Evangelical Protestants are increasing their study of larger possibilities for transdenominational cooperation, and a wide door of opportunity may be swinging open for champions of biblical concerns and historic Christian convictions.
In the present ecumenical arena, over which floats the banner of a Protestant-Orthodox pluralistic theology lacking in evangelistic spirit, the substance of evangelical witness has become distressingly thin. But the religious scene in America now shows signs of a new polarization that may in the long run prove as noteworthy as long-standing denominational structures and more recent ecumenical mergers.
Although in its beginnings the ecumenical movement was evangelically and evangelistically motivated, its development has been marked by a dilution of evangelical theology and a diminution of evangelistic mission. Many observers are hoping that the World Congress on Evangelism, planned by CHRISTIANITY TODAY for 1966, will stimulate somewhat of a return to the noble heritage of earlier ecumenism. The more recent deterioration of evangelical concerns by the ecumenical movement has penalized evangelical vitality inside the movement and stimulated evangelical activity outside it. As the evangelical inheritance has been dissipated by supradenominational ecumenism, interest in transdenominational evangelical cooperation has widened among churchmen both within and without the ecumenical movement.
This growing desire for coordinate evangelical witness coincides with the emergence of obstacles in American ecumenism. Despite the widely publicized “ecumenical tide” in the United States, membership in the National Council of Churches in 1964 included a smaller percentage (61.7) of the Protestant-Orthodox population of the land than five years ago (62.5 per cent). Despite emphasis on the one great church of the future and the promotional significance attached to mergers, six of the seven largest surviving denominations in American Protestantism are distinct bodies inside the National Council. Moreover, the ardent pursuit of dialogue with Rome by the Protestant-Orthodox leaders of the World Council, in contrast to their diffidence toward evangelical concerns, has in conservative circles dimmed interest in the ecumenical cause. Some observers think that the appeal of the ecumenical movement is on the wane, that its prestige will decline further in the next decade, and that the indifference of the masses here as in Europe is predictable. Laymen in merged denominations can be heard to complain: “They have taken away my church, and I know not where they are heading with it,” “they” being a sort of shorthand for ecumenical engineers.
Evangelicals have long shied away from the ecumenical emphasis on visible and organic church union and have been content to emphasize their invisible spiritual unity. In the NCC constituency of 41 million, however, evangelicals have been variously estimated to comprise from 35 per cent to 50 per cent of the membership, perhaps numbering as many as 20 million. But evangelical perspectives are minimized in ecumenical circles; and because of the dilution of biblical distinctives, more than 25 million Protestants still remain deliberately outside the NCC, including the largest denomination (Southern Baptists, who number 10,393,000). While the National Association of Evangelicals has attracted a membership of more than 2½ million (the American Council of Christian Churches claims 1½ million others), its service constituency of 10 million includes no significant number from ecumenically aligned denominations, or from Southern Baptist or Missouri Synod circles, which in some ways are breaking out of their denominational isolation and are under increasing pressures for ecumenical commitment.
The evangelical-nonevangelical cleavage exists today in virtually all denominations of any size, whether inside or outside the ecumenical movement. In this circumstance, the dissipation of denominational energies in attempts to reconcile these differences has stirred an evangelical longing for faithful theological witness and evangelistic fulfillment. Evangelist Billy Graham’s mass crusades have rallied cooperative evangelical support irrespective of denominational and ecumenical alignment or non-alignment. Christianity Today has demonstrated the vitality of an international, interdenominational support for evangelical convictions.
In our age of ecumenical dilution of theological truth, evangelicals in many bodies are today less disposed to regard an emphasis on their invisible unity as an adequate excuse for division and non-cooperation. The numerous things that have kept evangelicals apart in past generations—particularly those of a psychological and sociological nature—are today less persuasive than in the past, and there is evident uneasiness over the minutiae of separation. Some evangelical scholars even think that, in the recent past, concern for spiritual revival has led to more new denominations than has concern for doctrinal purity. In any event, it is increasingly clear that the reasons that have kept many evangelicals outside the ecumenical movement do not exclude mutual evangelical action and fresh probing of possible and ideal ecumenical alternatives.
The ineffectiveness of ecumenical religion to arrest the rapid secularization of American life is prodding evangelicals in many denominations to reassess their present isolation from each other. Increasingly they attribute their lack of larger influence—in evangelism, education, and social involvement—to a lack of larger fellowship and cooperation. Many openly acknowledge that something beyond the present situation is desirable and necessary. What they covet for evangelicals is surely not organic structural union, which today is associated with theological inclusiveness and disparate ecclesiastical bodies. They show no enthusiasm for the ecumenical goal of a giant monolithic church or for the ecumenical method of endless merger of ailing denominations. The renewal of the Church of Christ, as they see it, requires spiritual more than structural alteration. They are exploring the possibilities of coordinated or cooperative action that will make evangelical unity in Christ more apparent. Whatever may have been the denominational benefits of total isolation in the past, they are convinced that evangelicals can do more today by joining hands than by working competitively or separately—at least in some areas—and they hope for cooperation in a number of causes, however few.
United by their confidence in the supernatural aspects of revealed religion and in the supreme authority of the Bible, evangelicals are aware of the tragic decline of theological fidelity. The ecumenical movement now embraces doctrinal deviations far more extreme than the many disputed positions that led to the long succession of separate Protestant denominations. While evangelical theology is minimized, anachronized, and penalized by many within ecumenism—in short, while sound biblical positions are demythologized—rationalistic liberalism, dialectical theology, existentialism, linguistic theology, and even secular religion disowning a transcendent supernatural God are welcomed. Not only are they eagerly accorded a place in the ecumenical dialogue: they are also firmly installed in seminary chairs and sustained by the sacrificial gifts of church members who are confused into thinking that the “new theology” and the “new morality” and the “new evangelism” honor the Christ of the Bible. Some perverse deviations are even now being advocated for inclusion in contemporary confessions proposed as new denominational standards, and the end is not yet. In such an atmosphere, evangelicals are asking each other, Can the objective and purpose that Jesus Christ held before his disciples—“that the world may believe that thou hast sent me”—be truly fulfilled?
Evangelicals are aware that their lively conversation about the crucified, risen, contemporaneous, and coming Christ will avail little unless believers outthink, outlive, and outdie the “modern man.” The instrument of apostolic penetration in a pagan world was the new man, the new creation in Christ, who demonstrated the transforming presence of God. For good reason, evangelicals deplore the way the ecumenical movement dilutes evangelism into social sensitivity and deletes supernatural regeneration. Only redeemed and regenerate men can hope to fulfill the Christian ethic, and evangelical Christians consequently make no apology for placing the Gospel foremost. They are indeed aware of the pressing need even in their own circles for a comprehensive theology of evangelism. They expect, moreover, that such an exposition will broaden their understanding of evangelism. But they have no doubt that an authentic theology of evangelism will transcend the prevalent ecumenical concessions to universalism, fear of proselytism, and secular social concern at the expense of redemptive realities.
For this reason evangelical Christians in many communions look expectantly to the World Congress on Evangelism. The leader of one of America’s largest denominations recently expressed hope that the World Congress might launch a movement perhaps comparable to the Reformation in its influence on generations to come. Evangelical leaders are hoping that as a result of the Congress, denominational and interdenominational efforts can be coordinated in many lands and cities.
Beyond an evangelistic concern evangelicals recognize the need of a fresh statement of evangelical theology covering the lordship of Christ over all of modern life—a theology not only of evangelism but also of culture and social concern. It is not enough, they know, simply to criticize what they view as sub-Christian social action. The notion of “the less contact with the world, the more biblical” is one informed evangelicals disown. They do not view social involvement merely as a sidetrack or a reactionary tangent provoked by the NCC. They reject the contemporary invocation of the Gospel both as a tool for social revolution and as a reactionary barrier to social justice. They recognize social concern as legitimate and as a scriptural imperative. Moreover, they have no reason to be apologetic about their past achievements in the social realm, nor about much of their present record. The missionary movement was engaged in a social ministry centuries before the rise of modern humanism, and it will continue to be so engaged long after the disappearance of the ad hoc emergency movements of our times.
But evangelicals refuse to divorce their social sensitivities from a concern for objective law and standards, from an interest in holiness as well as in agape and justice, and from an emphasis on a supernatural regenerative dynamic rather than merely on revolutionary forces. As a consequence, evangelical social action is predicated on durable biblical principles not foredoomed to discard from generation to generation, as are the pragmatic or existential motivations of twentieth-century liberalism. Evangelical social conscience insists, in view of divinely revealed principles, upon the supreme social relevancy of the biblical message, and evangelicals are asking afresh to what extent the Christian mission involves believers in sociological responsibility and how their witness to political and civic leaders is to be articulated.
A score of Christian leaders met recently as individuals, rather than as official denominational representatives, for three days of sharing of evangelical concerns. Representing a cross section of American religion, they considered aspects of a decisive transdenominational witness in this turning-time in national life, and proposed areas of larger evangelical cooperation that would require no new organizational structure but would reach beyond the affiliations reflected in the NAE. It is perhaps noteworthy that through its established commissions the NAE has long coordinated a variety of efforts for a service constituency estimated at ten million members. But the new projections burst even this framework and involve coordinated evangelical action on a considerably wider basis.
Such proposed areas of larger evangelical coordination would include not only mass evangelism but simultaneous community efforts and an inner-city mission program. The oldest church of the Missouri Synod in the midwest is an inner-city mission on Chicago’s La Salle Street, which attests the long-standing evangelical interest in such a ministry. But the idea of a cooperative attempt to penetrate the many “concrete jungles” across America—a task largely abandoned to the evangelical rescue missions as church members have moved to the suburbs—provides a challenging frontier.
Besides the concern for evangelism, evangelicals are probing the prospects of a wider transdenominational witness in theology, education, and social concerns. Their interest is chiefly stirred, not by some “operations bootstrap” intended to dramatize evangelical interests, but by the existence of pressing unmet needs that carry a humbling demand for response.
The mortal failure of the contemporary ecclesiastical effort to meet the campus problem, especially the intellectual and moral needs of students; the conspicuous tragedy of an ideological witness by churches, many of whose theological leaders are unbelievers lost in the shadowy flats of existentialism or linguistic theology; the broken Christian response to the Negro cause in terms scarcely redemptive and one-sidedly political—these and other areas for sounder evangelical emphasis provide an opportunity that matches the rising interest of many ministers in a transdenominational thrust and in an alternative to ecumenical methodology. These churchmen feel that the theological nebulosity of the NCC precludes its giving a precise witness in the areas of social concern, and they long for a fellowship in which, as one of their number recently put it, “we can provoke each other to fulfill the divine mandate, to love, and to good works” without dimming the Gospel.
The evangelical task force—irrespective of its present ecumenical alignment or non-alignment—is eager both to exhibit the dynamic of evangelical faith and to echo an authoritative divine voice. With a common Christian faith based on the premise of God’s unique revelation and the full authority of Scripture, evangelicals insist on the Christological center of proclamation and hold that supernatural redemption is the urgent need of our generation, as of every other. They are concerned for the whole of human life in relation to the lordship of Christ, and they champion a type of apostolic evangelism that proposes not simply to help men but to meet all their survival needs, including the forgiving and transforming grace of God. In the present ecumenical confusion, they are increasingly concerned for some visible reflection of their common concern.
A Discerning Comment
In a recent issue of the “Operation Understanding Edition” of Our Sunday Visitor, National Catholic Ecumenical Weekly, the editor speaks of being asked by a Catholic priest to name a Protestant publication that would give him a better understanding of Protestantism. Ruling out specifically denominational magazines, the editor says that he was left with only three general publications; The Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis, and CHRISTIANITY TODAY. He reads all three and chose, he said, CHRISTIANITY TODAY.
The reasons the editor gives for his choice are significant. Recognizing the merits of the other two publications, he concludes, “But I finally decided to recommend Christianity Today. I receive hundreds of letters from clergymen. I sense in these letters a conservative theological trend that is not represented by either of the other two publications. I come into contact with many Protestant lay people, too, and one thing it seems to me it indicated is that the laity in general tends to be more orthodox in their religious views than the clergy. Therefore, it seems to me that Christianity Today is the most typical of Protestantism today.”
This Roman Catholic evaluation is significant. Its writer has pointed out two thought-provoking trends—first, the strong conservative ground swell among the Protestant clergy; second, the even greater extent of orthodox commitment among the laity.
Presbyterians Find A New Vocabulary
No one can blame the United Presbyterians for wanting to live in their world. This is 1965, and nothing is gained by pretending it is not. The basic problem faced at Columbus by 835 commissioners to the General Assembly, however, was not merely accommodation to a new age. The United Presbyterians are in trouble.
Reports circulated to the press told of declining statistics all down the line; fewer churches, fewer missionaries, fewer candidates for the ministry, fewer Sunday school teachers and pupils, and fewer baptisms. Sunday school superintendents can testify that curriculum magazines, laboriously compiled and expensively printed, are largely left unread by televiewing parents. The number of church members and ministers has come almost to a standstill (last year’s net member increase was only 10,641 in a church of 3,300,000). Contributions are leveling off. From the appearance of things at Columbus, ministers are smoking more and enjoying it less.
But the United Presbyterian Church was not born yesterday. Its spokesmen know a culture crisis when they see one, and they are determined to do something about it. A listless evangelism does not bother them. They have decided that the fault is not in themselves but, to transpose Shakespeare, in their stars. They feel that the spirit of the times calls for complete renovation of the whole structure of the church. So while their numbers dwindle in proportion to the population growth and their spiritual influence diminishes, they have stopped trying to evangelize the world to the Gospel of Christ and have set out, it seems, to conform the church to the thinking of the world.
When the wind Euroclydon struck Paul’s little sailing ship off the coast of Crete and the sailors thought their craft was sinking, they began to throw overboard everythink they could lay their hands on. Something like that began to happen at Columbus as the commissioners, following the lead of their scholars, attacked the highest standards of their church, the Holy Scriptures and the Westminster Confession. The “Confession of 1967,” a moving masterpiece of the new “reconciliation theology,” completely won the day at Columbus. It seemed that, if the commissioners could have done so, they would have implemented it immediately.
The philosophical basis of the “Confession of 1967” is the same as that which is found today throughout many of the Reformed churches of Switzerland, France, and elsewhere. God has already reconciled the world through Jesus Christ. The need for repentance, faith, or personal decision is not strongly stressed. All that is needed is an awareness of the “reconciling act.” The Scriptures are neither authoritative, nor unique, nor inspired. They are “the words of men.” If God has spoken through them, he has also spoken “in every form of human culture.”
As for the Westminster Confession, it is now a back number.
So the thinking went at Columbus. The new confession may be revised in the forthcoming two years. As it stands, it gives official sanction to vagabond modern theology and confirms the widening impression that many churchmen no longer have an authoritative divine Word for men in all ages and places, our own included. Hopefully some genuinely biblical statements about God, man, the Trinity, sin, the Cross, the Resurrection, and the Bible will yet be built into the “Confession of 1967.”
There is no doubt that the Presbyterians want their influence to be felt in a secular world. The aggressive attitude toward improved race relations begun by the 175th General Assembly was continued by the 177th. Determined leadership in this area of domestic relations has given to the United Presbyterian Church a recognition few bodies have known. But even here the question persists: Granted that the pulpit has a teaching ministry in the field of race relations, is it not the task of American Christians, as an aggregate, rather than the churches, as bodies, to see that equal justice under law is the portion of every citizen?
In the Columbus debate it was pointed out that the issues of racial prejudice and the complexities of poverty were receiving a special consideration not given by the assembly to the crisis in sexual morality, the crime problem, and related issues. The reason lies in the nature of the trouble the United Presbyterians are in. They feel sure that playing “Mrs. Grundy” will not rescue them from their plight. It remains to be seen whether, in the long run, an official program of social involvement will do any better, or considerably worse.
It was evident to some at Columbus that the United Presbyterian leaders have all but forgotten what it means to be saved. They have abandoned the evangelical vocabulary in favor of a new, beautifully chosen set of words full of double meanings. Can a church that is confused about its spiritual authority and the nature of its ministry, that can no longer talk to a man about his soul with biblical conviction, be expected to give clear guidance to the world about social issues?
A California elder who works on the Apollo moon shot told the Presbyterians to switch their system of evangelization; instead of calling sinners to come to Christ, they should go into the world with a vocational witness. But the Scriptures also contain a theology of “come” and “go,” and they suggest that until a man has come to Christ, he cannot very well go for Christ.
The evangelical protest at Columbus was woefully weak. Personal aberrations and lack of unity among opposing speakers made it possible for the floor managers of the various major moves to be magnanimous in their treatment of the “nay” spokesmen.
The United Presbyterians’ counterattack on the troubles besetting them is not limited to theology. At Columbus they also went after the order of worship in the average church. In another year or two we can reasonably expect a proposed worship service in which the sermon is relegated to an early position, the primacy of the Word is abolished, and liturgical prayers and the Lord’s Supper become the heart of Sunday morning worship. A plan is also afoot to restructure the United Presbyterian hierarchy in order to make it easier to implement denominational programs from the top down. The drive to dissolve the Reformed tradition into the ecumenical movement is under way.
By a massive assault on its historical bases, the United Presbyterian Church is undertaking to make itself “relevant” by sharing in what Justice Holmes called “the action and passion of the time.” Some of the changes are without doubt blessed of God. All of them are interesting. But whether they will individually or severally bring any human beings into a saving relationship with their Lord (which, we believe, is what Christ created the Church to do) remains to be seen.
‘Who Is My Neighbor?’
Making one’s way to Number Two Irfan Bey Street in the Turkish part of Nicosia is no hard task, except during those periods when the sector has been sealed off. Outside the house in question is the notice, “Museum of Barbarism.” No one lives there any more, though the Turkish Cypriots have an acute housing problem. Until December 24, 1963, it was the home of a Turkish Army medical officer. That night, Greek terrorists broke into the bathroom, where at their approach the mother and her three small children had taken refuge, and machine-gunned them and a woman in the adjoining toilet. (A British newspaper reporter who saw the bodies still lying there five days later estimated that during that period between two and three hundred Turks had been slaughtered.) On the bathroom floor can still be seen bloodstained clothes and towels untouched since the murders.
Had this been committed by the Viet Cong against a Christian family, it would doubtless and rightly have received widespread publicity. It was, in fact, done in a republic whose leader is an Orthodox Christian archbishop, and it was no isolated incident, as anyone will discover who ventures into Cyprus today. President Makarios makes no secret of the fact that the present wave of atrocities is merely a continuation of the earlier EOKA (anti-British) campaign financed by the rich Cypriot Church. The violence could be stopped at once on Makarios’s say-so, but nine months ago he outlined his policy thus at the village of Panaia: “The duty of the heroes of EOKA will never terminate until the minor group of Turks who have ever been the enemy of Hellenism throughout history are thrown away from Cyprus.” This “priest with bloody hands” (another British daily’s description) heads also a section of the Orthodox Church admitted to membership in the World Council of Churches in 1962.
After one of its editors had visited Cyprus last month, CHRISTIANITY TODAY telephoned the WCC’s London office to inquire what protests had been made about barbarities committed against the (Muslim) Turkish minority, composing 18 per cent of the island’s population, after the massacres at Christmas, 1963, and subsequently. It was found that an ecumenical body given to speaking its mind in forthright fashion on South Africa, Viet Nam, and other issues had had little more to say about Cyprus than (October, 1958) to express itself “distressed,” welcome NATO discussions, and urge the British government to help with any solution agreed upon, and (April, 1959) to voice through its international department the hope “that the people of Cyprus would soon be reunited.”
Recent events in Turkey suggest that in some quarters terrible conclusions are being drawn, and Christian work thoroughly inhibited, because of the discreditable political involvement of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus. Here is surely an area deserving of the WCC’s humanitarian voice. It may be that the council is unaware of the situation, the facts of which can soon be confirmed. To suggest that it remains silent for any other reason might imply not only a misguided loyalty but a lamentably imperfect grasp of the Gospel of him who enjoined love of one’s neighbor as a major commandment.
Alternatives For The Church College
In an address at Grinnell College on “The Counterfeit Scholars,” Dr. Roger Eldridge has taken issue with the essay “The Plight of the Church College” (May 21 issue). That essay asserts that faculties of Christian academic institutions should be composed of scholars who subscribe to historic Christian beliefs, rather than by those who repudiate them.
Dr. Eldridge argues on two grounds for the inclusion of non-Christians in seminary and church-related college faculties and against the exclusion of Unitarians from such faculties. Staffing of Christian institutions of higher learning only by Christians, he contends, not only assumes that they have an omniscience able to understand the world and the entire realm of learning, but also discloses a religious faith fearful of the discovery of new truth. Moreover, it involves “pharisaical exclusivism” that disowns Jesus’ mandate that Christians are to serve other men.
Since church-related colleges are today faced by a major crisis through loss of their distinctives, and since some educational leaders are proposing further dilution of these institutions rather than a recovery of their heritage, Dr. Eldridge’s contentions should not be ignored. As things stand, about the only church-relatedness some religious institutions retain is a periodic drive for funds in denominational circles.
To our knowledge, no evangelical scholar professes omniscience, and if Dr. Eldridge knows of non-orthodox scholars whose addition to Christian faculties would overcome this deficiency, we would greatly value a list of nominations. Nor has Christian faith, as we see it, anything to fear from “new truth.” What it needs most to fear is the loss of absolute and eternal truths. Yet about these Dr. Eldridge actually says very little; indeed, he rejects the assumption (which, we might add, belongs to apostolic and historic Christianity) that the Christian faith involves a body of truth divinely delivered once for all. Having asserted that “Jesus did not offer a body of propositions about the nature of the world” (and presumably not about the nature of God either?), Dr. Eldridge instead offers us only some nebulous beliefs that have to do “with matters of loyalty, service to others, and responsible involvement in society.”
Surely a Christian college will stress that the disciple of Jesus Christ is to live both for the glory of God and in the service of men. But it hardly follows that the best way to achieve this is to secularize church-related institutions.
The main defect of the church college is its skepticism over valid knowledge of transcending Being. As a result it has two options: either to recover the historic Christian faith, or to go out of business as a Christian institution. Dr. Eldridge’s middle ground is simply a delaying action contributing to the latter.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.