During the past months, preliminary to the current presidential election, we have been bombarded with the phrase: “The Great Society.” In religious circles there is heard a similar phrase to describe the present “glorious development” in the history of the church: “The Great Century.” This “Great Century” includes a hundred years of increasingly intense efforts towards uniting all churches into one super-church covering the whole earth. To give you a bird’s-eye view of this ecumenical development, I quote from one intimately associated with the present-day movement:

Since 1900 we have seen actual union, partial union, and negotiations looking toward union among churches both at home and abroad. The three Methodist churches in England are one. Three Presbyterian groups in Scotland have become the Church of Scotland; the various Protestant churches of France are now the Reformed Church of France. The Lutheran churches of the United States are working steadily and effectively toward greater and greater union. The Congregational and Christian churches have come together. In Canada, Methodist, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches have become the United Church of Canada. In India the Anglican, the Methodist, and the South India churches have become the United Church of South India. 

Fifteen denominations have formed a partial union in the United Church of Christ in Japan. In 1948 the Evangelical Church in Germany brought some twenty-seven churches into a federal union relationship. The same thing has happened in the Philippines, in China, and in Brazil among some of the churches there. 

Important conversations and potentially successful negotiations looking toward greater union are now under way all over the world—in South Africa, Iran, North India, Ceylon, Nigeria, Madagascar, as well as here at home. In 1951 representatives of nine denominations began careful consideration of a plan for forming the United Church of Christ in the United States. In 1952 preliminary discussions to explore the possibilities of union were opened between the Methodist Church and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. The National Council of Churches was formed in 1950. The World Council of Churches brings 163 (201 today) different churches from 41 different countries into a working arrangement for thinking, praying, and planning together.¹

It Was Not Always So . . . . 

To the human eye, the above presents a rather appealing picture. Besides, many of the “negotiations” mentioned in the book (written some eight years ago) have reached fruition. Additional negotiations have begun since that time. 

But it was not always so. There was a time when merger attempts simply were not necessary. The church was also outwardly one. In the days of the church immediately after Pentecost, there were neither formal denominational ties, nor such disunity that the newly established churches were unable to work together. And this is easily understood. It is often emphasized by “ecumaniacs” that this early church with its unity is the incentive for seeking union today. These point out that then the church was outwardly one even though there existed various and opposing doctrines and theories. They mention especially the disagreement between Peter and Paul—whether the church must retain or cast off many of its ties to Judaism. Now it is true, the church in that day had its serious problems and troubles. Doctrinal disagreements did arise (Acts 15:1-31); personal animosities did exist for a time (Acts 15:36-41); many heresies did develop in the church (I Cor. 1:12, 3:3, 5:1, 15:12). Nevertheless, the churches were all established upon the truths of Scripture unitedly proclaimed by all the apostles without exception. The truth was the same throughout the churches. Error which arose was condemned and cast out. The apostle Paul declared, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:8). There was a measure of true outward unity—only it was based upon the truth of God’s revelation.

After several hundreds of years, this loose unity developed into something more concrete. Regional churches united under bishops who, in turn, finally submitted to the bishop of Rome as the supreme head of the church on earth. Thus a measure of outward unity existed. There was much trouble; there was schism; yet for the most part the church remained a monolithic organization—until the 11th century when it divided into the “Eastern” and “Western” churches. Again, though schisms continued after the 11th century, it was not until the Protestant reformation, beginning in 1517, that the old Roman Catholic Church was split widely apart. 

Since the Protestant reformation, there has been a constant splintering of churches (particularly in Protestantism). Until approximately the last one hundred years, there had been no mergers, but rather ever-increasing divisions. It is this which is held forth as the continuing scandal in the Church. The president of Union Theological Seminary sums it up thus:

In summary: in the first eighteen centuries, frequent and multiplying schisms and scarcely a single concrete achievement of church union; in the last century and a half, some new divisions within Christendom but more than a hundred fully consummated mergers of previously independent national church bodies. Up to the eve of the nineteenth century, scarcely a single organized Christian association across denominational lines; at the middle of the twentieth century, thousands of vigorously functioning agencies of transdenominational collaboration. These are among the facts that justify Sir Ernest Barker’s arresting assertion on the eve of the World Christian Conferences at Oxford and Edinburgh in 1937: “Our century has its sad features. But there is one feature in its history which is not sad. That is the gathering tide of Christian union.”²

Missions and Mergers 

It appears to be an established fact that together with the rise in mission endeavor in the last century and a half, there has been the development of the ecumenical movement. It was not the local, established church that first emphasized the necessity of an external unity of all Christians; but missionaries, mission boards, and mission churches felt impelled to seek closer union with others engaged in the same labors. This, in turn, provided the momentum for merger negotiations between denominations, and the establishment of councils of churches in recent years. 

Writer after writer gives the “credit” for the ecumenical development to foreign missions:

Moreover, it is on the mission field and among the younger Christian churches, richest fruit-age of missionary outreach, that concrete achievement in almost every type and phase of Christian unity has come earliest, has moved fastest, and has gone farthest. We repeat: The Christian world mission has been both the precursor and the progenitor of the effort after Christian unity.³ 

It can never be too strongly stated that the origin of the modern ecumenical movement was in foreign missions.4

But why should ecumenism develop first out of mission activity? Two reasons especially have been advanced. First, the divided voices of many denominations in a land predominantly non-Christian tend to confuse both the unconverted and recent converts. These are able to make a distinction between Christianity and all other religions. But they have not attained to an understanding of the “fine distinctions” which separate Christians within Christendom. Hence, before long, missionaries of various denominations began co-operating rather than competing—for the sake of these novices in the faith. Secondly, there was the problem of overlapping mission fields in a world, two-thirds of which is not even nominally Christian. Since such a vast field must be covered, since there has never been an adequate supply of missionaries, why not work together to attain less duplication of effort and maximum use of men and material available? 

That many unique questions arise on the mission field can not be disputed. But the conclusions drawn have not always been in harmony with Scripture. It can very seriously be asked in the present instance whether ecumenicalism has not hindered, rather than assisted, the cause of missions today. The answer ought to become more apparent in later articles. 

The Rolling Stone . . . .

I will not bore you with a detailed history of ecumenicalism. To recount the hundreds of significant developments in the past hundred years would require the writing of books,—not simply a few articles. Let me mention briefly several highlights in this history. 

The date usually mentioned as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement is 1795. In that year, members of the established Church of Scotland, of the Church of England, and of English Independent and Methodist Churches united as individual Christians (not as denominations) to form the London Missionary Society. 

1819 is the earliest instance of interdenominational missionary action. In London the secretaries of the Baptist Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society (Anglican), and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society gathered to form the “London Secretaries’ Association” for “mutual counsel and fellowship.” 

Next, at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910, a conference was called, to be composed of appointed delegates by the missionary boards of the churches. A “continuation committee” was established which became organized as the International Missionary Council. This council, in turn, affiliated itself with the World Council of Churches at New Delhi in 1961. 

Two other organizations can be noted. The Faith and Order Movement met first in 1927, and the Life and Work Movement first met in 1925 at Stockholm. These two associated in 1938 to form a provisional committee of the World Council of Churches which was officially constituted in Amsterdam in 1948. 

Much more can be recorded—but for now this must be sufficient. What of the future? Listen:

The achievements of “The Great Century” suggest potentialities of Christian advance in the last half of the twentieth century surpassing those which have been realistic possibilities for any earlier epoch. We have repeatedly stressed the dual, or bifocal, character of this movement—Christian missions and Christian unity. If we imagine these two parallel and inter-related developments pressing forward along the same lines and at the same steadily accelerating pace through the next forty years, the dawn of the second Christian millennium might witness an approximation of the twofold goal of the acknowledgment of Christ throughout the earth and of the unity of a majority of his followers in one “great church.”5

And, you may well be correct, Dr. Van Dusen. In the “next forty years . . . the unity of a majority . . . in one great church.” It gives one pause for thought, does it not? Truly “the night is far spent, the day is at hand . . . .” (Romans 13:12).

¹ Harold A. Bosley, What did the World Council say to you?, Abigdon Press, pp. 37, 38 

² Henry P. Van Dusen, One Great Ground of Hope, Westminster Press, p. 23 

³ ibid., p. 17 

4 Paul Griswold Macy, If it be of God, Bethany Press, p. 39 

5 Henry P. Van Dusen, op. cit., p. 93