One of the most potent drives within Protestant Christianity in our day is the move toward union. Already there is an imposing list of major realignments—the United Church of Canada, the United Church of Christ, the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the Methodist Church, the American Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America. How many adults in North America can claim that the church in which they were baptized or confirmed has maintained its organizational identity? And the end is not yet. Almost every major Protestant group has an official committee to discuss further mergers.

All this effort may be explained on the ground that Protestants have come into a cultural and historical situation in which we must move together or be overwhelmed separately. Our division is weakness, and now is a time when Protestantism needs to be strong. We need to unite because in broad areas of the world—not least in the United States—we find ourselves confronted by a vigorous Romanism. In many countries a resurgence of ancient religions is posing a challenge not to be ignored. There is also the worldwide threat to Christian faith—and, of course, to all religion—by Communism. And what shall be said of the threat from native materialism, which creates many problems even though it is not supported by doctrine or organization?

The move for merger may be justified on the basis of scriptural witness. To Paul’s question, “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13a), there is no adequate answer save this one: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Eph. 4:4–6). Certainly to offer a divided witness to the world is to deny the revelation we have in Jesus Christ. It is hardly exaggeration to ask what Christ we want the world to accept: a Presbyterian Christ? a Baptist Christ? Even as he is one, so are we to be one. The compartmentalization of the Christian company is no answer to our Lord’s prayer recorded in John 17. Our division is untrue to the Christian Gospel. And it is more than that—it is sin.

The cry for union may be a recognition of the obvious. There may have been a time when one group did not regard the others as wholly or even partially Christian. But since World War II we have been a people on the move. As families move from one community to another, their religious affiliation may change. They may go from a Lutheran church to a Presbyterian church, then to a community church and perhaps on to an Evangelical United Brethren church. Thus there is a diminishing of their denominational loyalties. They would say that they think one church is pretty much the same as another. To continue what they might regard as an adjectival Christianity would seem to them to be little less than ridiculous. These people on the move now make up a substantial part of American churches.

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A Matter Of Emphasis

Union may also be sought on the basis of a mid-twentieth-century reading of history. The Reformation required such strong personalities as Luther and Calvin to stand up to the testing. Debates over theology and polity that were of great importance to an earlier generation are for us a matter of history. We do not see the point in getting so excited over some questions that were very largely a matter of emphasis. “After all, we’re all trying to get to the same place, and we are simply taking routes that happen to have different names on them.” Why not then resign to history the disputes of history? Our perspective should enable us to rise above fringe issues.

So the arguments run.

Both inside and outside the Church there is strong feeling that church union is the great religious advance in our day. The news media give large play to merger proposals. Denominational headquarters do not shrink from the publicity of photograph, television panel, and quotation. There are great pressures behind this drive. At one time a man was not regarded as Christian if he did not condemn dancing, card-playing, and alcohol. Now many are unwilling to call a man Christian if he is not a member of the pack crying for union. This persuasion of the need for Protestant unity is so strong that being lukewarm on this matter is thought to be like having an antipathy for home and mother. Declamations for unity always include the reservation that there is no desire to erect a monolithic structure. But beyond that, the movement rushes on apace.

The drumbeat for union has been heard so much that this theme has become a kind of first and great commandment. One may publicly express uncertainty about the authority of the Scriptures, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, and the bodily Resurrection, and yet remain in full communion in his denomination. But to raise questions about union is to ask for a sentence of exile from one’s fellowship. It is to give evidence that one is not aware of the fresh wind blowing through our theological corridors. It is to be out of step with the great forward march of Christendom. To be lukewarm here is to be a Samuel who has not heard the voice, a Saul who has not seen the light, a Moses who has not turned aside.

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The Rise Of Separatism

Curiously, the momentum for union has been accompanied by a growth of separatism within the individual denominations. There were at one time important areas of interdenominational cooperation. Week after week Sunday schools were conducted on the common basis of the International Sunday School Lesson outlines. But the last quarter of a century has seen the formulation of denominational curricula, accompanied by pressures for their use in local churches. A parish minister hears the cries, “Lo, here!” and “Lo, there!” He must parrot enthusiastically the line of mergerism, even to the point of surrendering on matters of doctrine and practice that he may regard as essential to the teaching and living of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He should not raise any questions about doctrine or polity that might embarrass the negotiating committees. But at the same time he is called upon to use only his own denominational materials. The union label in this case is the non-union label, i.e., the denominational label. He must champion merger and use only his own denominational publications in doing so.

A generation ago there was an across-the-lines youth movement. Every local parish gathered its young people under the banner of the Christian Endeavor Society. While we have been challenging Protestants in the call for union, we have been renaming our youth groups to give each its own denominational identification (designated by call letters after the current Washington example). From what was once an interdenominational youth movement we have moved to an emphasis upon denominationalism. The annual promotion of what we call “United Christian Youth” is an ersatz substitution in view of its specific identification of youth groups according to name, materials, and summer conferences.

How To ‘Get Credit’

In the past, interdenominational support was given to such movements as the Lord’s Day Alliance, the Temperance League, and the American Bible Society. But who is to deny that the emphasis now is given to the resolutions on church and society adopted in the assemblies of various Protestant groups? What a congregation does is hemmed about by the all-important consideration of “getting credit.” To “get credit” local congregations must make gifts to agencies and institutions that are officially approved by the denomination. These agencies are underscored by publications that are closely identified with the official programming of each communion and that are in effect “house organs,” with all the editorial freedom this implies.

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In our day, denominational patterns are determined largely by those of liberal theological bent. And there has been a tightening of internal lines to demand an adherence to these patterns. Use the materials. Attend the conferences and training sessions. Raise the funds. Observe the Sundays. Get the subscriptions. Fill out the reports. Maintain a good attendance record at denominational meetings. Vote affirmatively on resolutions from executive councils. Ask no questions.

With these two pressures, then—for ecumenism and for separatism—parish ministers and local congregations are working in a confusing situation. This article is not a plea for succor, nor a wail of self-pity. It is written to inquire whether in this apparent conflict these two forces might work themselves out. Most of us can live with this bi-polarity as long as we retain a sense of humor and remember that the cheek is a convenient place for the tongue. But there would be some reason for concern if these two thrusts should work themselves into some kind of combination. And where might these two lines intersect? Where can the call for union and the demand for denominational loyalty find common ground?

A link might be found in a merged Protestantism that required point-by-point obedience of its people. The demand for adherence to denominational directives, now made with ever more shrill insistence, would be translated into a demand for more exacting performance of new united headquarters directives. With our predilection for numbers, how much more significance would be attached to the word from the “leaders” if they represented a church of twenty million instead of a church of two million. Because officials would “speak for” larger numbers, a larger importance—and, if you please, a greater divine authority—would be attached to what they set forth.

Thus the two current trends might quite naturally be combined into a whole, a merged church with consequently tighter lines of authority. Perhaps we ought to take a look at what would be in the offing for this greater church which would be called upon to meet the weightier challenges of coming days.

The growth of denominational emphasis has meant a growing increase of institutionalism within individual communions. The tightening of lines clearly requires line-riders. This has meant the proliferation of offices on the national, regional, and local level—offices requiring executives, executive assistants, offices, commissions, letterheads, and secretarial staffs. If the publication and mailing of releases were the answer for the Church, the means of salvation would already be in operation. Whatever the problems of their relation, church and state seem to have at least one thing in common: both apparently regard the growth of bureaucracy as a gain. The establishment of a new office, equipped with a duplicating machine and mailing privileges, is somehow always thought to be a great step forward.

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Self-preservation is the first instinct of successful bureaucracy. The bureau has a way of continuing long after the need that gave it birth has vanished. The front that indicates the importance of the office must be maintained. Consciously or not, a bureau knows that it comes under the heading “overhead.” It must therefore find ways by which it can justify the expense of its existence.

This justification may take the form of a flurry of activity. The departmental service must be shown to be a service to the whole body; the leaders must know what is being thought and said at the grass-roots level. This belief occasions a series of conferences with dinner meetings, a keynote speaker, group discussion leaders (who must previously have met for training), and multiple acknowledgments of the vital role such occasions play in the church of today in the world of today. A liaison committee is appointed to correlate the “findings” of these meetings with the “findings” of other similar meetings, and to relate them to the activities of other bureaus. This means that there must be regional and national conferences. And all these findings and recommendations must not be permitted to pass away as a flower of the field. A many-paged report must be sent out to inform everyone of the bureau’s activity, which the “grass roots” is demanding and must therefore sustain financially. Then perhaps study groups meet to discuss the report. And so it goes.

In true Parkinsonian fashion the departments multiply. Soon there must be interdepartmental commissions and representatives. Then the whole movement requires interpreters. Meanwhile, budgets grow. As budgets grow, additional time and effort are needed to justify the whole interlocking enterprise. It is not merely that the bureaus become self-perpetuating institutions. The whole church is increasingly dominated by these bureaus, each of which sends forth forms to be filled out in triplicate. The whole church becomes enmeshed in interdepartmental memos and conferences. Presidents, moderators, and all other leaders may come and go, but the bureaus go on and on forever.

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We may chafe in the present development of the passion for union on the one side and the denominational emphasis on the other. There is indeed reason for concern if the cause of Christ is to become a merger of institutional establishments. Under these circumstances any merger would offer a new and larger field for bureaus, offices, duplicating machines, mailings, and forms—and the financial assessments required to sustain them.

The problem is that the brave vision for a united witness as a means for a sturdier carrying of the cross may be caught up in the enlarged potential for bureaucracy within the larger whole. Far from gaining a strong new prophetic voice, far from receiving new life that brings new impetus to lay claim upon men and the order of our day in the name of Jesus Christ, we may find that we have only brought about an organization where the mediocrity of bureaucracy casts a pall upon the whole.

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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