The American religious system is under fire today. A legacy of the Protestant Reformation, the system that provides us such a variety of churches is being challenged and questioned by the suddenly popular ecumenical movement. Launching a zealous crusade to unite Christendom, the ecumenists have declared that a divided Body of Christ is a sin and a scandal. In fact, however, it is the ecumenical movement that presents the real danger. It could lead to creation of an ecclesiastical power structure that bears no resemblance to anything envisioned by Jesus of Nazareth. What is worse, in striving after a superchurch, we may destroy the heritage of diversity that has enriched our spiritual life. And still worse, Protestants may be pressured or lured into creeds and positions that will compromise their religious beliefs.

The ecumenical movement has been given a tremendous thrust by the Second Vatican Council and by Rome’s overtures to the Orthodox and Protestant communions. Following the lead of John XXIII, the Vatican Council has held out to the “separated brethren” a tentative offer of “reunion.” An equally powerful thrust has come from non-Catholic leaders, who entertain the hope that the church may achieve the unity which would lend authority to their pronouncements on social issues. Inside American Protestantism, meanwhile, machinery has been set in motion to unite four major Protestant bodies in this country—the Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the United Church of Christ. (The last already represents a union of two churches.) At the same time a “climate” is being created, through Protestant-Catholic “dialogue,” in which it is hoped that an agreement can be reached.

With so much pressure behind the ecumenical movement, one may wonder why the walls of denominationalism do not crumble into dust immediately. The truth is that the doctrinal differences represent the honest convictions of sincere men who do not see alike on basic issues. To expect these men to dissolve their differences in the heady elixir of church union is to assume that the issues for which men have suffered and died are not really important, that Luther and Calvin and Knox and Wesley, and all their spiritual descendants down to this day, have been haggling over nonessentials. Are we not witnessing in the ecumenical movement the birth of a new and frightening form of religious bigotry—the assumption that anyone who holds out for his views is guilty of a perversely obstinate and un-Christian attitude?

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What about these doctrinal differences that divide Christendom? Can honest men cast them on the refuse heap for the sake of unity? Does church union really tower like a Mount Everest over all other doctrines? Will “dialogue” dissolve disagreement on such basic doctrines as baptism, Lord’s Supper, religious liberty, church government, and the role of the Virgin Mary?

To illustrate the dilemma, take the Marian controversy. The bishops at the Vatican Council can divide over such a technicality as whether the mother of Jesus should be included in the schema on the church or whether she should have a separate schema of her own. But this does not touch the essential fact that the Roman Catholic Church has already issued two dogmas concerning Mary which are rejected by Protestants. In 1854 Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of Mary’s freedom from original sin—the Immaculate Conception—and in 1950 Pius XII decreed that Mary had ascended bodily into heaven—the dogma of the Assumption.

Will the Catholic Church decide now that Mary was born, died, and was buried like other women, in order to make Marian dogma acceptable to Protestants? Very unlikely. Then will Protestants accept Immaculate Conception and Bodily Assumption in order to get back into the church? Apparently they must, if reunion is to be accomplished. Catholic leaders have implied a willingness on Rome’s part to soften Catholic views on some of the more controversial differences—but the more conservative Vatican spokesmen are quick to point out that while new and more acceptable explanations will be given for the church’s positions, there will be no surrender of what the church has proclaimed as dogma.

Will “dialogue” dissolve the difference on the meaning, purpose, and method of baptism? Presbyterians and Methodists baptize by sprinkling; Nazarenes and the Church of Christ baptize by immersion; Roman Catholics baptize babies for salvation, the Christian churches baptize adults for salvation, and Baptists do not believe that baptism saves anyone. Can the various views of the Lord’s Supper somehow be reconciled by discussion? To Lutherans the Communion represents the real presence of Christ, the Baptists see it as a memorial service, and the Roman Catholics believe that it is a means of acquiring saving grace.

Liberty And Conscience

And what about some of the differences in the way men live? Take birth control, for instance. The population explosion is a moral issue. Without some sort of birth control, the increase in population will continue to exceed the increase in production of food for the already starving millions on the earth. Birth control is an issue which must be seen in theological perspective. The Roman Catholic Church has taken the position that the use of artificial means of contraception is contrary to natural law and is immoral. Many Protestant theologians hold that the concern for partners in marriage and for the children must take precedence over concern for the methods used in limiting the size of the family. The complexity of the population problem indicates the need for more than one view of the issue. We must not let one church’s views dominate. We need many creative approaches to solve a problem as massive as overpopulation.

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Take another practical matter: religious liberty. This is a principle for which men have suffered imprisonment and even death. When the Roman Catholic Church talks about religious liberty, it is talking about the right to preach and practice Catholicism in Communist countries such as Poland. But when Baptists talk about religious freedom, they are talking about equal rights with Catholics in Spain and Portugal.

What is the aim of the ecumenists? Protestant ecumenists talk about Catholics and Protestants reaching out toward each other, and meeting on ground which neither Catholic nor Protestant can now envision. But let us look at the facts. The Vatican Council is actually aimed at updating the Roman Catholic Church to meet the challenges of the present and the future. Roman Catholic theologians are not talking about a compromise with Protestants. They are talking about “the return to the one church under the one pontiff”—the words of the theological adviser to the Dutch hierarchy at the Second Vatican Council. Some Catholic theologians do recognize the necessity for changes in the structure and outward appearance of the church, as is evidenced by the changes the Vatican Council has approved for the Catholic liturgy. But they solemnly warn Protestants against hoping for any kind of compromise. Liberal and conservative Catholic spokesmen disagree as to whether doctrine and teaching authority can change significantly in the interest of ecumenism, but they agree completely that reunion could come about only one way: The separated brethren would have to return to the “one true church” under the successor of Peter. In the schema on ecumenism offered to the Vatican Council, the Protestant churches are not recognized as churches at all, but as “communities.” Obviously, to dissolve and absorb these “Protestant communities” is the aim of Catholic ecumenists.

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Many churchmen who favor a Protestant-Catholic dialogue are deceiving themselves. Through a dialogue, they seem to believe, differences can be discussed dispassionately, a common heritage can be shared, and the voice of Christendom can be heard on current social and moral issues. Advocates of dialogue seem to feel that the very fact that Protestants and Catholics—and Jews—have communicated is just as significant as any conclusions they might reach. This may be due to the fact that when they are honest they do not come to much agreement. We must ask whether this is a harmless flirtation which is at best a waste of time, and at worst an indulgence in self-deception by which the “broadminded” are being led to accept the basic tenets of ecumenism.

Suppose that the ecumenical movement should succeed. Suppose that all the churches unite into one, and that this one church becomes the sole repository of religious doctrine, the sole arbiter of man’s spiritual destiny. Where will the dissenter, the nonconformist, the individualist go? Where will a man go if he finds himself at variance with a doctrine or, worse still, the governing authority of that one church? The ultimate theological implications of the one-church concept are obvious. There would be only one place for the dissenter. The one church would say he must go to hell.

A Monopoly On Heaven

If this sounds extreme, then look again at the church in Europe in the years before the Protestant Reformation, when Christendom was cloaked in a seamless robe. The pride of the papacy reached its zenith when Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII) forced the Emperor Henry IV to stand bare-footed in the snow at Canossa on seventeen consecutive days before he would permit him to resume his reign. Rome was sometimes dissolute, as in the reign of the Borgias, while priests who held a monopoly on heaven dispensed indulgences for a price. And hanging like a pall over the whole scene was the stench of human flesh burning, grim reminder of the heretic’s fate.

We are afraid of a superchurch, just as we are afraid of a superstate, and not because of a lack of faith in God. What we recognize is the fact that man cannot be trusted without checks and balances upon his power and authority—not even in the church. The various branches of Christendom now act as checks and balances, one upon the other, and they have a purifying effect on each other. Remove this tension, and we could be back to the pre-Reformation struggle between church and state with the individual man caught in the middle. Moreover, each of the branches—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Nazarene, Adventist, whatever it may be—throws a different ray of light on the Christ figure in our midst. Each one has a special emphasis and consequently shows our world another facet of the glory of God who, in his creativity, apparently set a high value on diversity.

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There are indeed some things that all Christians hold in common. There are also some essential differences that divide us, and the differences are as important as those things we hold in common, for they enrich the common heritage. We can see no valid reason why agreement on the significance of Mary, for example, should be a test of whether a man is a Christian.

We must ask ourselves the searching question: What is the real purpose of the church in the world? Is church union the goal? Is bigness the end in itself? Is power the purpose? No, the church is here so that lonely, frightened men may find a refuge and a friend, that sinful men may find forgiveness and acceptance, that bruised and crippled men may find healing and strength, that men who hunger for righteousness may band together to form a more righteous society, and that men who thirst after godliness may dedicate themselves to a life of service. If church union would contribute to the achievement of these ends, then we would be for it. But history teaches us that “the one church” soon becomes the repository of pride and power and gives very little attention to the real needs of man.

True, the Roman Catholic Church is seeking, through the Vatican Council, to reform, renew, and bring itself up to date. But it is questionable whether the reform movement would happen now if it were not for the “separated brethren” who have helped make Rome aware of her own needs. If the “separated brethren” reunite with Rome, this influence for reform will be eliminated.

Was the Protestant Reformation a great mistake? Is the big task before us now the undoing of the Reformation? What we need to do is not to annul the Reformation but to complete it.

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The American religious community, in an atmosphere of freedom not experienced anywhere else in the world, has created a multitude of sects, denominations, and churches. In the struggle for acceptance on the part of the newer sects, and for continued support on the part of the older, more “respectable” churches, bitterness and acrimony have often erupted. But the churches have grown strong in this atmosphere. They have won the loyalty and support of their adherents, as they have given to individuals something distinctive with which they could identify themselves. The churches have spurred one another by criticizing one another. And they have helped to deliver society itself from the leveling, deadening effect of a trend toward conformity. In offering man a choice, a choice between Catholic and Protestant, between Baptist and Methodist, between Presbyterian and Pentecostal, between an organized church and free thought, our pluralistic religious community has given the individual man the opportunity and the challenge to follow the Christ who cannot be confined to any one church nor yet to all the churches.

What we need is not more uniformity but more diversity in which the unlimited grace of God can find additional channels to reach the needs of men. Instead of one church under one human and mortal head, we need many churches. We do, indeed, worship one God, but it is highly unlikely that any one church will exhaust the wisdom and the wonder of his revelation of himself to the world.

If we had no choice? It must never come to that. We must retain the right of choice. We will not accept the judgment of the ecumenists upon the churches.


I suggest two major changes in attitudes, assumptions, and expectations:

The first is that we should emphasize more than we do the intangible or qualitative consequences of nuclear war. It is not enough to estimate the number of casualties for the sake of freedom. But in all probability freedom would be a casualty of nuclear war for a longer time than it would be a casualty of Communist power. The changes under Communism make the old “red or dead” contrast quite meaningless today. Polish “red” is different from Chinese “red”.…

Military defeat need not mean surrender to tyranny; rather it might be the beginning of resourceful resistance at many levels.…

My second suggestion is that we abandon the assumption that at some stage in a conflict it would be permissible for the United States to be the first to use nuclear weapons.… When the chips are down, anything would be better than for our nation to be the one that initiates the nuclear stage of a war, making itself a nation of destroyers as well as a nation of the destroyed, and ending most of the continuities of corporate human life perhaps in the northern hemisphere.—DR. JOHN C. BENNETT, president, Union Theological Seminary, in Moral Tensions in International Affairs (a pamphlet), 1964, pp. 23 f.

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