The late Archbishop William Temple described the church unity movement as the twentieth century’s most significant development. Conversations have advanced so swiftly that many ecclesiastical leaders now speak of “the ecumenical age.”

Yet the fact cannot be gainsaid that the Christian world remains woefully divided. The ecumenical movement, crystallized in the National Council and World Council of Churches, has achieved spectacular growth; it has stimulated the rise of competitive structures and given ecumenical impetus as well to Roman Catholicism and even to non-Christian faiths. Ecumenism seems prone to become a monolithic movement with new centers of ecclesiastical power and vast potential for propaganda.

There are some signs, however, that ecumenical momentum is slowing, and that new stresses and strains are developing. The ability of ecumenical leaders to command the attention of mass communications media—television, radio, and the press—has created apprehension that a select group of influential leaders is able almost automatically to translate its own desires into history. But the stalemate of the Blake-Pike plan, the comparative ineffectualness of the Montreal Faith and Order Conference, and the limited achievement of Vatican Council II contribute to a more sober view.

The fact remains that basic divisions vex Christendom. Although the ecumenical vision has been most ardently promoted by American Protestants, taken as a whole they seem distrustful of the implications of this vision. What the substance of unity is and what forms it ought to take are still subjects of lively debate. Divergent theories of Christian unity are reflected by the National Council of Churches, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the American Council of Christian Churches. Major denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod hold themselves at a comfortable distance even from these ecumenical manifestations. The statistics of American Protestant proliferation tend to be a thorn in the side of ecumenical propagandists (see page 5, “Non-Aligned Religious Bodies”).

CHRISTIANITY TODAY has invited a number of informed churchmen to write essays appraising rival ecumenical structures in contemporary Protestantism, and to place this evaluation in evangelical perspective. Readers will be interested in the assessment of specific movements by churchmen from various traditions who rise above house-organ enthusiasm and venture into constructive criticism. Supplementary essays focus the searchlight of concern on tensions that the ecumenical movement, as a theologically inclusive enterprise, poses for evangelical conscience, thought, and action. The growing conflict between denominational and ecumenical loyalties, the dilution of doctrinal distinctives below the level of conscientious acquiescence, the tendency of a few strong personalities to shape the direction of ecumenical procedures, the disposition of powerful leaders to issue debatable political pronouncements in the name of the entire ecumenical constituency—these are among the factors that have provoked dissent.

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The unpredictable character of the ecumenical movement is reflected in its changing moods. A generation ago denominationalism was much more widely accepted than now. Today denominationalism is downgraded and ecumenism exalted. Since the publication of Church Unity and Church Mission by Martin E. Marty, associate editor of the ecumenical weekly, The Christian Century, the issue of “ecclesiastical Machiavellianism” has emerged into widening discussion. Ministers who have taken denominational ordination vows are increasingly faced with the question of personal honesty and integrity as they participate in a movement that explicitly condemns denominations and aims at their merger into the ecumenical church. Applying the borrowed phrase “sociological Machiavellianism,” Dr. Marty counsels a procedure that would actually promote “the ultimate death and transfiguration of these forms” while patiently “living in denominations and being faithful to their disciplines” (pp. 124 ff.).

In the days of the liberal-fundamentalist controversy, evangelicals urged liberals to conform conscientiously to the historic standards of their church; in the ecumenical era, liberals like Marty, who says he is speaking dramatically, urge ecumenists to work consciously for the “death and transfiguration” of their denominations. A generation ago the liberals charged evangelicals with being denominationally disloyal and disruptive because the conservatives held that liberalism had no legitimate rights within the Church; today ecumenists deplore “denominational hacks” who esteem the churches in which they have been ordained above the World Council of Churches. Historically the ecumenical movement came into being through the missionary arm of the denominations; the latest move is to merge denominational identity in church union.

Some will say such comment aims to vindicate the status quo and lacks zeal for Christian unity. But this objection evades the real issues. Discerning readers will recognize and quickly reject the attempt to reduce all bold criticism of ecumenical enterprises to obscurantism. Let it be plainly said that the Church of Jesus Christ needs renewal and healing of her divisions. The unity of Christian believers is highly imperative. But to speak of “believers” is to raise questions of truth and sound doctrine. Unity is indeed part of that truth; but Christian truth has other aspects than unity. The unity Christ seeks cannot be achieved simply by ecclesiastical maneuvering or by ignoring the basic question of doctrinal purity. Along with considerable ecumenical research into the nature of the Church, there has been a rather wide disregard of what she ought to believe and of what she must preach.

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Christendom remains today a broken household of competing congregations and parishes, communions and denominations and sects, federations and councils. Despite the results of the ecumenical movement, those who read history rather than fiction must speak of this continuing disunity of the Christian churches, and even of “struggles and enmities” within Christendom.

Is it wholly improper to ask whether Christendom thus fragmented has perhaps come under the lash of divine judgment? And also to ask whether that judgment might be upon much that the institutional church approves and perhaps even cherishes? Are ecumenical methods and theological inclusivism immune from all such judgment? Is the Spirit of God now saying something to—and not simply through—the ecumenical movement? Is it not time to ask whether the unity of the Church is really or ideally promoted by mergers of denominations into larger bodies compounding the once-isolated afflictions of their members?—ED.

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