a judgment is correct, but Dibelius’s observation does point up how much the religious climate of the Roman church has changed for the better.

The new attention given the Bible in both the studies and the worship of Roman Catholics has without doubt contributed much to this improvement. This holds promise for the future, for the Word of God is able to break through the greatest human error and the oldest congealed traditions of men. The Word that calls men from the dead, and that will one day remake the whole heaven and earth, is able to do exceedingly more within the churches than we usually dare to imagine. And this is true of any church, for the Word of God is always stronger than any traditions of men. After all, Luther himself was once a Roman Catholic, and he became what he did through the Word. And did not the first Christmas occur and the Word become flesh at the lowest point of Israel’s history—when she was in her worst estate and spirtiually bankrupt?

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Demise Of The ‘Steady State’ Theory

One of the most serious differences between current scientific theory and Genesis came closer to resolution last month when Professor Fred Hoyle, Britain’s foremost astronomer, acknowledged that he had probably been wrong for twenty years about the nature of the universe and publicly abandoned his “steady state” theory.

Cosmogonists for a generation have been split into two camps. Hoyle and his followers have held that new matter is being produced continuously out of energy and that this newly produced matter migrates from that already existing in such a fashion that the universe has always been expanding. The oldest matter, being farthest from the center of the universe, lies beyond man’s observation. Newer matter is constantly rushing through space and passing over the horizon of our most powerful instruments. This theory with its implicit materialism has been completely at variance with the Genesis account of creation, because it postulates an eternally constant universe—one that never had a beginning.

More congenial to the Christian world view has been the “superdense state” or “big bang” theory of Hoyle’s antagonists, who argue that the universe began at a discrete point in time and space with a single cataclysmically explosive event. This alternative is attractive to Christians, because of essential elements of the Genesis record—an “earth … without form and void” followed by transcendent creative events. It is also attractive to scientists because of the way it explains the expanding universe without doing violence to physical law.

Evidence from newly discovered quasi-stellar radio sources and other data indicating that the universe was once more dense than now have been overwhelmingly against “steady state.” But Hoyle, writing in the prestigious British scientific journal Nature, does not accept the “superdense state” theory either. He now believes that the universe is in a state of flux, alternately expanding and contracting in cycles that span billions of years.

Perhaps the word “believes” should be emphasized, for the new theory is far from firmly established. The “oscillating universe” theory of cosmogony will be as difficult to substantiate scientifically as purely mechanistic organic evolution and will likely lead to a similar philosophical stand-off.

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Those who ruled God out of cosmogony found more comfort in “steady state” than either “big bang” or “oscillating universe” affords. That comfort is now denied them. No longer can they hold a theory that postulates a self-contained, self-perpetuating universe. “The heavens [still] declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth his handiwork.”

Equal Protection Under The Law

Law Enforcement, the report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, issued in November, raises thought-provoking questions. With its basic premise that the law must be enforced with the constitutional rights of all citizens guaranteed, Americans must agree. The report documents the failure of local law enforcement officials in some Southern communities to adhere to their oath of office to support the federal Constitution and their consequent failure to prevent or punish acts of racial violence against Negroes and some of their white supporters.

The remedies proposed by the commission are far-reaching and raise constitutional questions of states’ rights and federal interference with such rights. The report recognizes that “in some southern communities, where local citizens have insisted upon fair and effective law enforcement, violence has been averted and the integrity of the process of law maintained” and that “the number of these communities has increased as public officials and leading citizens have recognized the dangers that unchecked violence and corruption in the administration of justice pose to the community as a whole.” Nevertheless, the commission presses for extension of federal criminal remedies, civil remedies, and executive action that will ensure equal protection of all citizens in the exercise of their constitutional rights.

It should be noted that the United States Commission on Civil Rights has advisory committees in all fifty states. This is as it should be. Denial of civil rights is not confined to the South, and there are certainly situations in the North that also demand attention.

The abuses documented in the commission’s report necessitate some kind of remedy, if respect for law is to be maintained. Beyond the question of what is to be done about the commission’s recommendations lies the more basic consideration of personal accountability to the God who calls men to love their neighbors and to “be subject unto the higher powers.”

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Let’S Not Write Off The Professors

Evangelicals are not above falling into careless generalizations. Sometimes we hear them say, “University professors are a collection of atheists and agnostics.” The statement is not only untrue; it is also unjust.

As every committed Christian professor on a secular campus knows, practically all universities have their remnants who are holding fast to the historic Christian faith. They include persons distinguished in the sciences, in the humanities, in the professional schools, and in administration.

The thoughts teachers think and the philosophies they reflect have a profound influence upon students who in turn will influence society. Whoever wants to reach a nation must reach its students. Many a Christian student has indeed lost his faith on a secular campus because of the destructive teaching of non-Christian faculty (and, if the truth be told, others have become spiritual casualties through the teaching of unbelieving professors at some denominational colleges).

But the coin has another side. Many students have come to Christ because of the influence of believing professors on secular campuses. With this in mind, Dr. John Alexander, general director of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and former chairman of the geography department at the University of Wisconsin, has said, “I am disturbed by the vast number of Christians—both clergy and laymen—who condemn university professors but never pray for them.” And very pertinently he asks why many in the body of Christ seem to have “written off as hopeless this most strategic segment of our society.” One layman in Seattle admitted, “I’ve lived all these years in Seattle and never once prayed for the faculty at the University of Washington.”

Readers of CHRISTIANITY TODAY represent a powerful reservoir of prayer-potential. They may well pray for the faculties of the universities in their states and for the campus witness of such agencies as Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship.

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