A strange phenomenon has overtaken much of Christendom in the past ten years. The churches are being acted on by both centripetal and centrifugal forces: the one is bringing the churches together into union schemes such as COCU; the other is dividing the churches over matters of dogma, ethics, politics, and social action. At stake is the direction Protestant Christianity will take in the seventies and its ability to remain an effective evangelizing agent in a world gone mad.
Probably no other movement expresses more strongly the centripetal urge than COCU. The nine major denominations (African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Church [Disciples of Christ], the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church in the U. S., the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the United Presbyterian Church in the U. S. A.) now involved in this merger effort would together form the largest Protestant church in the United States.
Tragically, the union arrangement is a jumble of conflicting and dissonant elements. The Plan of Union must be judged a document of expediency in which major precepts are diluted. The new church could turn out to be a sterile hybrid if its proposed form is not changed substantially. The price of the merger may be the integrity of the denominations that enter it. (It can be argued, however, that some of the denominations involved in the merger have already squandered their heritage so recklessly that little is left to be lost through union.)
The doctrinal commitment of COCU is fuzzy and weak, and what it fails to say is even more important than what it says. Some non-negotiable tenets of the Christian faith have been sacrificed to facilitate union. For example, in the COCU view of Scripture the Bible “witnesses to God’s revelation.” It is not called God’s revelation—it merely “testifies to God’s mighty acts.…” It is “inspired writing bearing witness to God’s acts in history.” The failure to speak prophetically and decisively on that which must undergird all other doctrinal beliefs virtually guarantees that the new church would not have a sound theological foundation.
The mood and movement toward union are offset by intradenominational struggles. These have set in motion a centrifugal force that could stop COCU’s advance or result in a number of strong continuing churches outside the united church. In recent years the “establishment” of most denominations has been controlled by theological liberals. Of late, that control has been challenged in several denominations as concerned laymen and some clergy have become alert to the dangers and prompted to action. At the United Presbyterian General Assembly, for instance, the liberals were unable to defeat a motion that sought to acknowledge that “lust, adultery, prostitution, fornication, and the practice of homosexuality are sin.” (But the vote margin was razor thin—356–347). On the COCU document there was “the most significant dissent to date by any participating COCU body.”
At the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U. S., the new moderator, a strong proponent of COCU, slid into office by only a narrow margin. A proposal that the denomination drop its approval and support of Colloquy magazine, an increasingly offensive, sexually oriented, and morally debilitating publication, was turned back by a ten-vote difference. Both actions indicate a strong, if not decisive, groundswell against humanistic and liberal policies.
These meetings of the northern and southern wings of the Presbyterian church reveal the deep cleavages that divide the churches into two almost even parts. The cleavages are not limited to matters of sexual ethics: generally the advocates of COCU are the same people who voted for Colloquy and against the United Presbyterian statement that adultery and the practice of homosexuality are sin.
It appears that laymen in many denominations are reacting to the unfortunate trends in their churches by asserting what they believe, by withholding financial support, and sometimes by bypassing the institutional church. They will not be satisfied unless there is a swing toward biblical orthodoxy. If this does not come about, then the united church that is the goal of COCU, if it eventuates, will probably find itself considerably short of its projected 20–25 million adherents. For many will stay out of the new denomination, either to join other churches or to form continuing bodies of their own for the preservation of their historic witness.
The New Ecumenical Road
Before long, the National Council of Churches will become something other than what it now is. A special NCC task force has proposed four possibilities for a successor organization (see News, page 37). As part of the restructure process, a National Ecumenical Consultation will be called late this year. The time-table that the fifteen-member task force has suggested calls for a definite proposal to be formulated by next January and responded to by member churches by next June.
Thus far, there has been no evidence that the conciliar planners will take biblical priorities into account any more seriously than do the present prime movers. The task force seems to be laboring with the same old presuppositions that have alienated millions of American Christians during the last twenty years. Why don’t conciliar proponents realize that Christian unity is an illusion unless it is grounded genuinely on the revelation that defines that unity?
A Place To Stand
Some criticize Billy Graham for not being involved enough in the great problems of our time. Others are now saying that his identification with President Nixon makes him too much of a partisan on the issues that separate the American people. Where is he to stand?
Despite his spectacular evangelistic successes in the last twenty years, Graham makes his share of errors in judgment. One error he has not made, however, is to divert his attention from his calling, that of proclaiming the Gospel. Unfortunately, Americans today are so absorbed with problems that one can hardly say anything without being labeled a representative of this or that political viewpoint. Graham is a victim of this situation: no matter what he says or does, he will be accused of tipping his hand.
Graham does not want anyone to feel sorry for him because of this “fate,” but his friends, at least, ought to be aware of the pressures that are upon him from all fronts. His most expedient course would be to let up on evangelism to cater to this or that cause.
A particularly gratifying aspect of his five-day crusade in Shea Stadium last month was the large proportion of black people in the audience. One authoritative estimate was that they numbered as high as 25 per cent. The closing service was held, perhaps appropriately, on “Black Liberation Sunday.” As Graham told newsmen before the last service, “the only truly free people in America are those who know Christ.”
Defining Conscientious Objectors
The Supreme Court has opened the way for a spate of legal suits filed by citizens who would like to escape the rigors and hazards of military service. The court decided that the ethical and moral views of Elliott Welsh II, based not upon religious convictions but upon “reading in the fields of history and sociology,” entitle him to exemption from military service. The chief justice and Justices White and Stewart dissented.
Once again it seems that the Supreme Court has assumed legislative prerogatives that belong only to Congress. Justice White in his dissent pointed out that Welsh is “one of those persons whom Congress took pains not to relieve from military duty.” The draft law clearly says that exemption must be based on “religious training and belief” and that this excludes “essentially political, sociological, and philosophical views, or a merely personal code.” If the Supreme Court thought Congress erred in this legislation, it could have declared the draft law unconstitutional. This it did not do. Instead it interpreted the law to make it say what Congress did not intend it to say.
Formerly draft boards found it difficult to determine which men were genuine conscientious objectors on a religious basis. Now the court is asking the boards to determine, without adequate guidelines, whether thousands of additional young men who seek deferment deeply and honestly hold the convictions they claim. Draft boards have no special insight by which they can discern the honest from the dishonest.
We are deeply troubled also by the fact that intelligent, articulate students will gain an advantage over less well educated, less articulate, less well read men whose pleadings will be in vain. Members of minority groups, especially, are likely to be disadvantaged.
Although the court has closed the door to further rulings in this murky area until fall, we hope it will speedily remedy the ambiguity of the present situation either by nullifying the draft law or by upholding what Congress intended and plainly said in that law.
The Hard Hats
The latest polarizing symbol on the American scene is the hard hat. Designed to protect the heads of construction workers, these safety helmets have now come to represent a state of mind as well as a class of people. “Hardhattism” took a violent turn when construction workers in New York, provoked by an anti-war demonstrator who spit on an American flag, went on something of a rampage in the name of patriotism.
Hard-hat workers need to be better understood. By and large they do not originate in the more affluent sector of American life, as do so many radicals.
They usually come from homes where the pay check was earned by the exercise of the hands as well as the head. In short, they have struggled for what they have. They respect the system because it has rewarded their efforts and they are not about to risk its demise at the hands of a few experimental free-loaders.
More, however, needs to be said. Is their real motivation pure patriotism? Or is it a love of country plus a bent toward materialism? Christians need to see that hardhattism is understandable but not excusable when it, like the “new left,” uses force. If there is to be a resurgence of patriotism, Christians for their part ought to try to ensure that it is a wholesome expression based on divine strength rather than human weakness.
Wanted: Optimistic Christians
Events of recent days have set off new waves of despair and frustration. People are once again wondering what our world is coming to.
Let thinking evangelicals, young and old, grasp the opportunity of this hour and not be swept along by the tides of gloom. We can be thankful that people are aroused, that apathy is being overcome. How to channel the rising involvement and deepening concern is a tough problem, but a good one for us to tackle energetically.
The Old Testament shows that God used people in unusual ways in alien environments—Joseph in Egypt, Esther in Media and Persia, Daniel in Babylon. May the Spirit keep stalwart Christian men in our own times from yielding to pessimism. Instead may they speak out intelligently and make their influence felt. As perhaps never before, the world is searching anxiously for a way out, and Christians with insight and convictions ought to be serving as guides.
Whither Angela Davis?
The California Regents under the leadership of Governor Ronald Reagan have clipped the wings of Angela Davis, UCLA’s Communist professor of philosophy, by refusing to renew her teaching contract. The decision brought a furious backlash from some professors and the predictable claim that academic freedom is being bludgeoned to death. The case is of particular interest to Christians because the principles it involves are of paramount importance to Christian educational institutions and to the Church at large.
Angela Davis is a protegée of Herbert Marcuse, the Communist theoretician, who is an advocate of “repressive toleration.” Why she was employed in the first place is an unanswered question. One can hardly suppose that those who hired her were unaware of her Marxist orientation and propagandist stance.
It is plain that if Miss Davis were retained at UCLA, she would sabotage the democratic processes, and that if her ouster is maintained, she will continue to charge repression and infringement of academic freedom. It looks as if there must be a choice between sabotage and unqualified freedom of speech (a freedom that even the Supreme Court has limited by its classic decision that no one is free to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater).
All this bears hard on a problem very live in church circles today. Do freedom of speech and academic liberty give those within the churches and Christian colleges the right to undermine the purposes for which these churches and colleges were created? Or do churches and their institutions have the right, indeed the compelling necessity, to exclude from their fellowship those who refuse to support their basic aims and objectives? An equally thorny question is: When does free speech cease to be a means for expression of opinion and become a tool for indoctrination and subversion? When it becomes this, has not the concept of freedom of speech been perverted and does not the one who irresponsibly claims such freedom forfeit his right to it?
Communists in America demand freedom of speech, because that is democracy’s principle; but when Communists are in control, they deny freedom of speech, because that is not their principle. Perhaps Miss Davis would like to exchange places with some of the Soviet citizens who have been sent to labor camps and mental institutions for daring to challenge Communist oppression; surely they would welcome the freedom she has, and perhaps she would enjoy the “liberation” they are experiencing in their prison wards.
Wheeling In Grandeur
Some commuters, we hear (and see), are biking instead of driving to work this summer in an effort to impair the progress of pollution and repair flabby physiques. They arrive smudged from soot blowing in the wind, but on the way they hear the chatter of children and even the songs of birds instead of the rock tape the kids left in the car stereo last night. They smell noxious fumes from buses, cars, industries, and dirty rivers—but also, occasionally, a rose bush.
Replacing a few cars with bikes forges only one link in the chain of conservation—a worthy link, but one with weaknesses of its own. Besides man’s smudge on God’s grandeur, bikers must contend with raindrops falling on their heads, dogs nipping at their heels, heavy-footed drivers and light-fingered bike-nappers. In addition, girls must consider whether many skirts will provide maximodesty.
Biking may be a small cog in the struggle against smog, but it can be a big wheel in the fight against fat. A bicycle might be just the thing, for example, to carry a clergyman to church dinners and calls on his congregation’s best cooks. For that matter, a lot of lay people might also profit by wheeling away waistlines and pollution, and we could all enjoy parts of creation that remain relatively unsmudged if we took next Sunday afternoon’s ride on a bike.
On July 18, 1870, the bishops assembled at the First Vatican Council approved a formal statement of the infallibility of the pope. There were only two negative votes. In the hundred years since then this principle has been one of the biggest obstacles to Christian unity. Ironically, the bishops gave as one of their reasons for affirming papal infallibility, “that the occasion of schism might be removed, the whole Church preserved as one, and, secure on its foundation, stand firm against the gates of hell.”
To be sure, the statement of papal infallibility did not go nearly so far as some bishops wished. It was limited to ex cathedra statements of the pope, that is, those in which, “acting in the office of shepherd and teacher of all Christians, he defines … doctrine concerning faith or morals.” There is considerable uncertainty and ambiguity over just which of the innumerable papal statements are to be considered ex cathedra and therefore infallible. (Ex cathedra statements made before 1870 are involved also, for the decree was retroactive and included the assertion that the “See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error.…”)
Nevertheless, so traumatic was the effect of the pronouncement—generally welcomed by Catholics—that the papacy waited eighty years, until 1950, to make use of this power in a completely unambiguous ex cathedra declaration. It is worth quoting the supposedly infallible truth that earned this honor, which has not been awarded again since then: “We pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” Anyone who so much as calls into doubt this doctrine (on which the New Testament writers and all evidence from the early centuries of the Church is silent) is notified that “he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic faith.”
Since Roman Catholics themselves are extremely and deliberately hazy on just what papal infallibility means in practice, it is hardly fitting for Protestants to try to define it. The Second Vatican Council saw fit to reaffirm explicitly the principle without clarifying its ambiguities. But whatever it means, it is something that is not a part of true Christianity.
Roman Catholics used to say that having a living, ultimate arbiter of all theological disputes gave them a clear advantage over Protestants. Those Christians who assert that the Bible alone is the infallible source of doctrine on faith and morals are indeed notorious for their differing, and hence fallible, interpretations of this infallible source. However, Roman Catholics no longer make such a claim for it is now very obvious that they themselves disagree considerably not only on what the infallible statements mean but on which statements are infallible.
Logically, the idea of an infallible interpreter of divine revelation makes good sense. We submit, however, that this interpreter is not the supposed vicar of Christ who is bishop of Rome, but the only Vicar whom Christ actually appointed, the Holy Spirit himself. It is his function to lead us into all truth and to the extent that we follow him, he does. To desire infallible pronouncements by some human person or organization, is to reveal a basic discontent with the certitude that God himself, in the person of the indwelling Holy Spirit, implants in the hearts and minds of those who have accepted Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and the Scriptures as the inspired and infallible testimony to him.
‘For They Deal Honestly’
There are many ways to deal dishonestly. Many people do it deliberately, with malice aforethought. Many others defend their dishonesty by some form of rationalization. Some people take home from the office stamps, pencils, and various other small but useful articles. Some claim exemptions they’re not entitled to on tax returns. Some steal from stores—by actually taking an item without paying for it, perhaps, or by changing labels or packages so they get more than they pay for. Some do not report a bank or accounting error made in their favor. Some deliberately give their employer less than he is paying them for, while others refuse to pay employees what they can and should pay. Some take liberties with expense accounts—or maybe even clergy discounts. Other examples come readily to mind.
It would be gratifying to be able to assume that all professing Christians are scrupulously honest, but experience tells us otherwise. Some hold a very narrow view of the commandment “thou shalt not steal,” though they may be quick to condemn Rachel, who stole her father’s household gods, or Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright, or David the king, who stole his subject’s wife.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he said that those who steal live according to the principles of the Gentiles. “Let the thief no longer steal,” he counseled them, “but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his hands.”
The Scriptures also record for us a shining example of men who did just this. Josiah, one of the few good kings of Judah, had money collected from his people to repair the Temple. He ordered that this money be given directly to the workmen responsible for the job. These carpenters, builders, and masons are not named in the scriptural account, but they are identified by something more deserving of remembrance. Josiah said of them: “No accounting shall be asked from them for the money which is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly” (2 Kings 21:7). What a commendation!
These men dealt honestly. Do we?
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