Are objections to unity silly or based on substance?

The visit of Pope John Paul II to the United Kingdom brought hopes for ecumenical union to its highest point yet. No doubt his reception in Protestant England was overly drawn by the news media, which tended to be pro-Pope and denigrate “extreme Protestant” objectors. Apparently everyone else accepted the Pope as leader of a sister church, to be welcomed with open arms. Ecclesiastical divisions suddenly seemed anachronistic if not a little silly.

The Pope was conciliatory, even toward protesters. He called for peace, measures to reduce unemployment, and other humanitarian actions. He referred to Protestants as “brothers and sisters in Christ,” avoiding John XXIII’s more patronizing term, “separated brethren.” He embraced the archbishop of Canterbury and, appropriately, discussed with him the desirability of reunion between their two churches.

Behind it all lies the exciting idea that now is the time for the reunion of Christendom. This is the “true ecumenism,” as some clergy have called it, for which we have waited 400 years since the so-called Reformation, and others have waited since East separated from West in 1054. Bit by bit the pieces are falling into place. The day for which Christ prayed is at hand: “That they may all be one.”

Where does the evangelical fit into this theological puzzle that seems to be coming together? The call to Christian unity dare not be ignored. Yet the current surge towards it raises anew many issues that have never been settled. For example: Has the Church of Rome changed from what it was in the 1530s? Have the causes of the Protestant Reformation really been removed? Or is it that Protestants are giving up their basic principles? Of course, those who hold “high church” views have long been favorable to reunion with Rome. But what about the rank and file of Protestants who claim the Reformation heritage of evangelical Protestantism?

First we ask: Has Rome changed? We recall that John XXIII was conciliatory toward Protestants at Vatican II, and that Roman Catholics are now reading the Bible on their own. Is the Catholic church turning back, then, to the source of Protestant thought and belief? This is a particularly appealing interpretation in the light of pronouncements by leading Roman Catholic theologians. Think of Hans Küng’s defense of justification by faith, and Edward Schillebeeckx’s case for a Calvinistic doctrine of the sacraments.

Yet an examination of Rome and its official doctrines today reveals that its teachings have changed relatively little since the sixteenth century. In fact it prides itself that its doctrine never changes. What is infallible may develop, but it never changes from wrong to right. And the Roman church has never rejected the doctrines set forth in the Canons of the Council of Trent (1563). These were specifically propounded in opposition to Protestant teaching, anathematizing such doctrines as justification by faith alone and the sole authority of the Scriptures. At the same time, they asserted the doctrines of transubstantiation, baptismal regeneration, and justification by faith and works. The Roman church repeatedly celebrates Mass according to the historic rites and in accordance with the doctrines of Trent.

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Subsequent additions to the latter have only strengthened the Roman Catholic position. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Virgin Mary had been given a special place in the heavenly hierarchy, and her image was venerated. In 1854 the church declared she had been born without sin, that she did not die, but was “assumed” into heaven, and is now co-mediatrix with Christ. In addition, the pope has been exalted to the position of infallibillity when speaking ex cathedra. Since 1877 all those making the Tridentine profession of faith must subscribe to his authority and that of the Roman Catholic church, outside of which there is no salvation.

Rome also claimed certain political powers in the sixteenth century that it has never surrendered. Popes, as the vicegerents of Jesus Christ upon earth, claimed to be lords over all governments and states. In 1535 the pope damned Henry VIII for breaking with the church, and released all his subjects from their allegiance to him. In 1570 there was papal reiteration of universal lordship, and such decrees have never been withdrawn.

All of this may pose no problem for friendly relations. But any evaluation of the present situation will show that on many crucial points Rome has not officially changed since the sixteenth century. Protestants must keep this in focus if they are to remain true to their Bible-centered faith. For their part, Roman Catholics must recognize the dilemma they pose for evangelicals. Quite apart from the personal beliefs of Roman Catholics today, the church still stands officially committed by its creeds to doctrines evangelicals cannot accept—and some of them lie at the very heart of biblical faith.

It was a summer morning in London. The usual crowd of tourists in Hyde Park was watching a detachment of the Household Cavalry trotting past on its way to a guard-changing ceremony. In a moment the whole colorful scene changed. As the riders passed a parked car, a bomb packed with nails was set off by remote control. It killed three soldiers and seven horses. Twenty-two people—soldiers, policemen, and civilians—were injured.

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Two hours passed. A military band in nearby Regent’s Park was giving a lunchtime concert to an appreciative audience of tourists and business folk taking their midday break. Suddenly a bomb with a timing device exploded beneath the bandstand. Eight musicians were killed, 24 musicians and civilians were injured. Hundreds of onlookers were subjected to scenes of indescribable horror. A section of the IRA (Irish Republican Army) claimed credit for both incidents.

Earlier this year the movement’s militant wing had threatened to carry the battle to Britain after it failed to achieve its aims in Ireland with guns and bombs. “The war against the Brits,” said a spokesman, “should be carried directly into their homeland, particularly their beloved London.” Hitler in 1940 had made a similar declaration in launching his war planes against the British capital.

The six counties that comprise Northern Ireland are predominantly Protestant with a large segment of evangelicals. The much larger 26-county Republic is Roman Catholic and very loyal to the church. For centuries Britain ruled Ireland with a rod of iron, building in the Emerald Isle a deep and bitter hatred for all things British. After World War I there emerged the Irish Free State, and subsequently a republic was proclaimed. The six northern counties, however, preferred to remain British, and in recent times voted 2 to 1 to remain so. Nonetheless, the constitution of the Irish Republic asserts a claim to govern the six counties also, but suspends application of its rule “pending the reintegration of the national territory.”

Extremists on both sides of the border have meanwhile worked to achieve by violence what democracy refused. Innocent people are murdered or mutilated. Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, 79 (uncle of Prince Philip); the British ambassador in Dublin; members of Parliament and other notables have been assassinated. Sporadically the “loyalists” retaliate.

Typical of the victims was Robert Bradford. A Methodist minister and Belfast South’s representative in the British Parliament, he opposed social reforms that contributed to the permissive society, advocated the reintroduction of capital punishment, and urged that terrorists should be shot as spies and saboteurs. Last year the IRA killed him as he talked with some constituents in Belfast.

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The Dublin administration deplores the violence. All four national newspapers condemned the London bombings. “What did the people of this country do,” asks an editorial, “to deserve such barbarians?” In the Dail (Irish Parliament), an Independent Socialist member, lamenting the absence of an extradition treaty with Britain, exclaimed: “If the perpetrators of this outrage ever return to Ireland they can walk around as free men.”

Yet emotions run high in support of the terrorists. A club singer will speak of the IRA with an evangelical fervor. “Give them your hearts, give them your hopes, give them your homes,” he cries. A roar of applause follows. “The strength of traditional militant Irish Republicanism,” notes one study report, “does not lie in reasoned arguments for independence from Britain or for a particular form of government, but in the strong emotions evoked by the memories and legends surrounding past leaders. There is a religious-style overtone in the whole movement, and people have described joining it in terms of a spiritual experience and offered if a degree of devotion, commitment and self-denial which would be appropriate to someone in a religious order.”

It is difficult to cope with a movement that so bizarrely feeds on its dead and lives off its martyrs. The necessary emotions of hate and anger have to be kept burning from generation to generation. Many reasonable people would like to see a united Ireland, but they repudiate the terrorist tactics as evil and counterproductive. Said one man about the IRA: “They want to intimidate rather more than a million people—the pro-British Protestant majority in Northern Ireland—into submission to a State to which they do not wish to belong, and then to bomb that State into submission to a regime which it does not wish to have.”

Sometimes the death-dealing process goes wrong, and the bomb intended for others destroys its makers. In such cases, comments an Irish Protestant pastor, a strange thing happens. “The potential murderers suddenly hurled into eternity are given a full Roman Catholic funeral with a requiem mass … Roman Catholic priests continue to recognize as Christians those who bear the guilt of human blood.” Such extremist clergy, it may be said, are untypical, but their distortion of true religion helps to explain why two Irishmen, one Protestant, one Catholic, in a moment of rare agreement, can say that what Ireland needs is 20 years of atheism. Such is the peculiar vocabulary of Ireland, however, that a declaration of atheism is likely to elicit a further question, only half in jest: Are you a Protestant or a Catholic atheist?

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Ireland has a long and sad history of injustices. Happily, many of them have been put right. The nature of the problems still unresolved, and how to deal with them, are open to very different interpretations and projected courses of action. All but a misguided few will agree that the way not to deal with them, indeed the way to leave the whole civilized world reeling with shock and revulsion, is by blowing people to bits on a summer morning in a London park.

Is there no solution? We believe there is, but it rests on a reversal of the roles for all the major parties involved—including Americans. Britain must frankly confess the past injustices that spawned the present tensions. The first step in any solution is to understand the deep roots in history for Irish hatred of all things British. If Britain, including the Northern Ireland majority, insists upon its pound of flesh for each atrocity committed, there will be no end to violence. A final solution may eventually mean a united Ireland with dual citizenship for the six northern countries or some similar recognition of their British loyalties.

The Southern Irish, on the other hand, must see that the IRA is their worst enemy. Every bomb drives home to Northern Ireland Protestants the conviction that a united Ireland would utterly destroy them. The way to win a united Ireland is not to bomb the Protestants into submission. This only confirms their deepest fears and drives them to more desperate efforts to preserve their separatism. Nor does the path to true peace lie in placing pressure on Britain to force Northern Ireland to join a nation they are convinced would destroy them. That would be to repudiate the basic commitment of all Western powers to the right of self-determination. People should be free to choose their own government and national allegiance.

The way for the Irish Republic to get a united Ireland is not to force a tyrannical unity but to convince Northern Ireland Protestants they have nothing to lose by agreeing to a united Ireland. They will do it by creating a better justice—especially by guaranteeing justice and religious equality to Protestants in the Irish Republic. They will win them by ceasing to make the Irish Republic a domain of the Roman Catholic church that follows the most archaic forces in that church in rejecting contraceptive devices, abortion even to save the life of the mother, and divorce on any ground. They will win them by eliminating the disabilities under which Protestants still exist in the Irish Republic, and which Northern Ireland Protestants think will be their portion also under a church-dominated government, were there to be an enforced union.

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As for Americans, we have no consistent policy, but only what some call an Irish-American policy. American politicians with Irish-American constituencies, for reasons not difficult to understand, play upon ancient resentments against British and Protestant repression of Catholic Ireland. Instead of fostering ancient prejudices, American leaders would further the cause of peace and justice and remove one of the festering sores of terrorism destroying Western society if they would stop placing misdirected pressure on Britain to force Northern Ireland into a shotgun wedding with the Irish Republic. Rather, they should place pressure on the Irish Republic to create a society of justice and liberty so as to remove the fundamental obstacle to a United Ireland.

But the final note must be left where it was put by an Irish Presbyterian study document in 1976. It says: “Gangsters and terrorists are still people for whom Christ died, even those whom the natural man is not prepared to forgive. Christians must indeed be firm and fair toward offenders, loving but not indulgent or callous, and they should always be on guard against the spurious sense of self-righteousness which can come from indulgence in denunciation of the crimes and sins of others.” That lesson is not limited to those who live in a little unquiet province on the Irish Sea.

The massacre of some 600 men, women, and children in the already bombed-out Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut last month is a blot on the conscience of mankind.

It has sullied the name Christian because the Lebanese gunmen who did the slaughtering, venting years of nursed frustration and hate, claim that label. They thus defiled the name of their professed Lord who instructed his disciples to love even their enemies.

It has tarnished the image of Israel’s Jews who, claiming to be peacekeepers, are said to have blocked efforts of the Lebanese Army to take control of West Beirut after the PLO evacuation. Instead, they sealed off the camps and then arranged Christian militiamen to move through their lines into the camps. The victims of Nazi pogroms were thus accomplices in a monstrosity fully as reprehensible.

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And every American citizen should feel a twinge of conscience. Our nearly unrestricted aid to Israel has made it the dominant armed force in the Middle East. It, in turn, subsidized and armed the Phalangists, and trained, equipped, supplied, and paid the militia force under Major Saad Haddad. The weapons of massacre came indirectly from Americans who did not insure that the awesome power it bestowed on its client state would not be abused.

Christians everywhere must respond to this tragedy by demonstrating that their name cannot be identified with narrow self-interest and bigotry.

Jews must stop crying “anti-Semitism” whenever the ethics of Israel’s political and military activities are questioned. Such self-righteous posturing will no longer wash. And Americans must instruct their representatives to withhold further aid of all kinds from Israel until assurances are forthcoming that its delegated power will be used responsibly.

Gil Beers has been well prepared for the challenge he faces.

When V. Gilbert Beers was first approached about possibly serving as CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s next editor, he was not eager to seek the post. But Gil has taken several abrupt right-angle turns in his career, turns that uniquely prepared him for the role he now assumes.

Gil’s roots are typically Americana. His father ran a grain farm in central Illinois. His mother made sure he and his sisters and brother attended Sunday school and worship services in the tiny Indianola Baptist Church.

When Gil was 17, his sisters presented the gospel to him clearly. He went forward to register his conversion decision at evangelistic services in nearby Fairmont. The preacher was Harold Lindsell, later CT’S second editor.

After high school, Gil enrolled in Northern Baptist Seminary’s college division, transferring to Wheaton College at midpoint (where this editor was among the professors). In 1950 he married Arlie Felten, one of three sisters who formed the trio in the women’s glee club.

Gil’s sights were now set on the pastorate, and he subsequently enrolled at Northern Baptist Seminary with a major in Christian education. He reasoned that C.E. would provide a valuable supplement for a pastor to the practical theology he next took at the M.Div. level. In his senior year he served as student mentor for his senior preaching class.

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The first right-angle turn occurred toward the end of that school year when Northern President Charles Koller asked Gil to join the faculty and teach Christian education and speech. Gil agreed, and he and Arlie moved into the staff apartment that had once housed CT’S first editor, Carl F. H. Henry. Gil continued to teach at the seminary and also served as chairman of the college division department of Christian education. Along the way he completed Th.M. and Th.D. degrees in homiletics at Northern Baptist Seminary. He climaxed his formal academic preparation with a Ph.D. in the rhetoric of public address from Northwestern University.

Gil thus continues the tradition that CHRISTIANITY TODAY editors are selected from the ranks of academes and seminary faculty. His call to teach in a theological seminary gave a decisive turn to his life’s ministry. Gil’s deepest commitment is to the communication of biblical truth. His career as a seminary teacher laid that foundation permanently and well.

The second right-angle turn came when a former Northern Baptist professor invited Gil to join him at the David C. Cook Publishing Company as editor of its senior high publications. Gil was impressed with the breadth of the audience he could influence, and signed on. After a year he got the job of developing the publisher’s Bible-in-Life curriculum. Within three years, he was editorial director for all of Cook’s publications.

By 1967, Gil had groomed two managing editors, and his interests were increasingly turning to developing Christian education materials for the home. He then contrived his own right-angle turn, resigning from Cook and beginning 15 years of working out of his home as a free-lance book author and developer.

He produced prolifically, writing 42 volumes and orchestrating the assembling and production of 23 others. His career became a family venture. Arlie managed the office work flow and processed the manuscripts. Son Doug (who was killed in an automobile accident last year) became the graphics expert. Son Ron became researcher, writer, editor, and indexer. Daughter Kathy built a research file of archeological materials for the Book of Life set and the Victor Handbook of Bible Knowledge. Daughters Jan and Cindy, still in school, helped to organize the 30,000 photos drawn on for these books.

In some ways Gil’s long stint with Cook followed by the writing and editing for his own company represents an interlude between his academic career at Northern Baptist and his new post as editor of CT. But it also makes its own unique contribution to prepare him for his new duties. Like C. S. Lewis, he was first an academician speaking to scholars. But Lewis, too, made a right-angle turn when he was asked to give the “Broadcast Talks” that later became the volume Mere Christianity. The challenge of his new audience made Lewis write a crisp, clear style. Something like that occurred in Gil Beers’s career. He comes to CT with an impressive academic record, but also with proven skills of communicating the Christian message.

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Gil eventually agreed to accept the CT editorship because of the challenge of another important audience, “CT,” he says, “is a strategic Christian publication, with very deep influence.” He sees it as a unique forum for confronting Christian leaders with Christian thought and action, and spurring them to respond. The goal he has set for himself is to deliver content commensurate with the magazine’s reputation and its readers’ current expectation, and to anticipate, and move to meet, their future needs.

He has been well prepared for the challenge he tackles.

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