DR. OSCAR CULLMANN recently proposed that once a year an ecumenical collection be gathered for the poor of Protestant and Roman Catholic churches following the example of the primitive Church. Having first offered his suggestion in January of 1957, in connection with a week of prayer for the unity of the Church, he repeated the same proposal to Roman Catholic groups in Rome and Paris. Responses to his proposal have been many and varied, and in answer to them Cullmann published a brochure explaining and elaborating upon his unique proposal.

After his Rome lecture, Cullmann received a check from a priest for some poor Protestant family, the check being turned over to a representative of a small Waldensian theological faculty. The Waldensian Protestants in turn responded with a check for a poor Roman Catholic family. This kind of practical response to Cullmann’s suggestion was not an isolated example. Cullmann reported several gifts offered for the poor of other churches. There was talk of a miracle with greater potential for unity than many ecumenical conferences. Others, however, recalled Gamaliel’s caution: If this thing is of God, it shall prosper; if not, it shall come to naught.

Cullmann emphasized that his proposal was meant in no way to water down the real differences that exist between Rome and the Reformation. Confessional distinction, according to the Basel professor, cannot be washed away in the milk of charity.

However, he insists, a sign of solidarity between Christians can purify the atmosphere of doctrinal dispute and this can be significant.

The careful reader of Cullmann’s proposal will be concerned with the distinction that he makes between the unity of the Church and the solidarity of Christians. The unity of the Church is a manifest reality in the New Testament, the unity of the Body of Christ, and the unity of love within the Body. The tragedy of our present situation is our too evident lack of unity. Cullmann is not optimistic about the promises of unity. Roman Catholic and Protestant churches are separated by a wall of division that seems unbreakable. But Cullmann adds that he is pessimistic in view of human considerations. Along with his pessimism concerning the unity of the Church he is optimistic concerning the solidarity of Christians. He offers his proposal of a collection for reciprocal needs in the churches, not as a tactic or a means of converting one side to the other, but as a simple act of recognition, one for the other, in Jesus Christ.

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Understandably, Cullmann has inspired both sympathy and questions. The great variety in the responses underscores the problem that lies in the background of Cullmann’s proposal. I refer to the problem that holds all of the churches in tension, namely, the problem of the disunity of the churches in the face of the clear witness of the New Testament concerning the Church’s unity. The New Testament insists that there be one Church because there is but one Body, one Shepherd, and one flock. There is no straight line from the New Testament situation to our own. And many have given up hope that the world will ever again see the one flock of the one Shepherd. This failure of hope sometimes takes the form of a purely eschatological perspective. But Cullmann’s proposal forces us to look at the problem anew, to feel again and profoundly the contradiction between the New Testament unity and the actual disunity of the churches. As we do, we sympathize with Cullmann’s combination of pessimism and optimism. We can immediately understand the motive of Cullmann’s suggestion and can echo his deep concern. But at the same time we sense that he raises a genuine problem by his distinction between the unity and solidarity of Christianity.

Does not the solidarity of Christianity rest indissolubly with the unity of the Church? The source of Christian solidarity lies in the unity of the Body of Christ, the unity which the ancient Church confessed and in which it lived. One can appreciate Cullmann’s insistence that we guard against creating an impure atmosphere, that we avoid conflict which does not arise from the Gospel itself. But when he speaks of the solidarity of brethren in Christ, we are forced to face again the question of the unity of the Church. Is there solidarity without unity? This is the question.

There is no human possibility, according to Cullmann, for restoring visible unity to the Church. He is so right about human possibility: here there is every reason for pessimism. But as I read John 17 and hear again the prayer of our Lord concerning the unity of the Church, I cannot escape the truth that the Church is to be one even as the Father and Son are one so that the world may know that God sent the Son. Here we see that unity has everything to do with solidarity. There is one Body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all. This is the disturbance that the New Testament projects into the division of the churches, a disturbance that keeps us from ever being content with the divisions. Our disturbed minds may not lead us to relativize the truth for the sake of unity. The struggle of the Church must be to maintain the Gospel against all the falsehoods which would imperil the Church and against which the New Testament warns as strongly as it urges unity. But the New Testament image of the one flock and one Shepherd still inspires our hearts. And the prayer of Jesus Christ, the Shepherd, still ascends to the Father for the fulfillment of this ideal.

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Therefore we cannot abide long in pessimism. We have a conviction that the unity of the Church does not lie in our hands, and that a lot must happen before the one flock is again a visible reality. But we must not pass it off with the cliché that unity will come to pass in God’s future alone. There is no hope for the future which does not contain a calling for the present. If there are signs of solidarity between Christians, then we can only pray and work that the light of the Gospel may triumph in the world. It is the Gospel that places us under responsibility for the truth, but it is also the Gospel that sets us under responsibility for the unity. The two are in unbreakable connection.

Cullmann’s proposals urges action for Christian solidarity. But it also places us anew before the problem of Church unity in the midst of its disunity. Someone remarked recently that the New Testament never uses the expression “the one Church.” But the New Testament does not use the literal expression only because to it the unity of the Church is a self-evident fact. We are faced with this fact and cannot avoid it in any of our reflections about the Church. It is the pre-eminent fact that must guide and challenge our lives always—the one Shepherd and the one flock.

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