Note: This is the tenth of a series of articles on common contemporary viewpoints which are contrary to orthodox Christianity.
The subject of church union is being discussed today perhaps more than at any time since the Reformation. Nor is it merely being discussed, for in recent years a number of unions of various denominations have been effected, while others are in process or negotiation at the present time. In view of this situation, every intelligent Christian should know what to think of the question of church union.
The demand for organic union of churches arises from the fact of denominational divisions. It will be readily admitted by every orthodox Christian that denominationalism is an evil. It proceeds from human fallibility and sinful proneness to error; therefore it is a product of human sinfulness. We should dismiss as unbiblical the idea that denominationalism—the division of Christian people in to mutually exclusive churches—is either good, or inherently indifferent. In the existing situation denominationalism may be, for the time being, an unavoidable evil. But still it is an evil and should be so regarded.
To affirm that denominationalism is an evil does not imply that it is easy to find the proper remedy for the evil; far less does it imply that denominational divisions ought simply to be abolished and all professing Christians be members of one and the same organized church regardless of their differences of belief. Such a remedy would indeed be worse than the disease itself. There is no easy shortcut to real Christian unity; there is no quick, easy way by which the divisions of the visible church can really be healed.
The Only Valid Ideal
Church union on the basis of mutual agreement concerning the truth revealed in the Scriptures is indeed a valid ideal which all Christians should cherish and toward which they should strive. Nor is church union on such a Scriptural basis inherently unattainable. It may be practically unattainable at the present time, because the churches do not value truth highly enough to devote the requisite time, prayer, patience and money to the pursuit of it.
Three centuries ago the Westminster Assembly of Divines met in England in pursuit of mutual agreement concerning the revealed truth of God. This renowned body consisted of some 150 ministers and theologians representing all parties of English Protestantism, with the single exception of the “high” Episcopalianism of archbishop Laud. The Westminster Assembly sat for seven years and held 1163 sessions seeking agreement concerning divine truth. These men valued truth highly, and they knew that mutual confession of it cannot be obtained by an easy shortcut. Because of their thoroughness and patience, their work has stood the test of time. But today many Christians would regard such an assembly as a waste of time and money that ought to be devoted to “practical” purposes. Perhaps few Christians or churches of the present day would value truth highly enough to seek agreement on it through years of patience, plodding work such as that of the Westminster Assembly of Divines. Moreover many present-day churches and their leaders would not even agree to the Westminster Assembly’s starting point, a recognition of the Bible as the infallible Word of God. May God grant that a better day may dawn, when truth will be valued as the most priceless of all possessions, and no cost be considered too high to pay for the attainment of Christian unity, and church union, on the basis of agreement in confession of the truth.
In contrast to this ideal of church union on the basis of truth, the prevalent type of church union propaganda of the present day is unscriptural, and is properly called a “popular religious fallacy.” Moreover it is a fallacy that has captivated the fancy of multitudes of church members who ought to know better.
Mistaking Symptoms for Disease
The popular church union movement of today is unscriptural and wrong because it fails to recognize the real cause of the trouble. It fails to discern the fact that denominational divisions arc only symptoms of the disease, while beneath the surface lies the deep-seated cause, namely, sinful human error. Every competent physician, before deciding on a remedy for a patient’s disease, always seeks to diagnose the case, to determine the real nature and cause of the trouble. The current church union movement mistakenly regards the denominational divisions as the disease, while quite failing to see the real cause beneath these superficial symptoms. Because of failure to recognize sinful human error as the cause of denominationalism, the church union movement cannot provide an adequate remedy. It is unwilling and unable to face the fact of error and deal with it.
The church union movement also disregards the importance, or even the existence, of divinely revealed truth. It is based on the notion that truth—doctrine—is not very important and need not be a barrier to the external union of denominations.
Such popular “liberal” slogans as “Christianity is not a doctrine but a way of life,” “Tolerance is the American way of life,” and the like, have eaten like termites at the very foundations of many churches, until today their members are skeptical or indifferent concerning matters of truth or doctrine. Consequently it is easy for their leaders to advocate programs of church union on the basis of disregard of doctrinal differences.
In the past, where church union has taken place it has usually been effected on the basis of a compromise creed, that is, a creed in which each party to the union sacrifices something which it believes to be divinely revealed truth. When a denomination has been formed on the basis of such a compromise creed, its subsequent history is usually one of doctrinal decline and disintegration. One compromise having been made, it is easy and natural to take further compromises as the years pass.
More recently, a new and even more perverse type of church union has appeared, namely, union on the basis of a minimal creed. This means a creed so brief and so vaguely worded that it does not commit the united church to much of anything. Such minimal creeds are very carefully and skillfully written so as to evade the issues which might occasion future controversy or division. In former times everyone recognized that the purpose of a creed was to make the doctrines held by a church clear, and to distinguish them as sharply as possible from contrary views. But today with the advent of the minimal creed this is strangely reversed. The purpose of a minimal creed is not to make doctrines clear, but to leave them in vagueness and obscurity, so that those who hold contradictory views can interpret the creed as they see fit. Today many seem to prefer a convenient vagueness to clear and accurate expression, and an atmosphere of low visibility to the clear daylight of precise formulation. As an example of such apparently studied vagueness and deliberate ambiguity or non-committal character, reference may be made to the doctrinal statement entitled “The Faith by which the Church Lives,” adopted by the International Missionary Council at its Madras meeting, in 1938.
The Human Efficiency View
The current church union movement is also unScriptural because it is based on a mistaken notion of the real power and effectiveness of the church, namely, the idea that the effectiveness of the church is comparable to that of a human organization or business concern. Many advocates of church union seem to think that the more colossal the organizational structure, and the more centralization of controlling power at the top under a single leadership, the more effective the church will be in “building the Kingdom” (as the phrase goes). But this is a very mechanical and worldly view of the power and effectiveness of the church. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Zech. 4:6). The real power in the church is the power of the Holy Spirit, and that cannot be channeled and directed according to human planning and strategy. The church is not a political lobby, nor an engineering corps, nor a propaganda machine. Its real effectiveness is inherent in its supernatural character and endowment; it is dependent upon the special work of the Holy Spirit.
Present-day American Protestantism, with its huge, top·heavy structure of organization in the major denominations, presents a dismal picture. The church in the period of its greatest purity and power the apostolic age—possessed no top-heavy bureaucratic organization, no standards of efficiency, no endowment funds, no statistical reports. But it had sound doctrine, vital Christian experience, true spiritual fellowship, and the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit which produced a tremendous impact upon its non·Christian environment.
In our day the eclipse of faith in the truth of the Bible, which has followed widespread acceptance of the “higher criticism” and the doctrine of evolution, has been paralleled by what may be termed the human efficiency view of the church.
This view regards the power of the church as a human power, and supposes that the impact of the church can be directed and channeled in a sort of eccleciastical “planned economy.” The sovereignty of God and the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit are forgotten; the church’s work is planned, projected and promoted as if it were the development of an oil-field or the establishment and maintenance of a chain of department stores.
Naturally this “human efficiency” view of the church has been followed by an insistent demand that all duplication of effort be avoided, and that every activity be geared to human “standards of efficiency.” It is demanded that small denominations be merged in larger ones, and that the large ones eventually become one single united church. On the level of the local congregation, people are asking why a town should have several small churches, when they could be merged into one large one that could afford to pay a minister a good salary. Could not one large church do the community more good than several smaller ones? it is asked. Thus all questions of faith and conscience are swept overboard, while the whole stress is placed on worldly efficiency and business management.
In reply, we may say, if the several small churches are all doctrinally corrupt and spiritually dead, so that none of them is a living witness for the Gospel of divine grace and the real truth of God, then it makes very little difference whether they remain separate or are united into one organization. From the standpoint of the Kingdom of God, several small dead churches amount to about the same thing as one large dead church. In neither case will the real work of the church be done. It makes little difference whether the false doctrine of salvation by character be proclaimed by one well-paid minister or by a half a dozen poorly-paid ones.
It makes little difference whether a human counterfeit of the work of the Holy Spirit be carried on efficiently or inefficiently, whether it be controlled by one unified management, or by several separate ones.
But if one of the churches is a real church of Jesus Christ, with a living faith and a true witness to the saving grace of God and the Scriptures as the Word of God, then it would be a tragedy indeed for such a church, for reasons of “efficiency,” to be merged with spiritually dead churches which have no message other than human goodness and character-building, or the “Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.” The church which is a real witness for Christ may be inefficient when judged by standards which are applicable to a packing house or an automobile factory, but it is a witness to God’s truth and an instrument of the Holy Spirit in the world. The Lord will not remove such a church’s candlestick from its place. No reasons of “efficiency” or “business management” can warrant such a church being merged with spiritually dead or doctrinally corrupt churches. We must leave the dead to bury their dead, while we go and preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Truth May Not Merge With Error
What has just been said about local congregations applies, of course, equally to denominations. A doctrinally pure, spiritually alive, witnessing denomination may not be merged, [or reasons of expediency or practical advantage, with doctrinally corrupt or unfaithful denominations. A church is responsible, not to spiritually blind efficiency experts or strategy-planners, but to the Lord Jesus Christ, the great Head of the Church, We should beware of a system of ecclesiastical “efficiency” which places heresy on a par with orthodoxy, and which regards financial and statistical “success” as more important than loyalty to truth.
Much has been said about the evil of competition between churches. Perhaps it is not without significance that those who most strongly oppose competition between churches also oppose competition in the economic realm. In both the ecclesiastical and the economic realm, of course, there are forms of competition which are evil and which ought to be avoided. But surely the evil of competition between churches has been grossly exaggerated. A doctrinally pure and spiritually alive church ought to compete as hard as it can against all corrupt and unfaithful churches. To win as many people as possible to membership in a pure and faithful church, even at the expense of corrupt and unfaithful churches, is not wrong; it is simply our duty.
All Christian people should discern the real nature and aims of the church union propaganda which is so popular and so insistent today. We should realize that this propaganda is the offspring of a marriage between doctrinal indifferentism and a worldly, mechanical notion of the power and effectiveness of the church. Over against this unscriptural type of church union propaganda we should place the true scriptural ideal of church union on the basis of mutual confession of the truth of God revealed in the Scriptures.