Ten years ago Eugene Carson Blake, then stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church, delivered an address in the cathedral church of Bishop James Pike in San Francisco. Out of that speech has developed COCU, the Consultation on Church Union. It has for its immediate goal the formation of the Church of Christ Uniting, which will include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the 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.
At the ninth plenary session of COCU in St. Louis last March, a Plan of Union was presented to the delegates. This document constitutes the substructure on which the new church will be built, and in it the provisions of the union are spelled out with precision. It is an impressive product into which much labor and care have been poured; indeed, numerous changes in the text have improved it. It is worthy of the most careful analysis, not only by the denominations currently participating in the merger but by all denominations and all Christians, because it is the announced purpose of the champions of COCU to try to bring into this union, sooner or later, all the churches of Christendom. They envision at last the one holy catholic visible church on earth.
We could profitably examine many of the secondary facets of the Plan of Union. But for most people, the two matters of overriding importance are: (1) What will the theological basis of the union consist in? (2) What will the polity, the church government, be? Answers to these two questions will determine the acceptability of the Plan of Union for many clerical and lay people, whether their denominations are now part of COCU or are among those that COCU would like to add in the future.
The denominations participating in COCU either are presently committed to a confession (or confessions) of faith or have grown up out of church groups that were controlled by creeds or confessions. The Episcopal Church has its Thirty-nine Articles. The Presbyterian Church in the U. S. and the United Presbyterian Church have the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the United Presbyterians have also the Confession of 1967. The United Church of Christ, a result of the 1957 merger of the General Council of the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, has the statement of faith adopted at Oberlin in 1959. The various Methodist bodies are tied in one way or another to the Thirty-nine Articles of Anglicanism, the root from which they have sprung.
Chapter V of the Plan of Union contains The Confession for the new church. Here lies the theological basis to which the churches will commit themselves when the merger takes place. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are specifically cited. But they will have no binding force in the new church. These creeds “the united church accepts … as witnesses of Tradition to the mighty acts of God recorded in Scripture.” They are “classic expressions of the Christian faith” and “have a wider acceptance than the more recent formulations or confessions by separated parts of the church” (pp. 26, 27).
In addition to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, the new church will accept the “corporate covenant and confessions” of the uniting denominations and “agrees to the continued use of these as enrichments of its own understanding of the Gospel” (p. 27; italics added). But none of these statements, separately or corporately, will in any true sense be binding on anyone in the united church, for the church “will not use any of these confessions as the exclusive requirement for all, nor permit them to become a basis for divisions in the new community” (p. 27). It follows, then, that any who for conscience’ sake raise issues that divide will have to be dealt with, though how this will be done is not explained in the document. Indeed, this sort of statement precludes significant discussions about deep-seated differences that everyone knows exist and cannot be swept under the rug. It also means that the new church will have what is essentially an inclusive, eclectic theology, a collection of what are certain to be conflicting and irreconcilable viewpoints.
It is true that in each of the denominations involved in the union, widely divergent theologies already prevail. There are humanists, liberals, neo-orthodox, evangelicals, and fundamentalists in all of them. In this sense the new church will simply be an enlargement of an already existing pattern. The Plan of Union is so constructed, however, that those who might desire to challenge what they feel are unbiblical opinions will find their hands tied. Those who enter the merger bind themselves to the Plan of Union, “which guarantees to respect the conscientious convictions of individual members and to enhance the deeply personal character of Christian faith” (p. 27) but will not permit confessions to become a basis for division. Thus those who do not believe the confessions will be protected, it seems, while those who might wish to protest unbelief will have forfeited the right to act, since they will have agreed that confessions should not become a basis for divisions.
This introduces into the situation an element not present in most, if not all, of the uniting churches as presently constituted. The right of individual conscience is a precious one; every man has the right to believe as he chooses. But nearly every association of men has its ground rules, designed to open the door to those who are in agreement with the basic beliefs of the association and to close the door against those who are not. This provision will be virtually non-existent in the new church.
Even the power of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as witnesses to truth is so diluted in the Plan of Union as to make these creeds inconsequential. “They are for the guidance of the members of the church and are to be used persuasively and not coercively” (p. 27). Various surveys taken in recent years indicate that substantial numbers of the clergy of the uniting denominations now disbelieve many of the particulars of these creeds, and it is ludicrous to expect that such men will use “persuasively” among their people what they themselves deny. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, then, that the new church, without binding confessions and with no real barriers to exclude unbelief, will be syncretistic.
The projected confession does include some familiar concepts and phrases: Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour; the one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; saved by grace; justified by faith; the authority of Scripture; the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. But these are not defined, and the church is to be informed by the confessions of the uniting churches but not bound by them.
What is meant, for example, by the phrase “authority of Scripture”? Is Scripture inspired by God? If so, all of it or parts of it? Is it to be trusted? Does it present propositional truth? Nor is the confession specifically trinitarian. The statement about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is so worded that any Unitarian could agree to it without crossed fingers or mental reservations (“In glad celebration we worship the one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit [p. 27]). That the one God subsists eternally in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is not made clear. Nothing is said about the eternity of the Son and the Spirit. Nothing is said of the Virgin Birth. The death of Christ is mentioned (“Jesus Christ crucified and risen” [p. 26]; “in his life, death, and resurrection” [p. 18]), but nothing is said of its theological meaning. Whereas the Westminster Confession of Faith (accepted by Presbyterians and, in modified form, by Congregationalists and Baptists) speaks of a vicarious and substitutionary atonement in which the wrath of God was satisfied, the new formulation says nothing like this. Similarly, the resurrection of Christ from the dead is mentioned, but its historic content is left unstated. The phrase “raised from the dead” means different things to different people; since nothing is said of the biblical teaching that Christ rose from the tomb in the same body and that the tomb was empty, members are free to let their “conscientious convictions” determine the meaning of the phrase.
Scripture is said to be “included in the Tradition” and is to be “interpreted in the light of the Tradition” (p. 26). The new church is to be “under the authority of Scripture,” but it is impossible to determine what “being under” means. One thing is clear: the new church will not be committed to an infallible Scripture. There is little reason to hope that churches now seemingly unconcerned about an infallible Word and willing to permit within them all shades of opinion under existing and supposedly binding confessions will in the united church be more strict or more concerned. Indeed, everything points in the opposite direction—to an inclusive church, marked by theological vagary, entertaining opposing viewpoints, having a compass that points in all directions at the same time.
That the formulators of the Plan of Union expected opposition and are prepared to offset it may be seen from a number of illuminating statements: “Our efforts to unite in a common obedience no doubt will release divisive forces” (p. 10), and such divisive forces, even though based on biblical grounds and standing for truth, are not to be tolerated; “we envisage a united church, embodying all that is indispensable to each of us”—even though this may violate logical consistency and the biblical witness itself; “oneness in the church is required for the credibility and effectiveness of Christ’s mission”—a statement that has never been true and one that fails to acknowledge that the greatest missionary advance since the days of the apostles came in the nineteenth century, when the Church was more divided denominationally than at any other period in its history.
Various statements in the Plan of Union can only yield the conclusion that the new church will be committed to the supposition that all men will be saved. Belief in universal salvation is characteristic of segments of the ecumenical movement and seems to be growing in strength. The plan foresees “the oneness of all men as reconciled in Christ’s new creation” (p. 11); “the church invites the world to see foreshadowed the final destiny God has prepared for all mankind and to participate in it” (p. 17); “through this act [the identification of the risen and ascended Christ with mankind] God draws all men into fellowship with his Son” (p. 18). In a church that intends to regard as divisive those who raise questions that could become a basis for division, one can expect short shrift for people who believe in hell and are willing to make an issue of it.
The theology of the new church, as it now stands, hardly constitutes an endorsement of that to which the uniting churches have traditionally been committed since their earliest days. The union will mark the end of adherence to creeds and confessions as we have known them (or their use to determine orthodoxy) and will decisively depreciate the value of great documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith. Rather than hastening the reunion of churches based on biblical truth, the Church of Christ Uniting is likely to be an affront to bodies like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Southern Baptists, and the smaller denominations in the National Association of Evangelicals.
As it now reads, the COCU confession will not satisfy those who stand in the evangelical tradition. If the united church becomes a reality without considerable improvement of the present doctrinal platform, evangelicals will be faced with difficult decisions. They can go into the union but will have to compromise conscience. They can withdraw by exercising an option that is part of the Plan of Union. If many churches opt out and establish continuing denominations, then the total number of denominations is likely to increase, even though the uniting church will undoubtedly become the largest single Protestant body in the United States.
Evangelicals who are not pleased with the present confession of the new church are likely to be equally unhappy with its ecclesiology. This aspect of COCU we will discuss in the second part of our critique in an examination of the Parish Plan and the historic episcopate, which are integral to the COCU Plan of Union.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more