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The Basis Of Organic Unity

THE only basis upon which the organic unity of all denominations in a single church can ever be secured and maintained is that upon which the unity of the first disciples rested, loyalty to God in Christ and a personal experience of his presence and power within the individual soul. Back to the first century we must go, to the living springs at which the earliest Christians drank, if we are to find that source of fellowship in service and worship of which the Lord of the Church was thinking when he prayed "that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us."

Other foundations have been and are still proposed as those upon which the unification of Christendom should be attempted, particularly identity of church polity, and of creed; but in no one of them is there any promise of success. The tenacity with which the divided churches cling to conscientious convictions as to doctrine, and to cherished modes of worship or forms of polity that they believe to be authoritative, is neither to be ignored nor deprecated. The lessening of the force of religious conviction would be too high a price to pay for unity, greatly as that is to be desired, since fidelity to conscience is to be preferred above it. The only unity for which the Church can pray is one that leaves these intact and free to develop in all their diversity; for even the divisions within the ranks of the Church are not so threatening as would be the deadening effects of uniformity. It is not necessary, however, that forms of polity shall be identical before the Church can be united; or that rituals, helpful to the spirit of worship of any body of Christians, shall be discarded; or that doctrines conscientiously held shall be abandoned. The level of attachment must be deeper than any one of these, and sought in the possession of a common spiritual experience which is essential, as these are not. "In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things charity" is the only possible program by which the unification of Christendom can be secured.

The divided churches can never be frozen together: they must be welded into one if the union is to be either strong or permanent. That neither polity nor doctrine will suffice for a basis of the reunion that Christendom is seeking is evident from the history of the attempts to secure it upon such foundations. Neither the Roman ideal of formal unity under the absolute authority of the pope and the Roman curia, nor what may be called the Greek ideal, based upon a rigid orthodoxy, goes deep enough to serve as the foundation of a unity that shall be spiritual and vital. The Anglican ideal combines both of these elements, being that of organic and visible unity on a fourfold basis: the Scriptures, the two ancient creeds, the two great sacraments, and the historic episcopate; but it is questionable whether it contains any larger promise of success than those which have preceded it.

This last proposal, the most famous ever propounded for the unity of the Church, attracted at its appearance the attention of the entire Christian world. It has been the rare privilege and honor of one of the smallest Protestant bodies in America to be the first to make definite overtures to the divided Christian forces, and even to be followed by the mother Church of England. These propositions, first issued in 1886, by the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Chicago, and, in 1888, reissued, with minor changes, by the Conference of Bishops of the Anglican Communion, held in Lambeth Palace, read as follows:

That, in the opinion of this Conference, the following Articles supply a basis on which approach may be by God's blessing made toward Home Reunion:

(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as "containing all things necessary to salvation," and as being the rule and ultimate standard of Faith.

(b) The Apostles' Creed, as the baptismal symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian Faith.

(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ himself, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord, administered with unfailing use of Christ's words of institution, and of the elements ordained by him.

(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the unity of his Church.

These proposals, which have called forth volumes of comment and criticism, have performed a most valuable service in bringing forcibly to the attention of the Christian world the question of unity and the elements that are involved in it. The first three propositions have received wide acceptance on the part of representatives of evangelical de-nominations; the center about which controversy and dissent has gathered being the fourth, which deals with the historic episcopate. If this proposition is concerned merely with a form of church polity, the strength and fervor of the dissent and opposition which it has aroused would seem to be disproportionate to its importance. The episcopate presented as an historic institution apart from any theory of its origin and claims, that is to say, a mere governmental as distinguished from a sacerdotal episcopacy, would probably not be repugnant to other Protestants. If the Church were forced to choose between the two, it would doubtless prefer hierarchy to anarchy. Episcopacy is already the de facto government of three-fourths, if not of' four-fifths, of Christendom. Of the three prevalent forms of polity, congregational, presbyterial, and episcopal, however, scholars appear to agree that all co-existed, in germ at least, in the undivided Church of apostolic times. No one of them seems to have so far established its preeminent efficiency as to have proved itself to be fittest of all to survive and to control the Church of the future. Questions of polity, therefore, should not be permitted permanently to divide the Church.

Much cannot, however, be expected for the cause of unity from agreement in polity alone. The several episcopally governed denominations, or congregationally governed denominations, are no nearer to each other than are episcopal to congregational bodies. Polities will not serve as a ground of unity, though they may, if associated with theories of their exclusive validity, prove to be a ground of division.

It is because of the persistent suspicion that "the historic episcopate" as here suggested is associated with such a theory that the Lambeth Proposals have not received a wider acceptance on the part of non-Anglican churches. It is not to the historic episcopate, but to the dogma of an "apostolic succession"

usually attached to it, which makes the Church de-pendent upon a valid administration of the sacraments, and this in turn dependent upon a sacerdotal theory of the ministry, that the great mass of Protestantism objects. There are two theories of the Christian ministry that are diametrically opposed to one another. One is based upon the conception that "the Validity of Orders depends upon the Apostolic Commission perpetuated in unbroken succession of the ministry in the Christian Church."1. Those who hold it declare "that our Lord commissioned the Twelve with his authority over his Kingdom or Church, and that this authority was to be exercised in the use of the functions of prophecy, priesthood, and royalty, reflecting his own authority in these three spheres. They had (1) prophetic authority to preach and to teach; (2) priestly authority to celebrate the sacraments of baptism and of the Lord's Supper and conduct the worship of the Church; (3) royal authority to organize the Church, and to govern and discipline the disciples whom they received into the Church by baptism and whom they retained in the fellowship of the Holy Communion. In the first of these commissions the prophetic authority is most prominent, in the second the power of the keys, in the third the priestly or sacramental function. But they all are involved in the true functions and full commission of the apostolate and their successors in the Christian ministry.

Jesus Christ committed his authority while absent from this earth to a ministering body which should exercise all these functions on his be-half and for the benefit of the entire Kingdom."

Quite irreconcilable with such a theory is that usually held by evangelical Protestant churches, namely, that all spiritual authority is resident in personality, and is dependent upon spiritual qualifications, and, by its very nature, cannot be conveyed from those who have it to those who have it not. Spiritual grace, according to this conception, cannot be transferred like a package over a counter; nor transmitted cutaneously, as it were, or by physical contact, as electricity from a Leyden jar. He who would possess and exercise it must gain it directly at its source, from the great Head of the Church. All that the Church can do is to recognize these qualifications where they exist, and set its seal upon them. No compromise is possible between the two theories of the Christian ministry, the sacerdotal or priestly, and the republican or Protestant: they represent two mutually contradictory conceptions of religion. To many the idea of the transmission of authority in religion within a priestly hierarchy seems to belong with the monarchical scheme of government, the theory of the divine right of kings, and the succession of kings within a single dynasty, which were the prevailing notions in the formative years of the Church, and which so profoundly influenced its thought and development; but it appears to such to be out of place in an era of democracy, when all men are proclaimed to be equal in political rights and in the sight of God, and under a republican form of government where all authority is delegated by the people to those believed to be morally and spiritually competent to wield it. In a republic the son no longer succeeds his father in places of authority, nor does the incumbent nominate or appoint his successor in political office. The atmosphere generated by republican institutions is inhospitable to the dogma of an apostolic succession: it finds no analogies in other fields, and speaks in a language which experience can no longer interpret.

The whole contention, moreover, seems to a large section of Protestantism to be quite foreign to the real purpose of the Church. The Apostle Paul declares that he might have prided himself upon ecclesiastical regularity. He tells us that he was circumcised the eighth day, a Hebrew of the He-brews, as touching the law, a Pharisee, but that he counted all this to be loss for Christ. Such claims had their value, and such qualifications their potency, under the old régime of the law; but under grace they were worthless. Christianity, as Canon Fremantle of the Anglican Church has forcibly pointed out, is, according to the New Testament, primarily a life, and only secondarily a system of doctrine, public worship, and clerical government. "Why, then," he asks, "is so disproportionate an amount of Christian effort spent on these last? And why are disputes about them allowed to hinder us from any serious and united movement for making the common life really Christian?" It must be acknowledged that union with Christ constitutes a Christian, and that all who are accepted of Christ are members of his Church, in whatever communion they may be found, and it would not appear that such membership can be made to depend upon grace conferred through any human channels whatsoever.

As to questions of historic fact upon which the doctrine of an apostolic succession depends, there appear to be grave differences of opinion among scholars of the Anglican communion, and it is little wonder that the remainder of American Protestant-ism is unwilling to accept the doctrine as an essential part of the program of Christian unity until Bishops Gore and Hall and Professor Moberly, who profess it, can be reconciled with Bishops Lightfoot and Brown, and Professor Hort, who reject it. For many Protestant bodies the ground is cut below all such controversies by their conviction that even if the facts in question were substantiated, and the theory justified, no spiritual gain would accrue to the Church, or any jure divino authority be established. They ask only for the marks of fidelity and efficiency in Christian service, and count these to be adequate credentials for the exercise of a Christian ministry.

It is safe to say that the prevalent spirit of Protestantism as a whole offers no hope that a basis of agreement and unity will ever be found in a common doctrine as to what constitutes a valid order of the ministry of the Church. The Roman Catholic Church admits the validity of the orders of the Greek Orthodox Church, yet no two churches are farther apart in their sympathies. Both the Roman and the Greek Churches, on the other hand, deny the validity of the orders of the Anglican and Protestant Episcopal Churches, who, in turn, deny the validity of the orders of all dissenting churches, while within the Anglican and Protestant Episcopal Churches are those who claim validity for their own orders on the ground of apostolic succession, those who doubt or deny it, and those who do not regard apostolic succession as essential to such validity. Evidently there is no way out of our disunity in this direction. Moreover, it does not seem likely that unity will ever be achieved by any method which, by requiring re-ordination, or other-wise, discredits the credentials of any church or ministry that Christ has honored with his presence and blessing, and denies its right to labor in the Lord's vineyard. Opinions as to the validity of orders are among the non-essentials with regard to which the widest liberty must be allowed. In the coming catholicism there must be made room for the hospitable reception of the most diverse conceptions as to ecclesiastical regularity.

It is one of the sad effects of the divided state of the Church that Christian institutions that were originally meant to manifest the unity of the Church often serve to accentuate and widen the gulfs that separate one Christian body from another. This is true of the sacraments, which, variously conceived and administered, have become the occasion of division. It is at the Supper of the Lord, significantly called the "holy communion," where Christians partake of the one body broken for all, that they divide to right and left. There is a pathetic note in the statement adopted by the Lahore Conference of workers of all denominations in India, called by the Edinburgh Continuation Committee, in which this gathering of Christian men and women, eager for a larger manifestation of the spirit of unity, after declaring that "it has to be recognized, with whatever regret, that we belong to various branches of the Church of Christ which on certain questions of order and polity hold divergent views," proceeds to resolve that "it is, for the present, advisable for us to refrain from considering that the absence of the observance of the Sacrament of the Holy Communion at interdenominational gatherings implies a lack of the spirit of unity." Thus, too, Christians, though "in one Spirit all baptized into one body," are divided by questions as to the mode and subjects of the ordinance of baptism. "On the question of requirements for baptism," declared the Lahore Conference, "we recommend that, owing to the wide diversity of practice in our Missionary Societies, a serious attempt be made to have greater uniformity of conditions required of candidates for baptism." This is a consummation devoutly to be wished also in the home land.

Agreement in doctrine and practice with respect to the sacraments is, nevertheless, not sufficient to effect the unity of the Church, nor ought differences of conception here to be sufficient to prevent it. The Roman Catholic and Greek Churches agree on such points also, but this does not bridge the chasm that separates them. Baptists and the Disciples of Christ are in accord in the practice of immersion, but it has not drawn them together a whit. On the other hand, it is possible for those holding widely divergent views as to the meaning, mode, and efficacy of the sacraments, to unite in worship and service and Christian fellowship, so long as liberty is accorded to all. How shall we treat those who differ from ourselves in their interpretations of the ordinances? Just as God treats them. Does he discriminate in favor of immersionists, or bless those who hold one conception of the Lord's Supper above those who hold another? The confines of his Kingdom are broad enough to include them all.

Much the same may be said of theological formula. Creeds and confessions of faith, meant to draw Christians together, have driven them apart. Church unity never has existed, and never can be secured upon a basis of theology; but neither should controversies in this regard be permitted to keep Christian hands and hearts apart. The differences between the manifold creeds of Christendom are so extreme that it would be impossible for all Christians to unite in any formal statement of faith except in a few general and soulless propositions of natural theology. But where theology divides, religion, the life which theology often vainly seeks to describe, unites. Men may enjoy experiences essentially the same while differing widely in their interpretations of them. The centrifugal forces that drive the disciples of Jesus apart are of the head: the centripetal forces that draw them together and toward the central Christ issue from the heart. We may expect a larger degree of agreement in doctrine after the churches have come together to pray and praise and serve than will ever be possible before. "The time will come," it has been well said, "when the more we differ, the better we shall be agreed: differing in the smaller, agreeing in the larger things: far apart in the spreading branches, knit together in the sturdy trunk." It is possible now as never before to tolerate great diversities of doctrine within a single Church, because men are learning to grant to others the liberty which they claim for themselves, to respect differences of conviction, and to work together in spite of them.

No single denomination now in existence is fitted to gather into itself the various divisions of Christendom and thus become that Church of the future for which we are looking. The spirit that claims that any single communion is entitled to be recognized as the true Church of Christ in an exclusive sense is hostile to the spirit of unity. The problem of unity is not to be solved by all Christians eventually becoming Baptists, Methodists, or Episcopalians, or by any similar transformation; nor by all Christians becoming Protestants, or all Roman Catholics, or members of the Greek Orthodox Church. So far as its formal organization is concerned, it is evident that organic union must come, not through exclusion or compromise or absorption, or by any process, so to speak, of deglutition, by which any single de-nomination will swallow up the rest, like another Aaron's rod turned serpent, but by 'comprehension. The three hundred bishops of the Anglican Church in their last conference in Lambeth Palace said, "We have set before us the Church of Christ as he would have it, one Spirit and one Body, enriched with all those elements of divine truth which the separated communities of Christians now emphasize separately. ... We must fix our eyes on the Church of the future, which is to be adorned with all the precious things, both theirs and ours. We must constantly desire not compromise, but comprehension; not uniformity, but unity." These are truly irenic words. There must be abundant room within the new catholicity for differences in polity, creed, and ritual: each company of Christians must be permitted to bring into it the things that they hold sacred. Within the universal Church, which is Christ's body, there is unity amid diversity,-difference in functions and methods with unity in aim, diversity in gifts, variety in manifestations, but the one Spirit everywhere, and the whole is controlled by the Head, which is Christ. The divisions that Paul decries are those that grow out of a partisan spirit, and that rally about disruptive and partial interpretations of truth, or that cleave to human leadership, and so divide the indwelling Christ: he does not demand uniformity among the elements that compose the Church. Within the united Church of the apostles there was abundant opportunity for differences of view and of activity. Paul and Peter did not always see eye to eye, but both frowned upon the spirit of faction and dwelt together within a catholic Church.

Where, then, shall we find a foundation broad and stable enough for the erection of such a Christian edifice as this? Shall we seek it by returning to the days that preceded the Reformation and starting anew? "The only way in which Roman Christianity and Protestant Christianity can legally combine," writes Prof. C. A. Briggs, "is for Protestant Christianity to frankly recognize the technical irregularity of the Reformation; its revolutionary and illegal character; and for the Roman Church to repeal and recall all its unrighteous discipline."' History cannot be thus unwritten. The consequences of the Reformation are irrevocable, and are too precious still in the eyes of those who have profited by them to be regretted or revoked. Nothing that this generation can do could reach back into the past and stay the hands that lighted the fires of Smithfield, Prague, and Rome, any more than it can dim the luster of the names of those who died amid their flames. And even if Protestantism could be so recreant to its trust and so false to its history, and to the prophets and martyrs whose deeds adorn its annals, as to desire to undo the past, could Roman Catholicism, now fettered by the doctrine of the infallibility of its titular head, retract its pronouncements or retrace its steps? Protestantism must first unite upon a platform so broad that all can stand upon it, and then a united Protestantism must meet a united Catholicism upon the level of equality. There is no hope for organic unity except upon what Bishop Brown of the Protestant Episcopal Church has called the "level plan."

No progress can be made by seeking a basis of reunion in the days before the Reformation, or in going back to the fifteenth century to begin over again. Nor shall we succeed better if we go still further back to the second and third centuries, to find in the diocesan bishop (then first distinguished from the parochial bishop, elder, or presbyter), and his successors, the visible expression and source of the unity of the Church, for, as we have seen, agreement as to polities and sources of authority do not suffice to create or to sustain the unity of the Church to-day. The doctrines of these early days, moreover, will serve us no better. "The basis of union," said Dr. Döllinger, "must be the Nicene Creed, and the decisions of the first three General Councils." But, alas, the decrees of the first three General Councils did not secure unity of spirit in their day, and a unity in form devoid of spiritual unity is a body without a soul, powerless and dead. Subscription to creeds will not unite the Church to-day. There are churches, such as the Baptist, without any written creeds whatsoever, that manifest a rare degree of unity in both faith and order. Nor is the desired end to be secured by returning to that conception of the ordinances that was unfolded during these many years. How far doctrines as to the efficacy of the sacraments, as they have been developed through the centuries, have been influenced by the impact of pagan ideas upon the gospel is a question upon which there is a legitimate difference of opinion among historians; but this at least is true, that questions as to polity, creed, and sacrament are all of them dependent upon questions of historic fact, and this alone is sufficient to destroy their usefulness as grounds of unity. Over and over again the Church has made the mistake of pinning its faith to statements of fact which historical criticism may at any moment prove to be untenable. It is impossible to build so great a structure as the unity of the Church upon such shifting ground.

The only dependable basis for the unity of the Church is to be found, not in the field of doctrine, government, or ordinances, but in the field of spiritual experience, in a living experience of God in Christ in the heart of the believer, the same today as in the first days of the Church, and that is capable of perpetual reproduction in the lives of men of every age, and so of continual renewal and substantiation for each generation as it appears. Of Peter's confession of his Lordship, Jesus said, "Upon this rock I will build my Church." The basis of unity that sufficed for the first disciples is the only basis that can serve the twentieth century.

If we are to find in history the bond of unity for the Church of the future, we must go back to the beginning. To return to the days that preceded the Reformation or even to those of the Church of the first centuries will not avail; for with every development in the complexity of faith the seeds of division have been more widely sown. If a foundation is to be found that cannot be shaken, we must dig below the accretions of the centuries, beneath the loam and the subsoil of Christian history to the simple faith of the first disciples of the Lord. The fewer and simpler the principles reckoned essential, the larger the number who can stand together upon them. Particularity breeds diversity. What held together the group of disciples that met on Pentecost in the upper room? Subscription to a written creed? Christians before the creeds were more truly united than have been any Christians since, and the cause of unity might be advanced if every historic creed outside the Bible were forgotten or lost. Was it acceptance of a particular form of Church polity? Their sense of unity was not the result of a polity, but their polity, when it developed, was the expression of their unity. What then held them together? Love for their risen Lord! Each bound to the Christ, they were bound to one another. Each conscious of his indwelling life, they were united in the enjoyment of a common experience. There were differences within that little company that were most divisive: differences, of temperament, as between John and Peter; here, too, was Simon the zealot, an insurgent against the Roman government on account of the imposition of the taxes, and Matthew the publican, a collector of those taxes. Yet in Christ they were united. It was first a union of spirit and experience, and it resulted in a formal and organic unity in work and in worship.

Mere oneness is not sufficient: it must be oneness in Christ "as thou, Father, art in , me, and I in thee; that they also may be in us." That has been the essence of true catholicity from the beginning. "We first meet the word catholic," says Professor Briggs, "in the epistle of Ignatius, the Bishop of Antioch, to the church at Smyrna early in the second century, in the sentence, 'Whereso-ever the bishop shall appear, there let the people be; even as where Jesus may be, there is the catholic Church.' The catholic Church is the Church gathered about Jesus as its head, just as the church at Smyrna was gathered about its bishop. The catholic Church is thus the universal Church as distinguished from the local church, the Church throughout the whole world, under Jesus Christ, the bishop of all."1. The achievement of unity upon a basis short of this: a visible, organic unity cemented by anything other than a common loyalty to "Jesus Christ, the bishop of all," while it might seem to promise a vast increase of efficiency and power, would prove to be the undoing of the Church.

It is in this direction that Christendom must look for the basis of the unity for which it prays. Creed must be reduced to the irreducible minimum as a requirement for membership in the universal Church. Says Professor Denney in his Jesus and the Gospel, "The symbol of the Church's unity might be expressed thus: `I believe in God, through Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord and Saviour.' " Is more than this needed? The widest liberty of conviction as to the validity of Church polities must be accorded. Said Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester in the middle of the seventeenth century, "For the Church to require more than Christ himself did, or make the condition of her communion more than our Saviour did of discipleship, is wholly unwarranted." Wise words, and as true as when first spoken. To go "back to Christ" is to go for-ward. Folly and mistake began when the Church forsook its Lord, and betook itself to the ordinances of man. Disunion began when the Church over-took its Master and sought to pass him by. But to-day the Christ still leads his Church, and from a position far in advance of it beckons it forward, and calls upon it to renew its allegiance to the simplicity of the gospel.

"We faintly hear, we dimly see,
In differing phrase we pray;
But dim or clear, we own in Thee
The Light, the Truth, the Way."

The Church has much to forget before it can attain unto the unity of the faith: it has also much to remember. The sovereign cure for the evils of disunion into which Christianity has fallen is a purer and simpler Christianity. The Christ who prayed for the unity of his Church alone can effect it; but he must be given the leadership of it. As mutual love of parents and children holds the home together, in spite of differences of belief and temperament among the children, so love for one another and for their Lord must hold together Christians of every name, if they are ever to be held together. For this there is no substitute in schemes of Church unity, whether federal or organic. When love of the Lord which draws them together is strong enough to overcome their affection for the "petted notions, fondled theologies, and idolized ceremonials" which separate them, nothing can keep them apart: they will come together and find a way of reconciling their differences, or labor and pray in a united Church in spite of them. William Denny very truly says, "There are problems in the spiritual and social world which are like some of our metals, altogether refractory to low temperatures. They will only melt with great heat, and there is no other way of melting them." When Christians desire it earnestly enough, desire it more than they desire a hundred and one other things which are incompatible with it, desire it passionately, the lost secret of Christian unity will be discovered again, and the prayer of the Lord of the Church that his disciples may be one will be fulfilled.

( Originally Published 1915 )

The Union Of Christian Forces:
The Expense And Waste Of Christian Disunion

The New Testament Ideal Of Christian Unity And What Became Of It

The Passing Of The Sectarian Spirit

The Growth Of The Spirit Of Christian Unity

Christian Unity Through Federation

The Union Of Christian Forces In Country And Village

Co-operation In Home Missions

Co-operation On The Foreign Mission Field

Organic Church Unity

The Basis Of Organic Unity



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