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The Passing Of The Sectarian Spirit

THE Christian world is no longer willing to believe that spiritual liberty must be maintained at the price of the waste and loss which are the result of its divisions. Is it not possible, men are asking everywhere, for Protestantism to conserve the principles that are precious to it, and that constitute its strength, and yet find a way to unite its scattered forces and heal its schisms? May it not even continue to cherish the best for which denominational-ism has stood, and still be freed from the bonds of a narrowly sectarian and partisan spirit?

It may be readily granted that catholicity might be bought at too great a cost. There is no magic in mere unity that would compensate for the surrender of that liberty of conscience, and that insistence upon the spiritual competency of the individual which have been the glory of the Protestant movement. It needs no argument to prove that spiritual vigor and fidelity to conviction are of more value than anything that could be received in exchange for them. The danger, however, that Protestants will take a backward step and betray the cause for which their fathers bled and died for the sake of any form of unity is exceedingly remote. If a new unity of the Church could be secured tomorrow by the surrender of principle or such a sacrifice of spiritual liberty as was demanded by the so-called Catholic ages of the past, it would be broken the day after to-morrow by a new Reformation, for the free spirit of man would assert itself again and the artificial bonds would break like tow at the touch of fire.

It is charged that much of the current advocacy of the cause of Christian unity is merely the expression of a lack of any definite religious conviction whatsoever. Without a doubt, to one who thinks it does not matter what one believes, all shades of belief look very much alike. The Romans of the Empire were broadly tolerant in religious matters, and exceedingly hospitable to new religions, so that the addition of another god or two to the pantheon provoked little comment; but it was because in Rome faith in the gods was almost dead. It is possible, indeed, to be so broad as to be shallow, and tolerance may be only another name for indifference. "We put blinders upon horses," says Dr. Parkhurst, "just so that they may not take broad views of things, but may go forward." Such considerations as these, however, may easily be made an excuse for moral cowardice and spiritual bigotry.

A most cordial recognition of the right of other men to their convictions is surely compatible with the most loyal allegiance to one's own. It would be humiliating to be compelled to confess that men must be purblind or cease to advance. "A faith dependent upon blinkers and fetters, " Sir Oliver Lodge has said, "is not likely, in a progressive age, to last many generations. Anchorage to a submerged rock is not safe amid rising waters."

Any process of spiritual enlargement is attended with peril. The moment of greatest danger for the "chambered nautilus," of which Holmes has sung, was doubtless that at which, its outgrown shell discarded and its new and larger dwelling not yet constructed, it lay exposed to every passing foe. At such a point the cause of Christian unity stands to-day. Nevertheless, whatever danger there may be that the larger sympathy, which longs for co-operation and unity with Christians of every name, may lapse into an invertebrate and molluscoid sort of good feeling that lacks force sufficient to accomplish anything, or even to protect itself from destruction, there is still greater danger that a narrowly denominational loyalty may degenerate into mere pride, obstinacy, and prejudice. There is many a man who sincerely loves the denomination to which he belongs, because he was reared within it, or found Christ through its ministry, or has labored within its ranks until its interests have become identified with his own, or because he believes that of all denominations it is most faithful to New Testament teaching, but who finds it impossible to ignore the fact that a multitude of other men, as sincere and as Christian as he, make identical claims for their own denominations and profess as great a loyalty to them. Each one among the larger Protestant denominations stoutly claims to stand upon the New Testament platform, and justly prides itself upon a record of useful service. And here is a curious circumstance that must impress itself upon the mind of every thoughtful man, that while the distinctive principles of each denomination seem to its adherents to be so important and so significant for all the world, and not to be sacrificed, they appear, in the degree in which they are distinctive, to be of very little consequence to other denominations, whose members nevertheless exhibit all the essential marks of Christian character and usefulness. Meanwhile the cause of the kingdom suffers irreparable loss from the division of its forces. Reflection upon such considerations as these is breaking down the barriers of prejudice that once separated denominationalists from each other.

While, therefore, the current advocacy of Christian unity may be due occasionally to spiritual impoverishment or to latitudinarianism, indifference toward the issue, or the failure boldly to advocate it, is more often due to timidity, or to ignorance, or to inertia and a blind conservatism, or to fear of the denominational sheriffs and the editors and officials who are constantly occupied in keeping the denominational fences in repair.

There is a zeal that believes the peculiarity of a denomination to be the best thing about it, and that confuses religion with the ability to pronounce denominational shibboleths, and that rejoices in principles in proportion as they are distinctive, just as there is a patriotism that cries, "My country, right or wrong!" To those who accept this position, the virtue of religion lies in "the dissidence of dissent." Growing up, however, by the side of what President Butler has called "the international mind" is an interdenominational consciousness which must be reckoned with to-day, which, while loyal to distinctive tenets, sees over and beyond them,. and recognizes the more imperative claims of a higher loyalty to the interests of the kingdom of God.

Denominational divisions took their rise during the period marked by the discovery of the individual. It is among the glories of the Reformation that it asserted the freedom and competency of man as man in the domain of religion, and thus promulgated a principle which, spreading into other fields, has wrought mightily for his emancipation from every form of thraldom. It was a splendid and epoch-making discovery, that of the rights and dignity of man, and it has transformed not only the religious world, but the worlds of industry and of politics, shaping legislation and government and social custom and economic institutions and making always for liberty. But we are passing to-day out of the era of individualism into that of collectivism. We would not part with an atom of what we have gained, nor ever again lose sight of the individual, nor permit the exploitation of his rights; but we are now making a new discovery, that of the community. Over against the rights of a fraction of society is the right of society as a whole. The free competition of individuals must be restrained and regulated in the interest of the welfare of the community. This is the new emphasis which is exercising the profoundest influence in every realm of thought and conduct. But, while the spirit of individualism was a product of the religious instinct and first expressed itself in the religious realm, the collective ideal arose in the social and economic realm and is only slowly making its way in the sphere of religion: Some day the idea of "private religion," with the unrestrained rights of competition which it involves, will go the way of that conception of "private business" which, with all the arrogant disregard of community interests that it represents, is retreating before the advance of the spirit of democracy.

This change of emphasis from the individual to the social organism which characterizes our times has relegated to comparative insignificance many of the issues that once divided the ranks of Christen-dom. Interest has shifted from creeds to conduct, and from a purely personal salvation to one that shall save the individual indeed, but that aims also at the saving of society. Men are weary of treating symptoms only, and in every avenue of activity are seeking to discover causes and to deal with them directly. The methods of social science are preventive rather than merely curative, and men now endeavor to purify the stream at its source rather than to filter it at the outlet. Instead of merely relieving poverty, they seek to discover and to remove the causes of poverty. The old method in medicine was to wait until the patient had contracted a disease and then to exhaust the resources of science in the effort to cure him. The modern method is to attack disease at its source through sanitation and hygiene. This is increasingly be-coming the method of religion. The Church is more interested than it once was in the conditions that tempt to sin, and is giving attention to the means of prevention as well as to those of cure. As has often been said, it is well to play the Good Samaritan and to bind up the wounds of the traveler beset by thieves, but it is necessary also to illumine the highway from Jericho to Jerusalem, and thoroughly to police it, so that the traveler may pursue his journey in safety.

From this shifting of emphasis, then, there has come a new appraisal of many of the points of difference that have divided the forces of Christen-dom. Few of the distinctive denominational tenets concern matters over which men with red blood in their veins can become enthusiastic to-day. Seldom do they coincide with a burning conviction of living men. They lie on the periphery and not at the center of religious interest; or they are relics of outgrown controversies. The Church, driven for-ward by the impact of the new spirit of the times, has left most of them behind. How remote at the present time seem some of the differences that once divided Christian people minute points of doctrine, it may be, or of ritual observance! In one of the smaller cities of the Atlantic coast stand two Presbyterian churches, facing each other, upon opposite sides of the street. They are the result of a division that occurred in one of them almost two generations ago because a portion of the congregation held to a "mediate atonement" and the other to an "immediate atonement," distinctions which few Christians to-day would understand without recourse to a theological dictionary. At the be-ginning of the eighteenth century the Baptists of Delaware withdrew from fellowship with the Baptists of Philadelphia because the latter did not "hold to the laying on. of hands." Doubtless many of the present differences will some day seem as remote. Questions of the validity of orders, of postures and rubrics, of stoles and altar cloths, and of ecclesiastical millinery in general, of forms of polity and of modes of ordinances, once the center of bitter controversy, are of little consequence to-day. Men are weary, also, of spending precious time in "manicuring one another's theology," as Dr. Shailer Mathews has phrased it. The questions in which the present generation is interested are such as housing, temperance, the purification of politics, the extension of democracy, the protection of youth, the abolition of poverty, the suppression of commercialized vice, and the building up of a real Kingdom of God upon earth through the transformation of men into the likeness of Christ, no one of which undertakings is distinctive of any single de-nomination. These are the great enthusiasms; and they are not divisive, but are common to men of every Christian faith.

Sectarianism in its extreme form is dying to-day for lack of nourishment, as a limb would die if a tourniquet were drawn tightly about It, shutting off the blood supply. Where are the doughty champions who once were ready at a moment's notice to descend into the arena and break a lance in the cause of some denominational peculiarity? They are gone, gone with the ancient bitterness which tainted the atmosphere which they breathed. The leading evangelical preachers of the latter part of the eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth were "fighting parsons," with a freedom in their choice of verbal weapons that appals us to-day.

"Sidney, in his biography of Rowland Hill, quotes these among the epithets applied to the `Calvinists' by 'these' two meek and loving gentle-men, Messrs. John and Charles Wesley': 'devil's factors, Satan's synagogues, children of the old, roaring, hellish murderer who believe his lie, advocates for sin, witnesses for the father of lies, blasphemers, Satan-sent preachers." "Among the pet names applied by Hill to Wesley were, 'the lying apostle of the Foundry,' 'a designing wolf,' and 'a dealer in stolen wares.' And to cap the climax, the sentence of Hill's may be quoted in which Wesley is called 'as unprincipled as a rock, and as silly as a jackdaw, first pilfering his neighbor's plumage, and then going proudly forth displaying his borrowed tail to the eyes of a laughing world.'" 1 Some of these old-time saints had what approached a real genius for billingsgate, but we do not reckon it to-day among their virtues.

Arrogant and extravagant claims on the part of large or small sects that think themselves to be the particular favorites of heaven and to have got a corner on salvation are discounted to-day as soon as uttered. The world has as little patience with them as had Ruskin with the preacher of the type that he ran across in a little chapel in Turin. "A little squeaking idiot," he says, "was preaching to an audience of old women and three louts that they were the only children of God in Turin; and that the people of Turin, outside the chapel, and that all the people in the world, out of sight of Monte Viso, would be damned!" Self-laudation is a mark of decadence wherever met. Men are very definitely convinced that they are not to be saved by right thinking merely, and that religion is not identical with theology: creeds, therefore, do not hold the pre-eminent place that once was accorded them. A form of church polity, also, like a horse, "is a vain thing for safety." It is growing harder every year to maintain the denominational fences. Deplore it though we may, members of one communion, upon changing their residence, pass with increasing ease into membership in another, and are not held as strongly as at one time by the distinctive features of the sect to which they gave their first allegiance. They join with a growing frequency the nearest church, or that which they think is fulfilling with most efficiency what they believe to be the real mission of religion. And while the most apparent differences between the churches are losing something of their significance, other marks of divergence are appearing. Every communion has its liberal and conservative wings, and, as the perpendicular lines between denominations grow more faint, the horizontal lines of cleavage which cut through them all appear more clearly. There is often more real sympathy and spiritual fellow-ship between liberals or conservatives of different denominations than exists between liberals and conservatives within a single body. This is a phenomenon of much significance, the ultimate con-sequence of which it is too early to prophesy.

Such indications suggest that there is to come, perhaps within our time, a startling realignment of Christian forces. The world of thought and of action moves with a bewildering rapidity. Ideas rise, gain acceptance, spread, and are now put into execution within a period incommensurably more brief than the process would have taken half or even a quarter of a century ago. We catch our breath at the speed at which the world of thought is moving. Witness the changes in political ideals and practices in recent years both in our own country and through-out the world. Democracy in England advances with giant strides. Oriental Japan is transformed within a decade, and has become a world power. "Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay," we used to quote; but China has overtaken Europe and has turned face about almost in a night. In America the political and social radicalism of yesterday is the conservatism of to-day. The impossible is becoming the actual, and the dream of the political prophet having been achieved becomes the basis of more radical proposals still. The world is rapidly coming to the conclusion that what is right is possible, and the laggard faith of the Church is being shamed into action. If a larger measure of Christian unity is right, if it is the ideal of the Lord of the Church, then it must come, and none can say it nay.

We may profitably sit at the feet of the Christian Chinese in such a matter. Free from the prejudices that have been inherited from the past by the Christians of the West, it may well be that they are able to judge more impartially than we as to the character of the causes that divide us. If these men, many of whom have proved their sincerity and fidelity to the Christian faith by tests more severe than any to which we have been subjected; if they, who are as able intellectually as ourselves, and who have been willing to lay down their lives for the faith, have deliberately concluded that the differences that divide our Western Christianity into fragments are non-essential, it may be worth while for us to reconsider them. And if we can contemplate without alarm the disappearance of our points of difference in the churches we have founded in Eastern lands, is it too much to conclude that they need not, in their present form, be perpetuated forever in the West?

Surely there is possible a fellowship and co-operation of the closest nature which does not require the slightest unfaithfulness to individual convictions. Already in some of our theological seminaries students of many denominations gather. They study homiletics, theology, church history, ethics, and sociology together: in such subjects there is general agreement. Upon the subjects wherein there is disagreement, special teachers are appointed who present the points of view of particular denominations. It happens, as was to be expected, that the students come forth to take up the work of the denominations to which they belong, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Methodists, or Episcopalians, as they entered, but wiser and broader, with a richer experience and a wider sympathy and fellowship, through contact with those of other faiths. A large measure of co-operation in theological education is already possible. Will the witness of the denominations to the peculiar truths which they conceive themselves severally to hold in trust be weakened if they mingle together in fellowship, worship, and service? Is it not at least conceivable that a Baptist's testimony to the symbolism and spiritual value of the apostolic mode of baptism, or a Presbyterian's witness to the necessity of a sound theology, or an Episcopalian's emphasis upon institutional religion would be quite as potent for good if they freely united in a single church, for worship and service, as it can possibly be while each remains a member of a church composed of those only who already have identical thoughts and is fenced off from contact with those who differ? Differences of conviction, quite as serious as any that divide denominations from one another, are frequently found within the membership of a single denomination without any impairment of fellowship. Why may not members of several denominations, therefore, unite without discord in a community church, each retaining liberty to speak the truth in love as he sees it, and to adhere to his distinctive theology? One of the , causes of our divisions lies in the fact that they arose in an age when our modern methods of intercommunication were unknown, and men with different conceptions of truth could not easily meet; and truth is not learned in isolation. The yeast must be mixed with the lump if it is to leaven it. One of the penalties of our separation is that we fail to understand each other, and to appreciate the truths that we severally hold. A community church in which various denominations combine ought to develop a new and more comprehensive theology and polity and practice, as it absorbs the best that each of its constituent elements has to contribute.

Whatever the method, some way must be found by which Christianity can meet its problems with united front. The present stress of the Church has made it hospitable to the thought of the unification of its forces. "To be enthusiastic about the Church in its present condition," writes Prof. A. B. Bruce, "is impossible." "There is such a thing as a religious crisis in America," says a careful observer, "however much we may scoff at the idea." In view of the serious problems which the Church is facing the arrogance of vice, the federation of all forms of evil, the growth of unbelief and indifference, waning congregations, the alienation of the workingman how pitifully small and sad seem its fine discriminations of doctrine, its ecclesiastical frills and furbelows, its liturgical refinements and delicacies of deportment in worship, its petty scruples as to washing of cups and pots and tables, its Pharisaic pretensions and hairsplittings, its competitive ambitions, its insistence upon forms and ceremonies, and its disputes as to the possession of the requisite authority to do the things that so greatly need to be done, which are the cause or the effect of its unfortunate divisions! Like the American colonies in the days of the Revolution, the churches of America must hang together or they will hang separately. It is imperative that they should make up their differences and join ranks. As the British ships drew near the French at the battle of Trafalgar, Admiral Nelson called to his flagship captains, Collingwood and Hardy, who up to that time had been bitter enemies, and commanded them to shake hands, saying, as he pointed to the French ships of the line, "Gentlemen, there is your enemy!"

If an effective co-operative union of Christian forces is possible anywhere in the world, surely it should be possible in America. In a free and democratic country, where, in theory at least, every man counts for one and no man for more than one, whose political institutions are founded upon the town meeting, where men of every faith and of different ideas meet to further the interests of the community, setting aside their personal preferences and submitting to the will of the majority, the ability to think and act in common is instilled into the very blood. Here is no established Church to foster bitterness or create jealousies. Freedom of religious conviction is guaranteed to every citizen. Here are the opportunities of a country a large part of which is still new, and the pressing needs of great frontier districts still unsupplied with religious privileges.

There is possible a co-operative union which sacrifices nothing that is essential, and slowly we are finding our way toward it. He who furthers this end, however slight may be his contribution, is engaged in the noblest work to which he can set his hand. "To effect one real step in the direction of reunion," said Mr. Gladstone, "after the results of the last five hundred years, would be enough to lead any man to lay down his head and die contentedly."

( 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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