When Martin Luther broke with the Roman church his breaking point found expression in these famous words: “God help me. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.” Yet he soon learned what was to be his own special problem—that no man can be a Christian and remain alone. There is no such thing as a one-man church, for it is not possible to be a member of a “body” without all the other members. Luther therefore discovered, as we all must, that in order to unite with someone else one must give up something of himself.

Imagine yourself at one end of a long straight line. You are walking this line in the direction of uniting spiritually with other people on the basis of theology or sound doctrine. Let us suppose that you are well adjusted to the congregation to which you belong. Your church in turn belongs to some division—presbytery, classis, conference, diocese—of a denomination. And for this denomination there is a confession or a statement of faith and probably also a catechism. To join the church you have made certain professions, as have the leaders of the church, and these professions are subsumed under the accepted body of doctrine.

Now the farther you move along that line and the larger the group with which you unite, the more absolute is the necessity of laying aside here and there and one by one certain of your own beliefs in order to be part of the whole. Depending on your theological sensitivity and the niceties of expression at the various points on which you agree to “go along,” you will necessarily reach some point where you dig in your heels and say, “This is as far as I can go.” So you finally take your position somewhere along that line, and this by definition is the “kind of Christian” you have decided to be. You are thereby discovering the twin principles of purity versus peace or individualism versus communion, which may be scripturally expressed as “Come out from among them and be ye separate” versus “Let both grow until the harvest,” when God will do the judging.

Councils are made up of denominations that agree to lay aside some of their differentiae in order to satisfy the longing for unity in the Body of Christ. In First Corinthians Paul asks, “Is Christ divided?” Calvin answered that rhetorical question by saying, “Christ is divided who bleeds.” No Christian worthy of the name can be satisfied that the Body of Christ is divided, especially when the division is put in Calvin’s terms, “who bleeds.” The direction of every Christian and every denomination should be toward the healing of the divided Body.

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How Much To Lay Aside

Imagine now another line along which denominations move. Some will go no farther along this line than the American Council of Christian Churches. Others stop with the National Association of Evangelicals. Most denominations find their resting place in the National Council of Churches and in the World Council of Churches. We cannot rightly criticize any of these stopping places unless we see that the problem of denominations is exactly the problem of the individual Christian. How much of the individualism of your denomination can be laid aside for the sake of the larger unity? Even the strictest council holding the closest definition of, for example, the inspiration of the Scriptures has to “sit loose” on such subjects as baptism or the Second Coming. The plain fact is that no one unites with anyone or anything without deciding that some things must be laid aside for the sake of this unity.

The National Council of Churches grew out of the old Federal Council of Churches and was formally organized in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1950. The chief officer of each church at that time, speaking on his church’s behalf, declared: “In the providence of God the time has come when it seems fitting more fully to manifest oneness in Jesus Christ as the Divine Lord and Saviour, by the creation of an inclusive cooperative agency of the Christian churches of the United States of America to continue and extend the following general agencies of the church and to combine all their interests and functions.” (There followed a list of eight agencies, which have now become thirteen.) Thirty-one churches united on this basis. It was said then and is repeated constantly in publications of the council (1963 Triennial Report, for example, page 41) that “the council is not a church or a super-church.… It is the medium through which [members] voice their common aspirations and convictions, coordinate their program interests and activities, and delegate responsibility in areas where they wish to conduct united projects.” A list of the agencies and their activities would be almost endless; we need to know only that there are many, many ways in which the various churches may attempt to work together nationally and locally on “united projects.” The organization has proliferated after the manner of Parkinson’s Law.

The strength and influence of the NCC overshadows that of any other cooperative religious agency in the United States. With thirty-one denominations, forty-one million church members, one hundred and forty-four thousand churches, and one hundred and ten thousand clergymen it is of gigantic proportions, and its voice is bound to be listened to by all segments of the American people. It is neither as good as its fondest champions think it to be, nor as bad as its worst critics claim. Its power may be noted by both the affirmative response of its adherents to its pronouncements and the reaction it generates from those who oppose it. The NCC has boldly moved into areas where angels fear to tread. It has made enemies for itself by its pronouncements. And large and significant as it is, it has proved sensitive to the criticisms directed against it and has engaged in promotional programs to demonstrate what is good about its activities. That it is here, that it is here to stay, and that it will continue its efforts to mold economic, social, and political as well as religious aspects of American life, few will doubt.

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On The World Scene

The World Council of Churches is likewise a council of churches and not a council of church councils. As the name implies, it attempts on the world scene what the National Council of Churches attempts on the national scene. Its problems are much more complex than those of the NCC because of languages and cultures and because of the many other ecumenical organizations with which it must in some fashion cooperate. The WCC is made up of 200 churches of the Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, and Old Catholic confessions, from more than eighty countries. It began in August, 1948, with an assembly in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and has since had assemblies in Evanston, Illinois (1954), and in New Delhi, India (1961). At the New Delhi assembly the delegates affirmed that “in some things our convictions do not yet permit us to act together, but we have made progress in giving content to the unity we seek.”

The membership basis of the WCC is similar to that of the NCC, although somewhat more sophisticated theologically. “The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches which confess the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The World Council also insists that it is not a “super church,” because it cannot legislate for its members nor act for them unless specifically requested to do so. Rather, it is a means for churches to fulfill their common calling in service and in witness to the Lordship of Christ, to carry on serious dialogue about their differences, to seek unity, and to join in meeting human need. The ways in which these things are done are diverse and complex. One feature of the ecumenical movement, and a good one, has been a series of study conferences that began in Edinburgh in 1910 and have continued with admirable scholarship to the present.

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Some Trouble Spots

A comprehensive critique of movements so majestic in purpose and amorphous in content as these councils is beyond the limits of this article. Yet I should like briefly to point out a few places at which I am constantly disturbed. (Doubtless those in high places in both councils who think seriously about the nature and content of the movements are well aware of these problems.)

Both the WCC and the NCC touch rather gingerly on the whole field of theology, because, as we have already pointed out, to unite at all involves a move towards the least common denominator. But even in their carefulness to be brief the councils have to open the door upon theology. Thus they are by necessity moving toward particularity and are opening the door upon more theology than they care to admit. The NCC speaks about Jesus Christ as “Lord and Saviour.” The WCC confesses Jesus Christ as “God and Saviour” and talks about him “according to the Scriptures”; the aim of its members is to “fulfill together their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

But to speak of Jesus is to speak of his humanity, while to speak of Christ is to open up his deity. And to speak of both demands some kind of treatment of the nature of Christ. Yet this can be divisive. Furthermore, if Christ is to be spoken of as “the Saviour,” we have already moved into questions of sin in both man and society and are thus on the verge of the demonic, whatever that includes. Moreover, we are forced into some view of the Atonement. However loosely or stringently we wish to express their significance, the words “according to the Scriptures” have all kinds of implications in the day of Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann—not to speak of John Robinson.

It is my impression that the councils deal with these ideas quite seriously. But the impression will not down that they are dealt with in the liberal rather than in the conservative or orthodox direction. To be sure, it is easy to judge “liberal” as being to the left of one’s own position and “conservative” as being to the right. Thus such a judgment can be highly subjective, although in all candor it can hardly be denied. The possible consequences of the ideas of “common calling” and “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are infinite. So the very theological basis of unity, which is quite inescapable, forces thought back toward a particular theology, and a particular theology is inherently divisive.

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As James pointed out in the second chapter of his epistle, we show our faith by our works. A second cause for concern, therefore, is that, in spite of the constant disclaimer that neither the NCC nor the WCC is to be thought of as a “super church,” certain realities remain. If the councils act at all, they can act only on the basis of some body of belief expressed or implied. This is reflected in their social programs. It is also reflected constantly in their public statements and in their almost limitless publications. Now it is quite true that neither council plans to legislate for its members nor to act unless specifically requested to do so. But the plain fact is that they cannot help themselves, for to live is to act, and action is always based upon some body of belief expressed or implied. Whether we want to or not, we do “walk by faith.” This means that the NCC and the WCC are affecting the total life of the total Church in their own way according to the slant of their own “simple” theology.

Many other “non-theological” factors constantly and unavoidably show themselves. It is fair to say that both councils are socially “liberal.” In fact, one can almost predict ahead of time what their position on a given social issue will be, even while they are meticulously deciding how to express their view. In such cases, the denial of being a “super church” seems a little thin.

Long ago Ernst Troeltsch, in his classic study The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches, pointed out that there is a “church type” and a “sect type.” There is a type of mind that is inclusive and a type that is exclusive; this may be seen in a man’s general attitude toward life rather than in his clearly expressed convictions. Some people just do not like “Wall Street”; some are naturally suspicious of bigness; some dislike complexity of organization. Others confuse theological issues with their own status in society or the amount of money they have in the bank. Still others are worried about “the critics” and what “they” are doing to the “simple faith.” Some people like liturgy all the way up to incense; others like simplicity all the way down to plain benches in old warehouses. Some are unaware that they are Pharisees, and others are proud to be publicans. So our diversities of attitude affect our enthusiasm or lack of enthusiasm for movements like the National and World Councils of Churches. We all look through colored glasses of one sort or another.

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There are also some suspicions. Do some people like the big operation because they like the jobs that go with it? Are some trying to push Protestantism into union with Roman Catholicism by blurring the differences? Are the social expressions of the councils used by certain interests to further the causes of socialism or Communism? And indeed, do all such questions as these grow out of the same old general suspicions of “the critics” or “those fellows” who are always trying to push the rank and file around? It would be naïve to believe that these non-theological factors are non-existent, however uninformed or even stupid some of them may appear.

The councils are here to stay for a long time. Inside and outside, we must be aware of their nature and of the ambiguities necessarily inherent and thus never completely resolvable. I belong to a denomination that belongs to both councils, and most days I sit easy. But some days I wonder.

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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