The havoc following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., heightens church unrest in North America. Many clergy and laymen, already indignant over trends in the big denominations, see today’s riots as sprouting from the seeds of civil disobedience planted and watered by new-breed churchmen.

The scope of ecclesiastical dissent is substantial. Ad hoc protest groups are springing up all across the United States and Canada. Conferences are being called, newsletters, books, and pamphlets are being published, campaigns are being launched—all aimed at exposing the perilous course Protestant leaders are now charting. Within a number of major denominations, unofficial but organized fellowships of constituents are working to arrest liberal trends. Not only leaders of objectionable causes but even clergymen who “go along” are losing the respect of many parishioners.

The intensity of the dissent recalls the slam-bang fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the twenties. Indeed, a newly aroused laity could usher in a new phase of that historic dispute (see “Dare We Revive the Controversy?,” June 10, 1957, issue). A big showdown could come fairly soon. All that may be needed to bring things to a head is an event or series of events that would typify and dramatize the conflict—as the Scopes trial and the Fosdick sermons did in the twenties.

The United Presbyterian Confession of 1967 produced a big theological furor, the largest in America in recent years, and the Consultation on Church Union may soon provide another. The confession won final approval from presbyteries in a lopsided 165–19 vote. This approval may have indicated more about the desire of conservative ministers and elders to preserve denominational unity than about their enthusiasm for the confession. Moreover, many evangelical Presbyterians were obliged to vote for the document after they had won concessions that gave it a more biblical base. Even so, the vote was close in many presbyteries.

A number of United Presbyterians still are deeply distressed over the new confession. Some churches are trying to pull out of the denomination because of the resulting “conviction gap.” No provision was made for Presbyterians who cannot conscientiously give assent to the revised creedal base.

For reasons such as these, there is profound theological distrust of many churchmen who are in good standing with the big mainline denominations. An independent fundamentalist minister typified the attitude when, in introducing a fellow evangelical clergyman, he said in all sincerity, “He’s a Presbyterian, but he loves the Lord.”

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Lack of confidence in professional churchmen tends to be shared by laymen both in and out of the mainline denominations. They are particularly troubled at the way some of their top clergy look askance at Scripture. “If Scripture is not our ultimately reliable authority,” they ask, “then what is?”

A related anxiety arises over the way denominational machinery accommodates and even coddles heretical thought. The reticence of the Episcopal Church to dissociate itself from the deviations of Bishop James A. Pike is a case in point, though some conservative Episcopalians insist that Pike’s penchant for the spectacular was unmanageable in any other way.

Today’s movement of dissent in the churches is also the result of the church leaders’ preoccupation with social issues. This has troubled many a minister and layman for years, and there is no sign of a let-up. Those bent on reclamation of society through political and economic change have seized and held influential positions from which they can promote their views. Many hitched their wagon to Martin Luther King and his campaign of nonviolence; now they are stranded, or are being pressured into adopting more overt and disruptive tactics.

The big gripe here is that church leaders are issuing pronouncements and underwriting enterprises with no mandate to do so from those who supply the funds. Conciliar gatherings and denominational conventions have committed their constituencies to viewpoints and projects that are at odds with the consciences of the people who ultimately pay the bills. However, laymen have hesitated to intervene directly and to try to restrict the use of funds for controversial causes.

But an important reaction may be setting in. Over the last few years many disappointed laymen have been tapering off their giving through mainline churches and channeling the money into such things as interdenominational missionary efforts. Now organized efforts to divert funds are under way.

Reaction to ecumenicity is also taking a toll. A super-church is in the making, and the theological latitude it will entertain will compound the distress of Christians who take Scripture seriously. But the men who rule the roost at denominational headquarters, instead of weighing issues and making some effort at candid assessment, promote uncritical acceptance of each new step along the road to ecumenicity as if progress were inevitable. Denominational literature often seems to weigh events solely on the scale of whether they promote organizational unity among differing churches.

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Actually, there may already be considerable unity at the grass roots—but no one is promoting it. The Bible, which has always been the common ground of Christians, is accepted by the great majority of laymen, but is rejected as a basis for unity by many churchmen. Interestingly, the more ecclesiastical barriers to organizational unity—such as sacraments and episcopacy—that repeatedly stall merger negotiations are of little concern to today’s dissenting laymen. Evangelicals find it much easier to partake from the communion tables of different denominations than do the more liberal churchmen.

Ecumenicity for its own sake has limited appeal among laymen. Many are unmoved by arguments that Protestant fragmentation alienates the outsider. They see no evidence that merely getting together attracts the uncommitted or increases the vitality of the church. They point to the widely heralded “models” of merged denominations, such as the United Church of Canada and the Church of South India, and ask what special virtues have arisen from their togetherness. They can quote the editor of the CSI’s official periodical, who says the twenty-year-old church has failed to grow appreciably by gaining converts to Christianity, and suggests that “the degree of unity of life as a Christian community is less now than it was in 1947.”

In recent American church mergers, feelings have run so high that schism has resulted; often Christendom ends up with more denominations after a merger than before. Resistance was particularly acute in the formation of the United Church of Christ from the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed. The union process began in 1957, and by 1962 only 3,933 out of 5,458 Congregational Christian churches were in the merger. New denominations sprang up to provide fellowship for the dissenting congregations.

Similar schism is accompanying this year’s merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Dozens of EUB congregations have voted to withdraw, even if it means loss of property. Many more would be ready to cut the ties if it did not mean yielding congregational assets to the denomination. Some feel they have been sold out and want no part of a theological hodge-podge. Others grit their teeth and vow a posture of indifference to the unwelcome parentage.

Once the Consultation on Church Union gets moving in high gear, it may become a major focal point for dissent. A COCU committee is to draft a plan of union for 25 million American Protestants within a year or two. Methodist Bishop James Mathews, now COCU chairman, predicts that once the formal union plan is written, the “quiescent constituency” will come alive and “the sparks will fly” (see COCU report, April 12, 1968, issue, and “Showdown Coming on Church Divisions,” February 16, 1968, issue).

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Dr. Ralph C. Turnbull, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Seattle, warns strongly against a mere “craze for union”:

The lesson of history seems to be forgotten. Once we had a united church of Europe and this brought corruption and darkness. The Reformation was a necessity to bring renewal and revival of historical, biblical Christianity. The Renaissance and Reformation marked the watershed of biblical Christianity, missionary outreach, social and political freedom, and reform as the precursor of all modern intellectual and scientific acceleration.

Grass-roots moves in reaction to theological and ecclesiastical trends ultimately raise the age-old question: Stay in or get out? Should conservatives separate from wandering denominations and thereby strengthen the hand of the liberals, or stay in and try to organize conservative power bases to counter the trends?

Exodus by individual members, one by one, is easy. But when congregations seek to set themselves free corporately, the legal problems loom high. Most denominations have no provision for pull-outs; in those that do, properties revert to the parent denomination. Civil courts in the United States and Canada have upheld this principle, but the pressure for relief is mounting. Several cases are pending that might bring a review by the U. S. Supreme Court. In Canada recently, lawmakers blocked a bill of union in the Ontario legislature because it failed to protect property rights of congregations not wishing to join the proposed merger there of EUB congregations and the United Church of Canada.

An eloquent plea for legal recourse is made by Dr. James H. Blackstone of Community Church, Palm Springs, California, which is trying to sever its ties with the United Presbyterian denomination. Blackstone notes:

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Once the church yields to the organizational relationship with the denomination and is part of that denomination it is bound irrevocably to anything which the majority of that denomination does. No matter what changes may be made, as long as the changes are made according to constitutional ecclesiastical procedure it is assumed that all churches and members must accept the result.

This, he adds, “creates a tragic tyrannical authority in which, no matter how far a church may apostasize, it controls its congregations by holding the whip handle of authority over all of their property and material assets.” Blackstone maintains there ought to be some control over the deviation allowable in basic constitutional changes, beyond which individual congregations would be free to withdraw by majority vote.

Much of today’s protest is on solid ground, but dissenters need to be wary of fighting the establishment for the wrong reasons. They need to guard closely against unholy alliances with people who dissent out of political motivations, for example, or out of racism, or merely because protest can be profitable. Lack of charity easily creeps in, too.

Few have proposed a more apt formula than St. Augustine of Hippo: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

The rash of riots, violence, and disorders that erupted in more than 130 American cities after the despicable murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., is a black page in American history. Such terror and destruction are the fruit of “permissive anarchy,” as someone has labeled the current laxity in confronting lawlessness. More recent events—particularly the student rebellion at Columbia University and the opening phases of the “Poor People’s Campaign”—show that not even the intellectual segments of our population have sensed the anarchic mood of the riots, or realized that without good will, reason, order, and democratic processes there can be no effective solution of the problems of our society. Bitter emotions still run high in activist groups. Lung power has been substituted for brain power. Defiance of law remains an operative tactic, and the brute power play continues to be a principal strategy of militants. Deliberation and restraint have been cast aside in favor of demagogical demands and ridiculous disruptions. In short, militants are turning their backs on civilized means of settling our nation’s social inequities.

Every intelligent American should be disturbed by the immense problems facing the nation today: the grueling, costly war in Viet Nam, the twilight global struggle against international Communism, our crumbling inner cities, the need for racial equality in society, our ever-lengthening welfare rolls, the declining U. S. economic position, the erosion of moral standards, the dissipation of resolute national purpose. These serious problems should drive every person who loves America to determined, cooperative, and constructive thought and action to preserve our republic and promote the good life for all men. But instead of cooperating, many Americans today are clawing at one another’s throats in heated conflict more ferocious than any the country has known in a century. Militants angrily voice righteous demands and give lip service to non-violence. Meanwhile, many sentimental liberals, who encouraged the modern mood of lawlessness by their emphasis on civil disobedience and their disdain for police enforcement of the law and military resistance of Communist aggression, mouth platitudes that exploit the social discontent for their own political advantage. They repudiate violence and lawlessness in their speeches, but do little to stop it where it occurs. Under the surface of our inner cities exist seething distrust and hostility capable of exploding into violence if ignited by a single arousing incident. The general public, too, is becoming increasingly irritated. As the impatient prodding and unruly defiance of activists continue, the possibility of violent retaliation by normally conservative people looms as a growing cause for concern. Unless the irrational intransigence and ill will developing throughout the country are reversed and all citizens close ranks to build a better society, the free life and institutions of America could be lost within one generation.

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The violent action of insurgent radicals at Columbia University vividly shows the drastic deterioration of respect for law and order among student activists today. By seizing five buildings and occupying them for a week until irresolute university officials finally called in the police to remove them, an irresponsible minority of the student body brought a great Ivy League institution to a grinding halt for twelve days. Even if this insurrection were an isolated instance of student discontent, it would be cause for alarm. But the Columbia revolt is only one of a growing list of campus disorders that have occurred since leftist students disrupted the University of California’s Berkeley campus in the fall of 1964. Since then, unlawful sit-ins and other protests have taken place at universities across the land, including Wilberforce (Ohio), Howard (Washington, D. C), Bowie State (Maryland), Ohio State, Duke (North Carolina), Oregon, Boston, Stony Brook State (New York), and Northwestern (Illinois). They are part of the worldwide pattern of student revolt.

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The principal issues raised by U.S. student protesters have centered on our Viet Nam policy, discriminatory practices against Negroes and black-power demands, university research for government defense projects, the draft, on-campus recruitment by Dow Chemical representatives (napalm), and the desire for a greater student role in university decision-making. Their demands have invariably followed the extreme liberal line. At public events student wrath has been vented on Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Selective Service Director Lewis B. Hershey, and a host of university presidents.

Underlying activists’ specific grievances is an intense feeling against authority. Defiant members of the protest generation tend to view legally constituted power centers as conspiratorial. “Authority, in the view of student radicals,” writes J. W. Anderson of the Washington Post, “is a conspiracy among the great impersonal interlocking institutions of American life: universities, corporations, military services, the White House.” Because of their basic distrust of “the power elite,” militants are willing to risk jail sentences in order to disrupt the system.

The right of dissent must be protected, and all members of academic as well as political communities must have the opportunity to express criticism and offer constructive suggestions. But when dissenters forsake persuasive efforts and resort to overt defiance of law and the use of violence, their protest must be halted promptly by appropriate means. The reluctance of Columbia University officials immediately to remove law-breaking students holed up in campus buildings was clearly an error in judgment that should not be followed by other college administrators facing similar circumstances. Not only did it deprive responsible students of precious hours of instruction and fail to pacify or educate the rebels, but it also indicated a soft-headed understanding of the rule of law in society. The student militants had violated university rules and property rights. The university, instead of promptly calling for police enforcement of the law, acted as if it were headless, and was in fact without an effective president for many days. On such a basis the academic world cannot long claim to be the effective center of social criticism. Persuasion is being abandoned in the house of its friends, and mobbism has almost become a university elective, if not a student requirement.

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In a recent cartoon, Herblock aptly characterized the situation that Columbia University officials apparently were unwilling to recognize. He pictured a student writing to his mother: “Couldn’t write sooner as I’ve been so busy. We seized five University buildings, held the Dean prisoner, wrecked the office and rifled the personal papers of the President. Believe it or not, they called in the police—just as if we were ignorant kids who didn’t know what they were doing. Incredible! By the way, tell Dad to send some extra money as we are fighting to close down this thoroughly rotten University.”

Along with student unrest, the tenor of speaking and feeling exhibited in the early days of the “Poor People’s Campaign” in Washington bodes ill for a unified and orderly America in this critical election year. Under the leadership of the Reverend Ralph David Abernathy of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the first wave of civil-rights militants descended upon Cabinet officials, members of Congress, and lesser governmental leaders with angry complaints and sweeping demands. They called for immediate action on measures to provide guaranteed annual income, two million jobs, increased welfare payments, involvement of ghetto-dwellers in planning new public-housing developments, health programs, free food stamps, a ban on bringing in Mexican laborers, collective bargaining rights for farm workers, and enforcement of the open-housing law. Their scoldings of government officials were marked by invective and vehemence. At the end of the first day, Abernathy was reported as saying to his supporters, “We accomplished our purpose, which is to shake up the do-nothing honkies in government.” (He later denied using the term “honkies.”) To Secretary of Agriculture Orville L. Freeman, he declared, “We are going to back up our words with the most militant nonviolent, direct action in this country’s history.” The initial three-day “Poor People’s” blitz with its allusions to our “racist society” and speeches “that were good for the soul of America” ended as leaders left to mobilize marchers in the South for the trek to Washington and creation of the shantytown “City of Hope.”

While Abernathy and his followers had every right to petition the government in behalf of low-income citizens, their angry attitude and obstreperous manner were neither helpful to their cause nor in accord with the harmonious spirit that is necessary if the nation is to improve the status of disadvantaged citizens.

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Government leaders will not and should not be coerced into any action by irrational vituperation or mass demonstrations. Solutions must be found for existing problems, but reason and fiscal responsibility conditioned by genuine compassion for needy people must be the basis for remedial action. Hostility and disruptive tactics must be discarded by militants. If the intemperate mood seen in the initial phase of the Campaign is allowed to intensify, as is likely, the march to Washington and the prolonged camp-in will surely lead to violence. Race relations can be bettered, violence averted, and America made stronger only if all citizens demonstrate good will, speak responsibly, and strive to practice the principles of a democratic society.

We appeal to all Americans—black and white, young and old, rich and poor—to ponder the consequences of actions that separate people, engender strife, and result in bloodshed. We must not be a party to action that would divide our beloved nation and endanger our freedoms. We must rid ourselves of hatred, obey our laws and support their enforcement, and seek not merely our own good but the good of every man, woman, and child. Americans must remember that God is the author of our liberty and an ever-present help in time of trouble. Only if we look to him at this critical hour of personal and public responsibility is there lasting hope for America.

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