The United States alone has more than 250 separate denominations. Major ecumenical movements are afoot to bring all differing and conflicting sects and denominations together. But what are the chances for success? Will the near future see all Christians united?
"HOLY FATHER, keep through your own name those whom you have given me, that they may be one even as we are one," prayed Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, just before His crucifixion. Later, the Apostle Paul, in writing to the early church at Ephesus, stated, "There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Eph. 4:4-5). But is there really one faith, body and baptism in Christendom today? Hardly. Today Christians are anything but "one." The divisions of Christendom are blatantly obvious for all to see. With more than 250 conflicting, contending sects and denominations in the United States alone, church leaders sometimes appear — and feel — like Madison A venue merchandise hawkers, trying to prove that their "brand" is better than the one down the street. No wonder a "solid majority" of Catholics and Protestants recently told American Gallup pollsters they were in favor of some kind of church unity. Perhaps that is why the decade of the 60's saw more spectacular ecumenical moves than any other: Vatican II, Uppsala, Consultation on Church Union, not to mention the many small-scale church mergers. With the flurry of publicity over the ecumenical movement, are strides really being made toward effective church unity? Just what are some of the problems involved — and how likely are they to be overcome? Can we expect church unity even in this century? Are Protestants and Catholics — or even the major divisions of Protestants — too incompatible to ever get together? Perhaps even more fundamental is to ask how and why did church DIS-unity begin. Certainly the One who said He would build a united Church is not the author of the current confusion.
If the New Testament Church had unity of belief and unity of Church structure, why are churches divided over doctrine and organization? Did the early Church "go bad"? Protestants as a whole claim to take their beliefs and practices directly from the Bible. But there is little agreement either on what the Bible says or what it means. The Catholic Church does not appeal to the Bible alone but claims to trace its history to the Apostolic Church. However, the present-day Catholic Church is far different from the Catholic Church of Justin Martyr, Origen, and Eusebius. And, according to church historians, that early Catholic Church of the second, third, and fourth centuries differed greatly from the original New Testament Church of the first century A.D. Notice what one church historian has written on the subject: "For fifty years after St. Paul's life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look, and when at last it rises ... we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul" (Jesse L. Hurlbut, The Story of the Christian Church, p. 41). Let's take a look back into history. Where did disunity start — and what steps toward unity have been taken?
Schisms Early in Church
Even during the Apostolic Age, there were problems of apostacy and deliberate attempts by some to draw away followings after themselves. The New Testament gives broad hints of the problems, though few details. But with the completion of the New Testament about 100 A.D., a sudden silence falls over the early Church. The few writings during the next half-century tell little about the state of Christianity. It is not until the time of Justin Martyr, writing about 150 A.D., that we again have statements about specific "heresies." Justin tells us that there were many different groups which bore the name Christian. He names a number extant in his time. This first Catholic writer shows that "Catholic" Christianity was a misnomer in the 2nd century. Justin places a major share of the religious confusion on one Simon Magus, whom he identifies with the Simon of Samaria in Acts 8. So we are told that heresy and schism in Christ's Church began even in the early days of the apostles!
The Catholic Church Divides
It was precisely because of the many schisms and differences of belief that the Roman emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. — a conference to decide basic tenets of Christian belief. Constantine was not so much concerned about what was decided for doctrine, just so long as there was unity. Minority opinion was squelched in the council. "Heretics" (individuals and groups who did not agree with the decisions of Nicaea) were forbidden to meet together and, later, violently persecuted. Those who insisted on other forms of Christianity had to leave the Roman Empire or keep hidden. For over 700 years no great variance in religious belief was tolerated. Then came the great split in 1054 between East and West, giving rise to the Roman Catholic and the Greek Orthodox churches. Several attempts were made in the following centuries for a reconciliation. The Second Council of Lyons in 1274 and the Councils of Basle, Ferrara, Florence and Rome (1431-43) made temporary reunions. But these were all repudiated after a few years. Then came the Protestant Reformation. Once the idea of "protesting" got under way, it was hard to stop. The original Protestant groups themselves subdivided, followed by further branchings of the subdivisions, followed by splintering of the branches. This was the state of things when the great missionary activity to native peoples reached its height in the 19th century.
Beginnings of the Ecumenical Movement
As missionaries of one denomination moved into an area, they found their counterparts from other denominations already there or soon arriving. The "rivalry for souls" was a constant source of embarrassment for all concerned. As one writer noted, it was somewhat disturbing to ask a Hong Kong citizen what his religion was and receive the reply, "I am Canadian Baptist." Such a state of confusion resulted in the first major step toward unity on an international level: the World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910. This eventually produced the International Missionary Council, founded in 1921; the "Life and Work" movement, 1925, which sought unity through mission and service; and the "Faith and Order" movement in 1927, designed to work on the problem of divisive doctrines. An attempt to unite the latter two movements was cut short by World War II. But 1948 brought forth the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Amsterdam. Then the WCC merged with the World Missionary Conference in New Delhi in 1961. The WCC has remained the main international movement for union among Protestants. But there have been more localized attempts. Two of these in the United States are the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Consultation on Church Union (COCU). But this history of ecumenical drives would be incomplete without some discussion of the historic Vatican II.
Vatican II — "Some Fresh Air"
It was January 1959. Pope John XXIII was preparing for the termination of a prayer week for church unity. Suddenly a most unusual thing happened — he was told, according to one source, by a heavenly voice that unity of his church would be brought about through an ecumenical council: "As we found ourselves in deep prayer," he said, "we heard through the intimacy and simplicity of our spirit a divine invitation to call an ecumenical council." Despite opposition from conservatives in the church itself, Pope John pushed ahead with his plans. It is related that, when asked by one cardinal what he hoped to accomplish by the council, he threw open a window and replied, "Let some fresh air into the church." John presided over the opening of Vatican II (Vatican I was the council in 1870 which established the doctrine of papal infallibility), but he did not live to see its completion. The council began in October 1962; John died the next June, and his successor, the present Pope Paul VI, assumed the papal chair. When the council ended in December 1965, it seemed that the Catholic Church had already begun a new era. Perhaps one of the most significant declarations, at least to non-Catholics, was that of religious freedom. Protestant "observers" had been pleasantly surprised in many cases at their relations with the Catholic delegates. An air of tolerance pervaded the council. To most Christians, Vatican II was indeed a breath of fresh air!
Some Against Church Unity
The majority of Christians are for church union, but let's not overlook the vociferous minority opposed to it. One of the major charges against the World Council of Churches (and the National Council of Churches of the United States) has been that of Communist sympathies, Communist influence, or some similar charge relating to Communism. One does not have to look far to realize why such charges are made. A good example can be found in the Fourth General Assembly in Uppsala, Sweden, in the summer of 1968. An observer from Christianity Today magazine later wrote that a "deep current of anti-Americanism ran beneath assembly deliberations" (August 16, 1968). Another magazine editor at the assembly pointed out that the "real thrust" of deliberations was more concerned with political and economic issues than with traditional religion. There seemed a general preference for socialistic ideas over those of capitalism. Archbishop Nikodim definitely implicated the United States when discussing "victims of aggression" but said nothing of those Eastern Europeans suffering under Communism. One well-known columnist and editor for several Southern farm magazines called the National Council of Churches the "most powerful and diabolical political organization in the United States" (emphasis his). Others have made similar indictments of the NCC and WCC.
The WCC and NCC Defend Themselves
But these charges have not gone unanswered. Many feel that disunity among Christians is itself of great benefit to the Communist cause. One widely published Roman Catholic ecumenist Dr. John A. O'Brien wrote: "With Communism striving to complete its conquest of the world by pulling the remaining free nations behind its Iron Curtain, the need for Christians to unite is imperative. Unable to present a united front, we are losing one battle after another in the underdeveloped countries." Some feel church unity — a united crusade of Christians — is the only hope for world peace. They see the failure of national governments and feel only a religious organization — transcending national boundaries — can effect that elusive goal of peace and harmony among nations. There is no doubt that a union incorporating the majority of Christians would have great potential power. It is just this possibility of immense political power which some fear. They can, of course, point to the actions of the powerful medieval church and its not-always- beneficent influence over the known civilized world of that time. So the charges and countercharges go back and forth. Leaving the question of politics behind, let's consider the more pertinent question of religion, the biggest consideration for many. Must churches be willing to compromise in order to get together? Is church unity contrary to the Bible?
Compromise and the "Superchurch"
Dr. Paul A. Crow, general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, has pointed out that one of the major fears about church union was that of the "superchurch." People are afraid that a church union would force uniformity of belief and worship through a bureaucratic structure. They envision the new church as too much of a social agent. Dr. Crow stated that "church union is either the work of the devil or the excitement of the century." There are many who would agree with the first alternative, it seems! One of the big "bug-bears" is that of compromise. In order to bring about church union, many feel they will have to compromise belief and traditional forms, which they are unwilling to do. One writer on church union disagrees that compromise is involved. He has stated flatly: "Those who accuse ecumenical churchmen of compromising the truth are ignorant of what is taking place," and argues that dialogue and understanding, not compromise, are the issues. Perhaps the problem is one of definition — of what is meant by compromise. But it is difficult to see how some kinds of compromise can be excluded from the situation. The type of church conceived by some would require the abandonment of dearly held ideas of doctrine, structure, and worship — no matter whether you use the term "compromise" or some other. As one delegate to a WCC conference in Canada said: "An emotional commitment to compromise is necessary." The fear of compromising what they feel is absolute truth revealed from God is one of the greatest fears of those questioning the ecumenical movement. But those objecting to, or cautious about church union, have not prevented many significant strides from being taken. The amount of ecumenical work accomplished and being accomplished is hard to describe as anything less than impressive.
The Ecumenical Ship Sails On
When the World Council of Churches was born in 1948, it took for its symbol a ship named Oikoumene. Looking at events just in the last decade, the ship of ecumenism seems to be growing both in tonnage and momentum. The only major Christian groups which have failed to join the WCC are the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention of the United States. But now it seems that the Roman Catholic Church could become a member within five years, according to a Reuters release in mid-January of this year. According to that report, the subject seems very likely to be brought up and discussed in a Roman Catholic synod in Rome this coming October. Previous overtures from the WCC to the pope, on his historic visit to Geneva in 1969, had been politely but firmly rejected. The pope had said then 'that the "time wasn't right." But it seems now the time may be "right" about 1975.
Rome Leads the Way
Strangely enough, as many would view it, the Roman Catholic Church is out in front and leading the way toward church unity. The climate since John XXIII and Vatican II has taken the breath of "progressive" Protestants (and not a few Catholics, too, it seems!). As Edward B. Fiske, writing for The New York Times put it, some Protestants "have the uneasy feeling that the spirit of his [Martin Luther's] reform has outrun them and is now largely in the possession of Roman Catholics." Right after the end of Vatican II, Lutheran bishop Otto Dibelius of Berlin commented: "If the Catholic church of 450 years ago had looked as it does today, there never would have been a Reformation." Many Protestants feel the same way and are asking why the need for continued separation. The well-known Protestant ecumenist Dr. Robert M. Brown expressed his feelings that "Protestants cannot indefinitely justify a situation of continued separation." Speaking in January, 1971 to pilgrims in St. Peter's, Pope Paul acknowledged that a great deal of the blame for divided Christianity lies with Rome. He lamented it was very strange indeed that the churches "menaced by modern irreligion were disunited and often rivals." Other papal firsts for Pope Paul include the idea of sharing clerical training between Protestants and Catholics (1970), the first meeting between pope and Greek Orthodox patriarch in 500 years (1967), meeting of the first official delegation of Lutherans to come to Rome (1969), the first meeting between pope and the head of the Armenian Orthodox Church since 451 AD. (1970), and the order to unify all Catholic textbooks to give greater balance and fairness to the presentation of religious controversies (1970). Even the Knights of Columbus and the Masons, traditional enemies for centuries, are burying the hatchet and encouraging closer rapport with one another! But with all this activity on the part of Catholics, let's not assume that ecumenical Protestants languish in indolence. They have been hard at work, too.
Protestants Also Busy
The nine denominations in the Consultation on Church Union are working toward a complete union into one church by the late 70's. This union would include such diverse groups as Presbyterian, Episcopal, Church of Christ and Methodist. In April, 1968 an 11-million-member United Methodist Church was formed when the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church came together to make up the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States. The Church of England and the Methodist churches in England are working on the initial stages of a union which is hoped to be effected by 1980. The evangelical churches (sometimes called "fundamentalists") have been the traditional opponents of church unity. Around 40 million strong, they represent a solid majority of the approximately 70 million Protestants in the United States. Yet less than a third belong to the National Council of Churches. But even the evangelicals are working toward their own unity, whatever they may feel toward other denominations. This work is mainly being done through the white National Association of Evangelicals and the National Negro Evangelical Association, both of which had conferences in Los Angeles in April. This is only a sampling of the many operations for church unity now in progress. A review of all that has been accomplished is impressive. But how far has the ecumenical movement gone? What work remains to be done? A great deal, despite advances already made. But can the obstacles to final Church union be overcome?
Much Left to Be Done
One of the first problems which comes to mind is that of a goal. Just what is the goal of church union? What form is the final product to take? Unfortunately, these questions have brought forth different answers from different theologians. Dr. John O'Brien discussed this problem in an article in Saturday Evening Post. To some Protestants, he said, the goal is "simply the unity of all believers in the lordship of Christ, transcending all differences in creed, ritual and church organization. They would establish unity by the simple expedient of removing denominational labels, with the differences still remaining. To Catholics, most of the Eastern Orthodox and many Protestants, unity means much more: a substantial oneness in faith and worship." We mentioned the question of compromise earlier. If the goal is only the removal of denomination labels, then there is no worry about compromising one's traditional beliefs. But unity of faith and worship is going to require some serious soul-searching and eventually a willingness to give up anything which stands in the way of unity. This would be anathema to many churches. They point to the early New Testament Christians who willingly faced martyrdom rather than give up or compromise their faith. To barter about their basic beliefs would, to them, be a betrayal of their Lord and Master and the thousands of martyrs down through history.
An Uphill Struggle
Catholics and Protestants alike admit the biggest single factor in the way of unity is the papacy. Pope Paul himself, in speaking before the Secretariat for Christian Unity in 1967, stated plainly that the pope "is without doubt the most serious obstacle on the road of ecumenism." A few Protestant leaders have accepted the idea of a single Christian spokesman and leader along somewhat the same lines as the pope. These include Episcopal Bishop C. Kilmer Myers, who called on all Christians to accept the pontiff as "chief spokesman for the Christian community of the world," and the late bishop Pike. But even these men generally balk when it comes to the question of infallibility. Another great obstacle to Protestants is the adoration of Mary. In some ways this is almost as hard to accept as the authority of the pope. The Assumption of Mary into heaven is rejected by almost all Protestants, yet this doctrine was established by an officially "infallible" pronouncement of Pope Pius XII in 1951. Is this question possibly resolvable without one side or the other giving in completely? Many Protestants find a common point of meeting with the Catholics through the fact that they branched off from the Catholic Church during the Reformation. But a significant number of denominations claim a history totally independent of the Catholic Church. To them, Catholic Church history is that of a false church — at least many have felt that way in the past. For example, the question of reunion with Rome was put to Leslie K. Tarr of Central Baptist Seminary. His reply was: "Our ecclesiastical homeland... bears little or no resemblance to the modern Roman Catholic Church. The Baptist, or Anabaptist, movement predated the Reformation and looks back not to Martin Luther but to apostolic times for its origins." And the early Presbyterians, although friendly with other reformers, claimed descent from the Scottish Culdees, who had vigorously opposed Rome.
All Have Their Problems
One question is sometimes quite embarrassing to ministers and theologians: How can the Protestants and Catholics get together when the Roman Catholic Church is split asunder and when there are 11 different groups calling themselves Lutherans in the United States alone? How can the pope expect Protestants to agree with him on such issues as birth control when his own priesthood is split and splintered over the same questions? A leading U. S. news magazine titled an article: "Catholic Church Moves Toward Biggest Crisis in 400 Years," soon after the pope's pronouncement on birth control. Pope Paul has had his hands full in keeping his own church united. Just recently the issue of women in church offices has made headlines. How can the Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox, who refuse to ordain women, get together with the Lutheran groups who now permit it? This is just another one of the multitudinous problems. The various obstacles tend to fall under four major headings (part of which were laid out by Michael Rogness in The Church Nobody Knows) which can be summarized as follows: 1. Lack of a clearly defined goal of union. Some see unity in "the Lordship of Christ" alone. But others are sure that nothing short of unity of worship and belief is acceptable. 2. Doctrine and belief. Some believe, for example, that the only acceptable form of baptism is by immersion. They cannot tolerate such rituals as sprinkling or pouring which other religious groups use. 3. Structure and organization of the church. Protestant churches are generally founded on the principle of democracy and the sovereignty of the local congregation. To accept the Roman Catholic structure of cardinals and bishops, with the pope over all, would be to sail their cherished traditions down the river. 4. Culture and form of worship. Part of the disunity in the United States is the result of different national backgrounds. For example, a group of Lutherans immigrating from Sweden would find themselves uncomfortable in the "culture" of German Lutheran immigrants. A Pentecostal feels very out of place at a Roman Catholic mass, while an Anglican would find himself somewhat ill at ease in a Southern Baptist prayer meeting. In many areas, different churches tend to cater to different social groups. But can such innumerable competing and disagreeing sects, denominations and religious groups all make up the Church which Jesus Christ founded? Can the disunited churches of today be the true Church of God? Note the admonition of the Apostle Paul: "I beseech you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you." These are all questions and thoughts which flood into one's mind as he views the contemporary religious chaos and confusion and the attempts at some semblance of unity.
What Are the Possibilities of Church Unity?
Despite the significant steps taken toward unity, the end of the road is not immediately in sight. The differences are too great, and the willingness to compromise not strong enough. And in spite of the majority for church unity, there is always the determined minority to whom the ecumenical movement is completely un-Christian. So, the way things look now — whether you are for it or against it — only some great, overpowering event could effect church unity. Only a miracle could unite Christendom. The question is, who will perform that miracle? For a further discussion of these questions and their answers, read our free articles, "Why So Many Denominations?" and "Should You Join a Church?" These and many other theological questions are also discussed in the monthly publication of the Ambassador College Graduate School of Theology, TOMORROW'S WORLD.