Professional churchmen who labor to devise denominational superstructures begin to seem like children building sand castles on the shore. Incoming waves may soon sweep away their elaborate creations. The tide of ecumenical good will is pounding on our accustomed patterns with a power of more than human devising. It is prompting Christians in communities all across the country to exchange visits and work together on local projects without waiting for draftsmen to shape some gigantic merger. As one executive lamented, “COCU [the Consultation on Church Union] has come ten years too late.”

The dream of Christian unity was spontaneous, reflecting the God-centeredness of religious experience and the claims of our one Lord. The more than thirty-year span of my own ministry goes back to the Oxford Conference of 1937. I recall the thrill that came to me as a young pastor preaching on the testimony of the delegates: “Our unity in Christ is not a theme for aspiration; it is an experienced fact.” Being claimed by the oneness of God’s people in Christ gave power to my ministry. We sought to build bridges, and to work with our brothers regardless of labels.

When in the late forties we constructed a chapel window series on the seasons of the Christian year, we even selected Worldwide Communion Sunday for the chancel. The reconciliation of races, nations, and creeds in Christ is the supreme evidence of the victory of the Cross over the world. Because God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, Christians can hold the world together.

But in this same period I saw the vision of unity give way to schemes for greater ecclesiastical kingdoms. The executives of official Protestantism liked to look inward at their structures. I am tempted to say that they preferred to look inward rather than outward at the world, but this would be too harsh a judgment. It is probably more accurate to suppose that they thought the Church could minister to the world only to the extent that it was a highly efficient and centrally controlled organization. Hence we had two decades of merger negotiations among some of the major denominations—Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Evangelical and Reformed, Evangelical United Brethren.

More than that, we witnessed the reshaping of the whole conciliar movement in Protestantism to meet the structural demands of bureaucrats and theologians. From the National Council of Churches down through state and local councils, the grass-roots desire of Christians to reach over barriers and engage in common community services was redirected. Councils were persuaded to rewrite constitutions so as to have members of boards selected by communions rather than by congregations or by the councils themselves. No longer is a layman chosen for his faith and works in interdenominational affairs; he is chosen because of certification by his denomination. What we now have in so called councils of churches is councils of communions, with control firmly established in the executives of the various denominations.

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Then came the Blake-Pike proposal, with the resultant Consultation on Church Union designed to create a church that is “truly catholic, truly reformed, and truly evangelical.” This is the super-colossal. It envisages ever more elaborate machinery to regulate the powers and administer the authority. Within the consultation there is an inevitable jockeying for position and a balancing of interests to assure that the prerogatives of all groups are properly maintained. The individual Christian in his home church scarcely knows what is taking place at these annual spring convocations, where the fate of American Christendom is supposedly being determined by the sharp minds of our Protestant leaders.

The past twenty years of mechanical approaches to unity were suddenly altered by Vatican II. Through the centuries the Roman Catholic Church has maintained the tightest form of organizational structure. But the winds of the Spirit moved the heart of Pope John XXIII and began to blow through the ancient forms. The very magisterium of Rome has been challenged, not by outside critics but by reform movements within the church itself. The Declaration on Religious Freedom declares that men are to be immune from coercion; no one is to be forced to act contrary to his own beliefs. The emphasis shifts from authority, power, and orthodoxy to responsiveness to the Spirit of God moving in Christ. Most of us know Roman Catholics who are rejoicing in their new-found freedom and joining with their Protestant neighbors in acts of religious and social concern.

This new openness on the part of the Roman church has done as much as anything to outdate COCU, and to break down the sea walls that were hindering the tide of God’s Spirit from moving freely for good will among his people. In community after community, men and women are discovering that Christ calls in our time, even as he did in Galilee. They need not wait within their churches for officials in New York, Philadelphia, or Nashville to permit them to meet with other Christians. Christ is calling beyond all barriers. The response is the committed heart and the willing hand.

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The good will that is manifest is an expression of the deep hunger of souls to find unity in Christ, a hunger that has been present ever since the gospel writers first told the story of our Lord. One can make a fascinating study of the ways in which professional churchmen through the ages have thwarted the satisfaction of this hunger, often with the best of intentions. No doubt the ecumenical leaders of our day think they are laboring truly for Christian unity; but their emphasis is on structures about which Jesus was silent. He said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” Open love and mutual recognition of ministry and sacraments are qualities that denominational purists are reluctant to give.

Ours is indeed a secular culture. The times are ominous, and we dare not be superficial in our analysis. White racism, black hatred, callous indifference, scientific pride, greedy affluence, and selfish lusts are diseases from which we suffer. These we must overcome. The point is, however, that the power grip of the ecclesiastical hierarchy has been broken. After decades of meeting the problems on the level of churchly lobbying, synodical resolutions, and executive pronouncements, the Christian community is today in a better position to face these problems where ultimately they must be overcome: within local congregations and through the voluntary association of Christ-motivated persons from several congregations. We are not waiting on COCU. We are waiting on the Holy Spirit.

Last winter one of the young ministers on our staff led our Neighborhood Board (one of six boards with special responsibilities in our congregation) to arrange what we called a Training Course for Volunteers in Urban Needs. The course ran for two-and-a-half-hour sessions on ten Monday nights. Speakers from the university, minority groups, and special agencies came to acquaint the participants with the attitudes of people in problem areas. Each enrollee had to promise to give three months of service. As we planned the training course, we thought that if twenty-five persons responded, the project would be worthwhile. To our surprise, 165 came for the entire time. Because the course was announced at worship services broadcast over the radio, about half the enrollees were from outside our congregation. Eight were Catholic nuns, and many Protestant denominations were represented. This is an example of the grass-roots movement that is bringing people together in Christian concern. The old ecclesiastical structures are increasingly meaningless.

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The congregation I serve has been one of the leading challengers of the activities and publications of our denomination’s council for social action. We have questioned the council’s propriety in speaking from the top in behalf of church members. Yet we have always been active in the affairs of our city. Again, we were among the strongest opponents of the merger that carried most Congregational churches into the United Church of Christ. We remained independent, and we give substantial financial support to the National Association of Continuing Congregationalists. Yet aside from a handful of older persons, the members of our congregation have scarcely more interest in this group than in the United Church.

Through the decades we have attracted to our staff younger ministers from the popular seminaries whose faculties are involved in perfecting the ecumenical machinery. The younger men are much more interested in Christian commitment than in denominational allegiance. Their theological viewpoints vary, but all of them take seriously Jesus Christ and their discipleship. I think we shall see a withering away of denominationalism and even of councils of churches, at least in the role of the centers of influence we know them as today. These structures have become institutions that are very concerned with their own power and prestige. Although COCU makes a great fuss about obedience to Christ’s commands, it is bogged down in ecclesiastical details that alienate rather than impress laymen and laywomen today. It is jealously safeguarding the validity of ministry and sacraments in historic forms rather than responding to the tide of the Spirit that prompts laymen to ask only, “What is God in Christ asking me to do with my neighbor, where we are, for His glory and the coming of His kingdom?”

The ecclesiastical system has one undeniable asset: money. The vast denominational endowments, the denominational presses, and the seminaries are in the control of leaders who wield great influence for the established order. One of my younger colleagues went to a new church to which a denomination contributes heavily for program and building. Not surprisingly, he is a booster for the program of that denomination.

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Dr. Arthur A. Rouner, Jr., has just written a book that puts the challenge squarely where Christ put it. The Free Church Today calls ecumenical leaders to see what they all have in common, namely, congregations. The gathered church is what we find in the Book of Acts—a gathering together of sincere and committed believers who have been led by the Spirit to become part of a particular congregation by their own choice. Jesus’ promise to be in their midst was given to the Church in this original form, and it is here that hope rests today. Our faith is in the presence of the Risen Lord, his invitation to discipleship, and the hunger of the human heart to respond.

In this direction lie openness, good will, commitment, and service.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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