This essay is written in the context of the current Consultation on Church Union and out of concern for what that project presumes.

The pursuit of Christian unity has been for many years a major passion of my life. I have striven by every possible means to promote the visible expression of Christian oneness, and of dynamic corporate action on the part of all people who profess commitment to Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. This endeavor has crossed ecclesiastical boundaries, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic. It has confronted Pentecostals and neo-Pentecostals, and Christian enterprises that are independent of any churchly control.

The most delicate question in one’s relationship with other Christians has always been, what is the Church? I have been saying since the thirties: Let the Church be the Church. But what is the Church? When is the Church truly the Church? I have written much on this subject, including a book published in the early sixties entitled Ecumenics: The Science of the Church Universal. In that volume I discussed the dramatic “Blake-Pike proposal” that gave birth to the Consultation on Church Union. During the past decade, revolutionary things have happened both in the Church and in the world that give still greater poignancy to my early critique of this particular approach to Christian unity.

There is a unity, let it be emphasized, that is native to the Church—that belongs to its essence. The Christian Church is the world community of all those for whom Jesus Christ is Lord. In loyalty to Christ this community is spiritually one across all boundaries of tradition, race, nation, culture, and organizational structure. Being such, the Church is called upon by its Lord to give visible expression to its essential oneness in him. All who rightly bear the name Christian, wherever they be around the globe, should visibly manifest, individually and corporately, love for one another and concern for the common faith, and should engage in activities related to the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ and to the pursuit of the Kingdom of God. In accord, however, with spiritual reality, Christian oneness need not and should not be identified with a single institutional structure; rather, oneness is a matter of collective commitment to Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and the Kingdom, and to the simultaneous manifestation of the rich human friendship that Christian commitment can and should engender.

From the perspective of these observations let me offer some reflections on the Consultation on Church Union.

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I begin with the unwarranted assumptions upon which the COCU Plan of Union is founded.

1. It is assumed that ecclesiastical diversity is in itself a tragic evil, that it violates the concept and reality of Christian unity, and that it creates an erroneous impression of the true nature of the Church.

2. It is assumed that the essential and indispensable expression of Christian unity is organizational oneness, and that the Church’s mission can be fulfilled locally, nationally, and globally only by the formation of a single ecclesiastical structure. But historic fact is ignored: a church structure can be monolithically one while being spiritually sterile.

3. It is assumed that baptism, confirmation, and consequent church membership give people the automatic right to be designated Christian, without serious exploration of the reality and necessity of individual conversion, and of a conscious personal relationship to Jesus Christ as a living presence, whatever designation this relationship be given. These two substantive realities, commitment to Christ as Saviour and obedience to Christ as Lord, must be taken seriously in individual Christian living if the Church’s witness in the world is to be authentic and dynamic. For this reason intensive thought must be given to the dual dimension of the term reconciliation. In church circles there is a need to recall that God’s reconciliation to man in Christ does not automatically involve man’s reconciliation to God. A host of church people who bear the name Christian are not personally reconciled to God through faith in Christ. The New Testament concept of God-man reconciliation calls for a fresh study in depth.

4. It is assumed that conciliar unity and close cooperation in mission on the part of Christians across all boundaries—ethnic, ecclesiastical, geographical—fails to give adequate expression to the nature of the Church as the worldwide community of Christ.


Let us also look at COCU in the perspective of the contemporary situation and revolutionary change.

1. This Plan of Union fails to take cognizance of certain basic realities today, both secular and religious, that give a necessary perspective for a creative approach to church unity in our time. The Plan is excessively descriptive of the traditional ecclesiastical image, while being embarrassingly insensitive to the emergence of a new unpopular image of the Church, and to the current revolutionary situation in the world.

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2. The revolutionary change in mood and activity now under way in church and society—very especially the youth movements—together with the radical problems that this change has created for Christian thought and life and for all church organizations, must be given serious consideration in any scheme of church union. There is little evidence in the Plan of Union, however, that this revolutionary situation is being given the status it merits.

3. It is important to bear in mind that the Christian groups now growing most rapidly in numbers and most dynamically contributing to the advancement of the Christian faith function outside the traditional church structures. Leaders of some of those groups, while continuing to be loyal members of their own denominations, devote their time and energy to the promotion of missionary enterprises not officially related to the churches to which they belong.

4. Serious thought must be given to the phenomenal change now taking place in the Roman Catholic Church throughout the world. The affirmation is being made in important circles in this great communion, “We Catholics must make Christians.” The basic issue is being raised, “What does it mean to be a Christian?” The time has come for this question to be seriously asked in Protestant churches. Can a person be a Protestant without being a Christian? How far does religious nominalism cloud and stymie consideration of the real issues in the churches of historical Protestantism?

5. The Plan ignores the revolutionary growth and challenge of the new charismatic movement, not only in the fast-growing Pentecostal churches but also within the membership, ministerial and lay, of the older Protestant denominations, and in the past few years among the clergy and laity of the Roman Catholic Church.


It is my judgment that what is most needed in Christendom today is not ecclesiastical union but evangelical renaissance.

What I mean by this is a rediscovery by the Church universal of the Christian Gospel in its four dimensions: as historical event, spiritual rebirth, evangelistic imperative, and social concern. This rediscovery would involve a dynamic confrontation of the human situation in all its facets—a confrontation which, in the light of the Crucified and Risen Christ as a historical and contemporary reality, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, would be a creative contribution to both the Church and the Kingdom.

Let me repeat what I have already suggested. The supreme need in the Church of our time is new men and women, persons committed to Jesus Christ and to the timeless values of the Church’s faith, who at the same time are dedicated to cooperating with fellow Christians in showing the present-day significance of those values. Whenever and wherever ecclesiastical union can make a dynamic and creative contribution to the Kingdom of God, let it be zealously pursued. This, however, is my conviction: Organizational oneness, whether in church, society, or state, is not the answer to the basic problems of the human community today.

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What then is the answer? The answer is a fresh discovery of the abiding reality and relevance of Jesus Christ and the emergence of a worldwide fellowship born of the Holy Spirit.

John A. Mackay was president of Princeton Seminary for twenty-three years. He previously was a missionary in Peru, and he is an authority on Hispanic thought. He has been president of the World Presbyterian Alliance and moderator of the United Presbyterian General Assembly.

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