THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
It is not at all difficult to enumerate several characteristics of the Christian church. The teaching of Scripture on the nature of the church is clear.
The church is not of human but of divine origin. It was God who established his covenant with Abraham and his seed (Gen. 17:7). Abraham’s “seed” embraced believers of both dispensations, believers in the Christ of prophecy as well as believers in the Christ of history (Gal. 3:7, 29). And with specific reference to the church of the new dispensation the Son of God said: “I will build my church” (Mat. 16:18). As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, “The Son of God, from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers…to himself by his Spirit and Word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life” (Answer 54).
The church consists of God’s elect of every age and of every nation, all whom Cod chose in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and who, drawn by the Father, come to Christ in faith (John 6:44). In his high-priestly prayer Jesus identified those whom the Father bas given him with those who believe on him (John 17:6–8).
The Greek word used most frequently in the New Testament for the church is ekkrcsia. It designates the church as the communion of those called out by God from the world to be unto him “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people” (I Pet. 2:9). That description applies to God’s covenant people of the old as well as the new dispensation (cf. Exodus 19:5, 6). Together they constitute the one church of God.
Repeatedly Scripture denominates the church “the body of Christ.” The metaphor is exceedingly meaningful. Believers constitute that body of which Christ is the Head. He is their federal Head. He bore the divine curse which was due to them (Cal. 3:10,13), and his perfect righteousness is imputed to them (Rom. 5:18). He is their organic Head. The life which he imparts to them is his very own. The same Spirit dwells in both Christ and his church. He is in believers and they are in him (John 15:4, 5). He is their ruling Head. God declared: “Yet have I set my King upon my holy hill of Zion” (Ps. 2:6), and the church is “the kingdom of God’s dear Son” (Col. 1:13). He governs the church. To be sure, in its organizational aspect he governs it through the instrumentality of men as his representatives in the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. Yet he does the ruling.
Because of their common relationship to Christ believers are “members one of another” (Rom. 12:5; Eph. 4:25). The Apostles’ Creed correctly defines the church as “the communion of saints.” Nothing could be clearer than that the church is one. All that was just said on the nature of the church points to that truth. Believers of all lands and all ages constitute the one body of Christ. They have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph.4:5). The saints in glory too are included in the one church.
THE MARK OF THE TRUE CHURCH
Bound up indissolubly with its nature is the mark of the true church.
In the days of the sixteenth-century Reformation, Protestants were deeply concerned to distinguish between the true church and the false. The Belgic Confession states : “The marks by which the true church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishment of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the Church”; and it adds that the true church and the false “are easily known and distinguished from each other” (Article XXIX ). Here it may be remarked that we do well to remember that it is more difficult to judge of the subjective Christianity of a person than to judge of the objective Christianity of a church.
To state the matter comprehensively, the mark of the true church is loyalty to the truth as revealed in the written and the personal Word of God.
Concerning the Scriptural character of that proposition there can be no doubt. The church was founded upon the truth. When Peter, as spokesman of the twelve, had confessed Jesus to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” the Lord said : upon this rock I will build my church” (Mat. 16:16, 18). Whether the “rock” is Peter’s confession or the confessing Peter as representative of the apostles, in either case Jesus declared the church to be founded upon the truth that he is the Christ, the Son of God. When the church is said to be “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20), the reference is clearly, although not exclusively, to the teachings of Christ and his servants. Bccause the church is built on so finn a foundation, “the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Mat. 16:18). In other words, to the end of time there will be a church founded upon the truth. Its being founded upon the truth of special revelation is of its essence. And it was to the church that Christ gave the assurance: “I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you forever: even the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16, 17). At Pentecost that Spirit of truth was poured out upon the church as never before. He took permanent possession of the church. The conclusion is inescapable that the church and the truth are inseparable. That church which is loyal to the truth is a manifestation of the true church. That church so-called which is disloyal to the truth is a false church.
The true church is the communion of those who believe the truth, holding for truth all that God has revealed to us in his written Word (Heidelberg Catechism, Answer 21) and abandoning themselves for salvation to the personal Word, whose name the inscripturated Word declares to be the only name given under heaven by which men must be saved (Acts 4:12). In the apostolic age faith was the one requisite—children aside—for reception into the church by baptism (e.g., Acts 8:37; 16:30–34).
The true church is the communion of those who confess the truth. Confession with the mouth is as necessary for church members as is believing in the heart (Rom. 10:9). They are in sacred duty bound to show forth the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light (I Pet. 2:9).
The true church is the communion of those who obey the truth. Its members arc sanctified by the truth (John 17:17). They walk in the truth (II John 4–6). Their faith works by love (Gal. 5:6). They love God because he first loved them (I John 4:19); and because they love God they love one another (I John 4:7 ), in fact, all men, even their enemies (Mat. 5:43–48). They obey Christ as Lord and King, the controlling question of the life of each of them being: “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:6)
The true church is the communion of those who publish the truth. The Spirit of truth poured out upon the church at Pentecost rendered the church a witnessing church. All the members 01 the Jerusalem church, being filled with the Holy Spirit, at once proclaimed in various tongues the wonderful works of God (Acts 2:4, 11). Having received power from on high, the church was henceforth Christ’s witness “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The church believes; therefore it speaks (II Cor. 4:13). It preaches Christ crucified and resurrected, according to the Scriptures (I Cor. 15:3, 4). Through the gospel it would make disciples of all nations (Mat. 28:19).
The true church is the communion of those who uphold the truth. It is under orders to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude:3). It is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim. 3: 15). Not only must it uphold the truth, it does that. With the apostle Paul it says: “I am set for the defence of the gospel” (Phil. 1:17). The upholding of the truth is of its very essence. That church which has ceased being militant against sin. the sin of error included, has ceased being a manifestation of the true church.
The true church is the communion of those who suffer for the truth. The eight beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount name so many marks of every Christian. The concluding one reads: “Blessed are ye when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Mat. 5:11. 12). Prophets are men who witness for the truth of God. For that very reason in the course of history they have had to bear the brunt of persecution. Every living church member is a prophet.
THE DOCTRINAL BASIS OF THE WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES
Until recently the WCC described itself as “a fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour,” The Third Assembly, foregathered at New Delhi, India, in 1961, amplified that doctrinal basis by the addition: “according to the Scriptures, and therefore seek to fulfill their common calling to the glory of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” It cannot be denied that the Council’s affirmation of faith sounds orthodox and on the face of it even excels in orthodoxy, It would seem to be the sort of affirmation that might well be adopted by a true church. Does it not honor the Bible? Does it not recognize God as triune? Does it not confess Christ as both God and Saviour? However, for its proper evaluation several facts, about to be named, must be borne in mind.
1n the first place, the aforenamed additions met with considerable opposition at New Delhi. Yet, when it was adopted, those who had opposed it did not sever their connection with the Council. Evidently there are those within the Council who, to put it mildly, have misgivings about either the reference to Scripture or the reference to the Trinity or possibly about both those references in the Council’s revised doctrinal basis.
Secondly, the Council has said explicitly that it does not concern itself with the manner in which the constituent churches may interpret its affirmation of faith. That liberal theologians often express themselves in orthodox terminology is a matter of common knowledge. For example, there are those who say that the Bible is indeed God’s Word, although God has permitted numerous errors to enter into it; that Jesus surely was divine, but in the same sense in which every human being is divine, although the spark of divinity may admittedly have burned more bright1y in him than in any other man, more brightly even than it did in Confucius and Socrates; that, beyond all doubt, Jesus saves, that he does so, however, by teaching others through precept and example to save themselves; and that God may be said to be triune, yet that there is but one divine person who reveals himself in various ways, chiefly in three distinct modes.
Thirdly, for this day and age the Council’s doctrinal basis is utterly inadequate. The theological climate demands an affirmation much fuller than this one. It fails to state certain truths which, although basic to Christianity, are vigorously denied today. For a few examples, nothing is said of the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, of Jesus’ virgin birth and bodily resurrection, of Christ as the one and only Saviour, of Christ’s death on the accursed cross as a substitutionary atonement. of justification by faith only and salvation by grace alone.
In short, to take it for granted, as some do, that the World Council’s affirmation of faith is proof of its being a council of true churches and itself a manifestation of the true church is to evince extreme naivete.
HERESY IN THE WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES
No doubt, there are doctrinally conservative churches in the WCC. But it is also true that some conservative communions have held themselves aloof from the Council. The large Southern Baptist Convention is an example. And the Reformed Ecumenical Synod has warned its constituent bodies against membership in the Council because of the theological liberalism rampant in it.
As a matter of fact, the WCC is infested with rank heresy. In today’s theological circles heresy is not regarded as a “nice” word, but rather as a very “nasty” one. However, it happens to be a Scriptural term. The Apostle Paul ordered his helper Titus; “A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition reject” (Titus 3:10). One does not need to be a heresy-hunter in order to detect heresy in the World Council. It is exceedingly conspicuous. A number of blatant denials of cardinal Christian truths may be cited.
So-called neo-orthodoxy looms large in the Council. Today, perhaps its most influential representative is Rudolph Bultmann, who insists that the New Testament is in dire need of being demythologized. Karl Barth is obviously less radical, but even he tells us unblushingly and even emphatically that the Bible contains numerous errors.
There is no unanimity within the Council on the person and natures of Christ. Popular Paul Tillich, formerly of Union Theological Seminary of New York, more recently of Harvard Divinity School, and now connected with the University of Chicago, has his admirers. He holds that in Jesus of Nazareth Cod did not become man, but man became God. John Knox of Union, who has described the deity of Christ as a symbol, also has his followers. The opinion is held rather generally that the Chalcedonian formula, which states that Christ is “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in Manhood” and that his two natures exist “without confusion, without conversion, without division, without separation” is both speculative and outdated. And in an address delivered in 1957 at the North American Conference on Faith and Order Robert L. Calhoun of Yale denied Christ’s sinlessness.
In an article entitled Tl1ree-prongcd Synthesis and published in the December, 1960, issue of The Christian Century Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike, an ardent ecumenist, admitted that he could see why the concept of the Triune God had to be developed at the time of its formulation, but added: “I can’t see its permanent value.” And he expressed as his considered opinion that “Joseph was the human father of Jesus.”
In the same article Bishop Pike said frankly: “As to that which can save, it is on this earth broader than any particular historical revelation, even the full revelation in Jesus Christ. But the kind of god I first believed in, who would limit salvation to a select group of people who happen to have heard the Dews and heard it well…is an impossible god. As to this god, I am now an atheist.” The December 22. 1961, number of Christianity Today reported that at New Delhi, Dr. Joseph Sittler, too, “refused to declare unambiguously that salvation is impossible outside Jesus Christ” and that a bishop privately found fault with fundamentalist missionaries for insisting that “Mohammedans and Buddhists are not Christians.” Thus the Saviour’s majestic claim, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man cometh unto the Father but by me” (John 14:6) is reduced to a hollow boast.
John C. Bennett, who has been active in the International Missionary Council and the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America as well as the 1948 Assembly of the wee in Amsterdam and is a recognized authority on theology as related to social ethics, admits that the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch was too optimistic about human nature; but nevertheless, by his insistence in his lectures that man’s most profound urge is love, he keeps denying the Scriptural teaching of human depravity evinced in hatred of both God and neighbors (Rom. 1:30; Titus 3:3).
There is today a tremendous resurgence of the ancient heresy of universal salvation. It was carried from paganism into the church by Clement of Alexandria, who died about 215 A. D., and his pupil Origen. One of its best known and most highly regarded present-day exponents is Nels F. S. Ferre, formerly of Andover Newton Theological School and since 1950 Professor of Philosophical Theology at Vanderbilt University. And in an article in the September 7, 1957, issue of Presbyterian Ufe Harold Blake Walker, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Evanston, Illinois, has said: “If love is love and God is God, heaven can’t be heaven until nobody remains in hell…The very idea of eternal, everlasting punishment is unjust to the nature of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
By his sacrificial death on the accursed cross Christ satisfied for sinners the penal justice of God. That truth lies at the heart of the gospel. Influential ecumenist’s have expressed their dissent. This writer shudders to record the opinion of one of them, that a god who would demand a bloody sacrifice for sin, particularly the bloody sacrifice of his own dear Son, would be “a dirty bully.”
As is generally known, at New Delhi four Eastern Orthodox churches, the Russian, the Rumanian, the Bulgarian, and the Polish, were admitted to membership in the WCC. It is highly Significant that shortly after that action was taken Archbishop Nicodim Rostov, head of the Russian delegation, led in a public prayer in which he invoked the intercession of “the Blesses Virgin.”
Not only did the Roman Catholic Church have observers at the Third Assembly of the WCC, Henry P. Van Dusen, President of Union Seminary of New York, is reported to have said at New Delhi that there can be no effective world-wide ecumenicity so long as the Roman Catholics have not been brought in. It is difficult to construe that statement as not implying a willingness to compromise, in the interest of unity so-called, the material principle of the Protestant Reformation—justification by faith alone.
In comparison with the true church of Christ, how sorry a picture the WCC presents! If it is only a federation of churches and not itself a church, it is guilty of recognizing as true churches bodies which, to say the very least, tolerate blatant denials of the most cardinal teachings of the Christian religion and of honoring with positions of influence and trust those who make these denials. If, on the other hand, the World Council is a church, a super-church, as some say it is and should be, it can only be judged to be a false church. Two outstanding characteristics of the true church are truth and unity; but the WCC lacks unity and is exceedingly disloyal to the truth. It cannot pass the test of either truth or unity.
THE WORLD COUNCIL OF CHURCHES AND ANTICHRIST
The Bible bas much to say about antichrist. Toward the end of time the personal antichrist, “that man of sin, the son of perdition” (II Thess. 2:3), will put in his appearance. And prior to that there are to be many antichrists. Jesus said: “Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (Mat. 24:4, 5). The apostle of love informed his readers that at the time of his writing to them there were “many antichrists” (I John 2:18).
The preposition anti in the term antichrist has a double meaning. It means both instead of and against. Antichrist is a pseudo-christ who opposes the true Christ. He opposes Christ in the name of Christ. And any person or organization or movement which answers that description is antichrist.
Without any hesitation it may be said that the thorough going liberalism which is so very vocal in the WCC and bids fair to dominate that organization is antichrist. It comes in the name of Christ. It claims to be eminently Christian, Christian par excellence. But it opposes the Christ of the Scripture. It denies the eternal Son of God, the second person of the eternal Trinity, and the one and only Saviour of sinners by his atoning blood. In Christianity and Liberalism J. Gresham Machen demonstrated conclusively that the liberalism of his day was not historic Christianity but another religion. The liberalism of this day is not essentially different.
The thirteenth chapter of Revelation foretells a totalitarian state, a totalitarian church, and a totalitarian economy—all three under the totalitarian rule of antichrist. Humanity, with the exception of those whose names are written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, will do him obeisance. Those who refuse to worship him will be subject to bitter persecution. However, Scripture gives us the comforting assurance that, when antichrist has reached the pinnacle of power. Christ will administer to him a crushing defeat. All things will be subject to the Christ, the truly totalitarian King.
Just how near we are to the rule of the antichrist, who can say? In dealing with prophecy, particularly in applying prophecy to our own times, it behooves us to be humble. Yet, our Lord has commanded us to observe the signs of the times (Mat. 16:3). And who can deny that today there are numerous signs pointing in the direction of the totalitarian reign of antichrist? The WCC as at present constituted would appear to be one of them. It may well be hastening the day of a totalitarian anti-christian church.
REFORMATION UNTO ECUMENISM
Jesus once said: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword” (Mat. 10:34). For all that, he is the Prince of peace. He came to disturb peace in order to establish peace. That is a paradox, but it is not difficult of solution. He came to disturb a false peace in order to establish true peace.
Here a statement must needs be made that flies in the face of such ecumenism as is represented by the wee. It must be made in the interest of true ecumenism and the honor of the true church. The first need of the church of this day is not union but division.
In a great many denominations, in the World Council too, truth and its base denial live in peaceful co-existence. Toleration of the lie has come to be regarded as a virtue. The antithesis of belief and unbelief is being squelched. He who, speaking the truth in love, contends for the historic Christian faith against modem unbelief is branded a loveless trouble-maker, a bigoted disturber of the peace. History is repeating itself. As King Ahab, who had himself troubled Israel by introducing the worship of Baal, charged Jehovah’s devoted servant Elijah with troubling Israel (I Kings 18:17, 18), so today those who deny the Christian faith charge its faithful defenders with disturbing the peace of Zion. That is an inexpressibly sad situation. What the church of our day must learn is, as “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15), to uphold the truth against error, to cast out heresy and, “after the first and second admonition,” (Titus 3:10) the heretic also. Only churches which do that deserve to be known as Christian churches, and only such churches are in a position to take meaningful steps toward Christian unity. And, not to be forgotten, to take such steps is their solemn duty.
In short, the foremost need of the church of this day is reformation. It is also the indispensable prerequisite of true ecumenism. May the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon the church at Pentecost in order to abide with it and in it forever, grant reformation—radical reformation unto genuine ecumenism!