An ecclesiastical vanguard is promoting the conformity of theological education

A nationwide survey of ecumenical pressures in Protestant theological seminaries would prove very enlightening. Such pressures are perhaps inevitable, since nothing is more persistent and ingenious than organized religious zeal. But they are not always understood. All church members ought to be concerned about proposals for a world church—what it will be and do, and how it will arrive at its ability to be and do.

The World Council of Churches, organized in Amsterdam in 1948, has tended to be somewhat of a religious conference, a parliament for the exchange of views of varied “faiths.” Out of it have come a great number of books setting forth diverse viewpoints, many of which have not affected the practical, everyday policies of the denominations.

But now it appears that, under the urgency of time, the ecumenical leaders must dramatically move beyond theory to practice. The denominations are being importuned and, as fully as possible, prepared for another development. The desire for church union now seems so strong that organic pressures are unavoidable.

This next step is to turn seminaries toward conformity. It has often been said that “something must be done about the theological seminaries.” A bibliography of the persuasive ecumenical literature aimed at the creative minds in seminaries would be impressive. While this literature has not yet standardized thinking, its aim is obvious. It is clearly pressure-writing for church union.

Such literature makes the point that the work of turning denominational Christianity to the purposes of union must primarily be done at the seminary level. Preachers, teachers, and denominational officers are mainly the products of the seminaries. Thus there will be no grass-roots ecumenicity unless theological students are first of all indoctrinated in what is projected as “the ideal pattern of the church.”

Such a revolution calls for a clear look at what this all means. Surely the development of interdenominational discussions has benefited all participating churches. This kind of fellowship and exchange of views is instructive, often corrective, and mutually edifying, and it aids Christian strategy. Today there is less and less competition between denominations, and one reason for this is the growth of understanding. Another, however, is the decline in the number of concerned believers. For many generations, churches that had split could continue to grow in spite of competition. Today a church split usually is a preparation for death or for fragmentary futility. Christians are discovering that honest discussion is likely to improve relations.

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Most church members are so ready to ponder the general idealism of ecumenism, which contains much that is sensible, that they hesitate to express their misgivings. But salvation has come to most believers in the particular churches to which they and their families, as well as their forebears, have been loyal. To be told by ecumenists that denominationalism is a “sin” and a “scandal” grates against this loyalty. They have proved their Christian love by uniting in great efforts for the propagation of the Gospel, such as the Billy Graham crusades and earlier evangelistic efforts. They have mutually promoted missions at home and abroad. This extensive cooperation existed before the current ecumenical drive got under way and has been increasing over many decades. And in social service as well, nearly all churches are now willing to pool their ministries for community and special humanitarian causes.

Diversity in the ecclesiastical body is as certain as it is in the human body. The case against the different denominations has never yet been proved and cannot be proved unless the Holy Spirit is ignored. The human body is governed by its head. The Scriptures declare of Christ that God “hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22, 23). Certainly this refutes the idea of a human head, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant. History shows that having a human head leads to a hierarchy, a vast concentration of national and international power, the amassing of great wealth, expediency in politics, privileged statecraft with legal power, and control of the conscience.

This is not to say that ecumenical pressures are presently sympathetic toward such overlordship. The aim is gentler, more sentimental, even ethical in design and purpose. One’s imagination is stretched to the limit by the vision facing us. It is said to be a “united Protestantism.” The logical end, however, is previsioned in the progress made in ecumenism up to now. Its foundation is a minimal statement of belief, which is an indication that we are beginning to die from our center to our extremities. Its development is organic, with a united Christendom in view. All such ecclesiastical programs assemble under a dominant council. The fluidity of free Christianity is moving toward a disciplined order for the sake of solidarity.

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I have no doubt that the above view will be challenged. Yet there is a process in these developments which those caught in them do not understand, because they are not wholly aware of what is taking place. In time the full implications will open like a rose in summer, and we shall be invited to behold their desirability.

Do we want it this way? World ecclesiastical politics do not primarily arise from the desire of the churches; they are rather handed down as directives from officers and “empowered” boards. This is how goals in ecumenical union present themselves. Surely, if we dare not debate a principle, we must at least discuss its method. Moreover, we must study innovations in the light of our basic beliefs, which are our stay and power.

An Illustration Of A Trend

Not having the results of a survey to draw upon, I must use as evidence the drift in my own denomination, the American Baptist Convention. As one of those responsible for agitation to revive the study of biblical theology in the convention’s churches, which resulted in the organization of a theological consultation at the denomination’s assembly at Green Lake, Wisconsin, I have had opportunity to observe this drift at first hand. The service of the consultation to the life of the churches has steadily diminished, and it has turned toward untenable theological concepts. These concepts increasingly tend toward ecumenical adjustments and the dilution of Baptist distinctives. The American Baptist Convention Theological Division has become part of the policy-making body of the Board of Education and Publication. To some undefined extent it has become the board’s voice.

On September 21, 1965, the Board of Education, through its Theological Education Division, issued a proposed statement of policy. This omnibus statement emphasizes ecumenics as a fixed responsibility. The document declares in its first point:

It shall be the policy of the Board of Education and Publication to encourage the American Baptist seminaries to provide theological education in a broad ecumenical perspective geared to prepare students for church leadership for both the American Baptist Convention and for the total (ecumenical) Christian body.

The obvious assumption is that the major theological concern of the board is the type of theology students and faculties in the seminaries shall embrace. Such seminary conscription has never before been attempted. Of all denominational seminaries, those in the American Baptist Convention are the most autonomous. Never before have they had to heed instructions from outside their own faculties, administrations, and boards.

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In part 5 of this statement, the board boldly seeks “a rapid consolidation of Protestant theological education” in the “respective geographical areas … with a possible merging with other seminaries (Baptist and otherwise),” not ruling out “possible consolidation involving seminaries outside the respective areas.…” Denominational dilution is to be further enhanced by the “presence of non-Baptists in the student body, on the faculty, on the Board of Trustees, or in administration …” (part 6).

The inducement for the seminaries to follow the directive is a promise by the board “to seek substantial support for American Baptist theological seminaries.” Now, it is important to observe that such “financial support” will be given those seminaries “which meet the criteria of the Board of Education and Publication”; those that do not capitulate, it seems, will not participate in this “financial support.”

It should be further observed that until now the seminaries have survived by their own endowments and by gifts from persons and churches in fellowship with them. This system would be exchanged for a religious cartel whose concern would be profit and loss. The statement goes on to say that “without consolidation American Baptists will be helpless in developing the quality of program required, due to the spiraling costs.” By implication this is hardly a flattering statement about the kind of graduates produced over the years and now being produced by seminaries that sacrificially survived the Great Depression.

The “September 21” document, as it is called, also suggests that in this pursuit for total Protestant theological education, large sums intended for seminaries and other contributions as well should be channeled “through the American Baptist Mission Budget to the national agency for this purpose.” This is manifestly an invitation to institutional financial control.

One would think that a denomination such as the American Baptist Convention, whose adventurous policies in the past have resulted in the loss of several historic universities and some colleges and the alienation of hundreds (some estimate the number as high as 2,000) of churches, would avoid controversial experiments that might cause further schism. The nature of the convention’s constituent churches and their members—that is, their freedom as expressed in their historic forms and institutional achievements—is surely worthy of being safeguarded.

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Many of these churches do not look upon their convention as an organic church. To them it is a voluntary cooperative fellowship. When the convention was organized in 1907–10, the committee on constitution and bylaws assured the churches that it had so prepared the bylaws that the convention could never assume power over the churches or be anything more than an agency of their cooperation. This great ideal has not survived the various pressures directed against it. The result has been a contradictory mixture of sentiment and political control.

How then is it possible for a convention that is not a church, and that has no legal power to bind its cooperating churches, to presume to assign the loyalty, faith, and even property of these churches to another allegiance? The answer is clear—by pressures. These need be neither violent nor dictatorial. Repetition, rationalization, and a poor memory for Baptist distinctives will suffice to wear down opposition. Thus essentials can be bypassed. Many a good cause has been talked to death. Many an error has attained power by rhetoric.

The strength of the Baptists rests in the autonomy of their churches. Imperfect though their practices may be, they nevertheless witness that they exist under the Lordship of Christ as Head of each church, and they look to the Spirit of God to give life to the members. To preserve this simple and profound faith, they have adopted local church autonomy as the best means of retaining freedom to believe as the Scriptures by the Spirit instruct them. Their fellowship is based on the distinctive that their “churches are of like faith and order.”

Union Or Unity

In an explanatory as well as hortatory article in Crusader (October, 1965), organ of the American Baptist Convention, Dr. Edwin H. Tuller, general secretary, reminds the churches that there is a difference between “union” and “unity.” There is indeed, as we shall see.

Union, as now sought by ecclesiastically minded churchmen, presently and ultimately involves an organic system, controls, disciplines, and legalities. In fact, organic union becomes an absorption, a taking-in for holding purposes, whether of memberships or of properties. Of course, such arrangements can be made on generous considerations. It may be argued that all uniting together gain one another, and in a sense that may be true. But something is lost in the gaining. And what is lost is the very thing that made for life and witness and the glory of God in Christian fellowship. Organic union is, for Baptist churches, the end of what they have stood for. When Baptists concede or blur their distinctives, they no longer remain Baptists, except in name. And they may not retain even that. There is the danger that such concessions may be made at the expense of the evangelical Gospel that made the churches possible.

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The Blake-Pike plan of church union, which Baptists are being importuned to study with favor, is a remarkable device that can be considered only an item of religious curiosity. So far as the Episcopalians are concerned, it will never go beyond the point to which the Lambeth Conference has already decided to go; and as for the Presbyterians, how can the heirs of the Reformation yield their historic and distinctive claims to represent the church?

In the absence of clear definitions of “union” and “unity,” the ecumenical movement cannot avoid the appearance of indirection and spiritual uncertainty. And such fogginess can be a serious matter for churches whose purposes are obscured by it. Indeed, many liberals are engaged in throwing over precious cargo, and even in lightening the ship of its fuel.

Meanwhile evangelism languishes. The trend is to “explore” what evangelism is, rather than to proclaim the Gospel the world most needs—as if the Gospel, which is the lifeblood of the churches, the only means of their growth and strength, needed to be transformed into something Christ has not required of the Church! How can the Church act in the name of a toleration that has no fixed truth as its source?

We may, therefore, be at the parting of the ways and in a crisis of the Spirit that involves the whole future of the Church. What we do may imperil the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ that the world most needs. Unless the present confusion is dispelled, the Church’s mission, both domestic and foreign, may dwindle. When the New Testament Christ is reduced to a pawn on a board, the churches lose the victory.

Since New Testament times Christianity has had successive crises whose resolution affected the future. The Church’s safety and aggressiveness have depended on the unity of the Holy Spirit and on the sound doctrine he has planted and blessed through the years. The Church is a “unity” rather than a “union,” a growing organism rather than a self-empowering organization. In the faith of the apostles, there is always the inspiring vision of the evangelization of the world.

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The Church is Spirit-created, Spirit-sustained, Spirit-endued, Spirit-regenerating, and Spirit-maturing. Its power derives from its Gospel, not from its organization. The authority of the Church resides not in its canonical offices but in its Head through the Spirit. The foundation of the Church is its Christ and the Gospel of his atoning death on the cross and his resurrection from the dead.

There are three strong contenders for supremacy in the Church: Christ, Man, and Satan. The towering majesty and glory of Christ assures the freedom of the souls of the redeemed from the designs either of Man or of Satan. In every situation involving faith, freedom, salvation, and the Spirit in which the destiny of the Church and redemption of a lost world are at issue, we need to know who is in the saddle.

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