A Methodist church member, using the pen name Lonely Christian, wrote as follows in New Life an Australian Christian newspaper: “It is a wet Sunday morning and the question in my mind is this: ‘Is it worthwhile to walk a mile in the rain to the house of God to worship Him?’…A year ago you could really feel God’s presence and you would come away refreshed…forty years ago, or less (we) could grasp the majesty of God who was so far above us that we could worship Him. The Holy Spirit could so interpret the Word of God that we could understand and be saved…How can we worship a God who is merely one of us? These days come away from church dissatisfied and resentful. Where do I go from here?”
Lonely Christian Cries for Help
Lonely Christian tells us in his letter that a visit to an evangelical Presbyterian minister convinced him that the evangelical cause was a lost cause in the Presbyterian church. The local Salvation Army group, formerly a strong local Corps, having become infected by modern ideas has dwindled to a dozen or more members. The Anglican church in his area proved to be so high most Protestant minded folk transferred to the Methodist church. Of various splinter groups meeting in private homes one was visited. He did not return as the members of the group considered themselves the only Christians and praised Cod they were “not as others who had not come out.” Lonely Christian concludes the letter: “So what do I do? I know a missionary with similar feelings. Can anyone in similar circumstances please help?”
Lonely Christian refers to a number of factors in our contemporary times of ecumenicity, church renewal, theological reformulations and “death of God sentiments.” It is not my intention to discuss the attempts or to reformulate the abiding truths in terms of today. That it is necessary to an extent few, if any, would deny. That too many evangelical, conservative leaders do not attempt to do this brings deep trouble to the church. That this reformulation is done by some theologians and preachers who do not consider the Scriptural revelation as final and authoritative is a tragic fact. Half truths, error and theological nonsense all too often comes forth from such endeavours. Lonely Christian feels this though he may not be able to spell it out concretely.
In his resultant disappointments, resentments, bewilderment and deep confusion, Lonely Christian points up two of the forces in current ecclesiastical life. Again, he may not be able to spell out the various integral aspects of these forces but beyond a doubt, he has felt their impact. The forces I refer to could be spoken of as the spirit of ecumenicity and of church renewal.
These terms should be carefully defined and their exact denotations should be clearly set forth. But this is not easily done. These terms have come to have a variety of meanings. For some ecumenicity simply means the wiping of all denominational barriers, the sooner the better, yes, also between Roman Catholics, Protestants, Greek Orthodox and possibly even Judaists. For others it means the uniting of those churches who have much in common, be it a view of truth, liturgy, mission programs or cultural dimensions and visions. For still others, it means a gentle talking together, learning to appreciate each other. An example of this is the latest literary venture on the ecclesiastical scene in Australia. Together has been launched. This is a monthly Journal, backed by Protestant, Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians. The council governing the organization which produces this Journal is comprised of ministers and laymen of most of the denominations in Australia.
Then there is the “spiritual unity” view which seeks to smoothly obviate organic unity and to allow for cultural, national, racial, historical liturgical views and preferences to keep like believing Christians from joining together in confessing the truth in worship, preaching the gospel to unbelievers and fellowshipping as one family in Spirit and truth.
Whatever aspect of ecumenicity has influenced Lonely Christian I cannot say. But Lonely Christian does not seem to be ready to splinter the church or be part of a new group. The idea of organic, or at least organizational unity of some kind, is present. In the face of it he does not know what to do. He is utterly confused, bewildered. His cry for help is from the heart. It is the cry of a wounded, searching sou I, wandering, groping in the mixed rays of colored light shining in this present dark world.
Then there is the problem of church renewal. Men of every group, sect and/or church are using this term. The “fundamentalists” are increasingly using the term and they simply use it as a synonym for revival such as have taken place in the past. Others use the term in the sense of reformation; this can mean a return to cardinal doctrines of the Scriptures, a return to the outlook of Reformation times on the church and social life or to a complete reorganization of church life. This complete re-organization is not at all agreed upon either. Some would organize all Christians into a new fellowship, others the evangelical in one camp and liberals in another.
Lonely Christian has been confronted by the challenge of church renewal. But he is utterly confused. His former evangelical pastor worked for a special goal of renewal in terms of revival by evangelistic means. His present pastor works for renewal by accommodating the young people in using current popular fads, gimmicks and language. But the grand truths of the Scriptures are not presented. The Salvation Army has introduced modem ideas in the interest of renewal and is losing membership and zeal. The Church of England remains divided even as it seeks to be renewed. A segment is moving closer to sacramental theology and liturgical ritualism. Another segment is insisting upon the absence of the vestments, freedom in liturgical practises and seeks to put life into the fellowshipping community by gospel preaching, fellowship in prayer and song and evangelistic activities. Both segments however adhere unswervingly to the Common Book of Prayer and to the Episcopal form of church government.
Lonely Christian Receives Advice
Lonely Christian soon found out that he was not as (a)lone( ly) as he thought he was. A number of letters that appeared immediately after his cry for help indicated that some Christians had solved their problems -at least to their own satisfaction for a time. The most interesting fact about the response was that each writer indicated an awareness of the four basic factors of our contemporary times I referred to above. But there certainly was little if any agreement in the solutions that were offered. However, I think it fair to say that three specific approaches were strongly advocated.
1. Come out of the church and affiliate with a church or group that will not in any way tolerate apostacy. One advisor seemed to suggest that no church affiliation was to be preferred to affiliation with those who advocated unscriptural ideas and who freely accepted many modern ideas.
Those who are of this mind would define ecumenicity as unity in the truth. But this is to be variously applied. Some insist on agreement in doctrine in aspects in all areas of church life. Renewal is to be gained by separation from the local church and by affiliation with a live church or group. Others however would say renewal is to come in the form of the revivals of the 18th/19th century which allowed for differences in doctrinal emphases and church practices. But most of those of this mind call for a radical reformation of the church in most aspects of its existence.
2. “Stay in the church at all costs and in no way become guilty of schismatic action,” the opponents of group one write. By all means avoid the charge of separatism and divisive actions. Consider schisms to be a greater sin than apostacy. If you remain in the church you are not an apostate though you may be in a fellowship with them. If you separate from your church you are a schismatic and separatist. Thus to separate is the greater evil.
It is quite obvious that the influence of the ecumenical voices have made a strong and deep impact upon these advisors. The fear of more division is great. It may be considered the greatest of sins to participate in such actions. However, there is little positive advice or help that is given by this group. They are frustrated themselves in their search for ways of uniting Christians and renewing the church. They realize that truth and error can not be made to live as equally valid options on a co-existence basis within the church. Yet, co-exist is a must if the only alternative is to divide the organization or to separate from it.
3. The third group, the largest of the three, is closely related in some respects to group two. The affinity comes to the fore in the evidence of ecumenical influences. This group is distinct in that it is greatly concerned with an actual program of church renewal. It is at this point that minds differ sharply on how church renewal can best take place. I refer you to what I have mentioned in the first part of this essay on the various opinions concerning church renewal.
Here again we find three distinct minds or proposed methods of operation. Remember, that all are concerned with church renewal in the midst of ecumenical influences, theological reformulations and death of God sentiments.
The first method I would refer to is that of working within the local church. The advice is: attend the services in spite of what you see and hear. YOur presence is God honoring and there will be a blessing in fellowshipping (i.e., being together with others). Become a Sunday school teacher, be active in personal evangelism. Draw your strength from the Lord through personal Bible reading, prayer and mid-week prayer meetings.
The thought behind this method is that if all those who truly love the Lord, His Word, His church and those who are concerned for the lost, become active they will influence many others and thus the local congregations will be revived. However, much as this method seems to be in harmony with sound Scriptural principles and true church practices, the facts are that few such active members have been accepted as good influences by liberally inclined ministers, social minded members and cultural enthusiasts. Most of these personally attempted salting and leavening influences have been defeated by opposing forces and by lack of wisdom and (let’s admit it) misguided zeal on the part of the evangelical worker.
It would not be right if I gave the impression that all local Australian churches are under liberal leadership. After the election and installation of the Rt. Rev. M. L. Loane as Archbishop of the Sydney Diocese, all reading Christians should know that the Australian Church of England has a strong evangelical section in N.S.W. Moore Theological College, under strong evangelical leadership, has sent forth many conservative ministers into the Church of England. In like manner, Ridley College in Melbourne has done the same. Many Church of England parishes have fine Reformed theologically minded pastors who are active in church renewal by faithful gospel preaching, spiritual teaching and counseling and by positive evangelistic endeavors.
The members of these evangelical (low) Church of England parishes are not at ease however in the present ecumenical circumstances. The talks and plans of union with liberal dominated Presbyterians, Congregational and Methodist churches pose real threats for them.
Some Presbyterian and Methodist congregations are also evangelical in character often due to the influence of a local pastor and well read and active lay members. However, sad to say, these constitute a small minority within the churches as a whole.
The second method that is proposed is to remain a member of your local church but become a member of the evangelical or revival fellowship within your denomination. I will quote from an editorial in New Life in explanation.
“In an informative address on Evangelical Renewal delivered at the annual meeting of the Bible Union of Australia (Vic)…the Rev…spoke of the significant development of evangelical societies within the wider framework and testimony of the denominational life of the church. He mentioned the Westminster Fellowship (Presbyterian), the Aldersgate Fellowship (Methodist), Baptist Revival Fellowship and the Evangelical Fellowship of the Churches of Christ, and asked the question: ‘Have they any Scriptural and historical warrant for the existence of evangelical societies within the denominations to which they belong?’
(He) declared: Malachi’s testimony is no isolated one. ‘Then they that loved the Lord spake often one to another. This unobtrusive testimony runs back through the Old Testament. In the time of our Lord this ecclesiola was significantly identified—a people who looked for the Lord’s advent…praying…familiar with the Scriptures…believed them literally…They were within and not without the framework of Judaism. They were positive in their testimony.”
This then is a call for an ecclesiola within the ecclesiae, a church within the church. The historical record of the church indeed reveals the presence of these throughout all ages in the life of the church. Their positive value is often hotly disputed. Many ills in the church have been traced to these “ecclesiola.” But the fact remains that they arose because of greater ills already existing in the church. No one who is aware of circumstances and trends in the Presbyterian church of New Zealand will be able to deny that the Westminster Fellowship has been a source of great blessing to many Christians. The literature produced,
the conventions held and the indoctrination of young people have made positive contributions to the maintaining and development of Reformed theology and active evangelism in the church and country.
But, the question that must be faced is: and now what? Should the Fellowship plan, organize and conduct its own theological education program? This would be much like having a Moore and Ridley Theological College within the Presbyterian church. Should the Fellowship move on from conventions to more official types of meeting in which official pronouncements on doctrinal and church political matters are discussed and made? Lay members are pressing for such steps to be taken.
Historic Reformed Theology has not accepted the principle of the ecclesiola within the ecclesia. It has sought to follow the procedure of open paths to and through church councils and courts. But the tragic facts are that these paths are not always open because of technicalities. Nor have the courts always been impartial. What then?
The Australian church scene is presently well colored by the ecc1esiola. This is a fact. And for many folk it seems to be the only way to have fellowship in the truth, the Spirit and to have cooperation on a full orbed Scriptural basis in preaching and evangelism.
There is however another phenomenon to which I should refer. While enjoying my annual holidays I have met some very zealous Christians. Two young men are particularly “keen for the Lord.” A…was converted through a Wesleyan Methodist Mission. But he does not trust his “mother church,” “Too many preachers and teachers don’t teach me the truth as I read it in the Word” is his complaint. B…is an active member in the Church of Christ Both young men are lay preachers conducting services in local country churches, lead in Sunday School work, take active parts in youth work. A…has been executive secretary for a Christian Endeavor area. Where do A…and B…and their friends spend Sunday afternoon? In a nearby village, attending an “undenominational mission group fellowship.” A…explained, “All people who attend there really love the Lord and His Word. There we are revived and really helped. There we receive God’s guidance for Our task in our local churches, youth work and evangelism work.” Is this not a great complaint against the church of Jesus Christ?
What is the future of these fellowship groups? That can depend upon the leaders of such a group. If one person is dominant he may become pastor and soon a church is formed. In some areas such groups found it convenient to organize. Thus a new church (denomination) arose. The village group is conscious of ecumenical pressures. It does not want any new bodies. It cannot do without the spiritual blessings of the fellowship. So “we will continue as we are trusting the Lord will guide us.”
The third mind or method of renewing the church is the complete reforming of the church. I think it is proper to say that this is an emerging mind; many of the facets and aspects have not been worked Out. The goal however is quite clearly set out. Dr. D. Martin Lloyd-Jones of Westminster chapel, renown for his doctrinal preaching and teaching ministry, stated it at the second National Assembly of Evangelicals held in London, October 18–20. Dr. Lloyd Jones first said that the question of the church is always important. Today her condition is alarming. The world can afford to neglect us, make fun of us….Major denominations are ready to consider and alter their whole position and to become part of one world church. Our position is that we as evangelicals must start from the New Testament church. The emphasis is not to be on fellowship but on the truth. True doctrine is of the essence of the church. However, he went on to stress a church is not made by a confession, “it consists of saints, those who have been born again of the Spirit and are associated in fruitful fellowship.” Dr. Lloyd Jones then stated his goal “Let us unite as evangelicals in one church organization.” He made a specific call to unity through separation.
As I stated, a specific approach, method and channel of operation has not been spelled out or even clearly suggested. However some men are working in the direction of one united evangelical church. A member of the Westminster Fellowship (Presbyterian) of New Zealand has requested that a sample doctrinal statement, to serve as a basis for a call to unity, be drafted.
This suggested re-forming of the church would indeed be a second reformation. Those who love the truth of the infallible Word given by our Sovereign Lord are one people in essence. This type of people led in the reformation of the church in the 16th century. But that reformation was not complete. Divisions remained within the church. Now Dr. Lloyd Jones and many others, are calling for one evangelical protestant body in distinction from a liberal protestant body as well as distinct from the Roman Catholic body.
Lonely Christian has received much advice. He wrote a short thank you letter some weeks after he sent out his cry for help. He was thankful to all those who expressed sympathy, concern and who gave counsel. His greatest source of comfort was that he had come to realize that he was not alone in his confusion, bewilderment, search and desire for true worship.
What have the Reformed Churches to Offer Lonely Christian?
The question—What have we as Reformed churches to offer Lonely Christian?—occurred to me as I read the letter and the question has come back to me repeatedly.
We have the truth to offer him. Thanks be to God, we make it possible for him to hear it right in his home. The Back to God Hour broadcast has been and continues to be of much help to the many Lonely Christian (s).
Do we have a church fellowship to offer him? Some would say “we are not first of all interested in bringing the Lonely Christian (s) into our churches. Let us evangelize the lost and mold them to fit into our patterns.” This answer could be considered a smooth way of passing by the victim on the road. This could be considered a pious maneuver to maintain traditional, national and cultural customs, preferences and interpretations which are not germane to Reformed theology and therefore above all, not germane to the gospel of sovereign grace.
This question of fellowship poses many problems. Dr. Lloyd Jones says it is not of the essence of the church. But it is a real, true and abiding character of the church. The church is to be known as a fellowshipping body of saints in which saints from all nations, tongues and people can truly enter into fellowship. And whatever the reasons may be, many Lonely Christian(s) find it very difficult if not impossible to affiliate with the various local Reformed congregations. We are thankful that in many instances the truth proclaimed via the air waves has been a strong attracting feature; we are disheartened to find that the fellowship aspect has been a deterring feature.
Do we have the means and channels of evangelism so that we can offer Lonely Christian (s) an opportunity to join in corporate witness? Yes to an extent. This problem can be resolved when the “fellowship” problem is brought into perspective and is no longer an insurmountable barrier for many.
The Reformed Church members have much to offer Lonely Christian(s). But in offering their treasures in the Lord to these people, self must also be given and various extraneous things must be sacrificed. In this sphere lies the immediate and most urgent home work problem of Reformed Christians. Until this problem is properly delineated, solutions proposed and put into execution, the precious truth can be brought into the home to strengthen Lonely Christian(s) in his isolation via the Back to God Hour. But the ideal of “All one body we” will not be realized.
In conclusion I wish to express my appreciation to and admiration for Dr. Lloyd Jones for stating the goal to which all those should strive -those who truly love the Lord, adhere to his revealed infallible Word and seek to work for the glory of God in the salvation of lost sinners.
In Australia we must set our goals. We cannot hope to exist as a channel of covenantal blessing if we concentrate mostly on a careful maintaining of our status quo. Great, tremendous forces are at work. We cannot, we may not ignore these. The ecumenical force can be steered. guided at this stage. Church renewal is possible. Reformulation of truth is also possible. God is not dead, but lives. Because he lives we can rise up and in his strength meet the challenge of our times. Unto this end we labor in the Reformed Theological College. May God bless us!
The spiritual loneliness and distress of many evangelical Christians in churches which compromise the gospel is analyzed by Prof. George Van Groningen of the Reformed Theological College, Geelong, Victoria (Australia). The opportunities which this situation affords the Reformed churches are presented as a challenge to true ecumenicity.