In the propagation of the Gospel, evangelicalism has no equal. Its influence has reached to the uttermost parts of the earth. And within the Church, where at times it has been misunderstood and even persecuted, its impact has been momentous. W. E. H. Lecky said that evangelicals “gradually changed the whole spirit of the English Church. They infused into it a new fire and passion of devotion, kindled a spirit of fervent philanthropy, raised the standard of clerical duty, and completely altered the whole tone and tendency of the preaching of its ministers” (History of England in the Eighteenth Century, Vol. II, p. 627).

This high praise is based on facts. In the social life of the country the influence of evangelicalism has been just as great. It was chiefly responsible for producing the self-control, the sobriety, the ethical outlook that made possible the unparalleled series of social reforms in the nineteenth century. Evangelicalism has frequently been accused of being a modern, private, arbitrary, and unscriptural system, but such accusations are far from the truth. Evangelicalism rightly claims, now just as it has in the past, to be the Christianity of Christ and of his apostles. The truths for which it stands, the moral principles which it upholds, and the vision which is possesses—these all are rooted deep in scriptural authority.

Few will deny that one of the weaknesses of evangelicalism lies in its divisions, though it is possible to place too much emphasis upon these inasmuch as there has always been an underlying unity of primary and essential doctrines. These divisions have been used as a weapon against evangelicalism by its enemies. Over a hundred years ago John Cardinal Newman accused evangelicalism of “lacking union, permanency and consistency.” He asserted that “it spells religious individualism and atomism, and cannot really state its views upon any religious doctrine.” He maintained that “the history of Protestantism since the Reformation is clear proof that the tendency to break up into sects is characteristic of its system” (British Circles, April, 1839).

It is not my purpose to point out the difference between ecumenism and evangelicalism, though there is a difference. But it is necessary for our minds to be clear on what individualism and external authority really mean, for these are issues to be faced in ecumenity. It is not necessary to deny that individualism is one of the characteristics of evangelicalism. Indeed, one thanks God for it. Paul, who did not deny the unity of the Church, could say of Christ, “He loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). For Paul, it was the individual Christian, as well as the Church, who was the object of God’s love. This is a divine truth that must be maintained in this world of mass movements swayed by mass psychological methods.

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The same must be said of the right of private judgment. When the Reformers were forced to choose between this and the control of external authority over the conscience, they rightly chose the former on the grounds that it had scriptural authority. Eventually, in the Roman church, Newman was compelled to accept the infallibility of the pope, which is infinitely worse than the individualism of evangelicals. Totalitarianism, whether political or ecclesiastical, is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and is a far greater danger than individualism could ever be. Institutional and corporate union under the final authority of one can spread error and evil much more quickly and widely than any form of individualism. Human infallibility always has been and always will be a far greater menace. There have been times when evangelicals have shown the practical side of the corporate life of the Church far better than many who sought to uphold this tenet. M. W. Patterson rightly said: “The religion of the evangelicals was theoretically individualistic and little stress was laid on the corporate life of the Church, but their practical works of piety and their love shown for the brethren would rightly put to shame many … who in modern times talk of the Church’s corporate life” (A History of the Church of England, p. 396).

Yet there is “the tendency to break up into sects,” and the time has come for evangelicals to put their house in order by a real endeavor to heal their divisions. A cliché of the ecumenical movement is that one of the great hindrances to the spread of the Christian message is division in the Christian ranks. Evangelicals should take this to heart in the present ecumenical atmosphere, while at the same time examining the cliche in the light of those churches which to an extent have experienced corporate union. But even if such an examination proves the effectiveness of a united church to be a figment of the imagination, the words of our Lord are plain enough: “That they all may be one … that the world may believe that thou hast sent me” (John 17:21).

Some of our divisions have been caused by non-essentials. On matters of secondary importance a large liberty must be recognized, but these matters ought no longer to be allowed to keep apart those who are in full agreement on essentials.

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Was Newman right in accusing evangelicalism of not being able to state its views on any religious doctrine? Unfortunately, there have been times when individual evangelicals have so much stressed certain nonessentials that the impression of disunity and lack of precision has been given. Yet there is an underlying unity of doctrine that evangelicals have always believed.

For ‘Counsel And Comfort’

The ecumenical movement is not a product of postwar Christianity, though the events of that time have quickened the desire for reunion. Almost one hundred years ago, Archbishop Longley called the first Lambeth Conference. A good deal of anxiety arose in the minds of many people, and to calm these doubts Dr. Longley put forward this statement: “It should be distinctly understood that, at this meeting, no declaration of faith shall be made, and no decision come to, which will affect generally the interests of the Church, but that we shall meet generally for brotherly counsel and comfort” (The Five Lambeth Conferences, pp. 4, 5). These principles were soon widened, and in 1878 the members of the second Lambeth Conference began to look beyond their own borders to discuss the Anglican position in the light of other churches. They were only putting into practice what was the desire of many Christians, that a closer union with the various churches should take place. Ten years later, at the third Lambeth Conference, reunion with the free churches was boldly discussed. This little rivulet of thought on reunion has developed into a mighty tide sweeping through the whole Church on earth.

World politics in the shape of totalitarianism, materialism, and nationalism has been the great stimulus of the ecumenical movement in recent years. In some parts of the world the Church is fighting for its very existence. Where totalitarianism has gained control, the churches within its borders have been adversely affected. The Roman Catholic Church in Europe has consequently suffered tremendously. In some countries, governments not altogether sympathetic toward those holding the Christian faith have compelled Christians not only to draw closer together but also to seek the fellowship and support of Christians outside.

Synthesis: The Great Theme

In this atmosphere created by world politics, it is not surprising to find that theological distinctions have become blurred. The emphasis is no longer upon differences but rather upon points of agreement. Theological synthesis has become the great theme, the solution of many of our doctrinal differences. “No church,” we are told, “has all the truth, but only a fragment. Only by joining together the various fragments can one conceive the original pattern.” This seems plausible enough, but it is far too easy a solution. For one thing, the differences that separate the various churches are not always unimportant. The controversy between justification by faith alone and justification by faith plus works cuts very deep. So also does the controversy between the sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrament of Holy Communion. A true unity is not to be reached by refusing to face essential differences.

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How does evangelicalism fit into this atmosphere? One would have thought the answer obvious, but recent actions, statements, and publications give the impression that the long projecting shadow of ecumenicity has sometimes darkened evangelical vision and spiritual acumen. Some leaders have become so absorbed in the ecumenical movement that they are no longer able to see clearly the issues at stake or judge correctly the doctrinal hazards. They have become intoxicated with the great idea of one visible and united church and fail to realize that any such idea must be limited by truth and balanced by the conditions laid down in Holy Scripture.

How far can evangelicals travel along this pathway toward corporate union? The answer is, As far as the New Testament allows. Convenient policy and human sentiment must never override scriptural truth and divine principle. The Reformers intensely desired unity but only a unity based on Holy Scripture. Any unity not based upon truth can never be a unity of the Spirit of God. Indeed, one can go further and say that there is already in existence a unity of the Spirit based upon divine truth, and in this Christ’s prayer finds its answer. Whether this can be translated into a visible, corporate unity is a question that must be answered by the Church of Christ under the leadership of the Holy Spirit and under the control of Holy Scripture. One thing is certain, however. Corporate unity is not a necessity, and one may well doubt whether it has ever existed. “There never was an epoch,” said Bishop Westcott, “since the Church spread beyond Jerusalem when the ‘one body of Christ’ was one in visible uniformity, or even one in perfect sympathy.”

T. Leo Brannon is pastor of the First Methodist Church of Samson, Alabama. He received the B.S. degree from Troy State College and the B.D. from Emory University.

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