That ecumenicalism has made rapid strides in recent decades is beyond dispute. In the past “Great Century,” denominations have united; co-operation between churches has increased; councils of churches have been established. And the end is not yet. The great fissure separating Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, which seemed so permanent just a few short years ago, more and more is being bridged. No longer are heard statements declaring the impossibility of uniting these two.
But the progress made, slow though it may appear to be to the ecumenicalist, has gone much beyond the understanding of the “man in the pew.” The movement has been under the direction of certain leaders (usually liberal) in the church. But the lay member has not reached the point where he can see the pressing urgency for union and oneness; in fact, he is often opposed to union,—and is carried along only against his will. Therefore the concern of ecumenical leaders today is the instruction of the lay member in those “self-evident truths” of ecumenicalism so that there may grow an increasingly greater desire for oneness at the “grass roots level.” For, if the lay members of the churches do not support the present drive towards union, the entire ecumenical movement must eventually collapse. It is rather interesting, then, to read the arguments given to support ecumenicalism, presented usually in such a simple way that even the “milkman from Kansas” (as one author put it) may understand. I group the many arguments given under a three-fold division.
The ecumenicalist freely quotes Scripture. That is true even of those who deny the infallibility of that Word of God. The passage quoted probably more often than any other is John 17. Take time to read the passage, especially verse 21: “That they all may be one… that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” An exposition of this passage is given by Dr. W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, general secretary for the World Council of Churches, part of which I quote.
At this point we turn first to the high priestly prayer of our Lord; contained in the seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of St. John. Precisely because we have heard so very often the words “that they all may be one,” we are inclined to take them for granted instead of asking what they mean in the context of the whole prayer.
. . . What, then, do we learn about unity in
We note, first of all, that most explicit teaching about unity comes to us in the form of a prayer. That means that the unity to which we are called is unity which is received and not unity which is fabricated by ourselves. The gathering of the scattered children of God is God’s own work in which we are allowed to participate and which we cannot possibly take over. And our participation is, in the first place, by opening ourselves up through prayer. Unity is not self-evident. There is no unity in this world that is not constantly threatened. We must pray for the renewal of unity where it exists, for the restoration of unity where it is broken.
Now we should note that the unity here described has different aspects, or dimensions. There is a dimension of height—the vertical dimension which concerns the unity which the Son together with His flock have with the Father. There is a dimension of length—the horizontal dimension in time which concerns the unity of the apostles with those who come later to believe in Jesus. And there is the dimension of breadth—the horizontal dimension in space which has to do with the unity of those in all lands and places who follow the one Lord.
. . . But now we come to a paradox. This unity, comparable to the oneness of the Father and the Son, might seem to be a highly esoteric, intangible, mystical unity. What, then, must we make of the fact that, according to Jesus’ own words, the purpose and function of this unity is to convince the world that Jesus is truly sent by the Father and that the Father loves and seeks His scattered children everywhere? These words, “so that the world may believe that Thou hast sent me” (verse 23); can only mean that there is something to be seen, that this unity becomes clearly manifest in ways which are sufficiently unusual in the eyes of the world to make people sit up and take notice. If it is to convince them, it must obviously be a unity different from the many unities which they know already—such as social, political, national, cultural, ideological unities. It must be a unity that cannot be explained in terms of the ordinary motives by which men are driven to unity. It must overcome barriers which seem insuperable. It must make man ask: What is this unknown force that brings men together in spite of their separateness? It must refer man back to the One who gathers His people together out of all races and nations. It is, therefore, quite wrong to think of the spiritual unity of
in terms of an invisible unity, as a Platonic idea or a fine sentiment hid in the souls of the faithful, which does not find concrete expression in their common life and their common witness. The world is to believe because of the unity of the church. . . . The unity that reflects the union of the Father and the Son must become manifest on earth in the actual life of the Church, in its message and in its outward order, in the mutual relations of its members and its united action in the world.¹
Other passages are also often quoted and commented upon. Among these passages are Ephesians 4:1-16 (also often mentioned by the ecumenicalist), Acts 1:4-8; Philippians 2:1-11; Galatians 2:1-10; I Corinthians 10:16-18 and others. The above quotation will give you some idea concerning the interpretations of these other passages as well.
There are presented many practical motives for union of churches. There is the expressed fear of too much “bureaucracy” in one unified church, yet such union is considered necessary for the sake of the mission endeavor of the church. There is, for instance, this common reaction:
It was the bishop of a missionary Church, Bishop Azariah of Dornakal, India, who said in Edinburgh in 1910: “Unity may be theoretically a desirable ideal in Europe and America, but it is vital to the life of the Church in the mission field. The divisions of Christendom may be a source of weakness in Christian countries, but in non-Christian lands they are a sin and a scandal.”²
With this sentiment, Dr. W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft agrees:
It is not simply that the missionary and evangelistic outreach of the churches requires a common strategy and a certain amount of co-operation. That is, of course, true, but it is only a small part of what is required for the adequate fulfillment of the task of witness. The real issue has to do with the content of the witness. The question arises whether it is possible to speak convincingly of the true meaning of the Church of Christ without proclaiming that the Church is one and without manifesting that oneness in a concrete and visible manner.³
And again, the lady who would present ecumenicalism in terms understandable even to the “milkman from Kansas,” put it this way:
The division of Christian missionaries into sects has long confused non-believers who puzzled, “Is Christ Lutheran or Methodist? Or Anglican?” Not that creeds are to be done away with; far from it. But the color of each church’s contribution will paint a triumphant picture of the whole Christ, the same Saviour brilliantly illumined .when seen through the eyes of many creeds and cultures. Yet there is still a long steep way to climb. “Praying and acting together is not enough,” argued the youth delegates to New Delhi (at the third assembly of the World Council of Churches—V.B.) passionately. “We will not be really united until each Christian, regardless of his creed or ordination, is welcome in every church at our Lord’s Table.”4
Not only is this church union essential for missionary labors, though primarily for that reason, but also this union is required because of the entire world situation of our day. Exactly when the world about us manifests such great disunity, the church must point the way to proper unity:
A visible unity of the church appears still more urgent when we reflect on the significance of its gospel for society at large. The church is trying to tell the world that the reconciliation of its clashing peoples and divided communities can be achieved through Christ. But the world will surely be skeptical until the church which makes the claim gives clearer evidence of that reconciling power in its own institutional life.5
In addition to the above “grounds” for ecumenicalism, there appear to be great pressures placed upon the leaders of the churches of the world by the youth of today. At least according to one author, the youth want union NOW. They are impatient, restless. They want to see action and results. And if the church will not accommodate itself to them, the church is in danger of losing them altogether. The following shows this to be a fact:
“Church orators are always talking about ‘youth as the hope of tomorrow,’ but we happen to be around today!” protested a youth delegate at New Delhi. “I always understood that when we were baptized into the Church, we were members! To me the Church seems more concerned in preserving its own institutions than in grappling with the issues of our times. Why weren’t we taught in Sunday School about the exciting march toward unity among the churches of the world? We spent our time dawdling around with Moses in the bulrushes!”6
The poor boy! Imagine—spending all his valuable boyhood “dawdling around with Moses in the bulrushes!” But such is the type of pressure being applied by the youth upon the leaders of the churches. Youth wants unity. And with this agitation for unity, more and more of the leaders and lay members express agreement. “As one layman at New Delhi urged: ‘Do not continue to play solo instruments but let us join in Christ’s great orchestra so that together we can play the oratorio of redemption.'”7
To attain this goal of unity, the youth appeared ready to run roughshod over the confession and practice of the church.
When older church leaders tried to explain the historical background which had led to the ancient liturgical churches restricting the Bread and Wine to their own members, the young people retorted impatiently, “But this is the twentieth century! We are not interested in squabbles between theologians a thousand years ago! Christ said, ‘This is my body broken for you and for many . . . .’ Does this mean what it says or doesn’t it?”8
That, dear reader, is “youth as the hope of tomorrow.” I tremble when I think of such a tomorrow.
¹ W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Pressure of our Common Calling, Doubleday, pp. 80-83
² Paul Griswold Macy, If It Be of God, Bethany Press, p. 121
³ W.A. Visser ‘t Hooft, op. cit., pp. 40, 41
4 Grace Nies Fletcher, The Whole World’s in His Hand, E. P. Dutton & Co., p. 44
5 Samuel McCrea Cavert, On the Road to Christian Unity, p. 154
6 Grace Nies Fletcher, op. cit., p. 97
7 ibid., p. 133
8 ibid., p. 99