Does the uneasy relationship between evangelicals and ecumenists presage a split?

In plotting the future of Protestantism, some churchmen increasingly focus on the uneasy relation between “the ecumenicals and the evangelicals.” Ecumenical and denominational leaders, religion editors, and even some students of religious journalism ask: Will the gap between conservatives and inclusivists be bridged or broadened? Is a split inevitable between evangelicals and ecumenists? In ecumenical dialogue—whether sponsored by Geneva or by Rome—why do evangelicals always seem to be on the outer edge? Do conservatives have any basis for feeling that ecumenists solicit their participation only on a “divide-and-conquer” basis? Why has ecumenism failed to produce or even promote real rapport with evangelicals? Is a tragic major breach inevitable in the very century when many churchmen are working intensely for the unification of Christendom, and when the Christian religion is already disadvantaged by embarrassing divisions?

Few evangelicals speak of ecclesiastical trends as historically inevitable, though some churchmen on both the far left and the far right seem to view them in that way. Conservatives may underestimate socio-historical processes, but they contemplate the must of history rather in a context of God’s sovereign purpose and of man’s responsible decision. (“Thus it must be fulfilled.…” “Ye must be born again.…”) They question ecclesiastical deference to the supposed “inevitabilities” of social revolution and expanding government controls, which the churches are now asked to welcome, no less than the ecumenical leadership’s “certainty” of a coming great world church.

As evangelicals see it, a deterministic approach to religious events reflects a non-Christian more than a Christian idiom; its main flaw is its neglect of transcendent spiritual powers. Whatever events (if any) impersonal historical forces may shape, Christ above all else has the redeemed Church in his grasp. No conclave of modern churchmen can establish with finality the character of Christ’s Church. The events of the first-century apostolic Church, of the sixteenth-century Reformation, and of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Awakening remain illuminating and instructive chapters in church history. If present cleavages widen, if another reformation occurs, or whatever else, it will not be inevitable, any more than would a Protestant Counter-Reformation.

If evangelicals consider the accommodation to inevitability as harmful, they regard the growing discussion of “deepening divisions” as adversely weighted also. The term is bandied about by those who publicly launch the concept of one church into an orbit that imposes expectations of conformity upon evangelicals, while non-evangelicals dismember confessional commitments and distort historic doctrines. Deplorable as divisiveness is, “split” is a color-term too readily applied to those who sincerely question the prevalent notion of ecclesiastical reconstruction. It attaches needless odium to those who stand firmly on the very biblical commitments that the Protestant Reformation churches held in common. Many Protestant mainline seminaries today promulgate neither the formal nor the material principles of the Reformation; they compromise the Reformers’ doctrines of “Scripture alone” and “justification by faith alone.” And in some respects the Orthodox (Greek and Eastern) Churches and the Roman Catholic Church stand more firmly attached to the doctrines of the truly ecumenical (Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian) creeds of the early centuries than do some Protestant bodies today, while evangelical Protestants stand firmly with the historic Christian claim of divinely revealed doctrines.

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Some ecumenists now point a reproachful finger at Billy Graham because they consider him a hindrance to ecumenical inclusivism. One ecumenical weekly would have its readers believe that Graham is really a radical politician in pious evangelical garb. (As if evangelicals rather than ecumenists were distorting evangelism into political action!) Other ecumenical gossips downgrade Graham as virtually “another denomination” alongside “denomination-transcending” ecumenism. Since the objective seems to be to stigmatize Graham as divisive, it little retards them that six of the seven largest American denominations survive in the NCC, or that the WCC is itself provoking a new wave of competitive church confessionalism.

Similarly, an accusing finger is pointed at CHRISTIANITY TODAY. Now that it can no longer be lampooned as “Christianity yesterday” (since ecumenical seminaries now have to regard even Barthianism and Bultmannism as dated), it is caricatured as the echo of capitalistic supporters, right-wing extremists, and fundamentalist independents. (After all, isn’t the theology of the Barthians and the Bultmannians preferable to that of the Birchers?) One can readily understand why anyone who views Communism in a benevolent light, revolution as inevitable, socialism as virtuous, and religious orthodoxy as a blight might want his constituents to ignore biblically oriented publications. Yet we marvel at any mentality that could suppose we have substituted congressional pressures for Christian priorities, or ecclesiastical engineering for the evangel. If anyone truly doubts whether it is the evangelical or the ecumenical movement within the Church that is scripturally controlled, he need only ask which espouses biblical truths and supernatural dynamisms and which promotes theological novelties and political pronouncements.

Southern Baptists are now also becoming a special target. Since this largest American denomination remains willfully outside the National Council of Churches, other groups uneasy over ecumenical commitments are cautioned against the influence of Christians lacking sensitivity for the universal church. Who, it is asked, would prefer the fellowship of Southern Baptists to a church that strives for catholicity? It is remarkable that any ecumenist can entertain a concept of Christian unity from which ten million Christians are so complacently excluded.

All this points up the fact that the main tension within the Church in twentieth-century Christianity is that between those concerned mainly with institutional or organizational alignment and those concerned mainly with spiritual and theological commitment. To some churchmen, what matters most is devotion to the coming world church; to other churchmen, what matters most in the context of church loyalties is devotion to the faith already given. To the former, church unity is wider than theological fidelity; ecumenism has room for death-of-God theologians, linguistic theologians, and existential liberals, as well as for evangelicals—ordinarily, that is.

In less than a century, the ecumenical development has undergone a sweeping change from its initial stance, in which it embraced various denominations bound by common evangelical goals, to its present view of the rising evangelical interest in transdenominational cooperation as competitive and even hostile. Yet this continuing evangelical concern is no departure from historic Protestantism but a continuation of it. In its Reformation beginnings, Protestantism was nothing if not evangelical. Evangelical Christianity is no deviation either from the religion of the apostles or the Reformers, or from the original orientation of the ecumenical ideal in earlier days.

In twentieth-century Protestantism, therefore, the deviant and divisive factor within the Church is theological liberalism, which has gradually swung the ideal of Christian unity into the orbit of its own inclusivist and extra-evangelical preferences. The disruptive cleavage introduced by modernism exists within all mainstream denominations, dividing clergy from clergy and laymen from laymen. The debate over the definition of Christian authority, the content of the Gospel, and the nature and task of the Church reduces to a conflict over evangelical and non-evangelical perspectives.

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On two extremes, the far left and the far right, there is noteworthy evidence of sharpening hostility. If ecclesiastical extremism on the far right announces the apostasy of all churchmen affiliated with NCC-related denominations, on the far left it issues pontifical pronouncements that denominational distinctiveness is inherently sinful. If Carl McIntire seems like a one-man arbiter of ecumenical destinies in holding the American Council of Christian Churches to be the sole authentically biblical alternative to the NCC, Eugene Carson Blake also appeals to a singular leading of the Holy Spirit in propounding the Blake-Pike plan as an ideal divine antithesis to American denominationalism.

Swimming against a rising non-evangelical tide in the ecumenical movement in the Church has become increasingly difficult for evangelicals. Ecumenical pressures tend to force an inclusive theology on seminaries. In theological dialogue evangelicals are counterbalanced, outweighed, and treated as a minority. United Presbyterians, won over to merger with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. by the argument that they would exert a theologically conservative influence, soon found this expectation without warrant. The United Presbyterian Church lost its own evangelically oriented seminary and was unable to halt the drift of other Presbyterian U. S. A. seminaries, and the merged church is now struggling with a proposed new confession. Across the Atlantic the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who speaks out frequently on political matters, has not hesitated also to disparage evangelical initiative publicly. In the United Church Observer, organ of the United Church of Canada, the Rev. A. C. Forrest attacks Billy Graham’s revival of biblical supernaturalism as disruptive and urges liberal churchmen not to cooperate with his crusades.

It is doubtless true that Billy Graham’s emphasis on the New Testament message has helped to condition laymen to favor biblical orientation and evangelistic concern in their churches, and to look askance at a heavy concentration on social and political issues to the neglect of scriptural priorities. As some liberal churchmen have hardened in their opposition to evangelism and have identified themselves with social reform as an alternative to personal repentance, lay disaffection has mounted.

The deepest cleft within the Church is the one separating evangelicals, who glory in the divine gift of repentance and regeneration, from those ecumenists who are repelled by the offense of the Cross; those who believe in the authority of the Word of God from those whose beliefs change according to the fashion of the times. As liberal leaders in high church posts use an ecumenical platform to repress evangelical witness and to press for conformity to their own positions, they only promote unrest among churchmen who lament and challenge departures from the New Testament norm. The primary cause of tension at this level is a matter of proclamation, not of personality; the message itself is really what divides. Whether Christianity is made relevant to our world is always discussable, as evangelicals see it; but the essential content of the Christian religion is never negotiable. When a Los Angeles church spokesman charged Billy Graham with setting contemporary theology back fifty years, the evangelist replied that he intended to take it back two thousand years, to coincide with the apostolic faith.

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Intolerance of evangelical positions is all the more remarkable now that the theological bankruptcy of liberalism is apparent. In some circles, the advocacy of ecumenism above doctrinal fidelity may betray a devotion to ecclesiastical unity grounded in theological skepticism. Whatever basis existed in the forepart of this century for viewing fundamentalism as obscurantist (and it sometimes was), few will doubt that recent modernist theology (whether Ritschlian, dialectical, existential, or linguistic) is consciously anti-intellectual, while evangelical theology pointedly affirms the ontological significance of reason and the rational nature of revelation. Amid the modernist flux, evangelical theology has steadily won respect as the truly coherent option, even from some ministers whose seminary training bypassed the conservative view completely or at best looked at it in the poorest light and aimed to supplant it. Among the periodic editorial rewards at CHRISTIANITY TODAY is a message from some mainstream minister who has come to cherish a theological commitment he was once taught to despise.

Many who lost an evangelical faith through the liberal domination of church colleges and seminaries have grown increasingly nostalgic with the ceaseless revision of the modernist alternatives. Only those who have been lifelong liberals, and who know conservative Christianity only in terms of “the fundys, holy-rollers, and snake-handlers,” adamantly refuse to consider the evangelical option. Others who recall the vitality of an earlier biblical faith are aware that their colleagues in the ministry now include evangelical churchmen whose personal faith has been renewed and who have found a warm fellowship in their restoration to evangelical religion. And the evangelical strength in mainline denominations is more extensive than a liberal leadership implies. Some ministers who have forsaken liberal rationalism for revealed theology assert that, were it not for restrictions imposed by ecumenical leaders upon evangelical participation, the present situation might erupt into a tidal wave of evangelical renewal within the historic denominations.

Yet no one can say that the evangelical witness is wholly excluded in the ecumenical context, for evangelicals have made some noteworthy gains. Despite the hostility of some leaders intolerant of evangelical perspectives, the Graham crusades and CHRISTIANITY TODAY have received more support in ecumenical circles than in some independent circles. This support, in fact, accounts for the complaint of some fundamentalist spokesmen that these efforts hurt the evangelical cause. It is curious that churchmen on the far right and on the far left alike suspect others of cooperating with influential evangelical church efforts only as a matter of desperation. The interest in evangelical dynamisms runs deeper than they dream. And evangelicals themselves need to be reminded that many Roman Catholics also are seeking deeper spiritual realities in these days of ecumenical openness.

Disturbed by the ecumenical orientation and evangelical dilution of hierarchy-approved literature, many churchmen now also encourage laymen and Sunday school leaders to read explicitly evangelical publications. American mission boards eager to fill their quotas have extended an increasing welcome to missionary candidates with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship backgrounds. In England, the growing evangelical wing of the Anglican church is attributed largely to the influence of British Inter-Varsity on university campuses. It is also noteworthy that many Anglican clergymen trace their conversions to the Harringay and Wembley crusades of a decade ago.

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Even more significant, some leaders notably sympathetic to evangelical engagement have been elected to important ecumenical posts. One such leader, while not a conservative, pleaded for larger evangelical representation at the Central Committee meeting in Nigeria a year ago, though without clear success.

These men do not, however, define the temper of the ecumenical movement. The WCC’s choice of a general secretary to succeed Dr. W. A. Visser ’t Hooft will supply an important clue to ecumenical attitudes toward evangelicals. A strong-willed activist with overweening personal ambitions could propel the entire ecumenical situation into a new and precipitous era. Evangelicals are wearying of dialogue that engages them in good-natured conversation while non-evangelical objectives are energetically promoted. Ecumenical seminary faculties, faith-and-order dialogues, and other official conferences have left no doubt for a decade that Protestant ecumenical leaders pursue dialogue with Rome more ardently than they seek representation for evangelicals already in their own circles. In the current fad of confessional revision, evangelicals are often placed on the defensive and given the option of minority protest.

If the quest for Christian unity continues to manifest a pro-ecumenical anti-evangelical spirit, a sound alternative—transdenominational Christian unity on a biblical-evangelical base—will not be a matter of historical inevitability but will remain a spiritual ideal and logical consideration. Evangelical Christianity is a Bible-controlled movement, evangelistically concerned, and impatient over a compromise of priorities. That compromise has become almost obstinate on the part of some ecumenists—a point at which evangelical intolerance and liberal intolerance might well clash.

Of all tragedies of the modern world, none would be sadder in the closing third of our century than an ecclesiastical rift that would further divide the community of Christian faith. The concern for Christian unity is scriptural, and all believers in Christ who recognize the unqualified claim of the Bible ought to be reaching out toward one another across organizational lines and exploring the deeper realities of the Church of Christ as a supradenominational, supranational, supraracial fellowship. If evangelicals are to bear a dynamic witness for the Gospel in our confused generation, may they do so in a spectacular unity of devotion and mission with all their Christian brethren everywhere. While the Great Commission presupposes a firm stand for the revealed faith, it propels all Christ’s true followers into the world on a mission of mercy. Only a fellowship that fulfills both these expectations is worthy to be known as Christ’s Church.

If the terms “ecumenical” and “evangelical” are once more to become synonymous, ecumenism must manifest a lively indignation over its non-evangelical and anti-evangelical ingredients. If it prefers the inclusivist image, it may of course regard itself in some contexts as combining the ecumenical and the evangelical (as well as other) motifs. But the world will not long be deceived even if some churchmen are. For if the world hears some ecclesiastics insist that “God is dead” while others insist on “the living God,” if it hears some contend that supernaturalism is passé while others declare that the New Testament miracles are decisive for human destiny, if it hears some claim that Christ alone can save us while others insist that legislation is a superior dynamism or that the United Nations is the world’s best hope for peace, the world may agree privately that the Church bears a revelation, but of its own confusion, not of any authoritative Word. And that is the kind of confusion that evangelicals—who insist they bear an authentic Christian message to the world—cannot be counted on forever to support.

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Millennium Tomorrow

Among industrial nations the United States took the lead in rate of economic growth. On Wall Street the stock market neared Dow 1000. On Main Street the minimum hourly wage was to go up to $1.50 as soon as Congress followed President Johnson’s proposal. New York was riding again as transit strikers pocketed a 15 per cent wage increase and substantial fringe benefits. On color television, viewers saw so much of Liz Taylor that there was little left to see. And air travel rates to Europe were soon to dip lower. It was a time for fast living.

There were disconcerting signs, to be sure. Four Nobel prizemen warned of depletion of world resources, starvation, and even cannibalism, if population growth continues unchecked. Mrs. Indira Gandhi (a Kashmiri Brahmin) in her new position as India’s prime minister was faced with a dissatisfied Pakistan and a threatening Communist China, and with an economic crisis and famine conditions in some areas as well. Red China alerted its army of 2.5 million, the world’s largest, to prepare for United States nuclear attack even to the point of “climbing a mountain of pointed swords and crossing an ocean of flames.”

In the United States the state of the union looked good—on paper. Americans were told that the Great Society would continue (hence it apparently has already arrived) and that the administration would avoid the risk the inflation. On both counts, however, politicians seemed to be holding a candle to the wind.

The President’s message to Congress included casual mention of a record administrative budget of $112.8 billion. After what may have been the briefest tax cut in history, excise reductions were to be revoked. The cost of living was edging up, as housewives paid more for bread and milk. The illegal New York transit strike ended in an inflationary settlement. For all the talk about holding down inflation, many European bankers had come to consider it a world-wide inevitability. There were doubts at home about the fiscal solvency of the social security program, viewed long-range. And the White House, alongside full support for civil rights, somewhat inconsistently supported legislation to destroy state right-to-work laws.

But by far the biggest United States headache was Viet Nam, where more than 190,000 American GI’s still were fighting in an undeclared war. Some 1,000 tons of Christmas parcels gathered by civic organizations for delivery to servicemen 8,200 miles from home were discovered in mid-January stored in a General Services Administration supply center in Utah. Meanwhile, American forces in Asia stood as a barrier to further Communist aggression in Asia. The first missionary fell to a Viet Cong machine gunman. Neither the President nor the Pope had made evident progress with peace proposals. There was thanksgiving that casualties were lighter, but Hanoi remained silent, some South Vietnamese feared a sell-out, and even some Americans had doubts.

Did administration suggestions of withdrawal on condition of free elections imply a retreat from the commitment to independence and freedom? What American victory is needed to guarantee free elections and to prevent full Communist takeover while Communists terrorize a third of the population?

The war that Americans once were told would be over by Christmas looked at times as if it might drag on forever—with respite for Asian holidays. “I believe that we can continue the Great Society while we fight in Viet Nam,” said the President. It was a typically modern credo, full of ambiguity and vulnerability.

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Meanwhile, politically aggressive clergymen were shaping their own program for peace on earth. The Interchurch Center at 475 Riverside Drive in New York assigned Office 560 to a national committee of liberal churchmen opposed to renewal of the bombing of North Viet Nam. The interfaith committee includes Dr. Eugene Carson Blake and Rabbi Jacob Weinstein. Across the nation their telephone crusade is coordinating 150 groups to rally a growing feeling against the Viet Nam war and to urge propagandizing of the peace offensive (see News, p. 49).

The churches must indeed continually urge elected leaders to fulfill their responsibilities with a sense of moral integrity and divine answerability. But some churchmen seem suddenly to have acquired omniscience in political and military decisions, despite their lack of strategic information available only to the highest elected public officials. When they presume to stipulate the details of public policy, some of us wonder where these churchmen have suddenly found their hot-line to heaven. What they leave unanswered is how the peace everybody presumably wants can be arrived at without a commitment to justice.

Most American churchgoers still retain unhappy memories of proposals made at the Cleveland World Order Conference of the National Council of Churches. At that time two of the nation’s top figures were devout Presbyterians with a sense both of public responsibility and of spiritual stewardship. It was the shared conviction of President Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles that admission of Red China would be against the best interests of both the United States and the United Nations. Yet NCC spokesmen publicly championed admission.

Sometimes we wonder whether politically oriented churchmen have not grown so skeptical of both spiritual dynamisms and democratic processes that they entertain a delusion that if the world were suddenly run by their committees, the millennium would come tomorrow.

All of us want peace; undoubtedly not a reader of CHRISTIANITY TODAY prefers war. Above all others, the man of God is a man of peace. But the Bible connects wars and fightings with man’s inner passions, his craving of what belongs to others. A former chairman of the United Nations, Charles Malik, warned that Marxism-Leninism was the vanguard of forces that today seek destruction of the accumulated values we have inherited from Graeco-Roman-Christian civilization. Any quest for peace that views Communism as benevolent is nothing short of a sell-out. If peace is to be genuine, it must not whet the appetite of greedy totalitarian tyrants of any stripe but must stand in the presence of God, truth, and righteousness. Any legitimate message on a hot-line from heaven is likely to read not “Seek ye peace …” but “Seek ye first …,” and it is likely also to bear a zip code number that includes both sides of the globe.

Try The Other Book

“Numerous books, most of them scholarly, some of them objective, practically all of them sophisticated, are being published these days discussing the ‘existence of God.’ ” So writes the editor of the Durham, North Carolina, Morning Herald. The remark reminds us of what the Preacher said: “Of making many books there is no end.” Doubtless there will be many more books about the “death of God” before the well runs dry.

We just hope that while the fad lasts men will not overlook the source literature on the subject of God. We refer, of course, to the Bible. It has a word to say about God—who he is and what he is doing. Surely we are not overly bold if we suggest that in the beginning God had the first word and in the end he will have the last. In the interim, men had better listen to what he says and act on what he commands. For it may be that sooner than we think, the judgments of men on God will be subjected to the judgment of God on men.

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