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

IT is among the most hopeful signs of our times that Christians within every communion are coming to realize how serious and wicked a thing it is that the moral force of the churches should be diverted to the little issues that divide them, when it is so greatly needed for the advancement of the kingdom of God. The sin of its divisions, the folly and peril of its wasteful rivalries, lie heavy upon the mind and conscience of the Church. Now, as the smoke of ancient controversies is clearing away, Christians of every name are turning to each other with a wistful desire for a closer fellowship; and, hedged about though they are by the theologies, institutions, and ceremonials with which each communion has surrounded itself during its years of isolation, hand seeks hand across the barriers, and heart is touching heart. Among all the differences that have kept them apart, Christ's followers have never quite forgotten his prayer that they might be one, and by the memory of it they have been rebuked even while they disputed. Now the desire of Jesus is finding a new response in the hearts of his disciples, and earnestly they are seeking the means by which the ideal of their Master may be realized. Christendom is turning to its divine Leader to learn of him the things that make for the peace of the Church; and, the world around, the disciples of Jesus, with a seriousness and a degree of unanimity that herald a new day, are giving themselves to a fresh study of the mind of their Lord.

Jesus dealt in principles, not programs; in ideals, not institutions. We shall be disappointed if we approach the teachings of Jesus with the hope of finding there a specific plan for the attainment of the unity of the Church. It is impossible to quote him in support of any one of the forms in which the spirit of Christian unity is expressing itself in our day. He has nothing to say of comity or cooperation, of federation or organic unity. Jesus pro-pounded no programs for the solution of the problems of even his own generation. But while he exhibited an indifference to the form of things, which sometimes is sorely puzzling to the practical Western mind with its faith in organization and legislation, he was profoundly concerned with the con-tent and the spirit. When Jesus prayed for his disciples that they might be one, he was thinking, not of organic Church union, nor of any formal unity expressed in organization, but of a vital unity springing from the possession of a common spirit and a common purpose. He was not thinking of the Church, nor of sacraments, nor of ecclesiastical polities, nor of creeds. Jesus never taught a system of theology, nor ordained a priesthood, or even an official ministry, nor organized a church. The purpose of Jesus was to propagate a spirit, not to establish an institution. He seems to have been willing that the form should shape itself so long as the con-tent and purpose were good. He spoke of "one flock," not of "one fold," with the ecclesiastical associations that such a term suggests "they shall become one flock, one shepherd." He prayed that they who believed on him might be one, leaving it to the spirit of love, without which no mode of unity is possible, to determine what form would manifest it best.

That it was a unity of spirit and not of organization of which Jesus was thinking is evident in the terms in which he speaks of it. He desired such a oneness among the disciples as he himself enjoyed with God the Father "that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee," The profound simplicity of his habit of thought for-bids us to suppose that Jesus was speaking here in terms of the Trinity, or of substance and essence, or of any of the categories by which men have obscured that simplicity, and in which they have stereotyped their thinking about the divine nature. Such abstractions were foreign to him always: they belong to a later, a philosophizing age. He speaks of his unity with the Father as of a sort which disciple may have with disciple, and which must be capable of expression, therefore, in terms of human experience. "My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to accomplish his work;" "The words that I say unto you I speak not from myself: but the Father abiding in me doeth his works; " "My Father worketh even until now, and I work": in such expressions lies the secret of his meaning. Evidently he was thinking of that moral and spiritual fellowship in which he was united with the Father, of a community of thought and purpose, and of partnership in service. There is no division of interest, no conflict of will, no contradiction in word, no antagonism in action between himself and the Father; and it was such unity that Jesus desired the disciples should enjoy with one another.

It was, further, a moral unity, cemented by the possession in common of a single moral ideal. Jesus first prayed that his disciples might be kept from the soiling influences of the world and dedicated to the truth, and then that they might dwell together in loving fellowship. Sin drives men apart and keeps them apart. It is always divisive. The greatest obstacle to Christian unity is selfishness. In proportion as the disciples of Jesus are free from worldliness and devoted to the truth will they be drawn together: the more truly Christlike they are, in other words, the more closely united they will be.

Above all, it was a vital unity which Jesus desired for his disciples, the bond of which should be the possession of a common spiritual experience. He yearned that the disciples should share in the divine life by which he, himself, was consciously energized, and thus be united with God and with each other. Through his presence in the lives of the disciples such a union was to be perfected; his was the life of the vine which, flowing into the branches, was to relate them to one another as parts of a single organism.

It was such unity as this, spiritual, moral, vital, that Jesus desired for his disciples in every age. He was praying not merely for the little group of the Twelve, but "for them also that believe on me through their word;" and the bond upon which Jesus depended to unite the company of his immediate disciples is the only bond that is strong enough to hold together the Church in any age. They who are not first united to Christ in loyalty and love, and to one another by the consciousness that they share a common spiritual life, will never be held together long by the artificial bonds of organization, or creed, or ecclesiastical authority. No other grounds of unity are possible in the twentieth century than those upon which was built the unity of the first.

Such a spirit manifest in the disciples Jesus believed to be essential to the fulfilment of their mission. To him it was not conceivable that the disciples could ever win the world unless they were united. A divided Church is a defeated Church. If the world is to be convinced of the divine mission and authority of the Messiah, as it so sadly needs to be convinced, his disciples must speak together, with one voice; and if the world is to be persuaded that God loves the Church of Christ and that it is entitled to represent him, then members of the Church must love one another. Truth proclaimed through faction can have no power over the world. The strongest argument for the genuineness of Christianity is lives controlled by it; and factious and contentious spirits belie the presence of Christ. The most convincing Christian apologetic is a Christian community united in love. If love for Christ is so weak in the Church that it cannot hold together those that profess it, how can it hope to win a hostile or indifferent world?

Such was the principle and ideal of unity with which the company of disciples of Jesus started upon their world-wide career. It was natural and inevitable, in the circumstances in which they found themselves, that the little group of believers and those whom they attracted to their number, in their attempt to realize this ideal, and fulfil the prayer of their Lord, should effect some form of organization. The soul must clothe itself with a body if it is to be visible; the spirit of unity that prevailed among the disciples must disclose itself if it is to bear its message to the world. Thus, wherever the apostles journeyed upon their preaching tours they formed their converts into local brotherhoods or churches. Paul tells us that he established churches in every city. These churches, moreover, wherever located, were bound to one another within the fold of a more inclusive brotherhood. Throughout the apostolic age, while there were churches at Antioch, at Corinth, at Laodicea, and elsewhere, they were united in more than a mere confederation. From the beginning all Christians thought of themselves, not simply as members of a local congregation at Philippi or Ephesus, but as members of the universal Christian Church of which the church in a particular city was only a local manifestation. The earliest Christians thought of their community as a family, and conversion marked their adoption into the household of faith. Wherever the Church spread, this conception of its character continued, and Christians everywhere were brethren, and members of the same family in Christ.

The desire of the Apostle Paul to promote this sentiment is evident throughout all his epistles. In founding churches among the Gentiles he was not, as he conceived it, establishing independent organizations, but was adding to the Christian family. The Gentiles were to be grafted in among the Jewish Christians and to become "partaker with them of the root of the fatness of the olive tree."2 It was Paul's desire, not merely to promote the unity of the Church, but to secure the co-operation of all the churches that he founded with the Jerusalem church in particular, and it was because that union was endangered that he was caused such anxiety at the time of the Council at Jerusalem. It is true that the unity of spirit between the Gentile churches and the church at Jerusalem was never ideal; but the earnest desire of the apostle that it should be cemented is evident in his emphasis upon the great collection for the poor saints at Jerusalem, which he urged so strongly upon the churches that he had founded, in the hope that this evidence of good-will might bind the parent church to them in closer fellowship.

It is of the Church universal that Paul is thinking when he speaks of it as "the body of Christ,"1 and uses the figure as an argument particularly against the sin of schism. "For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also," he declares, "is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit." While he finds abundant scope for variety and diversity within the unity of the Church, as there are differences of function and honor among the members of the body, he urges the utmost consideration and mutual forbearance among the constituent members in order "that there should be no schism in the body." He strongly deprecates the forming of sects under the leadership and name of human teachers as doing violence to the unity of the body of Christ, for that Christ should be divided is to him both an abhorrent and an impossible idea .2 He continually urges his converts that they endeavor to "keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." "There is one body," he declares, "and one Spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all." The various gifts distributed by the ascended Christ to believers have for the goal of their exercise "the perfecting of the saints unto the work of ministering, unto the building up of the body of Christ: till we all attain unto the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."1.

During the apostolic period the unity of the Church, it is evident, was one of spirit and not of organization. Differences of church polity appear even within New Testament times. The organization of the earliest churches was the simplest possible, and was often affected by local condition and custom. The scattered Christian communities were held together, not by any scheme of organization or governmental authority exercised from without, nor by subscription to a single creedal statement; but by possession, in common, of the ideal of a united Church. As members of the one body of Christ they were bound to love their brethren. There was no central government, no ecclesiastical hierarchy, no compulsion but the compulsion of love. That the separate churches did not diverge and become altogether independent of one another in their developing life was due to the possession of a single ideal and spirit. Their sense of unity was fostered by the visits of apostles and prophets from the parent church, by an interchange of visits on the part of local leaders, by the circulation of Christian literature among the churches, particularly the letters of the apostles, and most of all by the persecution which they endured together at the hands of Jew and Gentile. While these cemented the union, they did not create it. It was a purely ideal unity, dependent upon the belief of Christians everywhere that their Lord meant them to be one, and that love for Him involved it. Says Prof. Glover, in his Conflict of Religions in the Early Roman Empire, "Two things stand out, when we study the character of early Christianity its great complexity and variety, and its unity in the personality of Jesus of Nazareth."

Several generations passed before the process began that was to transform this spiritual unity of the first disciples into a "catholicity," which depended for its expression upon a form of church polity. Gradually the independence of the local church was surrendered to a diocesan bishop as the visible representative of the universal Church; however, ,with this outward appearance of unity there was no corresponding growth in the spirit of it. The spirit of unity that sprang from a wealth of love and the sense of a common mission and allegiance slowly lost ground before the advance of a visible and formal unity manifested in a hierarchy of church officials and in authoritative creeds and councils. Toward the close of the apostolic age unity was more and more secured by the simple method of excluding all who differed with the ruling majority, until the Church was united, indeed, but had ceased to be comprehensive.

Most of the dissenting groups of the first three centuries were actuated by a desire to return to the simplicity of the faith and order of the apostles, but their failure to secure the favor of the dominant majority branded them as heretics, and pronounced their doom. "Many schisms arose in the early ages," wrote Dr. Philip Schaff, "before and after the Council of Nicea. Almost every great controversy resulted in the excommunication of the defeated party, who organized a separate sect, if they were not exterminated by the civil power. The Nestorians, Armenians, Jacobites, and Copts, who seceded from the Greek Orthodox Church, continue to this day as relics of dead controversies."1 The beginning of the age of Catholicism marked the beginning of sectarianism through the perpetual protest of successive groups of Christians who resisted the drift of the leaders of the Church away from the doctrines and practices of the apostolic age.

It is no part of our purpose to review the history of succeeding ages, or to indicate in more than outline the steps by which a formal unity was secured through the development of a compact and powerful ecclesiastical organization, and the promulgation of authoritative dogmas. The Church was compelled to pay the price of a growing popularity in the gradual materialization of its ideals. Among the thou-sands who flocked into its fold were many who were imperfectly weaned from paganism, and who brought with them their pagan ideals and ceremonies. The pressure of the intellectualism of the Greco-Roman world, in the midst of which it lived, tempted the Church to formulate its creeds in the language of the current philosophies. The struggle of the Church with its most formidable antagonist, Gnosticism, and its attendant errors, appeared to the Church to compel it to define with the utmost exactness the essentials of orthodoxy, and to emphasize its distinctive ceremonies as necessary to salvation. The free and plastic polity of the New Testament was early abandoned and the Church was modeled upon the Empire. The bishop ceased to be the overseer of a single parish and became the governor of a district, like the Roman proconsul. The college of cardinals corresponded to the senate, and the pope was established on Caesar's seat to rule a spiritual and temporal empire. The spirit of the gospel was imprisoned within semi-legal forms; penance took the place of penitence; orthodoxy became submission to the councils, and heresy was identified with disobedience to them. Faith lost its experimental, vital character, and became intellectual assent to dogma; while the simple ordinances observed by the early Church developed into sacraments endowed with a magical efficacy. Freedom and spontaneity in worship gave way before the exclusive use of liturgies. Where moral suasion failed to secure unity, force was substituted; and individual liberty was sacrificed upon the altar of authority.

At length, after the long sleep of the Dark Ages, the light of the Renaissance broke through the night, not only awakening the minds of men to a new appreciation of their heritage in art and literature, which had been so long neglected, but rousing the slumbering consciences of men to claim again that spiritual liberty which was the birthright of the early Church. The new learning stimulated the spirit of criticism; a new nationalism stirred the spirit of revolt; the gospel, rediscovered, kindled again the embers of the apostolic faith in the hearts of thousands; and the spirit of man entered upon a new career of free-dom. The Reformation shattered in pieces the formal unity of the Church. The right of every man to interpret the Scriptures for himself was asserted in the face of arrogant authority, and men claimed again the privilege of access to the divine Father without the intervention of priest, or saint, or institution.

This marked the beginning of the modern age. The ferment of the new wine broke the ancient wine-skins, and new bottles were needed to receive it. For four centuries a large part of Christendom has enjoyed a measure of religious freedom, and the spirit of man has created a multitude of institutions through which the religious impulse has found expression. Beyond computation has been the gain of the race from the rediscovery of those formative ideas which were the dynamic of the Reformation. Yet even freedom has its dangers, and may easily degenerate into license. Individuality unrestrained tends toward self-assertion and eccentricity. The revolt against an unnatural and compulsory uniformity has not been attended by the recovery of the secret of that spiritual unity which held together the apostolic Church, for the preservation of which the Master prayed.

In America, which has long enjoyed the blessings of that religious liberty of which Roger Williams was the first exponent, the tendency toward division and subdivision has gone the farthest, until, in its 143 denominations of Christians, it would seem that every possible difference of doctrine and procedure must be represented. The "dissidence of dissent" has reached a reductio ad absurdum. In the dissipation of resources, the duplication of agencies, the competition in over-churched communities and the neglect of needy areas which such division of its forces entails, Protestantism has passed the danger point, and its power to achieve the thing for which it was created has already suffered loss. Energy that ought to have been directed toward the redemption of the world has been spent in wasteful rivalry, and even in recrimination. The seamless robe of Christ is rent, and the Church, his body, is torn into fragments. A babel of discordant voices threatens to drown the voice of prophecy; every vagary claims the right of utterance; and under cloak of the right of private judgment the duties of tolerance and charity are in danger of being forgotten. This is the weakness and the scandal of Protestantism.

As the magnitude of the missionary task at home and abroad is more fully grasped, there has come a despair of success except through the united efforts of a united Church. They who pray, "Thy kingdom come," are forced also to pray for the servants of the kingdom "that they may all be one." The world will never be won to Christ by guerrilla warfare, by disorganized bands of partisans; but only by an ordered campaign of disciplined troops that advance together. The native Christians upon the foreign field, the first fruits of the missionary enterprise, and missionaries upon the frontier in the home land, are the foremost advocates of a policy of union and co-operation, of the lack of which they have been the most unfortunate victims.

The problems of social life that so largely occupy the thought of Christendom to-day are a challenge to the Church to unite for their solution. The ills from which society is suffering are more than economic, and economic readjustments alone will not suffice to correct them. Believing, as it does, that it holds the secret of a real brotherhood of man whose attainment is fundamental to the solution of every social problem, the Church owes a duty to society; but it never can perform that duty until it shall itself incarnate the spirit of brotherhood and speak with the power and weight of a united testimony.

Slowly the conviction is being borne in upon the consciousness of Christendom that there is no future for a divided Church. "An unbelieving world," Dr. John R. Mott has said, "is the price we are paying for a divided Christianity." The forces of evil on every side are consolidating in an unholy alliance. The children of darkness are wiser far in their generation than the children of light. The Church is urged to a crusade the desperate character of which daily becomes more clear; and, if Tancred and Baldwin are to war with one another and spend the strength of the crusading army, the hosts of the Saracens may well expect an easy victory. A thousand voices within and without are calling upon the Church to unite, and to combine its forces. The measure in which the people of God of the twentieth century respond to that appeal is the supreme test of modern Christianity.

So in the midst of the confusion and noise there may be heard a still, small voice speaking with an insistence that compels attention, that is deeply moving the heart of Christendom to-day. It is the voice of the Lord of the Church praying still, as he once prayed in the upper room for his disciples, "that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us: that the world may believe that thou didst send me." Men are turning hopefully to a study of the sources of the unity of the early Church, that dwelt in a holy fellowship cemented by loyalty and love, and are daring to believe that what has been may be again. If Jesus prayed for the unity of his disciples it must be a practicable ideal; and, if so, it shall be achieved! Somehow, it knows not yet how, the prayer of its Lord must be fulfilled by the Church. What Jesus prayed for, his disciples must work for. Without forfeiting again the benefits of a freedom so dearly bought, the disciples of Jesus must be one.

Great opportunities await the advent of the new catholicity. A world weary of the burdens of in-creasing armaments, and torn with the horrors of unrighteous war sighs for universal peace. An awakening democracy, rising to seize the reins of power in every land, must be spiritualized if it is to fulfil its lofty destiny. The victims of materialism and greed, ground beneath the iron heel of a social and economic system built in the interest of a favored few, call aloud to the Church for succor. ' Every-where the heathen world holds out manacled hands of entreaty, beseeching to be freed from the iron bands of superstition. And in the face of the need of a crucified humanity, a disunited Church is help-less. It is the imperative duty of the disciples of Jesus to get together! Reluctance is disloyalty to the Lord who prayed for them, and treachery to the world for which he died!

( 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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