The appeal to share in a united Christian front strikes a responsive note in the hearts of all believers. Laymen and clergymen are aware of the threats to Christendom and to Christianity as East meets West and as the socialistic trend bids for supremacy over the individualism which Christianity has both fostered and fed upon. Called upon to witness for Christ in a world which is still choosing up sides, free church members sense the folly of Christian fractionalism as clearly as their counterparts in the Reformed and Catholic segments of the church. (The term “free church” is employed here to designate those Christian groups which are locally free to choose their own affiliations and are not obligated to accept commitments made for them by any collective or hierarchial action. Such a designation will include groups which are of the Baptistic or independent or congregational polity and tradition.)
Gone are the days when false pietism could dismiss the ecumenical cloud in the sky by repeating such epithets as “modernistic idealism,” or “visionary foolishness,” or “Catholic trickery.” The cloud has moved in and has enlarged to envelop the church of Jesus Christ; it has altered the spiritual and intellectual climate in which Christians live, and its fallout of blessing or cursing is upon us all. No church—not even the most detached and independently free church—can find shelter from its effects. The question is no longer, “Will the free churches be affected by the ecumenical mood of our times?” but rather, “How will this vital force affect the life of that segment of the church whose sensitivity and theology (and strength) has been drawn from concepts widely divergent from those which bind ecumenicists into the pluralistic and yet united parcel of diversity which contemporary Christianity is attempting to become?”
The word “ecumenism” may still be a nasty word in some circles, but it is a word which those who dwell in such circles are nevertheless being compelled to use. It must also be acknowledged that in many of the free churches there has been more than casual acknowledgment of the challenge to response; even some groups whose historic emphasis has been on individual freedom have made significant concessions to the idea of limiting individualism for the sake of strengthening the whole. These concessions are not being made easily, however, and the end of internal disorder among such groups is not yet; for while their participation in ecumenical conversations may bring no serious reaction from their constituency, even a partial surrender of autonomous sovereignty tends to split the ranks wide open.
Still to be answered by the majority of free church spokesmen is the question, “Can we share in the ecumenical movement?” Their answer will have bearing on the testimony of Christ throughout the world for two reasons: 1. The free churches comprise a larger number of Christian adherents than many Reformed or Catholic church people may realize; and 2. They are vocal and influential, especially at the grass-roots level of society. Ecumenism without the inclusion of the churches born into the “free” tradition will be the testimony of a movement which is severely maimed if not actually lame.
There are some good reasons why the free churches are drawn to the very idea of visible church unity.
For one thing, even the most individualistic Christian has a doctrine of the church built into his oft-unarticulated creed. He is as embarrassed by divisions and disunity and fractionalism as are his nonfree brethren. When the spirit of criticism and negativism contaminates the air he breathes, and when believers are set against believers over issues that are on the fringe of Christian experience or theology, and when schism rends the body of Christ, his conscience burns. He knows in his heart that the prayer, “That they all may be one,” was meant to embrace living reality as well as theoretical unity. When he reads, “Can the hand say to the foot I have no need of thee?” the free Christian church member recognizes that individuality is precious only in the context of cooperation. His very loyalty to the scriptural letter speaks to him about the truth inherent in the ecumenical attitude. His doctrine of the church may be a far cry from that of either Aquinas or Luther, but it is there nevertheless. No “congregationalist” will deny this.
Furthermore, he is not uninformed about the precarious circumstance in which the visible church finds itself. An exclusively Western balance of power no longer protects his missionaries or his investments in foreign countries. He can no longer hide behind the American flag as the source of his protective strength or as the excuse for his spiritual daring. He needs something else to sustain his boldness before the world, if his boldness is to be more than an inward bravado. He needs the kind of influence which will march in strength and courage into those very realms where the enemy is strong, and he knows that one man with one voice—even a strong man with a strong voice—will not be admitted anywhere. Even David needed an army with him, as did Gideon. An army must include visible and functional unity; mere “spiritual unity” among disorganized individuals could never win a battle within a historic situation where the issues are involved with real live people, real governments, real economic obligations, and real territories. There is a strength which comes through visible, organized unity. He, the free church adherent, knows that he and his church must have that strength. This explains the strong sense of denominationalism which affects many locally free congregations. The same principle of interdependence which produces cooperation on the “board” or “fellowship” or “denominational” level cannot suddenly become wrong when it is applied on the interdenominational level, especially when the global situation is such that individual opportunities are possible only within a framework of collective influence. Even the lonely prophets of Israel depended on a social structure which made their survival possible, and in which they were loyal and devoted servants.
Such strong and valid incentives, however, do not include answers to serious questions which trouble most free churchmen as they confront ecumenism.
1. Where will the limits of visible church unity be found in the long run? More than any other Christian, the free church believer is aware that liberties are hard to secure and easily lost. He is not ignorant of history and may have a higher appreciation for the sacrifices of the reformational saints than many of the very inheritors of that tradition. He is not merely ignorant or stubborn in his insistence that his church be unhampered by hierarchical dictatorship. If he has sometimes been too conscientious at this point, it is because he has read as much church history, Roman Catholic theology, Reformation theology, and current ecumenical literature as anyone else. In a sense the free church tradition antedates the Reformation by centuries, and it is not easy to erase from the mind such martyrdoms to Christian liberty as are recorded in the testimonies of the “heretical sects.” Any threat to this liberty of conscience which the New Testament cites as a noble Christian privilege will be opposed by men who value their souls more than they value their reputation or even their “opportunities.” Until the limits of visible church unity are more settled than they are, the free church people will remain outside the ecumenical sphere on the basis that too much is at stake. If loss of liberty is the condition for the survival of a religion called Christianity, the free churches will disappear. As they die, they will be convinced that New Testament Christianity has died too.
2. How can the theological contradictions which become apparent in ecumenical studies be reconciled? This question must be answered even if the limits of visible church unity are established in a manner which safeguards and guarantees soul liberty. Unless it is answered, ecumenism is an illusion, though it cites the minimal credo of Christ’s deity and the Trinitarian concept of the Godhead. The question must be answered before the ecumenical idea can have meaning, even if Christianity is defined in nonintellectualized terms as a “common experience with God through Christ.” This is because, as free and nonfree church Christians know, all basic statements need protection from misinterpretation or abuse. The basic statement can never be separated from its implications or its applications. It may be that one branch of Christendom worships Mary as the Mother of God and accepts the infallibility of the papacy, and may do so by virtue of its acceptance of Christ’s lordship, but how this “theology” can be harmonized with diametrically opposing convictions in the name of ecumenism is more than the free church believer can see at the present time. He is as ready as anybody to express a wide latitude of grace toward Christians who disagree with him, but he cannot embrace a “fellowship of contradiction” even in the most existentialist setting of abandoned (or abandonment of) reason. The questions of biblical revelation versus dogma, of myth versus history, and of Christian particularity versus Christian adaptation will have determinative effects on any simple statement or creed cited as a basis for a world communion. Until such a world communion can become more explicit concerning these contradictions, the free churches will feel that a direct commitment to any ecumenical organization would be like buying a “pig in a poke.” They cannot afford to function under the gnawing fear that the Christianity they have thus embraced may turn out to be terribly foreign to the “faith delivered once for all unto the saints.” This is not a retreat into obscurantism; it is a sincere request for ecumenical leaders to emerge from it as soon as possible. The constant biblical caution against “false teachers” who would alter the biblical message for the sake of their own power haunts the free church member’s mind even as he searches his own soul. After all, if free churches are wrong, there is the probability of swift correction in the retaliations of other groups equally free. If a world church were wrong, it would be tragically wrong indeed. On this score alone the liberty-loving churches may be forgiven for their hesitancy during this present state of ecumenical theological ambiguity. These two questions confront them, then: How free will Christians remain in the ecumenical church? What kind of Christianity will be assumed or derived from the present theological contradictions which divide the churches?
What then? Are the free churches committed to a position which will forever cut them off from the Reformational and Roman Catholic groups? This depends on two things. First, it depends on whether these segments of the professing church are willing to be sympathetically tolerant and gracious toward those whose fears or whose sensitive consciences prevent them from “joining up.” Will the free churches be invited to share in the “conversations” which are being conducted at the various levels? Will the more “committed” groups engage in any dialogue with the “less committed” groups? Will ecumenism be pursued throughout Christendom under the principle that “we” (who belong to an organized and visible global communion) will enjoy fellowship and discussion with “you” (who represent the Christians not belonging to a global communion)? Perhaps the answer will be “no” to such possibilities on the thesis that by their very definition the free churches cannot be ecumenical, and that discussions with individuals from their number would be meaningless anyway (since presumably no single representative could speak for or speak to anyone other than himself). There is, however, a strong strain of denominationalism among the free churches, and they comprise more of a bloc or blocs than may be generally realized.
A basic question is whether the free churches are filled with enough sympathetic tolerance and Christian grace to enter into constructive dialogue with anyone unlike themselves. This is not a complimentary question. No one will ever presume to express the feelings of such churches in general, but it seems fair to assume that the free-church Christians are at least as mature and gracious as those of other traditions.
There has been some constructive exchange (both verbally and in writing) between men of ethical and intellectual caliber, representing all three strains of Christian history. If the ecumenical movement is to be what its idealizers hope, such three-way encounters would seem to be important.
Still, is free-church participation in the ecumenical movement confined to mere conversation? Are there areas of cooperation in existence where certain Christian responsibilities may be (or must be) shared by professing Christians without finalized considerations of theology or structure?
In a world desperate for help, ravaged by war, beset with injustice, starving for food, marred by crime, spawning infants by the million, harboring untold numbers of insane and indigent people, it would seem strange if people bearing Christ’s name could not find things to do together. Charity does not demand theological consistency or organic union, but Christ demands charity. Theological problems are extremely important, but the people who need food are not theologians. There is no Catholic bread or Reformational clothing or free-church medicine. There is Christian love.
This form of ecumenism points to the real common denominator among Christians and may be the ground on which the united front may be discovered and expressed. What prevents Catholic and Reformed and free-church Christians from developing a massive global testimony of mutual charity in a carefully organized and well-administered program of mercy? The ecumenical movement will then have found the common element which Christ himself underscored in word and in life: the alleviation of human need brought about by personal sacrifice. Free churches will respond to this.
Cities are more than steel and stone,
or humming wheels and towers a-drone;
or busy shops and boulevards,
or parks, or homes with well-kept yards.
Cities are more than block-long stores
with neon-signs and countless doors.
Cities have eyes afire with tears
and hearts that flee the mocking years;
ears that hear no sound of song,
feet that stumble on streets of wrong.
Cities are full of children crying,
Cities are full of people dying.
Cities are more than stone-steel towers
proudly proclaiming this time of ours.
Cities are men for whom Christ cried;
cities are souls for whom He died.
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